Agent Spotlight: Alyssa Jennette
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Thank you for showing all the love for Stacey Corrigan's debut of The Pencil Eater. Stacey gave away 2 picture book manuscript critiques! And the winners are...
CONGRATS!!! May Stacey help your manuscripts shine like stars. And soar like eagles.
Miss Stacey's Author Spotlight? You can remedy this error here.
I'm very excited to bring you ANOTHER excellent Agent Spotlight. Today, we feature Alyssa Jennette of Stonesong Literary Agency. Wait, ANOTHER Agent Spotlight? But didn't we JUST have James McGowan on like 2 weeks ago? Yes. Yes, we did.
But there's probably not an awesome picture book manuscript critique giveaway with this interview...because that would just be legitimate insanity.
Well get ready for crazy town...
BECAUSE THERE IS!
No, your eyes aren't broken. You read that right. Alyssa will be doing a picture book manuscript critique for one lucky winner! But don't just scroll to the bottom like some heartless tin man...read her Spotlight Interview before you enter!
-Patience/Stamina: Publishing is a long process full of WAITING and revision and rejection. If anyone (authors and agents alike!) is anticipating instant affirmation--or even an instant reply--they will almost always be disappointed. Part of my job as an agent is not only to know this for my own sanity, but to be able to convey this to my clients and temper their expectations. -Support: I'm grateful to have people I trust to vent to, who can help me look at things from an angle I didn't originally consider, or lift me up when I'm feeling defeated. My support system--from my husband, to my coworkers and colleagues, to my friends outside of publishing--all offer me an important outlet to process my everyday workload. -Determination: I need the will to try again and again, with each client and each of their projects, with every editor I choose to submit to. (But if you mean objects, it's my computer, my eyeballs, and my bullsh*t detector.)
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Pasta. Pasta pasta pasta.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I do my best work first thing in the morning, usually at my desk (which is next to my bed--not ideal, but I'm working with a one-bedroom apartment). We have excellent light (south-facing windows), and I have a comfy, curl-uppable chair--plus, getting started early helps me feel that much more productive!
Advocating for my clients, on every level. This could be when I offer edits on their manuscript, when I pitch their book, when I negotiate their contract. And this includes the moments I have to deliver bad news or push back when I know it's the right thing! Knowing I'm doing all I can to put my client in the position to have a great career foundation (beyond "a big advance" or even just a deal, any deal) is very important to me, and those wins are especially satisfying.
When will you be open to queries again and will you be actively looking to build your picture book client list?
I'll probably be open to queries again sometime in the fall. I am always open to building my picture book list, although I admit it is the hardest format for me to fall for and commit to--I have very high standards!
What types of picture book submissions are you most excited about and want to see more of?
-Service-driven narratives. It's not enough to teach empathy--we need to teach action. -I would love a picture book that introduces logic concepts (or maybe a series!). I'm not exactly sure what that would look like, but observation and deduction are such important skills! -Sweeping, detailed art that draws me into the page (think Nancy E. Burkert's SNOW WHITE and Oliver Jeffers's HERE WE ARE)
Apart from the awesome fact of having been around for 40 years and having comprehensive experience with both the agenting side AND the production side of publishing, Stonesong is owned and staffed entirely by women who are all incredibly smart, driven, and generous with their time, feedback, and resources, not to mention experts across a variety of book genres, subjects, and demographics. Whatever kind of book you're bringing to the table, Stonesong has either represented and sold something like it or conceived and produced something like it. I can rely on an informed, thoughtful, and truthful opinion from every single woman I work with, and problem-solving suggestions whenever I need them.
When you are not crazy about a project, what is your default way to reject?
Stonesong's policy re: queries is if you don't hear back after twelve weeks, please assume it's a no. When it comes to picture books, if I ask for a revision or for other picture book manuscripts from an author and, after review, I decide it's not a fit, I'll almost always try to offer some helpful feedback. At the very least, I want them to know where I'm coming from, just in case they're hearing a lot of the same feedback again and again--that way they can at least pick up a pattern and work from there.
If you had to choose between humor and heart as the dominant quality in a picture book, which would you go with and why?
I am surprising myself by saying "heart," but I want to clarify that I don't mean I think tugging at heartstrings is at all more important or more effective than pursuing humor. HOWEVER, I find that most punchlines are made more sophisticated and resonant coming from a place of warmth and generosity and openheartedness.
If you aren’t crazy about a particular project and you decide to pass, do you encourage authors and illustrators to resubmit after significant revision? If so, how much time is appropriate before a resubmission?
I have to already really, really like a concept in order to offer the opportunity to resubmit a revision. I do my best to offer clear, actionable directions, but I always, always prefer for authors to TAKE THEIR TIME. Even with clients, I don't want to see a picture book revision turnaround in a day, or even in a week (depending on the stage of revision we're in). I want you to sit with my notes, absorb them, and try more than one solution. Revision, especially in the case of picture books, can often mean rewriting. A few weeks is the earliest I want to see a picture book revision, because I want you to be able to try something, go away from it, and come back with fresh eyes.
What kinds of picture books have you noticed are having a hard time selling? What are selling like hot cakes?
