Agent Spotlight: Amy Stern
Happy Thursday, everyone and welcome to another rip-roaring edition of Picture Book Spotlight! If you're new to this little corner of awesome, we celebrate picture books, their creators, and all who champion them. Miss our Illustrator Spotlight with Cortney Benvenuto? Check it out!
I know you like to live dangerously, but why risk missing interviews and giveaway opportunities? That's just reckless, rash behavior. The only remedy...is subscription. If you don't subscribe, you'll have to immerse yourself in the soul-sucking primordial goop that is a Twitter feed, only to maybe stumble across a new post. Why do that to yourself when you could have an email personally delivered through the miracle of the internet every time a new interview drops?! Do yourself a solid and subscribe.
Today, we have an in-depth Agent Spotlight with Amy Stern of Sheldon Fogelman Agency.
There may or may not be a super awesome giveaway opportunity at the end of this blog. Maybe. But don't just skip to the end. I'll know you did. (I will not know, but I will be sad).
Time to get to the good stuff, so let's make like kangaroos and hop to it.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
My work laptop- the obvious physical choice. Everything’s on there! My support network, both within the agency and outside of it; getting to talk through everything makes SUCH a difference. And a sense of empathy. I find that I’m much better at doing my job- even though it makes it harder and more time consuming- when I keep in mind how I felt when I was a writing student, pouring my soul onto the page and hoping it might connect with someone.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
The grocery store near me has this amazing kosher challah and Costco sells individually-wrapped ‘snack cheeses’ and these combined sustain me whenever I find myself too busy to make a proper meal. Where do you feel most inspired and why? I don’t really have a one specific place to feel inspired. I think that you have to work for inspiration, it doesn’t just come to you. I am a big fan of working in comfort- a lot of times I’ll go through submissions after work, in pajamas, in a nest of pillow, because I can just let the words and pictures wash over me. But there’s something to be said for working at a desk and on a deadline. And sometimes a change of scenery really works for me. I once hammered out a three-page editorial letter in an airport lounge waiting for a delayed flight.
Being surrounded by people who love what I love, and care about what I care about. I feel like so many people out there don’t respect kids, and I love that everyone I work with- my colleagues, plus creators and editors and librarians, EVERYONE- wants to create something special just for them. I think a lot about how, as a kid, it would have meant a lot to me to know this many people saw me as important.
Are you actively building your client list in the picture book category? If so, are you looking for authors only, illustrators only, or author-illustrators? Any and all? How many new clients are you looking to add in 2019?
I am definitely building my list! I’m looking for all of the above, although there are caveats for each:
-If you’re an illustrator who doesn’t write, you need to be able to show you know how to tell a narrative story in your work. (We often encourage illustrating a public-domain story to show us you can!)
-If you’re an author who doesn’t illustrate, you need to show that you can leave space in your story for artists to make their mark too.
-If you’re an author-illustrator and your writing or art is dramatically above the other half, I’m probably going to have to reject all of you. Yes, even if you say you’d be open to just doing one half. We represent creators for their whole career, not just a project, and it wouldn’t be fair if we were only representing half of you.
I don’t have a set number of clients I’m looking for per year. I would welcome an overflow of riches, certainly, and can refer potential clients to my colleagues if there’s too many! But in general, the agency only takes on a tiny fraction of the submissions we get.
Talk to us about what makes Sheldon Fogelman unique as an agency.
First of all, we’re one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, children’s literary agency. That history definitely makes a difference. (My first interview to work here, I saw original art from some of the agency’s first clients and freaked out.)
Besides that, the fact that we represent clients as an agency rather than as individuals is definitely a big difference. Each client has one agent they work closely with, but behind the scenes, everyone works together on different aspects. Because of that, we’re all invested in every client’s success, and can rely on each other a lot, which is great.
What is a ballpark number of picture book submissions you usually get on an average week, month, year?
I would estimate about 50-100 picture book submissions a week. It’s definitely a lot.
This is a simple question, but unfortunately, I don’t really have a simple answer. Sometimes, when we see exactly what it is that’s not working in a manuscript, we specifically request to see revisions. Other times, I can’t put my finger on exactly why it’s not working, but that doesn’t mean I think it has no value or I wouldn’t be interested in seeing it revisited.
That said, I’ve also definitely seen authors keep trying to rework the same project that isn’t quite coming together, and I feel like they’d be better served moving on and trying new things.
