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Saturday, June 28, 2008

London calling

Hello to you all from a warm and sunny London where I’ve been tearing around like a bit of a maniac, trying to do too many things in too short a time.  What do you mean, what’s new? OK, OK, I agree this is a somewhat habitual state of affairs, but I subscribe to my granny’s motto: ‘Don’t waste time looking at a hill - climb it!’ And actually, that’s one of the things I’ve been doing a lot of - ie, climbing - since I’m just back from two days up in unbelievably hilly Durham (very far north, quite near Newcastle) where Greenhouse Son #1’s graduation took place.  A quick geography/history lesson - Durham is one of the most beautiful cities in England and a World Heritage Site, due to its fabulous and vast cathedral which is said to the be finest example of Norman architecture in Europe.  Undisputed, in my opinion, not least due to its extraordinary position, looming over the city from the top of its lofty hill. Picture the scene:  hundreds of graduates, clad in black robes trimmed with white fur and lilac or pink silk, stream in procession across the cathedral close (the area around the cathedral and its neighbouring castle), accompanied by senior faculty staff and chancellor Bill Bryson (yes, really! GHS #1 shook his hand!)) in their brilliantly coloured scarlet, blue, gold robes and tasselled hats, against a vast, monolithic backdrop of the most ancient, dark stone. Up here it is exposed, windy and grey, and centuries and centuries of history imbue this scene with an extra shot of significance and emotion.

But the committed literary agent never quite escapes her calling, and the trip has also held more bookish excitements: meeting up with my UK-based authors Harriet Goodwin and Sarwat Chadda and their prospective publishers. It was especially lovely to be able to join Sarwat for the annual Puffin party, held at the Tate Modern gallery - a really enjoyable gathering of Puffin’s authors, illustrators and staff in this incomparable venue looking out of vast windows on to the dazzling lights of the Thames and over to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.  It was really good to be able to meet up with so many agent and editor friends, as well as many other movers and shakers in the British publishing industry.

Then it was up early again and into the Greenhouse’s London office base to meet up with colleagues and more prospective authors - and to do a telephone interview with Caroline Horn of The Bookseller magazine (the most influential UK trade journal; you might call it the UK equivalent of Publishers Weekly).  It’s really exciting to see the interest there is here in the Greenhouse - and the awareness of what has been acheived in the business in such a short time.

It’s amazing how easily one can keep in touch transatlantically these days - seeing emails as soon as they arrive, via the Blackberry; accessing voicemail.  Although I am trying to take at least a few days’ vacation, I’m never out of touch should anything important come up.  I’ve read a few submissions on my Kindle while away, but if you have just sent something in, please do give me a little longer to respond.  I’m sure you all have families and home lives too - and sometimes, just occasionally, I have to give those people and parts of my life a little time. 

Hope you’re enjoying summer, wherever you are, and managing to get a little time in (or possibly out of, depending on where you live) the sun.  Up in Durham it is still light at 9.30pm and the sun is coming up around 4am.  Now ain’t that somethin’!

Cheers, folks. I’ll toast your good health with a nice English cuppa!

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

From Hollins to London

Back at 1.30am this morning from Hollins University down in Roanoke, where I gave a talk last night to the grad students (and some faculty members) on the MFA children’s writing course.  My topic:  From Both Sides of the Pond:  The Greenhouse - a Transatlantic Literary Agency.  45 minutes (plus questions later) of me holding forth about my publishing and agenting life, the birth and development of Greenhouse, and my thoughts on writing, submitting, the market - and a lot more that my befuddled brain has already forgotten.  Somehow the late-night 3.5 hours of driving home (thanks to the Greenhouse Husband for his endless, patient taxi service) and then not much sleep has put it right out of my head. Just let me sle-e-e-e-e-e-p.

What a beautiful and impressive college Hollins is - absolutely immaculate, surrounded by quiet hills, and surely a wonderful place to write and ponder. It was lovely to meet students and staff and have a chance to chat later - big thanks to Amanda Cockrell, the course adminstrator, who took a chance on inviting me over some months back, when the Greenhouse was in its absolute infancy. Also wonderful to meet Han Nolan (I mention her name with awe), winner of the National Book Award for DANCING ON THE EDGE, and also a course tutor.  If any of you Hollins students have dropped in to my blog, ‘Hi, guys’ and wishing you great success in your studies and writing careers. Just remember, avoid the vampires - and Show Don’t Tell!

So now it’s back to finish off my final bits and pieces of packing this morning and then to the airport this afternoon for my night flight back to London.  I can practically do it in my sleep now (oh, I SHALL do it in my sleep!), though the arrival in the usually cold, grey light of a Heathrow morning is always a bit disorienting.  An hour to unpack and rest and then it’s straight back into the family and all the events we have planned this visit - not least my son’s university graduation (I’m still thrilled - yes, he got a First!).  But some work too - meeting all my British authors, talking about manuscripts, lunching with Cornerstones literary consultancy, attending the Puffin party at the Tate Modern gallery - and of course seeing my colleagues again.  It’s all good and really, I’m very fortunate to be able to live this fulfilling and always interesting transatlantic literary life.

