Query.Sign.Submit. with John Cusick

John represents Picture Books through Young Adult. He is currently seeking pithy, character-driven picture books, especially by author-illustrators. He is especially hungry for fresh middle-grade fantasies with totally original worlds, as well as coming-of-age stories with a twist, such as When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. In y.a., he’s looking for high-concept contemporary realism, flashy historicals, and horror.

John is also a YA author. His latest novel CHERRY MONEY BABY is now available from Candlewick!
To connect with and learn more about John . . .
Folio Jr.

literary agent and author Now for John’s insight on querying, signing with an agent, and going on submission-from an agent and author perspective!

As an agent . . .
What advice would you give to querying writers?
Do your research. Find out who represents material similar to yours. Check out the acknowledgment sections of your favorite novels, where most authors thank their agents. When you submit, follow each agency’s submission guidelines to the T; we’re all a little bit different. Most agencies post up-to-date guidelines on their websites, so always Google before you call or submit (and generally, don’t call prospective agents; stick to email).

What are some important things for querying writers to consider when researching agents?
Watch out for bogus agents who charge a fee for reading submissions—no reputable agent does this. Check out their website and research who their top clients are. A young agent may not have many big clients yet, but keep in mind the newer agents are eagerly building their lists, and will likely have more time to devote to each individual client. A newer agent at a respected agency could be a great fit for your work.

What WOWs you in a query?
I’m looking for a really fresh concept, something that puts a new spin on an old tale, or a mashup of genres that feels unique. Another dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or paranormal romance story is less likely to grab me, simply because I’ve seen so many, and publishers’ lists are pretty much full up on those.

What should writers NOT do in a query?
Never write your query from your characters’ point of view; remember, this is a professional letter between you and a potential future business partner. I love confidence, but over-selling yourself as a genius or “the next J.K. Rowling” can be a bit of a turnoff (even if it’s true!). Your story and your writing will make you stand out, not the cleverness or attitude of your query letter. Let the letter be simple and straightforward, and let your brilliance and uniqueness sparkle through in your manuscript.

Is there anything you see way too much of in the queries you receive?
I do see a lot of dead parents and dead boyfriends—usually killed in a car crash. I see too many secret societies training assassins, warriors, chosen ones, etc. I’d advise new authors to steer clear of vampires, werewolves, gods, and angels of any kind just now, as the market’s still a bit saturated. A perennial favorite is “city kid forced to move in with country relative and then solves a mystery / falls in love / discovers a secret”. Also, picture books about “the power of imagination.”

Do you always read a query all the way through? If not, what would make you stop reading?
If the concept is too familiar (see above), or if the writing in the query itself is sloppy or awkward, I’ll stop reading halfway through. I rarely consider high fantasy with unpronounceable names, so I’ll usually pass at the first dark lord with no vowels in his name.

What is your process for reading a query and sample pages?
Our agency asks for a short query letter as well as five sample pages pasted into the body of the email. I respond to every query, usually two or three weeks after receipt. A year ago I would have said “if I like the voice and the concept, I’ll request the full manuscript.” That’s changed a little. Now, I’ll request the full if I’m absolutely gaga for the voice and concept. I usually respond to full manuscripts between 30 and 60 days from receipt. I try to read as fast as I can.

How do you tackle your inbox? Do you go in order or jump around?
I go in chronological order. I usually read a day’s worth of submissions a few weeks after they came in. So, for instance, on January 22nd I read the 20 queries that came in on January 5th. I want to respond as quickly as I can, to nab those really special manuscripts before any other agents do, but it’s difficult to keep pace with so much material coming in. You want to be speedy, but you want to give everything a fair shake, too.

Is it okay for a writer to nudge concerning queries or partial/full requests?
Yes. This never bothers me, though as a rule I’d say wait a month before nudging.

Do you ever offer a Revise & Resubmit? When would you do so?
I will sometimes request an R&R, and the reasons vary. Sometimes a project is really interesting and well-written, but far too “baggy.” I might ask the author to tighten the prose by 15%, and see what he or she comes up with. Sometimes a story is fabulous right up until the ending, and in those cases I might have a phone call with the writer and discuss what happened, and how the ending might be improved. When I ask for an R&R, I’m really checking to see how the author revises. Some folks are fabulous first-draft writers, but have a hard time editing. Others are a mess to begin with, but the manuscript improves 200% with every revise. Everyone’s different, but I need to know a prospective client can get the book where it needs to be before I can start contacting editors.
What does it take for you to offer representation?
I have to be absolutely insanely in love with the project. I have to think to myself “an editor would be absolutely bonkers not to want this.” Now, part of me also knows this is a subjective business, and not every editor will love what I love. But I need to feel that burning conviction that the project is awesome, that the author is special.

What would you love to find in the slush pile?
I want contemporary realistic y.a. with a twist, something like SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY or OCD LOVE STORY. I’m dying for great middle-grade, either a coming of age like WHEN YOU REACH ME (which is also realistic with a twist), or a truly fresh fantasy like THE PECULIAR. I’m also keen for new author/illustrators.

