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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What we saw and what we did

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So here it is.  The last post before Christmas, and the last of 2009. And here’s a photo taken just before the great Greenhouse UK lunch, which rounded off the year in London.  (Bookended by Sarah and Julia, see if you can spot the authors in the middle.)

With Julia nestled in her remote Undisclosed European Hideaway for the holidays, and me about to close the Greenhouse door until New Year, it’s time to think about what we did, where we are, and where we’re going.

With glass of wine in hand, carol singers outside rousingly telling of figgy puddings, and puffing on a meditative cigar (OK, I’m joking about the cigar), here’s the story of Greenhouse this year:

Around 8000 queries read (give or take a thousand or two)

Many deals done, including two major auctions and ascending for a while to Number 3 for middle-grade sales in the USA (actually we’d have been Number 1 except our ‘cumulative sales’ aren’t that high, since we’re still very young).

Our first four authors actually published – Sarwat Chadda, Harriet Goodwin, Valerie Patterson and now Alexandra Diaz who officially published on December 22.

Travels (and talking about writing) – to Florida, Bologna, Boston, Paris, Los Angeles, Vermont, San Francisco, New York – and London. And Julia travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles speaking at writers’ events.

The beginnings of foreign deals – Denmark, Russia, Hungary among them.

Three of our clients co-represented for film, by Monteiro Rose, Intellectual Property Group and ICM.  Fingers crossed for our first film deal in 2010.

Our first full year of business completed. No longer a newcomer, but an established part of the US and UK children’s books scene. And poised to apply early in 2010 to join AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) in the US, which requires a minimum of two years in business.

The growth of the Greenhouse family, both human and animal. New Yorker Allison Heiny joined Rights People, our foreign-rights sister company, early in 2009. Lucy and The Wee Man became Resident Hounds in April and August.  And Chippy, a Californian sea lion shot in the head by some idiot’s bullet, was adopted in September.

Phase 2 of the Greenhouse website came into being: an enhanced Author section, books database, Twitter link, and dedicated YouTube channel, on which we can actually show you our authors and books in action.

Not only surviving a grim recession, but thriving through it. Believing that keeping our high standards, making careful decisions, attacking this literary life with passion, belief and a shed-load of hard work, will get us through.

And now, our very first Greenhouse baby has arrived to bless this Christmas. Lindsey Leavitt’s new daughter, happy and healthy, arrived yesterday in our very own nativity.

As I write, there is unprecedented London snow outside my window. The last time I remember snow in Christmas week was the 1960s, and while Brits will tell you it’s a disaster, the world has fallen apart, there is something that appeals to the British spirit about the muddle and mayhem two inches of snow causes in the UK. We hark back to the Blitz, to Dunkirk, to every other victory and defeat marked by flinty-eyed resolution, a gritty prediction of disaster gratifyingly proved correct (just look at English soccer’s track record in penalty shootouts). We know what we’re doing when we’re standing in line waiting for the train that may never come. This is one of the things we’re very good at!

Somehow we will arrive at Christmas Day, and as we gather around our groaning and crowded table of eleven, I’ll raise a glass not only to the Greenhouse, but all the friends and partners Julia and I have encountered this year – whether writers, editors, publishers, agents, scouts, movie people, and all the myriad others who make this such a great business to be in.

Happy Christmas and the best of new years to everyone.

With love from

Sarah and all at the Greenhouse x

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Christmas interview

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Two utterly disparate thoughts are in my head as we launch into one of the busiest weeks of the year.

The first: A gentleman whose work I recently turned down, emailed me back (very kindly) and said. ‘It’s nice to think there’s a real person out there.’ Which reminded me again how agents must often seem so distant, enigmatic – and beastly.

The second: The Wee Man is growing up.  Now, if you don’t know who on earth The Wee Man is, here’s a photo of him. This guy – our office intern - shot to international fame when he starred in his very own post [The view from under the desk] a few months ago, and many of you reference him in your emails to me.  Now seven months old and incredibly mature in his literary acumen, the WM is truly punching above his weight in the Greenhouse.

