Building the Next Generation of YA Stars

I’ve been writing a lot lately about craft and bravery in writing. If you’re in that head space and need to stay there, skip this post, this one is gonna be about…

*cue dramatic music*


I recently listened to Publisher’s Weekly’s webinar Building the Next Generation of YA Stars. It was moderated by John A. Sellers, the children’s review editor at Publisher’s Weekly, and featured guests Emily Meehan (Disney-Hyperion Editorial Director) and Natashya Wilson (Harlequin Teen Executive Editor). They discussed trends, how they market their authors, and what new and established authors can do to get in the game and stay on top.

Andrew Rich Photo

These are my notes on the topics they discussed:

How are you working to keep established authors on top?


  • Every book is unique and evaluated on how it will best reach an author’s established audience and a new audience.
  • We partner with an author to reach out to fans, help them build a brand, stress the importance of a website, and keep audiences aware of what is coming out.
  • We do a lot of social networking – cover reveals, trailers, etc.
  • We start to create buzz 6-9 months before a book comes out.
  • The best established brands have a very interactive approach with their audience.


  • Ditto.
  • We also have been using short stories and novellas to keep readers in contact with an author’s work when they reader is waiting for the next book.
  • Cover reveals, trailers, chapter teasers!
  • Group bookstore and festival events have also been a great way to draw readers together and introduce them to authors they may not know.

How do you market a debut author who doesn’t have an established audience?


  • Because they don’t have an established audience you focus on the content and the book itself.
  • Blog tours work well.
  • We’ve also done some creative marketing with Q&A’s from the book’s editor, author, and even the characters in the book.


  • It’s all about the content and teasing out what the book is about.
  • This process is about establishing the author’s brand.
  • We try to connect authors with reviewers in traditional publications and the YA blog-o-sphere.
  • We try to create multi-forum events with new and established authors, and use the draw of the established author to introduce the readership to the debut author.

What is it about the YA readership that allows you to be more adventurous in your marketing?

Emily & Natashya:

  • Teens are young and creative and we need to be creative so they respond to it.
  • Teens are looking for the exciting next thing. They give us the freedom to experiment and they are receptive to what we try.
  • Get the teens invested and they will drive the campaign themselves. For example: We had teens vote on what cities they wanted an author tour to stop in.
  • We like to try crowd-sourced initiatives and throw the marketing back to the fans. The more interactive it can be the more they like it. For example: Unlocking content with “Likes.” (i.e. X-number of “Likes” unlocks the new cover of the book, etc.)
  • We also like to do cross-publisher events if an author is published with another house. Then both houses benefit.
  • Word of mouth is always your best marketing tool.

Are in-person library or bookstore events still relevant?

Emily & Natashya:

  • Festivals are really important.
  • Traditional events still have their place. Booksellers and librarians are big readers and have direct contact to the market. They will help promote your book and create buzz.
  • We can’t send all our authors on book tours, but we’ve found that Skype visits have been another great way to contact an audience when on a budget.

How has technology changed the marketing game?


  • “Sometimes I feel like Twitter is my second job.”
  • Online marketing is really important!
  • We’ve been doing a lotof chat initiatives.


  • The internet is pervasive!
  • It’s a great way to test out new ideas.
  • The internet gives you a huge reach without a huge investment.
  • It causes readers to look for you, and it lets the reader take charge of the content they want to be exposed to.

Tell us about some of the books you’ve got coming out this year that you’re excited about:

Emily & Natashya:

Vanessa PaxtonContemporary Fiction:

  • Contemporary YA is on the rise!
  • There’s a hot trend of “tough stuff” and issue-driven romance.
  • Nantucket Blue by Leila Howland.
  • Dare To You by Katie McGarry (the companion novel to Pushing the Limits).
  • Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott.

Costume Dramas & Historical Fiction:

  • Costume Dramas are all the rage (thanks to Downton Abby).
  • Cinders & Sapphires by Leila Rasheed .
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (the companion novel to Code Name Verity).

Science Fiction:

  • All Are Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill.
  • Project Paper Doll by Stacey Kade.

Fantasy & Paranormal:

  • Ink by Amanda Sun (urban dark fantasy set in Japan).
  • Iron Traitor by Julie Kagawa.


  • Puck by Aimee Carter.

What do you think about this “New Adult” Trend?


  • It points to a huge hole in the market.
  • People love it and it’s here. We are definitely acquiring it.
  • It’s about the transition from high school to becoming independent.
  • Lots of edgy authentic stories.


  • There are several definitions out there of what “new adult” is. We tend to label books in a way that a reader doesn’t.
  • Older YA has naturally fallen into what might be considered “new adult,” and it’s been doing it all along. Only now we are labeling it.
  • It’s about concentrating on a good story and not salacious content.