Time to get going, time to close the suitcase.  See you back in London!  Have a good weekend, everyone.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

That was the week that was!

I’m sorry it’s been a little silent lately and that my customary weekend post didn’t materialize.  It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here in the hotseat - plus, I was keeping my powder dry, all ready to burst out and surprise you with an exciting edition today! Tally ho!

Last week was a textbook case of everything my agenting life can comprise.  Negotiating the endless fine print of contracts (where the devil lies in the detail, all ready to ensnare you later if you don’t get it sorted), dealing with tax issues, heavy-duty editing (trying to explain to an author, over many pages of notes, how a manuscript might be transformed from something GOOD and PROMISING into something GREAT AND YES I WANT TO BUY IT), reading submissions that don’t quite cut the mustard (yawn, show and don’t tell), talking to the Hollywood film agent representing one of my manuscripts over in LA, preparing my speech (urgh, 45 minutes of me expounding!) for Hollins University this Friday, preparing for copious events over in London where I’m flying very soon . . . Oh, and did I mention the auction?  Oh, I didn’t, silly me!

Yes, the biggest event of last week - if days and days of mounting tension can be called an ‘event’ - was the very thrilling auction that happened for my lovely Lindsey Leavitt’s PRINCESS FOR HIRE.  Now I ‘met’ Lindsey (who is from Alabama) several months ago when she popped up in my inbox.  I remember the day very well.  I was feeling totally overwhelmed by the number of submissions flying at me through the ether and wondered how I would ever keep my mental faculties - or actually discern whether something was any good (if you don’t understand this, try to read 100 submissions, each with 3 chapters attached - ON SCREEN; your eyes go square and you soon develop a pounding headache over one eye; there is a price to be paid, by guess who, for the convenience of authors being able to email!). I was sitting back in my chair, boots on the desk, and clicking slowly through the emails.  I opened Lindsey’s attachment, read a few pages (about 3 was all it took) and slowly sat up, lowering the aforementioned boots to the floor. Here before me was an authorial voice to be taken seriously - it had character, wit, and panache.  A long phone call later, plus a lot of fingernail chewing (as Lindsey chose between me and another *somewhat* larger agency in New York), and the deal was done.  Lindsey was a Greenhouse seedling!

In common with virtually all authors I represent, Lindsey and I retired into a period of editorial purdah where she revised, expanded and generally developed her story and characters.  About three weeks ago we knew we had it as good as it could be and the moment had come to send our sparkly princess out into the world.  It’s a scary moment because there are so many imponderables, seasoned with a large twist of luck - and that’s true even with a really good manuscript.  It took ages for anything exciting to happen, but we (just about) kept our nerve and finally four publishers offered, with a very thrilling second round of ‘best offers’ involving two houses with a deadline of last Friday at 3pm.  By this time our fingernails were a mere memory, and Lindsey and I were in contact constantly by phone as the situation changed from hour to hour.  But we had a clear winner.  Emily Schultz at Hyperion had loved and championed PRINCESS from the start, and her house backed her right royally. Thank you, Hyperion! You guys don’t hang about when you want something. We salute you!

So Lindsey is all set to join the ranks of the professional writers.  Not just with one book - but with a three-book deal, the first of which publishes in Winter 2010.  A whole new world is opening up before her and I am so thrilled that this great dream of Lindsey’s is becoming a reality even better than I had dared to hope.

PRINCESS FOR HIRE is a wonderful, funny, high-concept story for tween girls.  After a humiliating encounter with her long-term crush, ex-best friend and a groundhog costume, Desi Bascomb knows she needs a little magic in her life.  So when sharply suited Meredith Poofinski pops out of a bubble saying she’s an agent scouting for princess substitutes, Desi leaps at the challenge.  Now Desi is about to learn first hand what it feels like to be royalty as she steps into the slippers of princesses who are desperate to go AWOL.  Soon Desi is dancing in an Amazon tribal festival and dodging a prince with just a little too much ‘Eastern promise’.  But nothing can prepare her for the magic of falling for a real prince - a prince who has no idea that back in Hicktown, Idaho, Desi is just a girl in a groundhog costume.

The deal went up on Publishers Marketplace today, and while Lindsey enjoys the magic of her very own life (who needs bubbles?), my thoughts have already turned to the UK/Commonwealth rights - and the rest of the world.  Because it’s not over when I’ve sold US and Canada; that’s hopefully just the start.  But again, it’s impossible to predict how the story will go down in other territories and we just wait and see and do our best.

And now I must run along - I have a poorly Hound downstairs who needs me.  And I hear him calling. 

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

New York, New York

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!

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