Rx for Writers


"Discover the Life of the Children's Book Agent”

with Jill Corcoran

December 9 - 11, 2009

Jill Corcoran is an Associate Agent at Herman Agency representing MG and YA authors, as well as an award winning children's writer and poet, so she can come at the agent-topic from both sides. For tons of useful tips on agents, check out Jill's blog: http://www.jillcorcoran.blogspot.com/


Jan is Jan Fields, moderator of this interview/workshop, and Web Editor of the ICL Web Site. Green shows names or usernames of people and the questions they asked of our speaker.

Interviews are held once a month in the Writer's Retreat discussion board.

Jan: Welcome Jill Corcoran. We're delighted to have you with us as I know your plate must be very full. We're excited to have you here.

Writermutt: I'm wondering if you could give us some insight as to what your typical (if there is such a thing ) agent day is like. How much time is spent reading submissions? On average, how many submissions do you receive per day? How much time is spent in contact with editors and your clients? I read that you stay up late. How many hours do you tend to work each day?

Jill: Every day is different so the amount of time I spend talking to editors vs reading changes every day. Also, I read my clients' work first, and then submissions so each day has a different mix of what I am reading. I also am always reading something published. Amount of hours per day: 6-10. Amt of queries I get per day? Don't even know since I look at them in groups and/or answer as they come in. I don't keep track but it is a lot.

Jan: You know, I've always thought it must be kind of depressing for the folks who keep track. I've seen them doing query counts on twitter and I've thought...wow, I think I would get overwhelmed and crawl under the desk if I had over three hundred queries waiting in my in box.

Carina: Why have you decided to became an agent?

Jill: This should help answer your questions. It's from my interview in Vermont College's HUNGER MOUNTAIN. Vermont College of Fine Arts is the first college devoted entirely to low-residency, graduate fine arts programs, offering an MFA in Writing, MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and MFA in Visual Arts. You can read the full interview at http://www.hungermtn.org/interview-with-literary-agent-jill-corcoran/

Jill: I studied English at Stanford University, concentrating on literary criticism. Had I known years later that I would be critiquing others’ work in both my writers critique group and as an agent, I would have cherished my educational path. However when I graduated in the mid-80s, I had not heard of editing or agenting, and I was living in the time of Gordon Gekko. So off I went to the finance Mecca that is The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business where I studied Finance and Marketing. I soon discovered Wall Street was not my calling, for a plethora of reasons, and began my career marketing everything from cereal to sneakers at Leo Burnett Advertising, LA Gear, Mattel, and at my own consulting firm, LAUNCH! New Product Marketing.

Jill: When I started having children and stopped working, my brain begged for intellectual stimulation. Having spoken nothing but baby talk for five years, out poured some awful picture books. Everything changed when I joined SCBWI and started taking UCLA Extension classes with Kristin O’Connell George, Madeleine Comora, Ann Whitford Paul, Caroline Arnold, Sonia Levitan and others.

Jill: Fast forward a few years and I caught a number of agents’ eyes with a poetry riddle book, of all things. I chose Ronnie Ann Herman of Herman Agency because 1) she got me as a writer, 2) she had 30 years in the business with an amazing reputation (yup, I asked around), 3) Ronnie represents many of the leading PB authors and illustrators in today’s children’s book market, and 4) most of the clients Ronnie signed back in 1999 when she started the agency are still Herman Agency clients today.

mmmgood: Just out of curiosity, have you ever regretted passing up an author/manuscript? For instance, you later see that a manuscript you passed up is now selling like hotcakes?

Jill: Nope. If I passed on a book then I was not in love with the manuscript and the agent who did rep and sell the book probably was. That agent is the better agent for the book.

mgfantasy: Are there good and bad times to send queries? Do you look forward to seeing queries on a Monday morning, or are they the last thing you want to see? Is it better to query at the end of the week, or are you busy wrapping things up at that point?

Jill: For me, there is no better time. The sooner you query, the higher your query is in the queue. Day of the week, time, holidays are all the same to me.

Jan: As you've made the jump over the desk from writer to agent, what has been the biggest surprise? Are there any things you thought about agents that you've changed your mind on?

