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Monday, April 27, 2009

Feeling the love


Just back from a gorgeous weekend in the Shenandoah, where the sun shone, the flowers were brilliantly lovely, and I clumped around in shorts and hiking boots taking endless photographs in my quest to master light meters and variable exposures. Come anywhere near me and I’ll bore you to death with shutter speeds, F-stops and much more camera-related blah blah blah. If books weren’t my first love (and if English Literature hadn’t been the one thing at which I really excelled in school), I’d probably be found in a studio somewhere, trying to make unattractive people look beautiful, or taking giant photos of insects.

Now it’s Monday morning and I’m at my desk.  But wait! As I peer around my monitor what do I see? A small, furry, red-and-black creature fast asleep on my office sofa!  A number of really good things happened last week, but Lucy – our charming, funny dachshund, who arrived last Sunday – was the best of them. Lots of you were so kind to me when Hogey, our beloved Golden Retriever, died in January, so I wanted to let you know about Lucy’s arrival – and also, of course, share this rather beautiful photo with you.  Lucy is a former champion showdog, eight years old, who needed a ‘forever home’, and somehow we just knew we were the people to fill the gap.  Now the Greenhouse has a Hound once more – a quarter the size of the previous resident, but just as good at a) showing up for work on time b) snoozing on manuscripts and c) demanding walkies. But sometimes walkies and distraction are just what I need, and I’ve made many of my best decisions while ambling up the road with a dog. I wonder what jubilations Lucy will witness in the next few months and years. Oh, it’s good to have a canine staff member again – take a promotion immediately, Lucy!

Apart from dogs, there is another thing that makes me very, very happy – and that is DOING DEALS.  I love it.  I revel in it. I love the strategising and the organizing, the mental mosaic of submissions, the pondering of editors’ personalities and idiosyncracies, the composing/re-composing/re-re-composing of my submission email – and the heart-in-the-mouth moment as I click ‘send’ and a manuscript (born of effort, garnished with dreams) floats away. I feel like I’m sending my baby out into the river on a little craft made of bullrushes . . . Who will discover the baby? Who will give it a home? Who will nurture it as I nurtured it?  How dare anyone push that baby away!  Yes, as you can see, it all gets just a bit personal. As someone once said about soccer – ‘It’s not just a question of life or death, it’s MUCH more important than that.’ Isn’t that how you feel as an author?  Well, despite my hard and flinty exterior (oh, I can always dream), as your agent I feel it just as much.

So this should be a GOOD WEEK, knowing, as I do, that an offer is on its way on a manuscript that’s been out.  It’s really very much like a love affair (OK, so now you can forget the baby). When I submit work, I’m hoping to find that one person – or sometimes more – who will feel they are the perfect match for that book, that author.  A weird kind of chemistry comes into play and sometimes you just know that one editor, one house, is going to be the betrothed – there will be an engagement ring, a marriage, a future.  So it is written, so it is done!  When that happens, I have done my job as Chief Matchmaker, and there is immeasurable satisfaction in that.  We don’t need lots of suitors – we just need one very long and happy marriage!

But other editors, in other countries, are falling in love too.  Miles away, an editor in Denmark fell for the charms of Harriet Goodwin’s THE BOY WHO FELL DOWN EXIT 43, and last week we had a confirmed deal for Danish rights – with a publisher named Forlaget Flachs (don’t even try to pronounce that one, especially after a few gin and tonics).  At some point Harriet’s going to see a book on her shelf that speaks to the Danish market – what will the cover image be like?  What will the title look like in Danish? The one thing we can be sure of is that it will look surprising (as other languages always do), and we’ll be amazed all over again at how the market for children’s books can be so similar and yet so different, around the world.

What else does this week hold?  Various possibilities, as I wait with bated breath and crossed toes for responses on a few things out in the wide blue yonder.  One thing I’ve learned – enthusiasm alone does not a deal make.  Excited emails are great – but show me the colour of the money. I believe nothing until I see the money! So all to play for on a variety of fronts – but now I’m just being annoyingly cryptic.  To distract me I’ve got a lot of planning to do – flights, hotels, meetings for my next trip to New York in late May. I’m spending part of my time seeing editors, part at BEA where Sarwat Chadda will be speaking at a YA Buzz discussion and autographing THE DEVIL’S KISS.  If you’re attending, get in that line – be there or be square! Then there are more flights to book, handouts to plan, breakout sessions to agonize over, for SCBWI Los Angeles in August. This is a new one for me – and it’s big.  Do I want to be great?  You bet – and that’s going to take a lot of prep; I don’t believe in leaving ANYTHING to chance.