So – with the jollity of Christmas fast approaching, and with the team feeling unusually mellow, WM has come up with the idea of interviewing me. Yes, me! It’s embarrassing, and it’s taken him ages to convince me, but let’s say this is my small attempt to let you into my Secret World – and convince you I’m not a complete wart on the rear of humanity. That I am, indeed, a ‘real person’!

So, take it away Wee man . . . .

OK, boss. So let’s start at the very beginning. What is your earliest memory?

A pale pink dress that I wore for my ballet class’s Daisy Chain Dance; the excruciating embarrassment of being on stage and everyone laughing.

Snow: there was a lot more snow in Britain back in the winters of my childhood. Tracking the milkman and convincing ourselves he was a burglar.

JFK’s death: I was sick in bed and given the tiny portable black-and-white TV to entertain myself. There was only one hour of children’s programming per day, so I watched the News. Images of the assassination broke in; I climbed out of bed and padded into the living-room to tell my parents. I hadn’t a clue what the death of this man meant, but I sensed it was huge.

What turned you into a reader and what books had the greatest effect on you?

I remember sitting on the wood floor of our public library and pulling books off the shelf with a kind of awe. I always borrowed the maximum number allowable. I learned to read with MILLY MOLLY MANDY (a baby kept in a drawer – fancy!). I devoured Enid Blyton and any/all stories about ponies, rosettes and gymkhanas. I loved Willard Price’s amazing adventure series –TIGER ADVENTURE, LION ADVENTURE . . . .  I cut my teeth on commercial collectability! I also loved the British classics: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN, THE SECRET GARDEN. You could never read those enough times.

As a teenager, Tolkien knocked my socks off. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was like a holy experience (the only novel I’ve read as an adult that has come close was Donna Tartt’s SECRET HISTORY). I also spent hours - again, on the floor - diving into my father’s massive collection of war books. Learned, detailed works on the Somme, on life in the Blitz, on Special Ops in World War II.  I credit my father with my love of history and its literature, and now my sons share that.

What kind of student were you?

I was shy, teased, too fat, too willing to blush at all times, and one of the last to be chosen for sports teams. I thought I was useless and that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I was 16 I had an epiphany –I was good at English! It took my teachers a while to catch up with that revelation, but in my final two years at school I shone in everything literary, especially what they call ‘lit crit’. I could write for hours on line 3, stanza 2 (whatever poem), explaining why the language worked the way it did. I was also becoming a bit of a secret performer [see My life in the spotlight Part 1). One of my sweetest school memories is of singing alone with my guitar on stage in Assembly; apart from my very close friends, no one had a clue that quiet Sarah could do it and you could have heard a pin drop.

My school experiences gave me a great desire to help release people’s potential – especially that of young people. I was largely written off, my future seen as limited. In the end, my Head Teacher had to write a special letter accompanying my university application, saying they had badly underestimated me, because I got top marks in my final exams. Beating the odds, helping others to beat the odds, is a theme for me. You can’t base your life on other people’s expectations or experience of you – you just have to go out and make it happen for yourself.

What might you be doing now if you hadn’t gone into the children’s books business?

I believe I am in the perfect niche that plays to all my strengths and experience(s). However, I would also have liked to train as a coloratura soprano or continue performing as a singer-songwriter (Shawn Colvin meets Tori Amos). I love everything verbal – especially vocal performance (I read a lot aloud and used to compete in verse-speaking and drama comps), so would have enjoyed some aspects of TV presenter/journalist. I have also trained for a year in psychotherapy and that has always held a lot of interest for me – and is, in fact, very relevant to working alongside authors!

I would also enjoy anything entrepreneurial where you have to create something from nothing. For example, a fabulous chain of patisserie shops, on the French model. There’s not enough great coffee and cake in the USA!

What jobs did you do prior to running the Greenhouse and being an agent?

