Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Agent Interview: Mark McVeigh on The McVeigh Agency

Mark McVeigh spent two post-collegiate years in Paris, working for a jewelry designer, before returning to the U.S. east coast, for a master's in education at NYU. He taught sixth grade at PS 20 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn for four years before taking a job as editorial assistant at Golden Books.

Since then he has worked at Scholastic, Random House, HarperCollins, Dutton, and most recently as editorial director at Aladdin, a hardcover imprint at Simon & Schuster. Mark is now a literary agent at The McVeigh Agency.

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

When I taught sixth grade, the best part of every day--for all of us--was when I would read aloud from books we chose together. My kids weren't all reading on grade level, so the time spent reading to them was the one time everyone was focusing on the same work. It led to some amazing discussions.

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

I started at Golden Books just before Thanksgiving of 1997, so this fall I'll have been in the industry 12 years. I've worked through a boom period: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, Olivia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Fancy Nancy, which both made it very exciting but also brought the focus increasingly on the bottom line.

That's not always a bad thing, but with the recent spate of layoffs of some of the most brilliant editors in our field (we all know the people I'm taking about, and I am not including myself in that list), I'm beginning to wonder just how traumatic the current financial situation will be to the industry.

Good books will continue to come out and the geniuses will find even better places to work their magic, but it is a bit unsettling.

What led to your transition from editor to agent?

Ha--Simon & Schuster let me go! Sadly, all of the people involved in my hiring, from president to publisher to associate publisher were gone (in the first two cases) or retiring any minute (in the case of the amazing Ellen Krieger, who is retiring this summer), and it was pretty clear to me that my days--and the idea we all had about what Aladdin could be--were numbered.

So the first thing I did was have breakfast with Charlotte Sheedy, surely one of the smartest people in our business, and she suggested I start my own agency.

I'd always wanted to be an agent, there was nary a job available, and when Charlotte makes a suggestion, only a fool doesn't take it.

So that day I bought my domain name and started calling all the authors and illustrators I've worked with for years who were unagented and told them what I was up to. Just about everyone signed on!

What sort of work are you looking to represent?

The easy answer is to have your readers visit my website. I'm very specific there.

You mention an interest in picture books, which have been a depressed market of late. What is your rationale?

There will always be a market for picture books--although it's a very tight one right now.

If you have the right idea, anything is possible. Look at Fancy Nancy by my beloved Jane O'Connor.

What "model" books would you suggest to prospective clients for "study" purposes?

I always suggest reading everything on the Times list, everything that is made into a movie, everything that wins a Caldecott, a Newbery, a Printz, and everything that they see kids talking about, carrying around, sharing. That last one is very important.

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

I'm a mix. Nothing goes out that I haven't edited, but I love the business of agenting--negotiating contracts, dealing with royalties and sub rights, and so on.

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

Totally career-building. I've been asking my clients to think about where they want to be in two, five and ten years . . . and keeping that in mind as we work together.

And, of course, for writers that are open to suggestion, I'm always tossing out ideas that I think they could run with and turn into a hit.

What do you see as the ingredients for a "breakout" book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

For commercial success, the book must touch something in young readers in a major way, take them someplace new, introduce them to someone they are glad they met and can't forget--any of these things.

(Of course in many, if not most, cases, it needs a big push from a publishing house that has made an educated guess that the book will do just that.)

Literary acclaim is harder to bet on for a brand-new writer, since the way a person--including a reviewer--responds to a book is so subjective.

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

They can e-mail a query letter to the address on the contact page of my website.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

This is a business, so I prefer query letters that are business-like in tone: get to the point (your manuscript and what it's about) and give me as much info in as simple a way as possible. It's about the story--nothing else.

Describe your dream client.

Someone who has both a voice and a message, is willing to work at both their craft and the business of publishing, and knows it takes time to build a career.

How much contact will you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs?

I'm not a big listserv person, but I e-mail a lot and talk on the phone.

It really depends on where you are in the process of a manuscript. The people I'm editing/submitting right at this moment--we talk every day. The people who are writing or ruminating over a piece or researching, much less so.

What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

Creative people need support, since what they are doing is so emotionally taxing, so I guess it's a combination of tough-minded business colleague to protect and guide them and friend/ shoulder to cry on or celebrate with, depending on the situation.

Many of my clients--particularly on my adult list--started as friends, but one reason it has worked so well with them is that they are all able to switch between friendship and business and back again without a problem.

Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work?

A mixture of both, really. If an author has developed a series of successful books in a similar genre and made some money for their publishing house, it gives us the muscle to convince them to get behind something new, should the writer decide to stretch themselves, which I totally encourage.

But if you've had one hit, my suggestion is always to build on that for a book or two.

What do you anticipate will prove the greatest challenge of being an agent?

Keeping up with the volume of work until I can hire an assistant!

What do you think you'll love about it?

I have always loved being an advocate for creative people, and now I can do that in a very direct way.

(From left to right: editor Arthur A. Levine, author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, and literary agent Mark McVeigh.)

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I'm on the board of directors of the Ali Forney Center, an organization that houses and educates homeless LGBT youth. That takes up a lot of my time.

I go to the gym to retain my emotional equilibrium (and because bathing-suit season is upon us). And I try to sleep--but not much these days!

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Only that committing oneself to an artistic endeavor--writing, painting, acting, dance, whatever--and letting the world see what's in your head is the bravest act out there and one that doesn't receive much respect in this country.

I respect and love all my clients and all the people who submit to me for their bravery and their contribution to this world.

Even if your writing never makes it past the submission stage, you've added something to the world by being a person who believes in the power of art and exercises their right to create--and that's an amazing thing!

1 comment:

Silly Funny Books said...

Thanks for the great interview. I always learn so much.

~ Rebecca

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