Sorry to leave you, but I must get on. Re-reading this piece, I’m feeling a whole lot of love. For the beautiful mountains and rivers of the Shenandoah. My love for books, authors and deals, and for the excitement and mystery of this international business.  But also my love for photography – colour and image - and for my adorable new friend, an elegant, middle-aged, long-haired dachshund named Lucy who snores on my sofa as I write. And finally, upcoming deals make me think about the weird chemistry that draws one editor to love one author’s work - the best platform for great publishing - and my role as professional matchmaker.  That’s the kind of love that makes me know I’ve done my job right.

There’s a whole lot of sun outside, and a whole lot of love in the Greenhouse this morning.  Get writing, people, and feel the love!

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The view from my desk


I quite often read about the mystery of literary agents.  That to many aspiring writers, agents appear to inhabit some arcane universe, entered only by secret handshakes, coded and cryptic messages, insider knowledge.  And that their decisions are unfathomable and capricious, if not downright cruel. A bit like the election of a Pope by the cardinals, dark smoke probably appears from our windows if an aspiring writer doesn’t achieve representation; white smoke means they’ve hit the jackpot – a new Pope! Everything’s going great!

But where is the logic? How we must be hated sometimes as we sit in judgment in our throne-room, making trite comments (or even worse, no comment at all) on work over which you’ve laboured for years. How you must long to say very rude things to us, shove that middle finger in our faces – and yet you daren’t, because we’re the magic portal by which you can find yourself suddenly teleported on to the desk of a publisher and living the dream.

It’s a tough life as an aspiring writer, but despite what you think, it isn’t all ambrosia for agents either – or publishers.  This is a tough food chain, and the risk and the disappointments and the hunches that go right or wrong travel both up and down the line, all the way to the top. As agents we’re less likely to be sipping champagne than sitting in a Starbucks (because you can only look at contracts so long) with ten manuscripts on our e-reader, wondering where to begin. And there’s nothing to describe the physical sensations you get when an email headed with the title of a current submission plops into the inbox – and you know that this is the long-awaited response from an editor on your author’s work.  Will the smoke be dark (a ‘no’? A ‘can’t decide yet’?) – or could it just possibly (please, please, please!) be white? Deal or no deal – it’s all focused on that moment and it can make you feel positively sick.

If you’re an emotional, passionate person (er, like me), it’s a rollercoaster that can have you sinking to the floor with head in hands, or jumping up and down whooping like a kid.  Or sometimes just wanting to grab an editor by the neck, shake them and yell, ‘Look, just let me know, can you? Enough of the delays, meetings, discussions, vacations, dental appointments - just get on and make a %$#@ decision!’ But it’s no good – we are professionals. We must breathe deeply and be charming, measured and understanding, tempering the excitements, absorbing the pain, always staying positive and encouraging for the author who is hanging on our every word. Because after all, we are omniscient, right?

Most weeks are a mish-mash of so many different events – small victories, setbacks, lots of ordinary office stuff. But then there are the occasional flaming moments of glory – the ones that change everything and bring the sun bursting out. Ha ha, I’m an agent – and there’s nothing to beat it in the world!

I’ve had a few of those moments in the past week or so.  Most excitingly, closing a deal yesterday for Lindsey Leavitt’s teen novel SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD, which has been snapped up by Caroline Abbey at Bloomsbury US. So many deals are fascinating sagas, with their own mini-stories attached, and that was true in this case. Bloomsbury narrowly lost out to Hyperion last summer as underbidders for Lindsey’s PRINCESS FOR HIRE. I know that hit them hard – they really loved Lindsey’s wit and voice. So when SEAN went out a few weeks ago, they were really excited to have another crack at acquiring her. It all went swimmingly and we’re so delighted to have SEAN (a novel Lindsey wrote before PFH) with them. And good to know there is still a market for a funny, quirky, poignant contemporary teen love story in our current market. Have a look at our Author section and you’ll see more about SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD, which is such a fun and lovely story.

But there have been more bits of great news too.  A mini--auction in the Netherlands for PRINCESS FOR HIRE, resulting in a three-book deal with Uniboek (and I’ve just heard today that other foreign houses have had good preliminary reads following Bologna).  A deal by Hyperion with lovely Tim Ditlow of Brilliance for audio rights in Sarwat Chadda’s DEVIL’S KISS, as well as Rights People’s sale of Japanese rights to Media Factory. Sarwat’s first radio interview on the BBC Asian Network (a star is born).  Great cover proofs of Val Patterson’s THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE, which looks so classy and enticing. And a new speaking gig lined up in Miami with SCBWI Florida for January 2011 – and more engagements on the way.  Then there are the other things going on that I can’t tell you about (hey, it’s true – we really are secretive!) – the submissions that are out, the revision of the hot manuscript I’m awaiting next week, the quality manuscript I’m currently reading . . .

