Jen Malone is a middle grade and young adult author. Her debut AT YOUR SERVICE is now available from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin MIX!, with several others on the way! She is represented by Holly Root of the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency.
Connect with and learn more about Jen . . .
What advice would you give to querying writers?
Well, as someone who sent my very first query to an agent based on the fact that he shared a name with an ex-boyfriend of mine (And yes. Yes, it did include the line “I once loved ‘Agent Name” as my hook), let’s just say I’ve had a steep learning curve when it’s come to querying. Fortunately, said agent has an excellent sense of humor and though his rejection was swift, he had a great attitude about it. I’m sure my query went straight into his folder of “Queriers to contact if I ever go missing.” I began researching much more after this. I now realize that agents are using your sample pages to evaluate you as a writer and your query to evaluate you as a client. Obviously your writing is what will sell your book, but your agent also needs to have faith that you will be able to conduct yourself professionally in the industry. Agent relationships with editors are paramount and no agent wants to risk that relationship or their reputation by sending some crazypants author into a business deal. It’s fine to include some personality, but follow the standard query guidelines and be respectful and courteous, even if the reply isn’t what you wanted to hear.
What resources and websites did you use when querying?
I used Literary Rambles and Google to track down recent interviews with agents, but if I were querying now I’d add the Twitter hashtag #MSWL for great info on what agents are looking for. QueryTracker was a good way to see where agents might be in their inbox- I knew if someone posted a response to a query sent later than mine, it probably meant a no for mine. I think sites like Agent Query Connect can be good for getting feedback on your query (which I really encourage) but I see a huge value in professional critiques as well- often online query contests offer (free) agent feedback, and so do Ninja agents at WriteOneCon. Authors and agents alike will often donate critiques to charity auctions (not free, but for a good cause and tax-deductable) and many classes through Writer’s Digest come with instructor evaluation of pages or queries. Lastly, conferences often offer these opportunities. In my case, having an agent weigh in on my query (which had been through countless peer evaluations) made my request rate jump from 5% to 40%.
What do you wish you’d known back when you were in the query trenches?
I wish I’d known how often “it’s not you, it’s me” is true. There are a million reasons an agent doesn’t connect with or doesn’t feel she could sell a manuscript and it might not have anything to do with the writing or the story or the person sending the query (though sometimes it does, so evaluate your query often if you’re not getting requests!) Sometimes I would read an agent interview and feel like a certain agent and I would be complete BFFs if only she agreed to rep me. Then I would be crushed when she passed on my query. But I didn’t yet realize I wasn’t querying for a bestie, I was querying for an agent. And, while my books are certainly a part of me, I am not my book and someone not liking my book is not the same as someone not liking me (incidentally, this is a great thing for writers to learn early on because reviewers are sometimes less considerate than agents in their assessments!) Now that I’ve seen the decision process a little more closely, I have a much better handle on the many, many factors that go into repping and selling a book and I think it’s helped me see how much of it is a combination of craft, timing, and sheer luck.
Once a writer has signed with an agent, what’s the next step?
Write more. That’s always the next step. But otherwise, it was to incorporate Holly’s light notes and then wait for it to go out on sub. To be honest, it wasn’t all that different than querying except now I was listening for my phone AS WELL AS checking my email obsessively.
How editorial is your agent? Is it what you expected?
I didn’t initially think Holly was all that editorial because she subbed my first few manuscripts with the most minor of edits, but with my most recent YA she had really thoughtful notes for me on a pretty big revision and I was really excited to get those. However, I also have great CPs and do a lot with them before it even goes to my agent. What I really can’t get from anyone else in my circle is Holly’s pulse on the marketplace. Somehow she always knows exactly what editors are buzzing about or wishing for. Before I start work on new projects (or if I can’t decide between projects) I’ll send her what amounts to a query description of what I have in mind and ask for her input. She’s steered me away from one that was eerily similar to something she’d seen kicking around and not selling the year before and encouraged me to think about changing the time period for one to make it more marketable. I’m not saying “write to the marketplace” BUT if there are things that can make a project I’m already excited about more palatable to editors, there’s a huge value in knowing that before beginning the first draft.
Do you send sample chapters to your agent or do you wait until the next manuscript is finished?
My last MG book sold on proposal, so “finished” was only a few chapters and a synopsis. But prior to that I would send her the “blurb” before starting to get her take on it from a market perspective and then not send her more until I had gone through a round of revisions with my critique partners. However, I know some of her clients will send her pages as they go. She once said to me that she’s happy to read as often as I want and at any stage that I want, so long as I knew going in that it’s harder for her to see things with fresh eyes after the third read. I’m the same way so I understood that and try to plan ahead to get those fresh eyes at the most beneficial times.
Do you see the feedback from editors?
I chose to. Holly would forward me the editor’s email, usually including a short sentence or two of her own above it lending reassurances or interpretation. These were usually along the lines of, “picture me with an angry storm cloud above my head” or, “This one felt really close.” That said, if I were to go on a traditional sub round now, I’d ask for those updates on a predetermined day of the week instead of right away as they came in. I was on a crazy roller coaster during submission and those emails could really affect my mood. Knowing I would just be dealing with them once a week would have been helpful. Obviously, I’d get a call if the news was really good!
What is the next step if an editor shows interest?
So my experience was a little different because, while I was on sub with the book I’d signed with Holly for, an editor who had already passed on it asked if I would be interested in submitting pages for an IP (Intellectual Property) project they were developing in-house. For that I had to write the first fifty pages and submit them alongside a full synopsis. I knew there were five or so other writers “auditioning” and it was a lot of work for something that might not pan out, but I loved the story concept and felt like it was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. Thank goodness I did, because that’s now AT YOUR SERVICE!
Is there anything you learned while being on submission that you didn’t know before?
I learned there are a lot of ways to get a book deal. I’d never considered IP projects, but I loved the whole experience start to finish. It was especially great to have full access to my editor WHILE I was drafting and (something I didn’t even know enough to consider) it’s taken a little bit of the pressure off me in terms of sales because the concept was developed in-house. Of course, I feel total ownership over the book at this point and will do everything I can to ensure its success, but it’s been a nice way to ease myself into the industry. My next four books under contract are my own concepts, so they’re all on me and that makes me nervous!
How did you celebrate when you got the news about your first book deal?
My husband took me to dinner at a restaurant in Cambridge, MA called First Printer because it was built on the site of the nation’s first printing press and then we wandered over to an indie bookstore and searched out the shelf where my book would be. I’m sentimental like that!
Once you have a book published, how does submission change for an author?
Having an established relationship with Simon & Schuster let me sell my next MG series (RSVP, co-written with Gail Nall) on proposal to my current editor versus having to have the completed manuscript. My first editor moved to HarperCollins at the start of the year, so when I was ready to sub my YA, it went to her on an exclusive and she bought it! It’s still about the story and the writing, but cultivating good relationships (which includes proving you can be professional, work through revisions, and meet deadlines) is certainly a huge part of this business, as in most other fields.
How does it work when you’re writing a series?
Are both books sold together or does it depend on the success of the first? For me, it’s been both! In the case of AT YOUR SERVICE everyone would love for there to be a sequel but it depends on what early sales are like (see why preorders are so important?) But for RSVP, the concept of tween girls with a party planning business really lent itself well to a series, as did the four-person POV, so they bought the first two books at once and hopefully that will continue on as well! Fingers crossed!
Thank you so much, Jen!
Posted August 2014