Monday, February 04, 2008

Agent Interview: Emily van Beek of Pippin Properties

Emily van Beek on Emily van Beek: "I relocated from Toronto to New York City in 2000 expressly to pursue a career in children's book publishing (this was my Plan A, and I did not have a Plan B!). I began my career at Hyperion Books for Children, and during my four years there, I became a full editor. But I also began to dream about exploring the view from the agent's side of the desk...and in October of 2003, I joined Pippin."

Pippin Properties, Inc. is a focused, boutique children's literary agency located in New York City. Along with Holly McGhee, the founder of the agency, we represent some of today's most exciting talents in children's books, including the Newbery Medal-winning author of The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo, the Caldecott Medal-winning artist, David Small, a host of bestselling clients such as Doreen Cronin, Betsy Lewin, Harry Bliss, Alison McGhee, Peter H. Reynolds, and Sarah Weeks in addition to veteran New Yorker artists including George Booth and Edward Koren.

I'm honored to say that we also represent some exciting new and emerging talent in children's books, including the picture book author/artist of Grumpy Bird, Jeremy Tankard, CLA Book of the Year Award Winner, Hadley Dyer, Jenny Han, Tao Nyeu, and Taeeun Yoo, Recipient of the Society of Illustrators' 2007 Founders Award, to name but a few.

Pippin will celebrate its tenth birthday this spring!

What were you like as a young reader?

I had an insatiable appetite for stories. As a little kid, children's books (and equally as important, the ritual of being read to every day), were a mainstay of my upbringing. We moved often, but despite changes of address, of language, of schools, of continents, and of friends, the evening routine of bedtime reading was a constant I could count on, a security blanket of sorts.

From Enid Blyton's Noddy books, to Pooh Bear and Piglet, Paddington, Madeline, Mowgli, and Peter Rabbit, my parents would take turns reading to my brother and me every evening, 365 days a year (I still have some of my old and well-worn 365 Day Treasuries and other favorites stowed away in a steamer trunk that has traveled with me through the years and across borders, stories I hope to share with children of my own one day).

What inspired you to become a literary agent?

After about three and a half years in the editorial department of a leading publishing house, I realized that I wanted to experience and to contribute to children's book publishing from a different perspective. I wanted to work even more closely with authors and artists, to become a part of the conversation at an earlier stage in the publishing process, and to be a team player in a smaller, more entrepreneurial environment.

I also loved the idea of seeking out new, as yet undiscovered talent, and helping authors and artists not only launch their careers, but to help them plan for the future, to establish life-long professions, and to publish books that would stand the test of time.

I had a keen interest in the business side of publishing and I realized that as a literary agent I would have all the more opportunity to exercise those muscles. Before setting out for NYC, I flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer. Agenting is a marriage of these passions of mine. I love negotiating (and yes, I actually enjoy reading contracts).

To top it off, I was intrigued by subsidiary rights with a particular interest in international and audio publishing. Holly often reminds me that during my interview I told her I wanted to conduct Pippin's first audio auction, and shortly after I joined the company, I had the honor of doing just that for a beautiful debut novel--it was so much fun!

As a literary agent at Pippin, every day presents me with opportunities to seek out secondary licenses for our books across a spectrum of industries. Whether we're working collaboratively with our dramatic rights co-agent on feature film deals or with audio publishers to create books on CD, whether we're establishing relationships with licensing agents or forging partnerships with foreign sub-agents in order to share our books with readers beyond our borders, all of these areas of publishing are thrilling to me.

What led you to specialize in youth literature?

You mean there are other kinds of literature? I've always had blinders on when it comes to publishing and the area in which I hoped to contribute. I think it's precisely because of the meaningful role children's books played in my own childhood that I followed the dream of a career in youth literature. On more than one occasion people outside the industry have smiled politely when they've discovered that I work in children's book publishing, only to go on to ask when I hoped to be promoted to adult books. Little do they know!