My main takeaway from pitching picture books is that there are far fewer trend signals than there are for YA or even middle grade. For example, the main "trend" of the last year has been nonfiction picture books, especially biographies, especially about women or people of color. That has a variety of stories and lessons built right in! The stuff that's selling like hotcakes are usually licensed properties (superheroes, TV shows, etc.), which are usually conceived and written in-house, or very established picture book authors or series with a beloved character. And that's not even touching on celebrity picture books! Publishing loves a sure thing, which is why it's incredibly hard to break in. The rest is pure subjectivity.What are some picture book submissions that may be a waste of time for you? Bathroom humor, overly sentimental projects, most rhyming picture books (not because I hate rhyme, but because the rhymes/rhythm are often bad), obvious ripoffs, art by people who aren't artists (I admit my biases on this one--I'm a trained illustrator), "adult" picture books in the vein of GO THE F*CK TO SLEEP.
I don't require a summary--picture books are short! As with any other query, I only require a few sentences that express to me who the characters are/what the concept is, why we care (both from the perspective of a reader and of an industry professional), and why/how you should sit on the shelf (re: comps and freshness).
Share a few common query mistakes that you see in picture book submissions.
When people tell me they queried me because their son/granddaughter/coworker told them to try it (which suggests they haven't done their research and aren't really committed to this as a career); that they wrote the story for their child/grandchild, who loves it (which is very touching! But that doesn't tell me why it should be read by potentially thousands of children who aren't related to you!).
-"Is Alyssa open to queries?" Far more than any other kind of book, picture book queries continue to find my inbox almost every day since I've been closed! It's so easy to check my Twitter, my MSWL page, or the Stonesong website. -"Has this book been done before/what about MY version is fresh?" There have been approximately ten trillion alphabet books. Why is yours special? Why is YOUR book about a cute animal discovering their confidence/their place in the world the one we should all be reading? You have to be really honest with yourself. -"Have I fully considered my spreads and my visuals?" Even if you aren't an artist, you need to consider how your project will be laid out--your text placement alone gives the artist their cues! This also includes making sure your text leaves room for artist interpretation--unless it's important for the text itself to talk about a color or appearance or gesture, leave it out of the text. Put it in an art note!
What is something upcoming you are excited about or would like to promote? Any travel plans or upcoming conferences that you’ll be attending?
This isn't strictly picture-book news (sadly I can't share any of that just yet!), but my wonderful client Chris Negron has a special middle grade novel, DAN, UNMASKED, coming out next summer from HarperCollins--keep an eye out for it! On the art side, my client Jessica Roux just announced her beautiful illustrated project THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, which comes out Fall 2020 from Andrews McMeel. I truly couldn't be prouder.
is working to better the industry and its systems for everyone.
Thank you so much for giving practical insight to querying authors and sharing your agenting world with us, Alyssa!
And thank YOU for reading, sharing, and subscribing, kidlit fam! If you are interested in entering for a chance to win a picture book manuscript critique by Alyssa, see the details below!
Picture Book Manuscript Critique!
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The deadline for this contest is Tuesday, August 20th at 9AM CST
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About Alyssa Jennette
I joined Stonesong in May 2015 after interning at the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. I have a background in art and trained as an illustrator before I joined publishing, and therefore have unique insight and expertise when it comes to design-heavy or illustrated works. I'm a very editorial agent, and I find a lot of joy in shaping stories alongside the author.
If what you’re writing isn’t explicitly listed below, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it. If you think you've written something I'll love, pitch it to me!
I recently enjoyed: FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle; THE POWER by Naomi Alderman; MELMOTH by Sarah Perry; HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado; THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET by David Barclay Moore.
I look for: Children’s and adult fiction and picture books, and select humor and pop culture nonfiction. I value diversity and inclusion; in fiction I enjoy ensemble casts with distinct voices, and formats that are specific to a story and give it its own context (ex: THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS). I'm very open to graphic novel submissions and illustrators.
In MG/YA: stories about poor characters and communities; stories that explore living with disabilities; secret societies; unreliable narrators; a Clueless-esque “teen movie” update of a classic work.. I'm still waiting for a friendship breakup story (particularly a mixed-gender friendship) for any age group.
In adult: fiction that straddles the commercial/literary divide, wit and wordplay, a simple concept that sprawls in unexpected ways as the author investigates it.
Some other stuff I care a lot about/really enjoy: art/art history/art conservation, archaeology, mythology, codes/cryptology; language/translation, criminal justice reform; considered and thorough worldbuilding; books that teach me about some new craft or technology or course of study.
I might like: Pop culture, Humor. (Try me!)
I'm not interested in: Romance, Women's Fiction, Erotica, or High Fantasy (swords and sorcery-style).
Fun facts about me:
I'm a Hufflepuff (and a hardcore Potter fan)
I studied art and artifact restoration during my semester abroad in Florence
I have an adorable Maine Coon mix named Melpomene, Pom for short
I have a pet ambition to translate at least part of the Bible and decode the last passage of Kryptos. (...I know.)
Submissions should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Send your query letter and the first ten pages pasted into the body of your email to email@example.com; write "QUERY" and "Alyssa Jennette" in the subject line to avoid getting lost in the spam folder.
**As of May 2019 I'm closed to queries. Please watch the Stonesong site and my Twitter page for updates.**
Other Interviews Featuring Alyssa Jennette
Brian Gehrlein is a high school English teacher and picture book author. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine and son, Peter. Brian 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 believing in the power of persistence. Yes, persistence. By now I'm sure you've learned to skim to the bottom of these relentless, meandering, semi-comical half-monologues just to get to the emoji code. Not this time, pal. You want the code...you'll have to earn the code. You can start that here.