Is the market overloaded with Dystopian and Paranormal books?

Emily & Natashya:

  • There’s a lot to choose from in these catagories. Both publishers and readers are becoming more selective of what they want in this area.
  • There’s more competition in this part of the market.
  • Dystopian is still selling well and people are still talking about it.

Are there taboo topics in YA?

Emily & Natashya:

  • No. It’s all about how a story is executed. It’s got to be authentic.
  • The question is about how the story is presented or handled. Is the taboo topic important to the story?
  • Authors are showing us what the “rules” are. They’re blending genres and themes all the time.

How do you find new authors?


  • I can’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Agent submissions only.


  • We also only accept agent submissions. This is because of the sheer volume of submissions.
  • However, we are looking actively online for authors and may contact you.
  • We’ve found some authors through Yahoo Chats or meetings at conferences.

Do you have anything to say about diversity in YA?


  • There’s no limits.
  • We are open to anything, but it has to be a great story. What’s in the market now reflects the best written work. We want a great story from the POV of someone we care about.


  • We try for diversity, always.
  • We want content to represent many points of view and stories that resonate with as many readers as possible.

What is on your submissions wish list?


  • Funny!


  • Something that feels unique and makes me sit up and read the whole thing.
  • Something that’s not too similar to what we’ve already published.

An archive of this webinar is available at: Publisher’s Weekly Webcasts

Emily Meehan is the Editorial Director at Disney-Hyperion. She has worked in almost every aspect of trade publishing for children: picture books, middle grade, young adult, original paperback series, and in most every genre, from general interest fiction to nonfiction, to fantasy, romance, religious, and historical.

Natashya Wilson is the Executive Editor at Harlequin TEEN. She began working at Harlequin Books in 1996, when she became an editorial assistant for the Harlequin American Romance and Intrigue series. She worked as an associate editor for McGraw-Hill and Rosen Publishing Group, where she edited children’s nonfiction books. She returned to Harlequin in 2004 and later became the senior editor for Harlequin TEEN.

Photos by Andrew Rich and Vanessa Paxton.

Secrets of a Children’s Bookseller: Adult Nostalgia and Book Buying Trends

Do you remember your favorite book from childhood? It could be Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf, or maybe it’s Miss Rumphius  by Barbara Cooney (that’s mine!). Thinking about that book probably makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You LOVED it! So, of course your son, daughter, granddaughter, grandson will love it too!

This holiday season I found a large percentage of customers making gift purchases based on these exact emotions. They’d ask for that treasured book (be it out of print or not) with hopes of sharing the feeling they had as a child. On Christmas Eve, I walked into our classics section and found it plucked bare. Little House on the Prairie, The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables – all had been purchased, wrapped, and now sat under trees with bright shinny bows.

I think there are two ways to look at this trend. On one side, these books DO stand up against the test of time. They’re classics, timeless, and just plain good! But on the other side of this discussion, I think some might argue that not all classics appeal to today’s kids. Some are slightly outdated and harder for today’s audience to relate to. In this second case, I think adults are buying classic books because they feel nostalgic about them. They hope their kids (or grandkids) will love the book as much as they did, and it’s that hope that gets them to take it home and put it under the tree. Ultimately, this comes down to why someone buys a gift (or any product). In this case its about the feelings and memories the gift-giver has about a book. There’s a ton of great new books on the shelves these days, but sometimes that can’t compete with the joy of sharing a loved classic.

This leads us (as writers) back to the age-old point that books need an emotional punch. Books we loved as kids stay with us because we are connected to them emotionally and something in them has resonated over the years. Look back at your favorite classic and see if it still holds up today. Why? Why not? What about the book makes it timeless? What makes it memorable and worth sharing?

Secrets of a Children’s Bookseller: Hot YA and Holes in the Market

Continuing my review of popular children’s books this holiday season, today I’m gonna talk about YA. I’ll cover the individual titles that were really popular and mention a few common request that I had a hard time fulfilling (that’s right – holes in the market that need to be filled!!).

Hot YA Titles this Holiday Season:

  • Legend by Marie Lu (this is a debut novel and it’s doing really well!)
  • Blood Red Road by Moira Young
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
  • The Hunger Games by Susan Collins
  • Apothecary by Maile Meloy
  • Inheretance by Christopher Paolini

Holes in the Market:

The following are common requests that I had a hard time fulfilling for customers (please write these books so we can sell them!!).

  • Sport books for girls. Usually this is for a customer who has a daughter who isn’t into romance themed books. This reader plays sports herself and wants to see strong female characters!
  • Dance books for girls. I did have Bunheads (Sophie Flack) and Audition (Stasia Ward Kehoe) on our shelves to recommend. However, some customers wanted dance books without too much romance, or dance books that were not about ballet.
  • Books with Latino protagonists (this goes for both girl and boy books). We need more!! Please write them!