The one thing I can say about being an agent is that there’s very rarely a dull moment!

Welcome to my world. Today, the view from my desk, over my Vegas boots, is set fair – and the smoke is definitely white.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The old world and the new


It’s a good thing President Obama married Michelle when he did, because otherwise one of my two sons would have whisked her away.  Or possibly both. Never mind that they are only 22 (yes, both of them) and spend most of their time in London; age and distance are no object when it comes to their reverence for the gorgeousness of the First Lady.

You see, Europe loves the Obamas.  My husband now gets greeted excitedly by customs men at London’s Heathrow airport, simply because he is American and wearing his Obama hat.  French publishers struggle incoherently (zut alors! C’est merveilleux!) to express their excitement over a bottle of wine in a Bologna restaurant, even as Monsieur Sarkozy hovers gnat-like at the President’s shoulder in his desperation to absorb some radiance from the Sun King. And now even the Queen has dropped centuries of stiff-upper-lip and let Michelle embrace her.  What is the world coming to! Touching? Smiling? By rights, the First Lady should be in the Tower by now, waiting to have her head chopped off.

These last two weeks have been all about Europe – both in the big, bad world of politics, in the children’s books industry, and for me personally. It’s not all been easy.  Protests in London (I’m sorry, but what on earth is there to protest about? None of us are exactly thrilled about the economic situation). And then for me, getting sick just before I flew to Bologna for the book fair, and staying sick for the whole thing. In fact, I couldn’t speak (though Julia might say that was a welcome relief). I can tell you, I was mad as a hornet to be lying in bed with a tray of room service while my buddies were sauntering over the cobblestones to La Antica Osteria Romagnola for another smashing dinner, but hey ho, one has to at least try to be mature. The main thing is that it was a great fair for the Greenhouse. Julia and I had bags of appointments (even if I did have to whisper and croak), there was loads of interest in our foreign rights, and follow-up manuscripts are going out to publishers all over the world.  Oh, and we’re also anticipating our first Japanese and audio deals, which is all very cool. Sure, the fair was a bit quieter than usual in terms of the number of feet on the floor, but the editors who were there definitely felt they had a great opportunity to score the best projects around, which made them feel pretty smug.

Then it was on from Bologna to Paris, and a few great days’ vacation in the city with French family and friends.  I love it, I love it, I love it.  I love the grandeur of the architecture – the insanely splendiferous vision of Louis XIV (really quite a small dude, but with awfully big hair) who popped up new palaces on a weekly basis.  Louis XVI who just didn’t see the end coming, and whose Marie-Antoinette was playing milkmaids down at the farm instead of contemplating the possible severance of her head. I love the epic vistas, the gleaming gold leaf, the sun turning stained-glass into jewels; the centuries’ old collection of armour over at the Musee de L’Armee (sorry, no accents on this keyboard), the squares, the gardens and ‘etoiles’. And I love the wallopingly huge edifice of Napoleon’s tomb.

Yes, I have a weakness for a really good tomb. Because at a tomb you can stand and imagine; a tomb is the ultimate leveller; it sorts out the ones you need to go and visit, even in death, and those whom history has passed by. And in Paris there are some crackingly good tombs for all of us obsessed with books and writers. Here on my blog photo is Jean-Paul Sartre, ensconsed down at Montparnasse with Simone de Beavoir. But I also paid a visit to Voltaire, Dumas, Victor Hugo – and Baudelaire. None of them may quite have the tomb-perfection (thin blue light, gloomy hugeness) of General Foch, or the panache of Serge Gainsbourg’s last resting place (‘je t’aime, je t’aime, Jane Birkin . . . ‘), but we know, don’t we, what they contributed to books and letters and how, in their strange and magisterial ways, they influenced us to follow behind, struggling in their wake to master big ideas and this great and difficult craft of words.

Europe. Here is history, untold centuries of it, layered in buildings, books and language.  But also the present day – a political community, hub of commerce for the children’s books industry and so much more. Europe is like the glass pyramid outside the Louvre – the startlingly new abuts the casual grandeur of antiquity.

Can we make what we write and create speak to the present day and to a global marketplace - but also worthy of the vast literary heritage from which we come?
Now that’s a tough one. But you know what? I think we should try. 

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