I started my publishing career back in the Dark Ages, as a member of Lady Collins’s religious books’ department at Collins in London. To understand this, you need to know that what is now HarperCollins used to be Sir William Collins Sons & Company Limited; and Lady Collins was married to ‘Sir Billy’ Collins.  (Harper & Row was amalgamated comparatively recently).

From there I spent 5 years with Armada, the commercial children’s paperback imprint of Fontana, which was itself the paperback side of Collins. Next came a year editing adult fiction blockbusters, then a spell freelance – doing the editorial jobs that were too demanding for inhouse staff to tackle. After that I worked for a number of years for Transworld (now part of Random House), again on children’s books. This was at a time when a lot of today’s mega-famous writers were just breaking out – Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson among them. I joined Macmillan in 1994 as Fiction Editor and was there until 2007, moving up the ladder to become Publishing Director of the whole editorial side. I was also on the management board, and had about 20 staff reporting to me.

My publishing career has enabled me to understand all sides of this business, which is very useful. I know how writers feel, because I’ve worked with them at the rock-face for around 30 years. I know the constraints and stresses publishers labour under. While there are moments when agents must be confrontational, I have tried to create an agency environment of partnership/collaboration where we work WITH publishers, respecting what they do.

What are the best parts of your job as Greenhouse agent – and what are the parts you find most difficult?

There is nothing in the world to beat the thrill of calling an author and telling them that yes, they WILL be published! That their life’s dream has come to pass.  Whatever the size of the deal, there are tears, disbelief, joy – and it’s my job to help them negotiate their way through all the emotions that come in this strange process.

I love the people side of this job, all the relationships, but I also love the hard-nosed thing of doing deals, making money for people. And I love strategizing and negotiating – what step should come next to get us where we want to be.  You need to be quick-thinking, charming, patient as Job, passionate, articulate, tough . . . I strive to be gracious, and to retain my integrity in all situations.

The hardest parts of the job are – making fast, good decisions about writing and writers. The volume is tremendous. And the horrid thing is, you can’t represent everyone. It’s easy for a writer to feel that getting an agent is the ultimate destination. However, it’s only the first step on a long journey, and if I don’t have a personal conviction and feel for your work, that I can really advocate for it and ultimately sell it, then it would be better for me to step aside.  Sometimes I will make mistakes, and I’m always aware of the hurt of the writer who feels rejected. It would be lovely to be able to give more feedback, but the time constraints often make this very difficult.

How quickly do you know if you have found a manuscript that is going to succeed?

I often have a real physical reaction as I discover a great story; a quietness will come over me, a prickling of the neck! I can usually tell from the first page if a writer has outstanding potential, because I will already be picking up Voice, but I have to read a lot further to see if the plotting holds water. Because I generally first-read on a Kindle, with interruptions, I like to go back and re-read on hard copy –an old-fashioned manuscript, with pencil and Post-It notes in hand. You see, editorially I am old-school, and that’s how I consider detail best.
I hate the rapid-fire pressure of the industry (particularly as more and more people become agents and there’s pressure to grab talent). It’s very rare that I read something and then instantly pick up the phone. I like to consider, make notes, come up with an editorial strategy that I can share with the writer before taking things further.  I want a story to be as good as it can be, and for any deal to be as big as it could be, and I therefore need to see if the author is on board to work with me, if that feels necessary. I would never take an author on and then suddenly announce that I had editorial suggestions – I like everything to be out in the open from the start.

What do you think is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Ann Patchett said some wonderfully apt things in today’s Washington Post book review. ‘Writing is an endless confrontation with my own lack of talent and intelligence, because if I were as smart and talented as I ought to be, I would have finished this book by now.’