Jill: The biggest surprise is how hard and how much editors work. As an unagented author, I waited by the mailbox for months and months and wondered what editors were doing instead of reading my precious words. As an agent, I hear from editors sometimes within minutes on a query and as quick as days on a full. Editors email me at night, on weekends, on holidays. They work their buns off trying to find the best manuscripts and once they find the best, making them even better.

Jan: Has it changed the way you relate to your own agent at all?

Jill: One big thing that has changed now that I am an agent is that I rarely know where my work is submitted. It is easier for me not to know that editor x is reading my work when I am submitting a client's manuscript to them. So before becoming an agent I was submission knowledge hungry and a wee bit controlling, now I stay in the dark and concentrate on controlling my clients' submissions:)

claudette: My question is one that has bothered me for a while. Let's say that you take on a writer who has a YA novel, let's say, and it sells to a good publisher, which results in the usual round of activities. Then, the next year the same writer comes to you with another book, perhaps one for MG. This one, too, seems good enough to get a publisher. But, at the same time, the writer approaches you with a PB or book of juvenile poetry. Do you take the MG ms and refuse the other two; look at the other two for a possible stretching of the author's playing field; or refer the author to another equally talented agent, who specializes in books for younger readers, or an agent who specializes in poetry? Do children's authors who write in multiple genre's and age groups stick with only one agent, or must they find several to do the marketing to publishers?

Jill: Children's agents rep all your work for children. YA, MG, CB, PB. Other agents rep both children's and adult work and you could have one agent for both or one agent that specializes in children's and one that specializes in adult.

AborVitae: How much does being a new, unpublished writer "hurt" your chances of getting agent? What about a writer who has only been published in non paying markets?

Jill: A known quantity is always easier to sell. But, being new does not hurt your chances if your manuscript is fantastic. Debut authors have no sales record so sometimes it is easier to sell a new voice than one that has had a book published with disappointing results.

Shauna: I have read many comments about the pros and cons to having an agent. In your opinion, is it important for an unpublished, new author to seek an agent? Is it more of a personal choice as to whether someone gets an agent, or are they hanging themselves by trying to go directly to the publisher?

Jill: I think an agent will get your work in front of the right editors. You will hear from editors much quicker. You will most often get a better deal with an agent than without one. An agent can sell your sub rights. The list goes on and on. But, you are not hanging yourself by going directly to publishers and yes, it is a personal choice. Many successful authors do not have agents. And the old saying is true....better to have no agent than the wrong agent. But, the wrong agent for one author may be the perfect agent for another.

Shauna: You mention on your blog: no high fantasy. What does high fantasy consist of?

Jill: High Fantasy = fantasy set in an entirely fictional world.

bjb: I write for children 4-10 years old in adventure, mystery, sci-fi, as well as non-fiction. I'm told I have a knack for textbook writing and plan to explore that at somepoint. I am not published yet. I am already challenged by finding the right publisher fit. Do you have any advice for approaching an agent? What kinds of questions or things do you look for in an agent, other than them be willing to represent you? Do you approach them like a publisher with a query letter?

Jill: Research agents to understand who would be the best fit for you and learn how they want you to submit your work. Some agents edit, other don't. Some agents share a lot of submission information, others don't. Decide what you want/need from an agent and then query agents in batches.

Jill: Here are some Websites for researching Agents:
AgentQuery : http://www.agentquery.com/default.aspx
Absolute Write: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/
Verla Kay’s Message Board: http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php
Preditors and Editors: http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm

Jill: Literary Rambles (Agent In-Depth Reviews) http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/
Agent Research parts 1,2 & 3
me: http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/2009/08/agent-spotlight-jill-corcoran.html

Jill: Lots of agent interviews, vlogs, blogs, twitters, etc all over the net. Google them and have fun researching.

mmmgood: Poetry and light verse have become my obsession. I’m told at every turn that poetry is difficult to publish. Are there any agents interested in placing poetry books? Perhaps illustrated poetry, or poetry with photos? Or does poetry mean death to an agent?

Jill: Many poets are agented but it is very difficult for a new author to get a book of poems published. Try getting in an anthology or magazines.