Secrets of a Children’s Bookseller: Series Make Spectacular Gifts!

Earlier this week I talked about the hot picture books of this holiday season, and today I want to jump into the older age groups of Jr. Fiction, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. Although there were lots of spectacular individual books that sold well this holiday (and I’ll get into that in another post) I can’t help but deny the fact that the big sellers are the books that come in a series. Parents, Grandparents, kids, they all go crazy for __________ (insert child’s favorite book series here).

I have a few theories as to why series sell so well:

1) When a kid gets excited about a book, they don’t just have a passing interest. They are PASSIONATE! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: kids run, scream, and jump for joy when the next book in a favorite series hits the shelves. They’re ravenous! And any parent who sees a kid get this excited over a BOOK (rather than…say, um, Angry Birds) has the good sense to buy them the rest of the series for Christmas. And they do.

2) Book box-sets make great gifts! I found that many adults were looking to buy two or more books (per kid) for the holidays. Nothing makes shopping easier than the suggestion of a great new series that has a box set. In fact, most customers asked for box sets rather than the first book of a series. It’s the holidays, they want to splurge a little and get a nice gift!

3) Book series are a lot like your favorite TV show. After you’ve read the first book (or watched a few episodes of a TV show) you’re invested. You know the world. The characters feel like your best friends and you want to hang out with them. You already know what to expect and don’t have to start from scratch with a  book that could be good…or could be a total dud.

Okay so, here’s what was HOT in Series this holiday season:

  • The new Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney.
  • Susan Collin’s The Hunger Games is still selling like we are in the games and our lives depend on it.
  • With the release of Inheritance by Christopher Paolini (the final installment of the Eragon Series) these books were a common request.
  • The Lost Hero series by Rick Riordan.
  • The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz.
  • Steampunk is gaining traction with both The Clockwork Prince by Casandra Clare and the Leviathan Series by Scott Westerfeld doing really well.
  • The Rangers Apprentice series by John Flanagan.
  • Origami Yoda and Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger
  • As for in Early Series and Jr. Fiction, we are always (year round) selling tons of books in the Magic Tree House series (Mary Pope Osborne). Other popular series include The Rainbow Fairies (Daisy Meadows), Ivy and Bean (Annie Barrows), the Warriors series (Erin Hunter), and the Geronimo Stilton series (Geronimo Stilton).
  • And of course, good old Harry Potter is always a common request!

If you’ve got an idea for a great series (particularly in Middle Grade), hop to it! I think this is a trend that will be around for awhile.

Secrets of a Children’s Bookseller: What’s Hot in the Picture Book Market?

To start off my Book-seller’s sneak-peek into the trends of the 2011 holiday season I thought I’d begin with picture books. And I’m happy to report that picture books are not dead! In fact, picture books sold wonderfully this holiday. The following is a re-cap of some of the hot books, trends, and requests that I got this season:

The Big Books of 2011:

These are individual picture books that we sold stacks and stack and stacks of!

  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • Stuck by Oliver Jeffers
  • The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmet
  • Stars by Mary Lyn Rae (Illustrated by Marla Frazee. Marla is a bit of a local celebrity, therefore the sales of this book may be related to her local fan base. Not to say this book isn’t awesome, because it is. However, this is a great point  for authors and illustrators – get involved with your local bookstores. We love you and your community will too!)
  • The Lego Ideas Book by Daniel Lipkowitz (This isn’t a picture book, it’s a non-fiction book of ideas of things to build with your left-over legos. It fit with this age-group which is why I’m mentioning it here, and it sold like crazy!!!)

And a few awesome honorable mentions that were also pretty popular:

  • Pirate vs. Pirate by Mary Quattlebaum
  • Llama Llama Home with Mama by Anna Dewdney
  • Press Here by Hevee Tulette
  • Every Thing On It by Shel Silverstein
  • Itsy Mitsy Runs Away by Elanna Allen

The Princess Trend

Princess books are still very popular! In fact, it’s the number one answer to “What does your three to six-year-old girl like?”  There are a lot of options already out there for princess (or very “girly” themed) picture books, including: Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, Pinkalicious by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, Lady-Bug Girl by Jackie Davis and David Soman, and The Very Fairy Princess by Julie Andrews. But it seems there’s always room for more. Plenty of parents needed NEW books as they already own the traditional go-to girly books mentioned above.

In contrast, there is also the “anti-princess” trend. This is when a parent comes in and wants to steer their daughter away from their obsession with princesses. In these cases they want a strong girl character who is independent, fun, and into things that are not pink, glittery, or covered in neon polka-dots.