I think every author feels like this at times. The black worm of self-doubt in the small hours of the night. The sense of unworthiness. The ‘imposter syndrome’ (I’m successful, but when they find out how bad I really am, I won’t be!). The fear of failure, creative dryness, paralysis, criticism. You name it, authors feel it. I like them to share that with me – the secret fears – because there are few vocations in the universe that make demands on an individual’s psyche like that of writing. You live in your head, off your wits; the famine of isolation, the feast of publicity (some unwelcome). Your vacation can be decimated, your Christmas put on hold – because an editor suddenly decides to break seven months of silence and give you a deadline of one month’s time.

Am I putting you off? I hope not, because there are glories too. But you need to be very realistic about how hard this is, what it will cost you. And you need to know that this is what you DO. This is your trade, your calling, your joy. And keep smiling and philosophical throughout. Family and friends won’t understand what you are going through, but as a Greenhouse author you have the support of writers (and agents) who understand, and that is something I don’t want us ever to lose.

What do you most enjoy about Christmas, and what gift are you most hoping to receive?

The gift will be seeing my two sons, putting my arms around them and standing there for a number of minutes. We’ll all be together in London, my extended family, and we will resume the rituals that give our particular Christmas its unique flavor (and occasional craziness). I love Christmas music, the quality of the night air, the moans at the Queen’s Speech, games of Boggle, the generations changing. The fact that I am no longer the ‘Christmas Elf’ (who sits on the stool and distributes the gifts) but have given way to the Young Pretenders. I love looking back and seeing how far we all came this year, in both inner and outward journeys. This year the Christmas Day toast to ‘absent friends’ will include all my Greenhouse friends across the world. I’m proud of us all!

Right then, Boss. Hey, it’s Sunday – should you still be at The Desk? How about giving a dog a bone and a sojourn at the mailbox?

Sure, Wee Man.  Thanks for the interview and turn off the lights on your way out?

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

It came upon a midnight clear

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Which is the title of one of my favourite Christmas carols, because it perfectly expresses the mysterious, ethereal beauty of falling snow. And fall it did, yesterday. Snow isn’t easy if you’re a Dachsund, so Lucy and The Wee Man [see The view from under the desk] are disappearing up to their axles every time Nature comes a’calling. And as for me – well, as you can see, there’s nothing left but a pair of warm boots.

Two years ago, newly arrived in the States, I nearly killed myself on a wintry quest to sign an author. I don’t think she knows I nearly killed myself, but the truth is I came that close as the Mini went into freefall down a steep, icy hill. Now, if the forecast even breathes the word ‘snow’ I don’t venture out without a four-wheel drive.  Look, there’s almost nothing more important to me than tracking down a great author, but . . . death? Is it feeble of me to say that’s a step too far? AM I LOSING MY AMBITION???????

Here in Book-Land, things are starting to get that mad pre-Christmas-crazy feel. Getting decisions out of people is tough, there are a million things to be done before the break (especially in Britain where lots of people take a couple of weeks off), and both agents and editors are calculating how to edit ten manuscripts/read 30 more/ get a heap of contracts through/find a great Christmas e-card (ours is going to be wonderful!), /strategise whether submissions should go out before or after/claw up to the summit of the inbox . . .  Oh, and actually find time to get any gifts so there’s something under the tree on Christmas Day.  People always ask me if ‘things wind down at this time of year’. No. They just get crazier!

I’m just back from my final New York trip of 2009. A whistlestop visit, primarily to take in two great publishing parties, both packed with agents. The first was Egmont’s celebration of its launch list. The Greenhouse loves Egmont – both US and UK sides - and we’re the best of mates with both.  There’s a special bond with Egmont US in particular – we launched at virtually the same time and we follow each other’s fortunes with interest. Doug Pocock (another British émigré), Elizabeth Law, Regina Griffin and the rest of the team have done a fabulous job of getting a company, and a publishing program, established from scratch and I’m so pleased we have a book on their second list – Alexandra Diaz’s OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS, which publishes this month. You can see a pic of Elizabeth and I, with Alexandra’s book, on our News page.

