If you write for young readers, listen up: senior literary agent Laura Rennert is on the prowl for smart boy books and in our interview with her today she tells us a few examples of well-written middle grade and YA books you should model; how she was able to close a film deal for one of her authors; and what it took to get her authors on the New York Times list.
Laura, you’ve been working at Andrea Brown for quite some time. What is your official title there and what makes you unique as an agent?
My official title at Andrea Brown Literary Agency is Senior Agent. I believe I’m the best agent for my clients first because I’m absolutely passionate about their work. I believe in them 100% and this makes me a motivated, committed, highly convincing advocate and sales person for their books. It also makes me want to live with a project and invest in it. I’m hands-on at all stages of the process, from conception all the way through to published book. In many cases, I work editorially with my clients; I’m a fierce negotiator and strategizer on their behalf, thinking both short term and long term about the book at hand and about the larger career. My secret weapons are my eleven years of experience as an agent at a superb children’s and young adult focused agency that has a particularly collaborative, mentoring, and “rising tide lifts all boats” work culture; my background as a Ph.D. and professor of English Literature; and my own insights gleaned from being on both the author and agent side of the table. There are also advantages to the vantage point I’ve been afforded being married to political thriller writer Barry Eisler, who I believe (okay — maybe I’m a little biased) is one of the most thoughtful, creative, and far-looking thinkers I know in the industry when it comes to building your brand as an author and marketing your books.
With that kind of background you must have a real keen sense of what editors are now looking for.
I think that editors frequently ask for smart “boy” books, but that so much of the market is driven by girl readers, that they’re not getting many submissions that fit the bill. Also, when they do get these kind of books, sometimes they take them to acquisitions and then sales and marketing won’t get on board, again, because the industry is so girl reader focused. My own response to this dilemma is to look for boy books that also have strong girl appeal. An example of this might be Jeff Stone’s great action/adventure series, THE FIVE ANCESTORS, where one of the ‘brothers’ who practices animal style kung fu turns out to be a girl in disguise. Another example for older readers would be Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, which has struck a deep chord with teens of both genders and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for an unbelievable amount of time. THIRETEEN REASONS WHY is written from both a girl and a boy’s POV, and one of the best compliments Jay got is that he so perfectly channeled his inner sixteen year-old girl.
What are some common mistakes you see from aspiring writers that absolutely drive you crazy?
Most of the common mistakes I see from aspiring writers come from the writers not doing their homework. I see submissions for categories I don’t represent, submissions that don’t even have the barest veneer of having been intentionally directed to me, and submissions in which the author makes hyperbolic claims about the work that really only carry weight if made by a third party. Conversely, the best pitches and submissions from writers make it clear that the writer has carefully reverse engineered his or her approach to me.
What’s one of your proudest career moments?
It’s hard to pick but the moment of telling my fabulous young author Maggie Stiefvater that we had a very big deal for her novel SHIVER (her first sold on a partial, un-agented, to a small press) would be one. The moment came a couple of weeks after I went out with her work in a way designed to set up a competitive situation and make it clear that we had high expectations regarding offers. We wound up having a terrific auction with multiple bidders. The deal changed my twenty something author’s life. The happy follow-up is feeling like the market has borne out my belief in and passion for Maggie’s work. SHIVER debuted (and has stayed) on the NY Times Bestseller List; we closed a great film deal for her; foreign rights have been selling like wild fire thanks to the crack foreign rights team at Scholastic; and audio rights sold at auction. Even though these subsequent successes have also been great, the moment that make me the happiest and proudest is, in Maggie’s case and in the case of my other fabulous authors, almost always telling my author that first bit of amazing, life-altering news, when she (or he) is breathless and has to sit down.
What’s the best way for aspiring writers to approach you?
The best way to approach me is to follow the submission guidelines on our agency website, www.andreabrownlit.com, and to email a professional, personalized, smart query letter that showcases your great writing and voice, pitches your project succinctly and well, and shows me you’ve done your homework regarding the market. Then, you ace the audition by including a tantalizing ten pages (unless it’s a picture book, in which case you’ll email the full manuscript) that raises questions in my mind and compels me to ask for more.
If you weren’t an agent, what would you be?
If I weren’t an agent, I would be a paleontologist or maybe I would own a Chihuahua ranch. Okay, maybe the latter is my daughter’s idea, but it sounds pretty fun to me, too!