New York, New York

June 7, 2008

So it’s a hot and steamy day over here in Virginia. Early this morning the condensation was jungly, and I could practically see pythons draped over the tree branches out in the yard. Well really that’s a total lie – because anything resembling a python within 100 miles of me and I’d have been in the next state by now – but you know what I mean.
The rock in the pond for me this week was a hectic two-day trip to New York visiting publishers. I go every month or two according to what’s happening, what needs to be done, and who I’m getting excited about meeting, and there is nothing more useful than actually sitting down and talking one to one about imprints, upcoming lists, authors, and trends, with editors who are chiselling away at the coal face on a daily basis. This is how I hone my submission lists, targeting exactly the people who I feel will be most receptive to a manuscript. It also to some extent helps me determine which authors I should represent – because there’s no point in me taking on someone whose work I simply don’t stand a chance of selling.

One of the problems you face as an agent is the number of imprints that proliferate in many major houses – and the situation seems to get more complex all the time. We’ve recently seen lovely Christy Ottaviano’s new imprint spring up at Holt, and first Brenda Bowen’s Bowen Press and now Balzer & Bray launch at Harper. And then of course there’s the myriad imprints at Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Random . . . Working out who should see what, and whether a novel has the voice for Dial, the stronger edge for Razorbill or the softer edge for Puffin, is a matter of some nuance. Fortunately, most editors are generous of spirit and reasonably collaborative, so the golden rule is really to let them know who else you’ve sent to inhouse (if you’ve sent to more than one ilist), and then to trust the manuscript will passed to another imprint if that particular editor doesn’t consider it to be quite right for them.

I met a number of old friends on this trip, but also some editors I know less well. It was great to see Brenda Bowen and Donna Bray again, but also to meet Katherine Tegen, Anne Hoppe and Kristin Daly at Harper for the first time in person on Wednesday. Then on to Simon & Schuster to have a great session with the very excellent Bethany Buck and David Gale. A really enjoyable evening out on Broadway with Elizabeth Law from Egmont (oh, guess who was standing four feet away from us as we left the theatre – Kevin Bacon!), a bit of sleep and then next day over to Penguin (via Lauren McKenna at Pocket) to meet up with a whole tribe of people, including Bonnie Bader of Grosset, Liz Waniewski of Dial, and Jennifer Bonnell of Puffin.

Sadly lunch with Lyron Bennett of Sourcebooks never happened due to a whole raft of telecom confusions, so the day finished with a brilliant time over at Hyperion with Jonathan Yaged and Ari Lewin, who have such a great list (and who will be launching THE DEVIL’S KISS – a Greenhouse title in Fall 2009).

So what are they all looking for? I hear you ask. I’d say there’s particularly strong demand for middle grade at the moment – strong concepts, tight plotting, good action; and boy protagonists. YA paranormal also still strong, but the concept MUST be fresh (so please no vampires). Several publishers particularly mentioned comedy – it’s rare to find an author who can really make you laugh. Probably what I heard most was the search for stories with a great voice, great heart, and a strong concept. Everyone wants BIG books – the books that will really justify their place on the list in terms of sales. Well, that’s obvious, of course, but really most houses can afford to wait until that ‘must have’ manuscript comes along that has them reaching gladly, and deeply, into their acquisitions budget. It’s tough out there (‘out there’ being the slightly militaristic nuance we tend to use about the marketplace – like we’re all fighting our very own insurgency!) – tough for publishers to sell new authors in volume; tough for agents to sell publishers their new authors. If you are a would-be author you may feel that agents are hard to please – but we are only filters to the even more rigorous publishing world. If you think agents are mean and horrid about your voice or your plotting, you need to realize that the publishing editors who wade knee deep in cream-of-the-crop submissions (which have already found representation), profit margins and cost-of-sale increases, are going to be even more ruthless as they assess your work and, if they do acquire it, knock it into shape.

So now I’m home and back at my desk (delayed flights and a major 24+ hour power failure following the storms notwithstanding; much wandering around with candles). Lots to do, lots to read, lots of good things happening – not least that so many editors commented on how much they loved the sound of the titles and authors I’m working with and representing. And given the Greenhouse is a baby of only four months old, that’s all pretty cool!

If it’s hotter than hot where you are right now, take care, relax with your favourite bevvy (tall frappuccino, hold the whipped cream for me) and settle down with a good novel. After all, it’s summer!