Next day downtown to join in with Deborah Brodie’s visit to Books of Wonder, probably New York’s leading indie children’s book store. Deborah is a ‘book doctor’ (www.deborahbrodie.com). By background an editor and publisher of vast experience, plus a teacher of writing, Deborah now works with individuals and groups of writers – teaching and guiding through revision, craft, and the workings of the industry.  Very interesting to join with her and her clients as BoW did a presentation on how the store works, how they’re coping with recession, what kinds of books they particularly love (they’re especially hot on classic picturebooks), and all the multitudes of author (and other events) they hold to increase the ‘book store experience’ and get both committed book buyers and passing traffic through their doors. It’s actually a very inspirational place; the staff really know what they’re talking about, they love their books, and they have a deep concern for reading and the promotion of the very best books for kids. If you live in NYC you probably go there anyway. If you don’t, but happen to visit – make sure you go there and BUY, BUY, BUY from them. That’s the only way we’re going to have thriving independent book stores in the future, and Books of Wonder is one of the very best. In fact, now I’m on a roll, here’s the web address – www.booksofwonder.com.  You can buy online from them too, so go do it! While you’re on the site, you’ll see that our very own Sarwat Chadda was hosted there a little while ago – and you can order a signed copy of his DEVIL’S KISS via the site. http://www.booksofwonder.com/events100809.asp

What did I buy in Books of Wonder?  Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve still not read, despite meeting Kathi in Vermont the past couple of summers. But first I’ve got to finish the wonderful LIPS TOUCH by Laini Taylor . . .

A short break to plunder Macy’s (with thousands of mad-eyed Brits and Russians), a change into new glam mode, and off to party with Hyperion-Disney down in the Village, at a special reception hosted by the heads of both book and motion-picture divisions.  Little black dresses abounded as the throng of literary agents, ‘studio guys from Burbank’, and a small number of Hyperion’s top authors, heard how the movie/book sides plan to be more joined up in their thinking and strategy in future. Well, we’ll wait and see what emerges from that one. 

Meanwhile it was brilliant to meet old friends and discover some new ones too – agents like George Nicholson of Sterling Lord, who was so kind to me on my very first trip to New York (as a publisher) in 2000. Linda Pratt of Sheldon Fogelman, whom I got to know at SCBWI’s Mid-Atlantic conference a couple of weeks ago. Amy Berkower of Writers House, whom I haven’t seen for several years (respect for all they’ve achieved for children/teen books over at WH over many years, not just recently). And Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Agency, whom I’d wanted to meet for ages – and who is just the nicest person. Maybe you presume agents are all tearing each others’ limbs off, like pitbulls in a pen . . . . Well, I guess we can all do some limb-tearing when it comes to getting that author we’ve set our hearts on, but we actually tend to get on very well when we meet.  And we’re quite forgiving really - of each other. (Publishers’ contracts directors are a different matter entirely. They are not forgiven).

And then on to a French bistro for a Disney dinner – and how cool was this! I sat opposite Rick Riordan, next to Jonathan Stroud and newcomer Clete Smith, with Cinda Williams Chima on the other side. And a great chat with Eoin Colfer.  You have permission to be jealous because it was JUST GREAT; I am indeed a lucky girl.

Despite having tried to keep up with emails while I was away, back Thursday afternoon to a pile of work to be done and straight back to the desk. Somewhere on the Acela train track between Washington DC and New York City my Blackberry announced that Harriet Goodwin’s EXIT 43 is longlisted (one of only 6 titles) for the Solihull Children’s Book Award – a powerful regional award in the UK.  And then the BB buzzed again - the arrival of an offer on a book. Should I be embarrassed to say that I punched the air and said YES, YES, YES! Really very loudly.

But no, I’m not in the least embarrassed. This is what I do. This is my business. And I love it.

Have fun this week. Dust off the furry boots, revise the carols, consider launching yourself into Macy’s – or Debenhams (depending on your whereabouts). And then reconsider, settle back down with a good book by the fire.  Christmas is coming!

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