Boys Love Trucks

The number one request for young boys (ages 2 to 6) are trains, planes, and automobiles. It’s so popular that we actually have an entire transportation section of the store. There are a lot of great classics in this category, from The Little Engine That Could to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But some new popular titles include Otis by Loren Long and Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Dusky Rinker. Also non-fiction automobile books are popular, particularly those with lifting flaps and sounds.

Boys also love dinosaurs, sports, astronomy, and science. These are popular requests as well (and we do have whole sections for them too). However, many of the books on these shelves are primarily non-fiction rather than a traditional picture book.

The Cute Cuddly Animal Phenomenon

In general the number one picture book request is phrased like this: “Show me all your books with ____________ (insert cute cuddly animal) in them.” Usually this will be something like owls, or puppy dogs, or monkeys. Occasionally they will be something odd like moose or lemurs. It seems that kids go through phases where they’re really into one animal. The other reason this question is so popular (particularly around the holidays) is that adults like to give the gift of a book AND a stuffed animal. Pretty much any animal is game, the requests for “insert cute cuddly animal” are pretty vast so have fun with your next picture book character.

There’s Something for Everyone

This is only a small glimpse into the number of books sold over the holidays. Most sales are highly individual, and I spend a lot of time walking through the store giving suggestions based on the customer’s idea of the type of book they want to give for the holidays. The above are a few examples of things I noticed selling particularly well, or questions I was asked over and over.

Lets not forget that trends are exactly that – trends. And just because it’s popular today doesn’t mean it will be popular next year, or even in another city or state. I work at one small independent bookstore, so of course my observations will be skewed by our customer base. Still, I think it’s fun to see what’s doing well!

Happy New Year Everyone!

Secrets of a Children’s Bookseller: What was HOT this Holiday Season?

Alas, as many of you have noticed, I’ve not been very active on the blog this past month. Despite my absence online, I swear it has all been for a good cause! For you see, I’ve just spent the last 6 weeks (of holiday shopping mania) selling children’s books! And I’ll tell you, there’s no better way to get a snippet of whats selling in the kidlit market than to work in the children’s department of a bookstore during the big holiday push.

Though I don’t have access to official book selling numbers, there are a number of ways to tell what books are selling like hot-cakes and which are floundering in the dust. For example:

  • Take a look around the store and you can get a great idea of what’s doing well. Such as — that pile of display books that was towering yesterday and is gone today…yup, it’s pretty safe to say that’s selling well!
  • Shelving books from receiving is another great way to see what needs re-stocking. Particularly with books we only have one or two copies of.
  • And of course actual requests from customers helps you to get a sense of what they’ve heard about and want to buy.
  • And lets not forget the hand selling. A book-sellers life is about lots and lots and lots of hand-selling!

I’ve decided to break down my observations from this holiday season into a few categories as to better organize what’s hot in which sections. I’ll be posting the following reports throughout the week:

I hope your holidays were spectacular and that the coming information helps inspire you for the New Year!

My Life as a Bookseller

If you follow me on Twitter you may have heard I got a new job! For the past few months I’ve started working in the Children’s Department at the fabulous independent book store Vroman’s in Pasadena. If I didn’t write, read, and breath children’s books before, I sure do now! I shelve, display, recommend, and sell children’s books on a daily basis! The great news about this job (other than being surrounded by what I love) is its great market research! The following list shares a few interesting things I’m learning right away about the children’s book market from a booksellers perspective:

1) I’m usually selling to parents not kids. 85% of the time it’s an adult asking for a recommendation. With picture books and early fiction this is fine, but as we move into older and possibly more controversial content (like YA) I have to really think about what I recommend. There are plenty of books that I would suggest directly to a teen, but with Mom leering over a teen’s shoulder it may be a different list of books I’m pulling off the shelf. In fact, many parents ask directly about the “appropriateness” of a books content. It’s been really interesting to discover that it’s often the parents that I am selling to, even when the kid is the final consumer of the content.

2) Pitch, Hook, Sell! I hate to go all “Hollywood” here but it’s amazing how much easier it is to hand sell a book with a quick easy pitch. If I can sum up a storyline or concept in one or two sentences it always peaks a customer’s attention faster than a quiet moody book with a complex plot. Granted sometimes it’s the moodiness and tone that one can use to sell a book, but I do see eyes flicker with interest when that  high-concept hook is offered.

3) Series are Hot! Personally I’m not a huge fan of a long series of books, but kids LOVE them! They devour them, adore them, and are truly dedicated. It’s really fun to have a kid ask you where a certain series is, walk them over to that section, and witness them whoop and dance at the sight of the newest book on the shelf (this happens with Middle Grade in particular). If you can hook a kid with your series you will have a fan for life!

