Q&A with Steven Malk of Writers House

On Tuesday we gave you the opportunity to ask top literary agent Steven Malk your burning questions about children’s writing and publishing.  An invaluable opportunity, and he certainly did not disappoint!  Here is a selection of the questions, now with answers.  Huge thank you to Steven for his time and expertise.

Annie (aka–palegirl) asks:

What do you think about writers who dabble in different genres? Say, one novel is more contemporary YA, another is more fantasy, another is more sci-fi. Would you or other agents be able/willing to rep a client who does a few different styles, or would you prefer a client who writes strictly one genre?

Hi Annie,

I do represent writers who work in different genres and I always admire people who can write successfully in various styles and for multiple audiences. The crucial thing for me is that the reason for switching between genres has to be organic; that is, the writer should be making these decisions because he or she feels compelled to try a different genre and it shoud be coming naturally to them, as opposed to jumping into a different genre because that’s where he or she thinks the market is best at the moment.

Jason Flum asks:

When querying, if the conflict shifts over the course of the book, should the query address EVERY conflict, the beginning “hook” conflict, or the end conflict?  For example, if Suzanne Collins was querying The Hunger Games, would she query based on the idea of Katniss being picked to go into the arena and the consequences of such, or would she focus on what actually happens IN the arena and the conflicts there?

Hi Jason,

There aren’t necessarily any hard and fast rules about this and every agent probably has a slightly different preference on this subject.  I often think less is more when it comes to outlining the plot synopsis in a query letter.  You definitely want to pull out the major hook and show the agent that you have a clear command over your work.  Beyond that, I personally prefer for the synopsis to read a bit like a slightly expanded flap copy, which is to say that it should hit the major points of a book but not get into too many details.  I prefer to get the broad strokes of a plot synopsis in a query.

Andrea asks:

I have heard many say that the biggest mistakes new authors make is to query agents who don’t represent a particular genre or querying too early (before MS is ready).  Steve, what do you feel is the biggest mistake many new authors make?

Hi Andrea,

The biggest mistake I see from new authors is that some of them are simply in too much of a rush.  This manifests itself in various ways, such as the examples you mention at the beginning of your question.  I think it’s also behind mass emails to agents (never a good idea), generally unprofessional query letters (typos, misspellings, etc) and not properly targeting the correct agent.  Even if you’re querying within the right genre, you shouldn’t just be blindly submitting to a list of agents.  I really believe it’s imperative to do your research carefully by checking out great sites like Literary Rambles, going to SCBWI conferences to hear agents speak and simply reading as much as you can to figure out which agents would be best for you.  Remember that every agent is different and every writer is different.  What works for one person may not work for you and vice versa.  Figure out what sort of agent you want, do your homework about which agents fit that description, and approach them thoughtfully and carefully.

Susan asks:

First of all, thank you so much, Steve, for taking your time to do this!

If an MS is the first in a series greater than a trilogy and it’s really not a standalone novel, how should an author handle that in the query stage?  Is there anything an author with a series could say or do to make an agent run screaming?

Hi Susan,

It’s important to realize that when you’re presenting a series, you’re asking an agent (and, in turn, a publisher) to make a very big commitment.  A successful series is obviously appealing for many reasons, but it can also cut the other way, because sometimes a publisher will like a book and be ready to commit to it, but they’re not quite ready to commit to multiple books.  So, whereas they might have gone ahead with the first book, they may turn the project down if they’re being required to buy more than one.  All of that said, if you’re presenting something that absolutely is intended to be a series and the first book can’t stand alone, then you really have to own it. You’ll want to be able to clearly articulate how you see the series taking shape, how many books you’re intending, how quickly you can write them, etc.  And you’ll also want to target agents and publishers who have experience in working with series.

Deb Marshall asks:

Any books in your list that you took on even though you thought they might be tough sell-maybe market, genre breaking (lol, I am not even sure what I mean by that), too different-but your gut just told you you could make it work and it needed to be “out there” and you did, sold the book and it’s doing well?

Hi Deb,

I’ve always taken on projects that I’m passionate about regardless of whether they seem like a tough sell or an easy sell. The question for me is always whether I have a real love for a project, and, if I do, I feel that I can find a home for it and the market will take care of itself.  Trying to gauge whether something is “marketable” or “easy to sell” is very tricky and ultimately a slippery slope, so I try not to get  too caught up in that thinking.  Sonya Sones was one of my first clients, and I still remember receiving her first book, STOP PRETENDING: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy shortly after meeting her at the SCBWI national conference. It’s a young adult novel written in verse based on what happened to Sonya when her older sister was institutionalized for mental illness.  At the time, there weren’t many young adult novels in verse, and it’s certainly a tough topic, but all I knew is that I absolutely loved the book and had rarely been so moved by a story. I read it in one sitting and knew immediately that I would do anything I could to find a home for it.  The book did very well, it’s still in print almost 15 years later, and, most importantly, it reached a lot of teens who were dealing with similar issues.  It’s made a real impact in people’s lives and Sonya’s gone on to have a great career.  It’s a story I’m very proud of, and I still think of the book all the time.

Wendy asks:

I’m wondering: if a writer would like to donate a part of the proceeds from their published picture book to charity, should they say that in their query letter, or is that something you and the writer would discuss if (when!) you decide to represent their manuscript?

Hi Wendy,

I don’t see any problem with mentioning that in the query letter.

Natasha Neagle asks:

While seeking representation for a novel, is it a good idea for authors to try and create a fan base through social networking sites, blogs, youtube and if this is done, should this be mentioned in the query?

