Author Spotlight: Jess Hernandez's Agent Success Story
Happy Friday and welcome to a special edition of Picture Book Spotlight.
Whenever I see an author announce they have received agent representation I always feel encouraged. It reminds me that it's still happening. There are still slush-pile Cinderella stories. There are still agents signing authors and illustrators. There is still hope for those brave and beautiful souls on the solitary query quest.
I am overjoyed to bring you one such story.
Like so many authors, Jess has spent years putting her work and herself out there, suffering hundreds of rejections...truly the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
And she could have stopped at any time. She could have "taken the hint" from the cosmos that she wasn't cut out for this picture book writing game. She could have given up.
But she didn't.
This gives us reason to celebrate. To be encouraged. A shot in the arm to press on and believe once again in the simple magic of persistence.
If you haven't read Jess's original Author Spotlight, you can read it here. Be sure to give Jess a follow and share in the joy of this moment. It's time to celebrate!
First of all, CONGRATULATIONS! We are so pumped for you! In our last interview you were querying...now you have an agent. Tell us the story!
I didn’t decide to get serious about writing until 2014, when I started writing a memoir based on my time living in Spain with my husband. When I finished the book two years later, I wrote two very terrible picture books while I let the memoir sit before editing. I queried the picture books (*wince* I didn’t even bother to revise them!) and then launched into revising and querying the memoir. A year later, the memoir had racked up 140 rejections and I trunked it. I was devastated. So much time and work and agony for nothing!
I wasn’t sure I could commit myself to a longer work like that again, so I turned back to picture books, only this time, I took them seriously. I found a critique partner, read all the new picture books I could get my hands on, and followed writers on Twitter. But most of all, I kept writing and querying and getting better. In 2018, I had something like 12 agent requests for more work. Each time, the agent would like this manuscript but not that one. It was super discouraging.
During it all, I kept pitching my books on Twitter pitch contests. In December 2018’s PitMad contest, my pitch for THE UNICORN SCHOOL got more likes than any other pitch, including 9 agent likes. All of them ended in rejection. But, someone noticed my pitch and invited me to be in their critique group. That was the turning point for me. I found my tribe. I kept writing and querying, but I knew my stuff was getting better. There were more agent requests for more work, but still more rejections. Another two requests from the next PitMad, but still no offers. I felt like I was going to spend my life being good, but not quite good enough.
I decided to query the unicorn book to every agent on my list and then trunk it. One of those agents was Rena Rossner at the Deborah Harris Agency. I almost didn’t send her the unicorn query because she so seldom takes on picture book authors. Plus, she’s repped some really IMPORTANT BOOKS (New York Times Bestseller and multi-award winner Dear Martin by Nic Stone, for example) and I didn’t think she’d like my silly story about a donkey with imposter syndrome. But she was on my list, so I sent it any way. Two months later, she emailed asking to set up a call.
I was equal parts ecstatic and wary. I’d had a call before with an agent, only to have her ghost me after an R & R. So while there was a very brief, very ugly happy dance (it’s hard to happy dance when you’re 6 ½ months pregnant), I tried to temper my expectations.
Describe how it felt to receive her offer of representation.
It was extremely surreal. I’d been working toward this moment for years and all the sudden, there it was. It took me at least a week to really believe it had happened.
How are you feeling now that you are on “the other side?”
I’m not sure if everyone feels this, but there was a huge wave of crippling self-doubt just after signing. I kept wondering if Rena would realize she’d made a huge mistake choosing me. Worse, I felt like I was being ungrateful for not being totally over the moon all the time. Luckily, some friends who had been through the same experience were able to talk me down from the ledge. I still have occasional twinges of imposter syndrome, but mostly I’m excited. It’s awesome to have someone whose actual job is to help me make my dreams come true.
First, take this time to learn as much as you can, both about writing and about publishing in general. Get on Twitter and follow people in all stages of publishing. You can learn so much from agents, editors, and other authors! Then use that knowledge to improve your craft and your querying skills. Second, find your tribe. Querying is gutting, soul-crushing stuff and you need people who will have your back and cheer you on. Third and most important, you only fail if you stop trying. Keep writing. Keep revising. Take breaks if you need but keep going. If it’s not this book/agent/contest, it will be the next one.