4) The Hunger Games Trend. It’s no mystery to anyone that The Hunger Games trilogy is hot right now. In fact, it’s extra hot! I get asked every day about The Hunger Games and we sell on average two copies of the book per day. (For comparison I’ve been told by my fellow booksellers that selling 2 to 5 copies of a book in 6 months is pretty normal, so selling 2 per day is amazing). But the other interesting thing is the follow-up trend, lots of customers come in asking for something similar to the Hunger Games. They’ve read it, they loved it, now they want to know what’s next. (And if you want a suggestion from me personally I’m a big fan of Ashes by Ilsa Bick).

5) Incredible Influence. I’m often surprised at how influential my opinion can be. A customer will walk away with a book or put it back on the shelf simply based on if I hesitate in giving my opinion or if I dive in with great enthusiasm. Granted, I’m still learning how to be a good bookseller, but its wonderful to know that I can steer a customer to books that I think are particularly good!

I’ll be sure to share more on the book-selling front in the coming months, and if you’re ever in Pasadena feel free to drop by the Children’s section of Vroman’s (it’s upstairs) and say hello.

Write Books that Change Lives

There is nothing more rewarding as a writer than to write a book that change’s someone’s life.

At a conference I attended many years ago author Ellen Wittlinger spoke about a letter she’d received from a reader about how her book helped the reader through a difficult time. “If my book stops one kid from committing suicide then it was worth it,” Ellen said, as we all started to tear up. We write because we have stories to tell and we hope that those stories touch others and leave some grain of resonance. Changing one person’s life would – of course – be worth it!

But, this blog post isn’t about how to write a book that will change someone else’s life.

In our current state of publishing it seems high concept and commercial books are the ticket to success (or at least a publishing deal). We are always told to write from our heart, but sometimes love doesn’t seem to produce a paycheck. Agent Mary Kole just wrote a great blog post about the push and pull between writing a book that an author loves vs. writing a book that can sell.  Of course, the bottom line (from an agent’s POV) is the book needs to sell.  Yes, that makes sense. But recently I came upon the best piece of writing advice I think I’ll ever receive. It comes from a book on screenwriting called “The Anatomy of Story” by John Truby, and in it Truby says:

“Write something that may change your life.”

I’d like to modify that to: Write the book that will change your life.

Your life – you – the author!

Sure, it’s important to think about your audience as well, but first, I think we need to think about ourselves.  I think we need to dig deep inside and look at what stories we want to explore because they mean something to us. After all, we are the ones who will be spending months (and possibly years) on this project.  Shouldn’t our first priority be to make sure that journey is meaningful to us – as an individual, on a personal level?

After all, there is a true and real chance that our books won’t sell.  It’s possible that our books will sit in drawers and never see the light of a printing press or the hands of another reader. But if we write books that change our lives – then isn’t that alone a book worth writing? And it’s worth considering that a book that can change our life is one with the power to change another life too.

So when you’re out there deciding what project to start next, battling with the market, and trying to figure out what will get you published, I suggest you sit back and listen to the writer deep down inside. Hell, listen to the human deep down inside. Write the story you’re afraid to write. Write the story you’re afraid isn’t marketable. Write the story that will change your life. That’s the most powerful story you have to tell.

The Digital Revolution: Writers Becoming Content Creators

The digital revolution is changing the way we publish books. With iPads and e-readers, blogging and the internet, the way in which we receive content is changing every day. Agent Rubin Pfeffer spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference to address this very topic. In his opinion, we should all redefine how we see ourselves, we are not simply writers and illustrators, we are content creators.

Notes from Rubin Pfeffer’s Keynote Speech:

Let’s Clarify…

  • When talking about digital books and publishing in new media, this means “NOT INSTEAD OF, BUT IN ADDITION TO…”

What if SCBWI was SCCC:

  • SCBWI (as a name) is functional – yes.  But sexy? No!
  • The word society has a foofyness to it. A tea party sound.
  • When SCBWI created its name branding wasn’t (then) what it needs to be now.
  • SCCC = Society of Children’s Content Creators: Perhaps it is time for a moment of self examination. Where could this organization go?
  • SCBWI has 22,000 members (globally) as of 2010. We are a global force!

What Does It Mean to Be Relevant In the Digital Age?

  • The digital future has become the digital-NOW!
  • We are in a world commanded by e-retailers. There is no more “on ground” stores. Amazon is the number one retailer for trade book publishing!
  • Reading devices used to have a fast turnover rate, but the iPad has become the big game changer.
  • 70% of adults have not been in a book store in five years! They have a store in their poket/purse. It’s called an iPhone.