ArborVitae: As an agent, what is the one (or two, or fifty) thing(s) that writers do that makes 1) you annoyed 2) the writer look unprofessional? If you could tell all writers, "Don't do this thing (or list of things)," what would it be?

Jill: Don't submit your work too early. Revise and revise some more until it is the best you can make it.

Jill: Write a professional query that tells me what your book is about, who is your target audience and a little bit about you. Also, if you have a reason why you chose a particular agent, let them know.

Jill: Don't submit your book to every editor in publishing and then submit the manuscript to agents. If editors have declined a book, just because it is now coming from an agent does not make the book more desirable. Agents get your manuscripts in front of editors but your manuscript must sell itself. Which brings me back to, don't submit your work too early.

CubofAslan: What do you look for in the first 10 pages? What if a manuscript has a weak beginning, but is tremendous otherwise? Would an agent ever get to the rest of it? What would you recommend to a writer who wrestles with this?

Jill: The first 10 pages has to put the reader under the spell of your book so that they cannot put your book down and walk away. They need to introduce your main character, his problem, and what is holding him back from achieving his goal. They need to establish a voice for the main character and for the book as a whole.

Jill: If your writing is so extraordinary but your first 10 pages have a weak storyline/character/etc, an agent may be so excited by your voice/style/command of language/gift that they will ask for a revision. I have did this with an author who is now my client. But it is rare. You need to work on those pages with critique partners or on your own and make them great. Perhaps the you need to throw out your first 10 pages and start the book on page 11 or at chapter 3.

Jill: A lot of writers warm up on their first chapters, getting down all the info on the page so they know where they are going. In revision, those pages are tossed but the ideas on those pages and the specific details on those pages may be sprinkled throughout the entire manuscipt.

ArborVitae: I know that every agent is different, but in general, do agents have a common background in terms of how they become an agent? Do most agents major in a certain area in college? Do they intern? Like I said, I no there's no hard-and-fast rule to "how to become an agent," but is there a general path that most agents take to become one? If so, what is it?

Jill: I'm sorry. I really don't know. I think like everything in life, we all come at this from different backgrounds but the common element is a love for writing, writers and readers.

Jan: Another common thing agents have (and need) are connections. You want an agent who has developed connections either by having been an acquiring editor in the area your writing before moving into agenting, or by being part of a trusted capable agency where the strength of the agency's connections are behind the agent. And agent who just hangs out a single agent shingle but has not personal connections in the industry doesn't give you real edge over submitting yourself.

Larissa: Just curious about your take on how long to continue querying with one manuscript. At what point do you think a writer should decide to shelve the ms and move on? After 10 rejections? 20? 10 forms?

Jill: You have to determine if it is your query or your manuscript that is getting rejected. First, try rewriting your query and revising your first pages, the ones you are sending with your query--which of course will lead to one more revision of your manuscript:) Next, research the agents you are querying to ensure you are sending your query to the best matched agents for your work. (I gave a list of where to do online research on another post yesterday, which I hope helps.) I know of authors who secured an agent after 50+ queries, but they were revising along the way. Others shelved that first book and secured an agent with their second manuscript.

Jill: The number is up to you but as Miss Snark always said, "Query widely. Don't fret about no. Get to yes." http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2007/03/not-right-for-us-means-that-but-only.html

bjb: I am wondering what the process is once an agent accepts you?

Jill: Everyone is different, so I can only speak for myself. I usually send out revision notes and while the writer is writing, I am creating a submission list. When the manuscript is absolutely fantastic, I sub to editors and send the writer a submission update.

mmmgood: What would grab an agent's attention in the picture book world? Without seeing illustrations, I can't imagine what would capture the imagination of an agent, and cause him/her to say, "Wow. This is worth the investment."

Jill: A fresh concept and fantastic writing.

mmmgood: Jill, is it possible to be a little more specific? As an agent, what would you specifically look for that would signal "fantastic writing" or "fresh concept?"

Jill: Fresh is just that, something different. And the only way to come up with something different is to read what is already published. When I am in pb writing mode, I go to the library and take out about 150 pb a month. I read everything I can, especially whatever has just been published. Then I write. With all the knowledge of what is already published in my head, I write with the hope of being creative enough to write what I have not yet read. There are few new topics, it is how you approach a topic. A fresh approach. I hope that helps.

