Tuesday, March 21, 2017

2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Gemma Cooper & Author Robin Stevens

Agent Gemma Cooper
By Melanie Rook Welfing
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Note: Gemma Cooper and Robin Stevens were interviewed by SCBWI Netherlands Regional Advisor Melanie Rook Welfing for the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan conference. This is the second in a series of six articles.

Gemma Cooper started her publishing career in New York, then spent several years working in London, and now lives in Chicago. She joined the Bent Agency in 2012, where she works with authors and author/illustrators based all over the world who write for every age of children - from picture books to young adult, fiction and non-fiction.

Gemma has a soft spot for all types of middle grade fiction, young adult romance, funny chapter books and animal protagonists. She also loves a good punny title and book with a big hook that can be summed up in one line.

Her monthly wishlist appears on the agency blog, Bent On Books and she loves working with SCBWI members.

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived.

She has been making up stories all her life. When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (by Agatha Christie, William Collins, Sons, 1926) and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies' College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she'd get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn't). She went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and then worked in children's publishing.

She is now a full-time writer, and her books, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, are best-selling
and award-winning. Robin lives in London with her husband and her pet bearded dragon, Watson. She's @redbreastedbird on Twitter and Instagram and Robin Stevens on Facebook.



Gemma, you represent Robin. Can you describe the start of your relationship? What was it about Robin’s work that drew you in?

It’s always funny when I look back to the start of agent/author relationships to see how formal and business-like they are.

Of course they do continue to be professional relationships, but over time they evolve to dropping the ‘Dear Robin’ at the start of emails, to signing off with an ‘x’ - you become more informal in the way you communicate as you become more familiar with each other.

I always try to meet or video call new clients before I offer representation as I think you get a lot more out of a face-to-face chat.

So our relationship started with that first meeting - me telling Robin how much I loved her book, and then telling her all my editorial thoughts! I offered rep on the basis that she would be happy to make those changes, and asked her to take a day or so to think it over, me nervously hoping that I hadn’t said anything to make her turn me down!

I didn’t thankfully, so the next stage was me sending over my first editorial letter and a marked up manuscript. We would then have agreed a timeline for Robin sending it back to me, and probably arranged a few phone calls to discuss any questions she had during the edits.

Robin’s book was one of the first things I signed when moving to the Bent Agency, and as a massive murder mystery fan, it was exactly the book I was looking for. I remember being sucked into the voice from page one - Hazel saying she is much too short to be the heroine.

I got to page 10 and forwarded it to my colleague Molly Ker Hawn saying ‘This book is amazing, right?’

I just knew it was special and that I loved it - that terrible unhelpful agent saying of "you just know when you know." So the voice pulled me in, and mystery kept me turning the pages.

Robin, what prompted you to query Gemma?


Robin wins the Waterstone Prize
I queried Gemma for one huge reason: she was looking for the book I’d written!

She’d made a list on the Bent Agency website of all of the projects that she’d most love to see in her inbox, and one of them was basically ‘Poirot for 8-12 year olds, a historical mystery story’.

I’d already sent Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, Random House, 2014) to several agents, but I’d never seen anyone who so clearly was interested in the kind of book I was working on.

I knew Gemma was the agent for me – and I hoped that she’d feel the same way.

When she asked to meet with me, I was just as nervous as she was. But I saw that she got my book, and had amazing ideas of what to do with it. And she was clearly a smart, driven businesswoman, too.

I was confident she’d do right by me, and I knew she was someone who I’d be happy working with. And I’ve been proven totally correct!

At the Europolitan Conference in Brussels you will both participate in a panel on “Working Together: Relationships.” What does working together as an author and agent entail?

Gemma: Nearly every part of the publishing process has the agent and author in discussion first before coming to a consensus on a response to external parties. We discuss edits, covers, publicity, marketing, events, next book deals, new ideas, foreign offers, etc.

Working together really means just that - I’m involved in everything Robin is involved in. Even if I’m just cc’ed into an email, I still know what is going on. We tend to talk once a week, and email every few days, depending on what is going on.

Robin: I work very closely with Gemma on all aspects of my books. We don’t just talk about edits, we discuss covers, marketing and publicity directions, foreign offers – she’s my sense-check and my sounding-board, and helps me feel like I’m not in this on my own.

Authoring can be a strange and confusing business, so it’s wonderful to have an agent to turn to!

Has anything surprised you in this relationship?

Gemma: I introduced Robin to her husband!

Gemma Cooper & her clients, Ruth Fitzgerald, Mo O'Hara
Harriet Reuter Hapgood and Robin Stevens 
Something that I’m not surprised at, but that I’m very grateful for, is how Robin and my other clients are all now friends.

They cheer each other on and cheer each other up when things aren't going well. Seeing them all congratulating each other on a book deal or prize on social media really makes me smile.

This team/collegial approach is something I’d dreamed of fostering, but in the competitive nature of publishing, I'd worried it couldn’t work. To have it work so well is a constant pleasure to watch.

Robin: It’s true! Through Gemma I’ve met friends, colleagues and, as she says, even my husband (thanks, Gemma! I owe you). Being part of Team Cooper is a lifestyle, not just a book deal, and I’m so proud of the way we all support each other.

How has it developed or changed since you first started working together?

Gemma: As mentioned above, we have a very easy style of communication now. The whole relationship is comfortable and familiar!