Agents as E-Publishers:

  • In response to the digital revolution certain agents are now becoming e-publishers as well. These pioneers include Richard Curtis and Scott Waxman.
  • Odyssey Company (e-publisher).
  • If you compare a $10 paperback to a $10 e-book, the author will get 80 cents per paperback book, and $1.75 per e-book.
  • E-publishers have talked about royalties as a high as $3.50 to $7 per book.  (These are theoretical and may not be uniform.)
  • APO = Alternate Publishing Options

An Opportunity is Upon Us…

  • Books in print will always be here, but they are not the only way.
  • This is a time of revolution and opportunity!
  • Why shouldn’t there be larger profits for you the content creators?
  • The opportunities are to be found in new formats.
  • The lexicon of formats are expanding – animation, phone apps, twitter, etc.
  • Look at the iPad as a dry sponge hungry for content with many multi-media possibilities.
  • We must remain high above the poor quality material that is published on the internet.
  • “Just because we can publish, doesn’t mean that we should.” -?

There is Fear in the Unknown…

  • Traditional publishers are scared that the way books are read is changing on a fundamental level. The book is presently going through a radical reinvention right now!
  • Think about how music changed over the years (in terms of the format in which the music got to  you). Originally it was live, then recorded on a record, then 8-track, cassette, CD, and MP3. The music is still good, the form we get it in has changed.

A Great Article on the Market…

  • “Publishing The Revolutionary Future.” New York Times Review, March 11, 2010

Rubin Pfeffer is an agent with East West Literary Agency. Prior he has worked in Children’s book publishing for many years as SVP of and Publisher of Simon and Schuster and overseeing the imprints of Anthem, McElderry, Aladdin, and Paula Wiseman Books.

A Talk With Three Literary Agents

Every year the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) sponsor an agent night. This year’s agent representatives were Sally Van Haitsman, Angela Rinaldi, and Natalie M. Fischer, who all represent a variety of work from picture books to YA, to adult and non-fiction, as well as memoir and romance novels. The following is their point of view on submissions, the business, and how to find the perfect agent.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your agency, and what you represent:

Sally: My new agency the Van Haitsman Agency, is only five-weeks-old (as of April 26th, 2010). But before that I worked at the Castiglia Literary Agency for six years. You can find our submission guidelines online, but I am looking for a variety of work including: commercial fiction, literary fiction, memoir, science, education, etc. I do not represent young adult work or genre fiction. Prior to working in an agency I worked at the San Diego Reader for five years, and I received my Masters degree in communications at UCSD.

Angela: I started out as an editor and worked at Bantam and Pocket Books. I also started the publishing division of LA Times Books. I left in 1993, and started my agency the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency in 1995. My passion is fiction, but what pays my bills is non-fiction. Successful books of ours include: Who Moved the Cheese, Zen Golf, and Calling in the One. In terms of non-fiction I look for the “quirk within the obvious.”  This is a smaller subject non-fiction book, something specific, rather than a large general book. Some books like this include: Quirky, yes. Hopeless, No (a book about aspergers). For fiction: The Starlight Drive-in, Blood Orange, and The Good Sister. I am also looking for suspense, literary novels, historical thrillers, womens issues books,  and self-help books. I do not cover young adult, but Spencer Humphries at my agency does. If you email me do not send attachments. Please let me know if you are sending me work exclusively. If you mail something to me include a SASE and do not send anything that needs to be signed for as it drives me crazy. I am also a member of the AAR.

Natalie: I work for the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. I am a new agent, and began in sales and and also worked as an intern for one of Dijkstra’s agents who represented romance novels. We keep a very small list at our agency, which means we are very involved with our clients. Right now about eighty percent of my sales have been in children’s books, middle grade, and young adult fiction. I am looking to fall head over heels in love with your submission. I am looking for character driven literary middle grade or young adult novels. I really like fantastical and sexy projects, and I am really looking to build my commercial women’s, historical, and romantic adult fiction lists. I mostly take paper submissions, please include a query, a synopsis, and the first fifty pages of your book, or non-fiction proposal. I am very involved in online blogs, and I find a lot of work that way. I am often scouting in places like and twitter. If you submit to me, I will not respond unless I am interested. And it is always good form to be kind and not send nasty letters to agents who pass on your work. I have a lot of time right now and I am really looking for clients and work.

How do you find clients?

Sally: I meet a lot of my clients at conferences, and through referrals. I also get queries from people who have found my agency online. In regards to conferences, sometimes the client is someone I met many years ago, and they are only submitting now that their work is ready.

Angela: I find clients through referrals or online. Sometimes a client will find me based on an acknowledgments page in a book they liked. Occasionally an editor will refer a writer to me. Publishers like to have the middle man (agents) because it allows them to only have an editorial relationship with the writer and things don’t get bogged down in regards to money conversations. I also find people through journals I read.

Natalie: I find clients through referrals and conferences as well. But as I said before I am on the internet a lot. I suggest everyone start a blog! Then put a blurb about your project on that blog, a description of your book in one or two lines, maybe even an excerpt. “Teaser Tuesday” is a forum online where authors will put excerpts of their books up on the internet, and I often read those.

What type of role do you like to take in your client’s lives?