Jill: In all writing, it is the execution that differentiates good from great. And it is subjective--agent to agent, editor to editor--of what is fresh and great.

luv2rhyme: I consider myself an expert rhymer, in the style of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, would snappy, humorous verse be enticing to a literary agent? Would an agent and editor be looking for the same kind of appeal, or are their concerns different? I've heard that you shouldn't attempt poetry for children's books because most writers don't do it well, in terms of rhyming verse that rhythmically flows AND is entertaining to small children. However, I happen to do that very well, so I want to capitalize on my ability as much as possible.

Jill: If you are a wonderful rhymer and stories come to you in rhyme, then rhyme. But do not try to be the next Dr. Seuss or Lisa Wheeler. Be you and let your distinct voice shine.

Claudette: Do you as an agent work with small presses often or have you ever recommended that a writer investigate them for those pieces for YA that might be more literary in nature?

Jill: I guess it matters how small is small, but yes I am in contact with a number of small presses.

Shauna20: What type of percentage or pay do you get? I assume you get a percentage of books sales from your clients, written into the contract. What is the ball park range right now? Or am I totally off in my thinking? Thanks!

Jill: fifteen (15%) of gross fees for all advances and royalties and (20%) for foreign rights for books and (20%) for film/TV/dramatic rights and other subsidiary rights. NO OTHER FEES! Never pay to have someone agent you. The agent works for you and receives the above for their services. Some agents charge for copies, mailing, etc. We do not.

bjb: Hi Jill, and Shauna thanks for this post. As a quasi accountant, what is considered gross fees? Does the publisher pay the agent pay direct, or do I as a writer pay an agent from the royalty/advance given to me? Thanks Brenda

Jill: usually--publisher pays agent, agent give money to author

bjb: Thanks Jill, if the agent is paid 15% gross from the publisher. Of that amount, what percentage could an author reasonably expect? Thanks, Brenda

Jill: Say the author is due $100: AUthor gets $85, Agent gets $15.

Cat: Jill, when would you recommend that someone look into getting an agent? Would an agent really only be necessary once you started getting books written as opposed to Magazine short stories or articles?

Jill: Yes, agents I know don't rep magazine work. Only books.

ColoradoKate: I've been reading your blog, where you write about checking out authors' blogs and websites if they mention them in their query letters, and perhaps even googling them, if they don't. What if a querying author has no blog or website? Does that make you less interested in her query and less likely to ask for a full? And is web-presence more important, do you think, for YA writers than for MG or CB writers?

Jill: Web presence or not, if the first 10 pages are great, I am going to ask for the full. I think for YA writers and some MG, a blog that speaks to their readers is important. Not as important for CB, unless you can make it fun like Dav Pilkey's.

ColoradoKate: Thanks, Jill. I appreciate your answer. So many writers I know have some sort of web-presence, but mostly not in ways that, as you say "speak to their readers." I think I will just wait, and hopefully create a "book-soon-to-be-published" website or blog when the time comes!

ColoradoKate: If you've had to say "sorry, not right for me," is there any point for the author to query you later about a different ms? And if you took on an author based on that second query, would you encourage them to turn that earler "not right" ms into something you felt you could sell, or would you hope to never see it again?

Jill: I'd query other agents first since you might find an agent that loves your book. But, if you have put that book to sleep then go ahead and requery with a new book. If the 1st book has potential, I would talk to the writer about revision.

mrswritebrain: What is the present state of the market for humorous (with heart) middle-grade boy books?

Jill: If written well and really capturing boy humor-good.

mgfantasy: I was wondering just how much you can tell by the first ten pages of a manuscript. Obviously, they give you a sense of the writer's voice and how well they write, but what about the plot of the story? I know some agents request a two-page synopsis, but for those who don't, how is the story itself truly judged? I'm curious because my manuscript is the first in a proposed paranormal fantasy series, but the first book is about my main character discovering he has a paranormal gift. There are clues that he unravels throughout the story, but this is difficult to fully understand in just reading the first ten pages. Is it simply the writer's ability (in those first ten pages) that makes you request to see a full? And how much emphasis do you place on the short synopsis within the query itself?