That means when harder conversations need to happen, there is no awkwardness or treading on eggshells. We are honest with each other and have become friends over the last four years.

Of course, there is a fine line keeping professional boundaries, but I feel we navigate that well.

Robin: Absolutely. We’re able to be honest with each other, which is really helpful. We know each other very well.

A good agent should be for life, not just for Christmas, and this is why – your relationship will improve with every project you work on together. But you do always have to remember that you’re professional friends: an agent is a colleague, not a member of your family, no matter how much you chat on WhatsApp!

Gemma, I’ve read in another interview that you like taking a hands-on, editorial approach with your authors. What are some of the challenges with that? Do you ever disagree on editorial matters, and if so, how do you resolve them? Robin, your thoughts?

Gemma: Yes, I’m a very editorial agent. It’s a hard market, so my aim is always to get a book in the best shape I can before sending it to publishers.

Gemma at Bologna Children's Book Fair
with foreign editions of Robin's books
I tell potential new clients my editorial thoughts before offering rep, so if there is something they are
not keen on they can walk away or find another agent who is a better fit for their vision.

I have to go into meetings with the confidence that this is the best book ever, so I have to believe that. The challenge sometimes is time - a good editorial letter takes a big chunk of a week to craft, and then the author has to take time to edit. So when you take someone on, you might not be submitting their project for 3-6 months, sometimes even longer.

If I do disagree with a client on editorial matters, ultimately it’s still their name on the book, so I will defer to them.

It’s a subjective business, and I’m not always right! If it were a bigger issue and I didn’t feel I could confidently sub the book, we might talk about the future of our relationship. The editorial process, like so many other parts of the journey, is all about communication.

Robin: I’ve always been reassured by Gemma’s directness.

If she doesn’t like a project idea, or a plot line, or a character, she will say. So you really do know when she’s behind your work! She gives me feedback on my first drafts, and gets very hands-on with shaping the plot. However, she never insists on a particular change being made. She can suggest strongly, but at the end of the day we both know that it is my book.

I can’t recall any time when I’ve really ignored her comments, though! She has a great eye for what works, and why.

Robin, you will be leading the keynote on “Better Together,” on how your writing has improved with every new connection you’ve made. How has your partnership with Gemma improved your writing? Gemma, your thoughts?

Gemma and Natalie Doherty (Robin's editor)
visiting MMU in the shops on publication week
Robin: Gemma has been my introduction to the world of publishing.

Without her I'd never have found my editor, my publishers and my readers - it's just impossible to over-estimate how much a good agent can change your life. But in terms of Gemma herself ... she was the first person who forced me to think about my writing as being for a specific audience.

Murder Most Unladylike was 80,000 words when she first saw it, just because no one had ever told me that I needed to make sure that I was telling an exciting story as well as creating nice scenes.

She helped me cut the slack and remind me that I'm writing to entertain. She loves my characters as much as I do, and so she wants the best for them (and me).

She's an invaluable voice, critical in the best way - I know that she won't ever flatter me for the sake of it, and so I trust her judgment implicitly!

Gemma: Robin is so great at taking feedback, thinking it over, and then responding to it thoughtfully.

So often the gut reaction can be to go on the defense when receiving critical feedback. But Robin learnt early on that my feedback is given in the spirit of wanting to make the book stronger. Because of how she responds, I never have to worry about how I phrase things - I know I can be honest and she understands and doesn’t take it personally. It makes it a quicker process for me.

Her first drafts now are a world away from that 80,000-word version of Murder Most Unladylike. She’s learned so much, and improved with every book.

Getting to read her first drafts so early when I know her fans are chomping at the bit is one of the best benefits of my job!
Robin Stevens visiting Trafalgar Primary School
What other partnerships are essential to the aspiring author? And how best can those meaningful connections be made? (Conferences? Social media? Critique partners?)

Robin: I think it's crucial to be part of the publishing world, but never to be totally lost in it.

Conferences, launch parties and social media can all help you find the support network that every author needs. Make sure you have trusted critique partners, mentors (authors who are further along than you in their publishing careers) and peers (authors who you can share stories of woe or triumph).

Celebrating the American publication of Robin's first book with
Gemma's clients Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Sibeal Pounder, Beth Garrod & Robin
Remember that no one will ever have exactly the same publishing trajectory as you, and so comparing yourself closely to anyone else will end in despair, but it's vital to keep talking to people who share your strange career!

If you are under contract with a publishing house, try to keep speaking to them and communicating questions and ideas.

My attitude is that my publishers are my colleagues - by working together closely we can produce the best results. There's nothing to be gained by not talking through issues!

And finally, stay connected to your family and your non-publishing friends. Sometimes you need a break and a perspective check, and they're the only people who can provide that.

Gemma: I agree with all of this. It’s important that you make connections in the publishing world, but you still need your own life outside of it.

I love groups like SCBWI for new and published authors alike, especially their conferences. You can also reach out to other clients of your agent’s, or other authors at your publishers - if you are nice and collegial in your support of others, they will support you.

Critique partners are a godsend, even once you are published. Everyone should have at least one crit partner!

Cynsational Notes

At the age of 12 Melanie Rook Welfing’s life ambition was to be part-time author, part-time roller skater. The skating dreams died, along with the 80s hair, but the author dream lives on.

Melanie writes primarily for middle graders and has had stories published in Highlights and other magazines.

Originally from Canada, Melanie now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two daughters. She is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI in the Netherlands.

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