Sally: If your work is ready and you are up in the 90th percentile then I like working with a client. But if a writer is really not at that place with his/her work then it can become very overwhelming. I would then suggest a writer take a class at a community college, or find a writers group to help them develop. I like to help smooth out the bumps, and make connections with the work, but I’m not a writing teacher.

Angela: I will do some editing with my clients. I feel like I have a lot more input to give on a non-fiction project because that is more of my specialty. I don’t polish prose. If the writing was not almost there to begin with I would be very reluctant to take on the writer. I might suggest you find a co-author to help you. In regards to fiction you are either a storyteller or you are not. And I do take caution when a query says that a book has been professionally edited by someone else as I am then unclear how much of the writing is the author’s.

Natalie: I am not going to fix peoples sentences or grammar for them. But I do participate in general content editing, things like concepts, how you got from one point to another, structuring, etc. I am not a proof reader.

How has the economy changed submission for you?

Sally: I am taking on fewer projects now, and being more conservative. You really need to be judicious. So the more professional and polished your book is the better. Red flags can be small things like typos, grammar, verb tense issues, etc. These will cause me to lose confidence in a submission. After we have gone through two or three revisions, if the book isn’t where it should be it can become difficult, particularly with a fiction book. You can do more with a non-fiction book. You should always get a second opinion before submitting, and research and learn agent’s affinities.

Angela: Editors are buying less, and are looking for books with more weight. There is a lot more pressure on editors to find a winning book these days. Sometimes it is about platform. This is particularly important if you have a non-fiction book. You can look up anything you want on Google now, so you need to be an expert on what you are talking about.

Let’s talk about platform, is it important?

Sally: If you are writing a non-fiction book it is very important that you have credentials. If you are writing memoir then the book can be more fiction related and credentials are less important. However, if you’ve done something significant and are writing your memoir then the book can have a nonfiction slant and it is good to have credentials/platform. Overall show you can participate in the internet community.

Angela: You should establish your reputation with your blog or blogs. Network with peers. Get blurbs from people who will ready your book. But be respective, don’t be silly. No one is interested in the person who will stand on his or her head with a sign that says “will work for book contract.”

Natalie: Credibility will help even with fictional stories. An online presence is also important for fiction writers.

Let’s talk about proposals for memoirs…

Sally: If your memoir is more of a family story then you will want to approach your book as if it is a fiction novel. But if the memoir is subject based, then you can submit a book proposal.

Angela: Memoirs read like first novels, therefore the proposal has to work as if it is for a novel – need chapters and a detailed outline, and a fleshed out story.

What do advances look like these days?

Sally: The middle house has collapsed. Big houses still give out big advances, and the smaller houses have small advances. But it is the middle size houses where we have seen a significant drop. Large advances often go to people who are celebrities or have a significant blog or platform. Examples of high-profile blogs are: Shit My Dad Says, and Hungry Girl.

Angela: Those blogs do so well because they have created a niche market. The content doesn’t even have to be good if the platform works.

Sally: The break down is – High advances are six figures and up. Middle level is 50,000 to 100,000. Small is in the 25,000 and under, and sometimes with presses like universities an advance can be very low and only in the thousands.

Angela: There’s always an exception in regards to advances. Don’t think about the money.

What makes a winning query letter?

Sally: The query captures the voice of what you are writing. I am also a sucker for a good title. But always get into the matter at hand. Forget the whole “I have a book, blah, blah, blah.” Of course you do, that’s why you are querying me. Also, don’t start with hypothetical questions like “Hey, have you ever wondered why people wear pants?” Uh…No! Also, only query one project at a time.

Angela: Be professional, but don’t lose the essence of what you are writing about. Avoid the name Jake for your protagonist. Try and capture your voice, or if it is non-fiction explain why it is that you are the perfect person to write this book.

Natalie: I like it if I’ve met you or we have some connection. Start with how you know me.

Sally: Find a secret reader with a critical eye and have them read your query. Also think about this like it is a job interview.

Natalie: You can post your query on the website and get feedback on it. Also, on our agencies Facebook page we have a template for good query letters.

Angela: Be sure you address the query to me! Say my name! Don’t mass query agents. It feels like spam and I delete it immediately.

Do you think there is a market for personal essays?

Angela: No. Personal essays don’t work unless there is a celebrity aspect.

How long should a work of fiction be?

Sally: There is a sweet spot between 60,000 and 100,000 words. If the book starts to get over 400 pages it can get really daunting. Think about this as the difference between watching a normal one and a half to two-hour movie, or watching a three hour movie. Plus the longer your book is will affect other things like printing cost. This doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. However, a first novel that is over 100,000 words sends a message that the writer may not have done the proper amount of editing before submitting it. Granted you can get away with longer word counts if your book is fantasy or science fiction. A good rule of thumb is to go to the book store and compare your word/page count with other books in your genre.