Jill: Is it simply the writer's ability (in those first ten pages) that makes you request to see a full? YES! And how much emphasis do you place on the short synopsis within the query itself? The synopsis tells me if it the kind of story I want to spend umpteen hours reading, revising, reading, revising, subbing, etc.

zebrakitchen: I'm curious to know if you read every submission from beginning to end before sending it back to the writer for revisions. Do you sometimes just close the cover and say, "yikes" or do we hold your attention for the first 10 pages?

Jill: If you are talking about the 10 pages that writers query me with, no. I stop reading if and when I lose interest and then I do not ask for revision. If I love the 10 pages but think they need work or indicate a revision for the full, I will read all 10 and then send revision notes. If it is my client, I read all 10 and send revision notes.

bjb: Do you as an agent accept story picture books (not picture books)? By word count, longer than a PB, 100 to 2500 words and has some illustrations to complement the text.

Jill: That is a tough market right now but if it is an amazing book and there is a reason for every one of those words, the agent who loves that kind of book would want to take a look.

zebrakitchen: You stated in your answer that picture story books are a tough market right now. Please tell us why that is? I was at Barnes and Nobel last night. I paged through the series by Ann M. Martin, The Doll People, The Meanest Doll in the World, and her newest, The Runaway Dolls. I realize she is well noted for her series, The Baby Sitters Club, so is that why her work is published. The newer "Doll" books had more pictures than the earlier. I'm wondering what your comments are on this.

Jill: While there will always be longer pbs, word on the street is that editors are looking for short, under 1,000 words is good, under 500 words, better---but those 100, 200, 500 words need to each be perfect with a strong plot (if you have a plot), fantastic character(s) and room for illustrations.

bjb: As an aspiring writer, I am still learning about the breakdowns of the markets. Web sites speak of Commercial Fiction vs. Literary Fiction, the latter, described as a rise above. As an author and agent, do you have any insight as to what really differentiates these markets. Would C.S. Lewis have been considered literary or commerical in his day? What would be modern eqivalents? Thanks, Brenda.

Jan: It's looking like we might have run to the end of Jill's visit so I'll give a shot at this.

Jan: Generally, a "literary" novel is one where intense attention is paid to the style of the novel (the prose itself) and the characters...sometimes to the detriment of plot. A literary novel will have a very specific voice, and often isn't as ... easily consumed and understood as a more commercial novel. Sometimes literary novels take risks with the reader's ability to process the actual prose or understand the character motivation because they can sometimes be a bit experimental in those areas. Literary novels tend to have a more personal feel, almost like the author is right there with you...you're less into the story than you are into the words, style, structure, experience of the author's choices. They can be very emotional, but often not as active as a more commerical novel. People will talk more about what the novel MEANS than about what happened in it.

Jan: A "commercial" novel has a strong sense of story. You want to know where this action is taking you. The motivation of the characters is clearer. The style of the story itself may be very technically adept or may almost be a bit clunky because it's the "ride" of the plot that keeps you in the story the most. If the words "fast paced" or "fun read" come to mind, you're almost certainly not dealing with literary. Most fantasy or science fiction is going to be more commercial -- even when it's experimental, it usually doesn't risk completely leaving the reader behind. Characters matter in commercial fiction (because if you can't connect with the characters, you won't enjoy the ride of the plot as much) but they may be seconary to the plot action (and often are in "high concept" commercial which can use almost stock/unidimensional characters.)

Jan: Now, having said that. I think literary novels are risky as MANY adult literary novels just come across as self-indulgent on because they're so personal. Personally, I like a good ride when I read a book and find style gymnastics more irritating than impressive. So I'm probably not a good person to really talk up the difference. But MOST fantasy is commercial because the whole nature of the genre is about what happens in this magical situation.

Jan: In general urban fantasy would almost certainly be commercial. Some magical realism is more literary. High fantasy can be a bit of a mix but without the ride, you're really lost in high fantasy because that's what the reader signs on for...they want to know what happens.

Jill: Perfect, jan

Jan: Well, thank you. I also want to say thanks to Jill for sharing her time with us. I know how tough it is for an agent to fit one more thing into her day. So thanks for coming by.

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