I spoke recently to a group of beginning writers and asked, "Who is interested in working with an agent?" Every hand went up. Then I asked, "Who knows what an agent does?" No hands. So, what all do you really do?

A literary agent is, first and foremost, an advocate for an author or an artist. We are our clients' greatest champion!

A large part of our role is to manage the business side of publishing so that our clients can focus their attention on the creative aspect of their relationships with their editors.

It is our responsibility to handle the negotiation of all agreements, to be fluent in the language of contracts, to successfully exploit reserved subsidiary rights (such as audio, dramatic, foreign, commercial and merchandising, etc.) as well as to handle the day to day aspects of the business side of things, such as the proofreading of royalty statements.

Our clients count on us to think strategically about their career trajectory with the aim of creating a meaningful and lifelong career. Moreover, at Pippin, we endeavor to help our clients publish fewer books better, and to publish books that will endure.

Given Holly McGhee's and my editorial background, we often work editorially with an author before sending out a submission. We frequently brainstorm new ideas with our clients. This has, at times, meant rounds and rounds of revisions over the course of years, but this sort of hard work and dedication on the part of our clients can result in the passionate acquisition of a project by an incredibly enthusiastic editor and the support of an entire house.

It's also our responsibility to know the editors and their tastes really well to ensure that submissions are well-tailored and the most dynamic and happy relationships can be forged between authors/artists and editors.

Why should unagented writers consider working with an agent?

Agents open doors. Many publishing houses won't consider unagented material, oftentimes returning it unread, whereas a polished, agented submission is far more likely to attract the attention of a well-suited editor.

Additionally, if an author is presented with an offer to publish the work, an agent acts as the author's delegate, someone who is well-versed in the art of negotiation and contracts, and who will make certain the author's best interests are protected.

Beyond the initial acquisition, an agent is also present throughout the manuscript's journey toward publication. We're here to navigate bumps that may arise along the way and to be a voice for our client.

What should a writer look for in a literary agency?

It's really important for aspiring writers to do their research when it comes to selecting an agent. It's useful to know about an agent's current roster of clients and the types of projects they feel passionately about (in terms of genre, format, and audience). Are your tastes compatible?

I think a writer should look for an agent who is responsive (someone who returns calls and emails with dispatch).

One might also consider the size of an agency. Do you want to be part of a larger agency that represents a variety of genres, or would you prefer to be represented by an agency with a narrower focus?

I also think it's best to speak with a prospective agent (or, even better, to meet in person) before making the decision to partner. At its core the relationship between a writer and an agent is just that, a partnership, and it's important to get a feel for one another. A writer might also ask to speak with other clients currently represented by the agent to get a sense for what it might be like to work together.

What makes Pippin Properties special?

When it first dawned on me that I really wanted to make the transition from the editorial side of the desk to agenting, I sat down with a colleague and confided in her that my pie in the sky dream was to join an agency like Pippin. An agency with a reputation for excellence. An agency with an exclusive interest in books for children. One that represented some of the most thrilling and significant talents in the field. When the planets aligned and an opportunity presented itself for me to join Holly at Pippin, I could not believe that my dream had come true.

At Pippin the bar is set high. We strive to live and work by the following philosophy:

--The world owes you nothing. You owe the world your best work. And this can be painful at times (especially when it means telling a writer that their work isn't there yet, that a particular story isn't ready for submission, that s/he needs to try again). Even the best of the best need to write and rewrite. As Holly once observed: "Some books are ready to go, some books will require two years of work, refinement, editing, and polishing. There is no recipe. No detail is too small." And as agents at Pippin, we strive to meet the same standards we set for our clients.

--Evergreens. We want to create books that will stand the test of time. As I mentioned earlier, we believe in publishing fewer books better. Books that will be read and re-read for years and years to come.

--And we want to work with people who share this philosophy.