Angela: Publishers don’t like long first novels because they cost more and there is a bigger gamble with and unknown author. This really raises the steaks for the publisher.

Natalie: In general, don’t go over 100,000 words. The break down for children’s literature is as follows – Picture books are less than 1000 words, chapter books are between 5000 to 10,000 words, middle grade is 40,000 to 60,000, and young adult is 60,000 to 90,000 words.

Would you ever represent a self published book?

Sally: This can work if your book is selling. But you need to consider what happens when you change from self published to main stream publishing. You will get less money if you go with a main stream publisher, so if your book is selling really well as a self published book you need to decide if you want to change.

Angela: Self published books with low sales is a ding (not a good thing). I would not mention that you’ve self published the book if this is the case.

Natalie: I won’t take self published fiction books. But a self published non-fiction book has some options. If you are going to self publish you should do it because your book is regional or serves a small niche market, or if you are doing it to give it to your family.

What do you look for in a book proposal?

Sally: Proposals are getting shorter and they need to be punchy. Be succinct. They shouldn’t be longer than 50 pages, and they do need sample chapters.

Angela: The overview is very important. Be engaging, grab my attention. Tell me how this book will change my life, will it show me how to cook a meal in ten minutes or discipline my kids, etc.

Is there a difference between having an agent on the West Coast versus the East Coast?

Sally: No.

Angela: If a novel is great it will sell. Agents don’t need to be in New York. The agent’s reputation is what holds water, not where they are located.

What kind of weight does a verbal contract hold?

Sally: I don’t take things very far with a potential client before having them sign. I want them to think about the long-term. In regards to termination, this should be a mutual agreement. But all our policies are all laid out very clearly in our agreement.

Moderator: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it is written on.” Email can be used as a paper trail and record agreements, but you really want things to be in writing.

What are you looking for in a synopsis for fiction projects?

Sally: They should be one page long. Get to the gist of the story! Some other agents like to have a longer synopsis.

Angela: One page or even a few paragraphs (only 2 or 3). You should query and send your pages. I read the pages first. I don’t usually read the synopsis because I don’t want to spoil where the book is going.

Natalie: Not more than two pages. I will read pages first, also, but if they seem to have issues, yet I am still interested, then I will read the synopsis to have a sense of where things are going.

What is your turn around for submissions?

Sally: Four to six weeks for manuscripts.

Angela: I’ll respond to an email query within a few days. If you mail me, then four to six weeks.

Natalie: I will respond within a month if I want to see more of your work, then it will depend on my time.

Is there still a chic-lit genre?

Sally: This genre has changed, it is a bit older and come of age. It’s not all about shoes anymore.

Angela: Editors are not really looking for it anymore. It has matured and turned into women married to defunct hedge fund managers.

What is your opinion on trends?

Sally: Write what you have a passion for, you will never time a trend correctly.

Angela: Ditto. However, trends can open the door for new genres. For example multi-cultural fiction is very big now, this opened up room for books like Little Bee. Write what you love.

Natalie: What trends do follow are themes that are universal. Trend books were also bought a year ago. You should also consider the fact that this might not be the right time for your book. Maybe it will be part of a trend to come, in five years it could be a huge hit, but there’s no market for it right now.

What is an agents relationship with a publisher?

Sally: We set up meetings with publishers and have lunches with editors we’ve worked with, or new editors we want to work with. We meet editors at conferences too. Editors want to find us too, this is something that goes both ways.

Angela: Publishers see agents as first readers. We are a filter for them. Our job is about knowing what editors want and who to send a project to. We are also the author’s advocate, and we do negotiations. We don’t have to be lawyers because a publisher isn’t going to budge on a lot of things, so we are really dealing with smaller issues.


Sally Van Haitsma is the owner of Van Haitsma Literary Agencey a boutique agency on the West Coast. Sally previously agented six years at the Castiglia Literary Agency and prior to that, apprenticed at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, both located in Del Mar, California. Learn more about her agency and how to submit at: Van Haitsma Literary Agency Website


Angela Renaldi owns Rinaldi Literary Agency in Beverly Hills, California. Angela is passionate for fiction and look for engaging characters, a strong plot, good storytelling and lovely writing with a distinct voice. She is also looking for Non-fiction work. Learn more about her at: Publishers Marketplace


Natalie M. Fischer is an agent at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She specializes in quality commercial books, and currently represents authors in the young adult, middle grade, memoir, women’s, romance (both historical and contemporary), multi-cultural and supernatural mystery genres, biography, popular science/culture and literary creative fiction, cross cultural and select paranormal. Learn more about her agency at: Dijkstra Literary Agency Website

This presentation was sponsored by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). Learn more about this organization, events, and membership at: IWOSC Website