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Agent Spotlight: Mary Cummings (New Agency Alert!)

Happy Monday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!

Today is July 19th. Unless you are reading this in the future. If you are reading this in the future, have the robots taken over? Have the Mole People invaded? Do people fly jet packs to work? There are so many questions. At any rate, as I type these words, it is currently July 19th, 2021 and that marks exactly 3 months until my debut picture book, THE BOOK OF RULES, is released to the salivating masses.

Dennis has informed me he will try to avoid eating people who have pre-ordered our book. So...there's that.

I can't actually guarantee you won't be eaten at some point in your life, but I can promise my fictional monster, Dennis, will most likely avoid consuming you if you pre-order THE BOOK OF RULES. Most likely. Probably. Hopefully...

Today's Agent Spotlight is on Mary Cummings (formerly with Betsy Amster). She has recently ventured out to launch her very own literary agency called, Great River Literary. Mary has a pretty rad and unique giveaway that my friends who write in rhyme will probably really like. Check out the giveaway info after the interview for more details. In case you want more from Mary, here's a link to our previous interview back in 2019 where my fake bio also mentioned being taken over by robots. Sometimes my deep-seated and unconscious fears bubble to the surface in my pretend bios. One of these days I'll have to actually include my real bio...nah.

Here's Mary!


You’ve recently launched your own agency--congratulations! Tell us about this new endeavor and why you created Great River Literary.

I’ve loved working with Betsy Amster, but we both were at a junction point in our careers, with Betsy pulling back on projects and me expanding, so it made sense for us both to make a change. There are pluses and minuses to having one’s own agency, but mostly I see pluses. Living in St. Paul, with a deep love of the Mississippi, it felt just right to call the agency “Great River Literary.”

More detail on this on my website (, but essentially, I love picture books that are lyrical and I also love picture books that are funny, with vivid characters and a classic story structure (beginning, middle, end).

Rhyming couplets are usually not for me, and meta narration generally a tough sell. Dog books, bears, monsters and dragons also tough – though I have just taken on projects featuring such characters!

In terms of author and illustrator representation, are you looking to represent exclusively on a per-project basis or will there be varying degrees of representation? For our friends seeking representation that may not know the difference, share a little about how that works.

Primarily I rep on a single project basis, though frequently will do successive contracts with authors for their next books. Occasionally I will do two concurrent contracts and pitch more than one manuscript (project) by an author or author/illustrator at a time if they are very dissimilar, but I don’t want the two to compete with one another (which would be counter productive!). As a practical matter, my approach isn’t much different from an agent who does only term agreements (representing a body of work by an individual) because they aren’t likely to try to sell more than one project at a time in any case.

If you decide to pass on a project do you encourage authors and illustrators to resubmit after significant revision? If so, how much time is appropriate before a resubmission, and what kinds of revisions need to happen?

If I’m intrigued, I send insights about areas to revise. I don’t want to hear back in, like, two hours because I don’t believe the writer will have really pondered and had opportunity to decide whether the revisions seem like a direction that feels right. But I also want to hear back in some reasonable amount of time (a few months would be really long for a picture book, unless my thoughts for revision would have major impact on illustrations for an author/illustrator).

What’s your stance on art notes and pagination? Do you like to see authors paginating and including art notes? If so, what makes them effective?

If they can be omitted, that’s generally best. Sometimes art notes are important for clarity, but if they are wishes or ideas, it’s good to use sparingly and to indicate they are suggestions rather than directions. Pagination is more problematic. I think good use of spacing on the page is a better idea.

Hmm. Tough. I just get three …

IN A JAR (Deborah Marcero),

THE MONSTERS’ MONSTER (Patrick McDonnell),

ALL THE WORLD (Liz Garton Scanlon/Marla Frazee).

And, because I mostly follow the rules, but not entirely, let’s add GOODNIGHT MOON (Margaret Wise Brown/Clement Hurd). (Okay, so I wasn’t even alive then …)

Out of the queries that really capture your attention, what qualities do they seem to have in common? On the flip side, what query mistakes do you frequently see?

I appreciate a query that shows the writer has done a bit of research on me and mentions something about my tastes and what I’m seeking and how the project may be a match. A fairly brief, smoothly written query is appreciated, as is one that includes some bio info and background experience with kids. On the flip side, queries with typos or misspellings, “cattle call” queries (“Dear agent,” “Hello”) are annoying and rarely get a second look. Sometimes a writing sample comes in with no query note at all, which is really puzzling.

If we could put on “Mary Cummings eyes” to look critically at our stories, what is ONE THING that you always look for that we can too?

Does the story have substance and heart? Are there echoes that stay with you, hours and days later?

Is the project really ready? Have you lived with it long enough to be able to step back and look at it both critically and emotionally? Have you refined it through the help of a writers’ group, class, or conference? Is the subject matter a match for the marketplace, filling a gap – or are there many books on similar topics?

Please complete the following sentence: "Mary is an agent who…"

loves helping bring beautiful, compelling, rich books out into the world for kids.

Thank you for sharing about your new agency and what you're looking for, Mary!

As a thank you for reading and to help celebrate the opening of her new agency, Mary has a special giveaway she's doing for this post. One winner will be raffled and have the opportunity for a double-critique! The winner will share a rhyming picture book manuscript AND a non-rhyming version of the same story. Mary will take a look at both and share strengths/weaknesses/what's working about each version.

So...if you are a lyrical sort of picture book author...get ready! This could be a great opportunity to take an existing non-rhyming story and retell it in a rhyming format, or take a rhyming story and rewrite it in prose.

See details below on how to enter!


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***The deadline for this contest is Monday, July 26th at 9AM CST

The winner will be contacted on Monday, July 26th and announced on Twitter and Facebook***

About Mary Cummings

"Great River Literary" was the clear name choice for the new agency established by Mary Cummings in 2021, after thirteen years as an agent for books for children and teens at Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises. Except in the depths of winter, nearly every evening Mary goes down to the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul to see the passing scene of trees and birds, barges and boats, kids and lovers - and always the play of light on the flowing water. Mary finds great joy in helping her clients polish their stories to stand out for editors and to become books that will make a difference in kids' lives. Before becoming a literary agent, Mary was Education Director at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis where, among other accomplishments, she curated an annual festival of children's literature and selected judges for the McKnight Award from leading editors in children's publishing.


Brian has been rejected more than you. No, really. Like...way more. In fact, he has been rejected so many times he has started to preemptively reject himself. "Ha, ha, ha! Take THAT, children's publishing industry!" Brian says. "You can't reject me if I reject me!" Brian then proceeds to curl into the fetal position, drink chocolate milk straight from the container, and cry deeply until the pain subsides. When Brian isn't being rejected, rejecting himself, or writing ridiculous third-person accounts of his said rejections, you can find him on the sides of mountains, at the tops of pine trees, or deep within caves. Actually, to clarify, you cannot find him in any of these places because he doesn't want you to. He is a digital and otherwise literal hermit. You cannot find him. Stop looking. Turn back. The search is over. Leave him alone! He just wants to be left alone! Even you reading this sentence is too much human contact for him. Stop, please stop reading! What is wrong with you people? Can't a guy hermit himself in peace?! Can't a guy use hermit as a verb?! Can't a guy just bury a hidden emoji code at the bottom of an incoherent and nonsensical pretend rant-biography!? Fish. It's fish. The emoji code is fish. Include a fish emoji in your retweet of this post to increase your chances of winning a critique from Mary Cummings. Also Pre-order my book. Like yesterday. It's funnier than what you just read.


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