Would you describe yourself as an "editorial agent," one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

At Pippin we certainly do spend a lot of time on the creative side of things, especially at the beginning of an author's career or when a career is first launched. We want to ensure that an author puts his or her best foot forward (first impressions are important!), and we want to make certain that only polished and compelling projects make it out the front door toward an editor's desk. So, yes, we often edit manuscripts prior to submission.

That said, once a writer has established a relationship with an editor, we respect that dynamic and take a step back, allowing the editor and the writer to focus on the creative ("too many cooks in the kitchen" and all); however we are always nearby and willing to assist should some point of editorial concern arise.

Is your approach more "manuscript by manuscript," or do you see yourself as a career builder?

Definitely the latter. Pippin is such a small agency (my associate, Samantha Cosentino, Holly and me--that's the whole company!), and likewise our list of clients is quite small. Together with our client, we see ourselves as architects of a publishing career.

We prefer to invest our time in representing authors who feel as passionately about children's books as we do, authors who aim to tell stories for years to come and who seek to build lifelong careers in this field as opposed to handling a patchwork of manuscripts by a much broader group of writers whom we wouldn't have the time to get to know as well.

Harry Bliss is the perfect example! He joined Pippin at the very beginning of his career in children's books. Harry’s debut picture book, A Fine, Fine, School was written by Newbery Medal-winning author Sharon Creech, and it went on to become a bestseller. Since then, he has created extraordinary artwork for stories written by the venerable William Steig, as well as New York Times bestselling authors Doreen Cronin and Alison McGhee. And he's now putting the finishing touches on a picture book by Kate DiCamillo.

What do you look for in a prospective client?

We look for passion and dedication. We look for a writer who is willing to work really hard. Someone who can keep the goal in sight when we ask for the eighth revision. We are looking for ingenuity. We're looking for voices that stay with us.

In terms of markets (children's, YA, fiction, non-fiction, genres, chapter books, ER, picture books, etc.), what sorts of manuscripts appeal to you?

We are especially looking for fresh, compelling voices in middle-grade and young-adult fiction. I would love to discover and represent some new novelists!

We are also looking for strong, unique picture books (if a writer's story idea has been done before--bedtime, brothers, bullies, blankies, etc.--is his or her story executed better than anyone else who has previously published on a similar topic?) Books for boys would be great, too!

We often say that we're not looking for the "next Harry Potter" rather we're looking what comes after those books, what pushes boundaries in terms of content, format, and most importantly, voice.

Do you represent author-illustrators or illustrators who don't also write? If so, what particular advice to you have for them?

Yes, we do represent author-illustrators, but we represent very few artists who don't also write their own work. For illustrators who don't write, I'd recommend they seek out an illustration agency, one that specializes in the representation of artists exclusively.

In my experience, it's enormously helpful when author-illustrators send links to their personal websites (online portfolios). This is a fantastic way to make an author-illustrator's introduction and to get a sense, right off the bat, of whether or not we might be a good match.

I think it's also important for an author-illustrator to compile a portfolio of compelling samples that represent the range of styles in which s/he'd like to illustrate (whether in color or black and white) and the variety of mediums s/he'd like to use. A varied portfolio is a good way to avoid being too quickly categorized or pigeonholed. We'd also like to know whether or not an author-illustrator is open to the idea of illustrating a manuscript written by another writer.

If an author-illustrator has a picture book idea, the submission of a dummy (even if only in sketch stage) can also be worthwhile.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

We are always on the lookout for new authors and artists. We try to keep our eyes and ears peeled at all times. The best way to be in touch is to visit our website (www.pippinproperties.com) and to follow the submissions guidelines outlined there.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

A few months ago, my colleagues and I were discussing submissions and some of the slip-ups aspiring writers can make. We compiled a "submissions cheat sheet", a check-list for a writer to consider before pressing "send". Here are a few of the items from the list:

--Is your first sentence the best is can be? Is it irresistible?

--Do you feel the need for a lengthy explanation of your manuscript in the cover letter? If so, this may be a warning that your story needs more work before submission.