Are there any specific questions you’d recommend that a writer ask when talking with offering agents?
It’s good to know ahead of time how an agent likes to communicate and how often. Weekly phone call? Monthly email? As the author, will I know to whom the agent is sending my material? Will the agent pass editor rejections on to me? How does that agent manage subrights (audio, film, etc.)? Does the agent sell those rights herself, or through a co-agent? What’s the agents turn around time on manuscripts?

What is it like waiting to hear back from a writer you’ve offered representation?
I try to act all too-cool-for-school about it, but really I’m just a puddle of nerves. When I want something badly, I’m willing to cross oceans to get it (or at least the East River). It’s like asking someone to prom. It’s nerve-wracking.

Do you sign a client as a career agent or on a book-by-book basis?
I’m looking to sign career-long clients. I’ve turned down solid projects from authors who told me they never planned to write another book. I’m looking for writers who love to write, who will keep learning and growing and exploring different stories and different characters. I want a relationship that will last, as part of my job as an agent is to help a writer’s career to develop and grow.

Once a writer has signed with you, what’s the next step?
Typically, champagne. After that, the next step is revision. I’ll reread the author’s manuscript and prepare in-depth notes. Typically my clients and I revise a manuscript two or three times before it’s polished enough to send to editors.

How editorial are you?
Very. I’m an author myself, and love to get my hands dirty when it comes to the creative process with my clients, from spit-balling book ideas to line editing, in some cases. I only want to send out the best, most polished, most fully-realized manuscripts.

What is the revision process like when you’re working with a client?
It varies. Sometimes I’ll write a long, detailed letter. Other times the issues are more general and require a phone call, where there’s much more back-and-forth. On rare occasion I’ll do some line editing and post a hardcopy with my notes in pen (blue pen, much friendlier than red).

Do you forward editor feedback to writers?
Always. I pull the relevant notes out of the editors’ email and paste them in an email to the author immediately. There’s an exception for clients who prefer to get bad news in one big round-up, rather than as it comes in (I don’t blame them).

What kind of feedback or response do you hope for after sending a manuscript to an editor? A book deal, of course, but what kind of feedback is a good sign?

It’s great to get that email reading “Oh this sounds right up my alley!” or “I just wanted to say, I’m reading this and I’m loving it.” I was once out on submission with a y.a., and ran into one of the editors at a conference. She grabbed my elbow and said “Don’t you sell that book to anyone else. I have to talk to my publisher, but I WANT IT.”
As to editorial notes, they are always so appreciated (and usually received), but never expected. When an editor passes on a manuscript but sends a long critique, I want to get down on my knees and kiss their feet. Notes are a boon to the author and to me as an agent. They help me better understand an editor’s taste and style. They’re a gift.

As an agent who is also an author . . .

From the unique perspective of being both an author and agent, what advice would you give to querying writers?
When an agent reads your query, he is likely thinking of a million things at once. You want to make your query so simple and clear as to be idiot-proof. Avoid sending long queries, or multiple projects that must be sifted through. You want your agent to be able to glance at your query, think “oh, this sounds interesting” and click the “request manuscript” auto-response. Bing. Bang. Boom.

How do you balance the work of both an agent and an author?
It isn’t easy. Typically I write first thing in the morning, before I begin my agenting work. I can read and edit and submit late at night, but my writer brain only works before noon. Sometimes it’s difficult to shut off the hyper-critical agent voice, but you have to or you’ll never write anything. Sometimes I’ll be working on a project I’m not sure is super-marketable or coherent, but I’ve got to follow my muse. Then, when it’s finished, I come at it with my brutal agent hat on, and try to whip the manuscript into some kind of saleable shape. And that’s all before I share it with my actual agent.

Does being both an agent and an author create any complications or unique situations?
I’m not sure about complications. I like being represented by my own agency. That keeps everything in house and in the family, so to speak. I like being able to commiserate with my clients. I go through what they go through, I know the sting of rejection, or the crummy review, or the hell of waiting to hear back from editors. It’s nice to be able to bond over that stuff, and to be able to talk shop on the creative level as well.

What is it like to see the publishing industry from both sides of the agent/author table?
It makes rejecting queries harder, I think. I know I’ve struggled and sweat passionately over projects that were so important to me, so near and dear to my heart, that just weren’t good enough to sell. That sucks, but it’s reality. That said, I also know that for the writers who work, and listen and learn, and love what they do, getting published is far from a miracle. It happens every day. I’m not familiar with too many other vocations where loving your work is a prerequisite for success, but I think that’s true of publishing, and of children’s publishing especially. You never hear someone say, “Well I wanted to retire early so I suffered through five years of writing picture books, made my money, and retired to the tropics.” People write because they love it, and, I think, work with writers because they love books. Not to be too touchy-feely, but that’s what makes this a great business, in the end.

Thanks so much, John!
Posted February 2014 (agency updated July 2015) – Always check for current info and guidelines.


  1. Thanks for the provocative interview with great insight into Mr. Cusick's process (love the word "baggy" for editing) and suggestions for a concise query.

  2. Such a great interview. We get a real sense of what John Cusick is looking for in manuscripts and his queries. It's really helpful.

  3. THanks for the interview. Great information to read and reread.

  4. Great interview with excellent depth of how John works as an agent.


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