The one thing I would caution: if it’s a revision, tell us. I know the intention isn’t to be sketchy, but when I see something substantially similar to something I know I’ve already read, I will check my records. Some authors submit the same project with only some cosmetic changes over and over, and we definitely remember that.
When do you know a manuscript or an author, illustrator is ready for...The Call?
Well, first of all: With very few exceptions, our version of The Call isn’t an offer of representation. It’s a call to discuss. I can read a manuscript and love it but not be the right match for a creator. What the creator is looking to focus on, and where they want their career to go, and just personality types may differ wildly. When I have a call, it’s to talk to someone because their work struck a chord, and I want to see if our visions for this project, their career, and our styles overall would work well together.
That said, I wouldn’t make a call at all without discussing with at least one of my colleagues, and even after the call, no matter how well it went, I couldn’t do anything without talking to everyone in the office. We’re a very communal agency, and everything we do is going to be as a team. This makes things go a little slower, but it really pays off long-term.
Off the top of my head, some deal-breakers:
-If the query mentions that nothing out there currently is good. This is our field and we love it. You’ve got to have some level of respect for children’s books; otherwise I know we won’t get along.
-If it’s too long. If it’s fiction and over 1000 words, it’s going to be a no. If it’s over 750 words, you’re going to have a much harder time selling me than if it’s closer to 500.
-If the picture book rhymes but that’s all it does. The cadence and meter need to work, and the text needs to be broken up into stanzas. Otherwise, the reader ends up halting all over the place, because reading it out loud feels unnatural. Additionally, when half the lines are just there to rhyme, rather than move the story forward, I get really frustrated as a reader.
-If things happen TO the protagonist but they never take action themselves. I want the reader to have someone to relate to, and maybe even something to aspire to. They shouldn’t just be acted upon.
-If the strength of the project is emphasized by how well the project went over with a group of children. It’s great that you test your work- getting extra sets of eyes, especially from the audience, is important!
- But keep in mind that for any reader (even adults!), a real live creator actively engaging with the audience and caring about their response will make a book seem like the best story ever, because it feels like it’s for them. Use feedback from your audience, but make your work more than that.
-If it’s clearly aimed at entertaining adults, especially at the expense of kids. We get plenty. Let’s focus on the child reader, who deserves our respect.
I want to get a sense of who you are as the creator, what your creative history is, what this project is about, and why this project is special. It doesn’t need to be overly quirky or performative; just show me who you are.
So I don’t love queries from a character’s point of view, and I don’t really understand the point of talking about yourself in the third person. Just be you, a person, talking to me, another person. If we end up working together, that’s what’s going to matter.
And please don’t label attachments something like “Story -final.doc.” Include a title. Include your name. When Outlook has shut itself down and we’re trying to find what we were reading, we’ll love you for it.
What are some recent picture books that really grabbed your attention?
I’m constantly behind on my picture book reading, because I spend so much time reading submissions, which means I’m playing catch-up a lot. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of the ALA award winners. I’m so glad that the Caldecott committee recognized Thank You, Omu!, by Oge Mora, because even setting aside how good the story is- and it is SO GOOD, heartwarming without feeling saccharine or trite- collage has always been my favorite art style and the use of it in that book is absolutely masterful. (I feel like I could write a whole essay about the use of floral print in the soup, which is echoed in the envelope on the last pages.) It’s one of those books where I refused to return my library copy until I had one of my own.
If authors and illustrators have multiple projects that they want to share with you, what is a reasonable timeframe to space submissions out?
We request to see two picture book manuscripts at a time, so feel free to send two together. If we don’t respond in six weeks (say eight, just to be safe), I think it’s fine to submit more, but with caveats:
-Mention you’ve submitted earlier projects but you think these might be a better fit!
-How are these different from what you submitted earlier? Really think about why you’re choosing what you did, and keep in mind that anything you send after something else you’ve shared will be in conversation with what you’d already shared, because if I’m interested, I’m going to go back to see what else you’ve submitted.
-Don’t submit just for the sake of having something out there. It’s better to go a little slower but have your work show constant improvement, than just throw things at the wall to see what sticks.
What is this story about? Can you, in one sentence, summarize the plot, and in one sentence summarize the emotional arc? Will both of those have meaning for a young reader? Why will kids love this project? Who will feel seen by this story? What makes this story different from anything else out there right now? What about this particular moment in time makes this story relevant and important? What makes this story re-readable? Move beyond “because it’s fun”; the deeper you go, the stronger your work will be.