--If you're submitting electronically, are you absolutely certain that the name of each agency you're approaching does not appear in the "to" field? Triple check!

--Is your submission (cover letter and manuscript) free of typos and grammatical errors?! There is no excuse for sloppiness.

--Is your manuscript double-spaced?

--Have you verified that the person who gave you the agent's name actually knows that person? This is a short cut to losing credibility.

--If you decide you are ready to submit, give the agent time to consider your work.

If a writer is turned down by one agent at Pippin, may s/he submit at a future date? What considerations might apply?

Yes, if s/he has been invited to submit again or if s/he has followed any editorial suggestions proffered by the agent and made significant revisions, then I'd say s/he is welcome to try us again.

If a writer is turned down by one agent at Pippin, may s/he submit to another? Likewise, what considerations might apply?

At Pippin, decisions regarding representation are collaborative. If we invite a writer to join our family, then we have each fallen in love with that writer's voice. However, the reverse is also true, if one of us has decided to pass on the chance to represent an aspiring writer, then s/he would be better off turning her/his attention to another agency.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs? What kind of relationships are you looking to build and why?

Contact with clients varies. We always endeavor to return phone calls and emails quickly, but the speed often depends on what information needs to be gathered. Because we're so small, if one of us is busy when an author calls, the other of us is often up to speed and able to assist.

We interact with some clients on a daily basis and with others less frequently, it all depends on a client's needs and wishes, and also on the level of activity going on for any given client at any given time (i.e. if we're in the middle of an auction, we're more likely to speak with an author several times a day whereas if a client is settled and deep at work on a particular project without any real emergencies on the horizon, we may chat less frequently).

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent titles?

I feel so honored and so lucky to work with the amazing authors and artists who make up our list!

An upcoming project I’m particularly excited about is an atmospheric and literary middle-grade novel called The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. When Kathi joined Pippin she had an extensive backlist of picture books to her credit, but she desired to write a literary middle-grade novel. And for the next two years and through eight revisions, Kathi, as she puts it, worked out of her comfort zone. Here is how she charts her journey:

"Tobin Anderson once told me: "write what you think you can't." At first I understood that to mean write in places where I never had. As primarily a picture book writer, a novel was a place I wasn't sure I could write. During the editing and writing process, I lost the boy. I lost the cat. I lost characters I loved.

"Love and loss. They're the twin sisters of the heart. And now I understand that Tobin meant for me to write in a way that wasn't about avoiding loss, but was about realizing loss, and how important that is to fully appreciate love. Could I stand it? Could I lose the boy? Or the cat? The ones I loved? The fact is, not writing that way would have been the bigger loss. It scared the living daylights out of me, but it also reminded me of what was at stake--everything.”

The Underneath, featuring illustrations by none other than Caldecott Medal-winning artist David Small, will be published by Atheneum this year. I'm so looking forward to holding the finished book in my hands.

I'm also looking forward to the publication of Only a Witch Can Fly by #1 New York Times bestselling author Alison McGhee with enchanting illustrations by Taeeun Yoo, the recipient of the Society of Illustrators Founders Award (Feiwel & Friends, 2009), as well as Let's Do Nothing! by debut picture book author-artist, Tony Fucile (Candlewick Press, 2009).

Tony recently made an extreme career move. Prior to jumping into the world of children's books (via the slush pile!), Tony was a Supervising Animator at Pixar where he worked on films like the Oscar-winning "Finding Nemo," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and where he co-creator "The Incredibles." But Tony decided to follow his dream of creating books for children, and I cannot wait for readers to discover Let's Do Nothing! this spring.

Past Pippin successes include The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by the Newbery Medal-winning author Kate DiCamillo (a #1 New York Times best-seller, as well as a 2006 Boston Globe-Horn Book and Christopher Award winner), the New York Times bestselling Diary of a Fly, Diary of a Spider, and Diary of a Worm books by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss, and the #1 New York Times bestselling Someday by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds.

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