Now what happens?
Rena gave me some notes for revisions, so I worked through those, showed the new draft to CPs, and sent them back. We’re doing a limited round of submissions during August and then we’re going wide in September.
What’s something you love about working with Rena?
One of the things that impressed me most about her is her tenacity. She gets the job done and done well. I also like that she’s a writer herself, so she knows what it’s like on both sides of the table. Another great thing is that signing with Rena doesn’t just mean signing with an agent but joining a community. She encourages her authors to get to know each other and bond, which has been really nice.
THE UNICORN SCHOOL is a picture book about a donkey trying to get into the school of her dreams, despite not quite fitting the qualifications. The idea came from my kids fighting over who got to use a paper towel roll as a horn. While the book is funny (at least I think it is), I hope there’s a subtle message about how we all feel like we don’t belong sometimes.
When you look back on your journey, what does it mean to you to finally have representation?
For one, it’s a huge validation after so much work. Knowing that someone of Rena’s caliber thinks my book can make it – it’s amazing. But what I love most is that so many more doors can open for me now she’s on my team. With her guidance, expertise, and connections, I feel like anything is possible.
Knowing what you know now, if you could do anything differently about your path to representation what would you change and why?
My journey was long and bumpy, but honestly, I wouldn’t change any of it. I needed the time to grow as a writer and as a person. I toughened up, learned to take rejection, and how to bounce back. Also, I’d have missed out on making connections in the writing community and learning more about the industry. If it had happened as quickly as I wanted, I wouldn’t know as much and I wouldn’t have writer friends to turn to.
The most important thing I wanted to know was if she’d invest in me for the long-haul. I’ve had friends who signed with agents who only repped one book and when it didn’t sell, they were back to querying. I knew I didn’t want to go through that. I wanted someone who was going to be excited about my career and all the projects I’m working on, not only this one book. I also wanted someone who was willing to be patient and keep trying, even if it took years to find a home for the project. What’s more, I wanted an editorial agent – someone who would be willing to help me improve and send out my best work. Basically, I was looking for a long-term partnership with someone who is going to work as hard as I am, so all my questions reflected those goals.
Any advice for authors who get a bite and an offer? What are some absolutely musts before accepting?
Really think about the kind of agent you’re looking for because they’re not all the same. If you have a friend or acquaintance who is agented, ask them about their experience and what they’ve learned. But the best thing you can do when you get an offer is talk to the agent’s clients. I talked to a few of Rena’s clients and they all emphasized how focused she is on the writer’s long-term career, which is ultimately what sold me.
Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring achievement with us, Jess! We wish you all the luck in the world as your manuscript hits the editorial publishing scene.
Thank you for reading and sharing in this moment of joy, kidlit fam! As a thank you for celebrating with her, Jess would like to offer a query critique for one lucky winner. Wading knee-deep in the query trenches? Does your query letter need second pair of well trained eyes? See details below on how to enter.
Picture Book Query Critique by Jess Hernandez!
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The deadline for this contest is Friday, August 23rd at 9AM CST
The winners will be contacted on Friday, August 23rd and announced on Twitter and Facebook
About Jess Hernandez
Jess Hernandez is a writer, librarian, teacher and all-around word girl. A mom of two (soon to be three), she writes mostly humorous picture books and the occasional essay about parenting with mental illness.
Brian Gehrlein is a high school English teacher and picture book writer. He is a part time librarian. A part time pastry chef. And a part time human. Brian once wrote an award winning picture book but then forgot to write it down. He is currently trying to remember what it was about but will likely give up after something more interesting pops into his head. Like horses. Horses are interesting. Yepp, it's gone. Totally gone. Completely forgotten. Brian often likes writing (and speaking) in the third person. It irritates his wife, Katherine. But he doesn't mind. He's too busy writing ground-breaking, award winning, face melting picture books and then forgetting to write them down to notice the often audible eye rolls of his better half. When Brian isn't forgetting to write down the next best selling picture book or writing humorous pretend bios at the end of his blog posts, he can be found grazing in open meadows or trotting out in the pasture. If you would like to double your chances to win a query critique from Jess, simply toss in a horse emoji with your retweet. Did he mention he is also a part time horse? Not a centaur--that's a half horse. Brian is a full horse for only part of the time.