I think it’s always helpful to keep in mind, too, why this project in particular is the one you’re choosing. Consider, too, why you’re sending it to who you are, and if there are certain elements of it you want to focus on based on that.
You don’t need all of these answered in your pitch- I think it would be unwieldy if you did include all of them!- but if you don’t know the answers, you may not know your project as well s you need to.
What is something you wish every author or illustrator knew about the industry before they start out on submission?
I think there’s this idea that agents are just looking for a reason to say no, or that we don’t seriously consider everything that comes across our desks.
We laugh about it, because the sheer volume is overwhelming and those of us who’ve been here a while know some of the signs that tell us things might not be a good match early, but the truth is, every agent who looks at your manuscript wants to build their list. We all are as hopeful opening the email as you are. We want to support your work and your career, and we want to believe that we would be the best at supporting you. We wouldn’t be working in publishing if we weren’t looking for ways to justify saying yes. That there are a lot of additional factors that push our “yes”es to “no”s, doesn’t change that.
Even if it sometimes feels like it, you’re not submitting into a void. You’re submitting to people- overwhelmed, exhausted, but passionate people- who want to see this field grow as much as you do, and really hope that your work will be the one to help it blossom.
Your Manuscript Wish List says, “I got my masters degree in children's literature and I'm passionate about the idea that even the funniest, most light-hearted stories deserve to be taken seriously.” I love that! Can you unpack that for us a little bit more?
Academically studying children’s lit really shows you how much people devalue it. That grad program was one of the most rigorous courses of study I’ve done in my life, and people still acted like it was “only” kids’ books. The fact that I learned how to read art from picture books and graphic novels, or that I got far more in-depth understanding of literary theory from applying concepts to middle grade novels than I had to classics, didn’t seem to change that. The whole experience made me that much fiercer a defender of children’s books.
I think that we as a society have a tendency to view certain things as more legitimate than others. We elevate literary over commercial; realistic fiction over romance or sci fi; we elevate adult over children’s. That means that it gets passed over when we’re discussing what’s good, and it also means that we often give problems a pass- it’s “just for kids.”
I believe it’s my responsibility to reject that narrative, and take it seriously- which means both giving the work I consider (and the creators who’ve made it) my full attention and respect, and holding them accountable for making that story the best it can be.
What is something upcoming you are excited about or would like to promote? Any travel plans or upcoming conferences that you’ll be attending?
I just did my first panel at a comic convention rather than a literary conference, which was super exciting; I was able to make my vacation feel really productive. (I love talking to picture book and graphic novel creators at comic cons; it makes me feel like I’m giving back to the nerd community!) I’m trying to brainstorm more to do like that in the future, so if anyone has any ideas…
This one had a lot of eleven- and twelve-word outtakes. Never trust anyone who says low word-count isn’t hard! But ultimately I’m going with this:
"Amy is an agent who really believes that children’s books can change the world."
Thank you, Amy for such a thorough view into your agenting world. I have no doubt your interview will be immensely helpful for a lot of querying writers.
Speaking of querying writers...to thank you for reading, Amy has GENEROUSLY offered to giveaway...
A FULL PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUE!
We all know giveaways like this are worth their weight in gold and could be a turning point for the writer who wins. As someone who has received personal feedback from a query to Amy (a VERY rare occurrence), I can assure you her insight is razor sharp. Get those manuscripts ready and best of luck! See details below on how to toss your name into the hat!
To enter this giveaway contest for your chance to win a FULL PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUE, do one of two things:
1. Retweet this post with a comment.
2. Share a comment below AND subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight.
The deadline for this contest is Monday, April 1st at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Monday, April 1st and announced on Twitter
About Amy Stern
Amy Stern started at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency in 2010 as an agent assistant and has spent the past five years taking on additional responsibilities while not quite believing that she gets to work with children's books as her job. After receiving degrees in English and creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and masters degrees in children's literature and library science at Simmons College, she interned at a literary agency and fell in love with the industry. In her copious spare time, she mentors writing students at Simmons's Center for the Study of Children's Literature. She is currently accepting picture book, middle grade, and young adult submissions from authors and illustrators, particularly if the work explores underrepresented identities. She's not your best bet for a heterosexual romance or historical fiction, but is open to pretty much anything else. She has probably looked at your Tumblr.
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is represented by Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading this sentence. He thanks you for keeping a secret. The secret about his true identity. He is actually a string-less, sentient marionette. That's right. There aren't no strings on me! And if I work really hard...someday...I'll be a real boy!