Hi Natasha,

I absolutely think it’s a good idea to use social network sites and blogging to create a fan base for yourself.  There are so many great resources out there for connecting with fans directly and it’s absolutely worth taking advantage of them.  I will say that for me, it always comes back to the quality of the work first and foremost, but having a built-in fan base is appealing and can be in the icing on the cake.

Karen Collum asks:

What are some themes/topics in picture books that you think have been done enough?

Are there any themes/topics in picture books that appeal to you particularly or that you are actively looking for?

Hi Karen,

I can’t necessarily point to specific themes or topics that I think are overdone, but I would say that I think it’s become more important than ever to really make sure that we’re giving readers value when we’re asking them to spend nearly $20 on a picture book (when you include tax).  This just means that it’s up to all of us – writers, illustrators, agents, and publishers — to give our very best effort to put out picture books that are thoughtful, distinct, and carefully conceived and executed. I have a special affinity for classic picture books, but I also long for picture books that feel fresh at the same time.  Finding something that’s at once clearly steeped in the classics but also fresh and new is very exciting.  I’m not personally interested in picture books that are knock-offs of other popular current books.  I’m much more interested in finding people who have the same spirit of the classic picture book writers and illustrators, such as Virginia Lee Burton, Arnold Lobel, Barbara Cooney, and Ruth Krauss, to name a few of my favorites.

Natalie Aguirre asks:

I notice there have been many more YA debut authors than MG authors this year. Do you think it’s harder for debut MG authors to sell their books? Why or why not?

Hi Natalie,

YA has been on a roll over the last few years and there have obviously been some huge YA franchises that have sprung up, worked as movies, and crossed over to adults.  This has made publishers very bullish on that segment of the market.  However, it’s important to remember that there have also been some major middle-grade successes over the last few years, too, such as the Percy Jackson series and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, among others.  Middle-grade novels sometimes take a bit longer to pick up steam and grow, whereas YA books can sometimes come out of the gate a bit faster, but I do think that many publishers are starting to turn their attention back to middle-grade. I have several big debut middle-grade novels coming out this fall:

WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy & Carson Ellis (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins)

THE HUNTER CHRONICLES: Return to Exile by EJ Patten (Simon & Schuster)

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK by Kelly Barnhill (Little, Brown)

VANISHED by Sheela Chari (Disney-Hyperion)

BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt)

So it’s obviously a market that I believe in strongly.

ElizabethAnne asks:

When is the best time to start sending queries to an agent? I have one picture book manuscript polished and ready to submit, with two others in the works. I also have two middle grade novels in the works. Should I start querying now, with my one completed manuscript, or should I wait until I can point to other completed manuscripts as well?

I also write adult novels — should I try to find one agent who can represent both my children’s writing and my adult writing, or should I have separate agents for the two very different types of writing?

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions!

Hi Elizabeth Anne,

I think the right time to start querying is after you’ve completed a manuscript, spent some time away from it, and then gone back to it and revised it to the very best of your ability.  Remember that you only get one chance to make a first impression on an agent, so you want to go in with something that’s as polished as possible.  If you have multiple projects, that’s fine, but you certainly don’t need more than one.   I would also caution you not to mention too many projects in a query or it can give the appearance that you’re scattered or unfocused, even if, in fact, each manuscript was written very carefully.  In terms of whether you should have one agent for both your children’s and adult work or whether you have separate ones, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here.  You just want to be sure that if it’s one person, they need to completely understand both markets, as they’re entirely distinct from one another.

Patricia J. O’Brien asks:

Hello, Steven, and thanks so much for doing this.

My question: I see more and more YA and MG writers self-publishing e-books, deciding that traditional publishing isn’t working for them or that this is the future for all writers. What is your view of this trend and what role do you think traditional publishing will continue to play?

Hi Patricia,

I think it’s great that different avenues are opening up to give writers various ways to get their work out into the world. Once upon a time, many self-published authors had a few hundred copies of their books sitting in their garage, and getting them into the stores so consumers would actually see them was very difficult. Now you can go straight to the consumer, so there’s a real appeal there.  However, children’s/middle-grade/YA have always relied on “curators,” whether it’s booksellers, teachers, or librarians, to help select and support the very best books.  And, in this respect, traditional publishers will still always be a better option at the end of the day, because not only can they distribute your work even more widely (i.e not just online) but readers and booksellers also look to them and trust them as tastemakers. They also have a huge amount of experience and knowledge when it comes to sales, marketing, design, and editorial. The question of whether to self-publish your book electronically or work with a traditional publisher is ultimately a personal one and there are many different ways to look at it, both financially and otherwise.  I think each author has to weigh the pros and cons for themselves and make the most educated decision he or she can.

Sana Khan asks:

What is the correct format for illustration notes within a PB manuscript? (e.g. the picture needs to contradict the words for humor, or the picture shows a surprise deliberately not mentioned in the text)  Thanks so much your time!

Hi Sana,

I think it’s best to simply include a parenthetical note at the end of the line and designate it as “Illustration note”).  I do think you want to use these sparingly, so that an agent or publisher doesn’t think you’re trying to art direct the book.  There’s definitely a time and place for illustration notes (especially in the examples you cited) and they can be very helpful when used correctly.

Laurel asks:

What’s your take on marketing YA contemporary stories with religious characters like Sara Zarr’s Once Was Lost? Is religion in YA still considered largely taboo among mainstream publishers?

Hi Laurel,

I don’t think it’s considered taboo at all if it’s presented in a thoughtful, nuanced way.  ONCE WAS LOST is a really good example in that it’s well-written and thought-provoking. I think agents and publishers will judge YA novels involving religion in the same way they’d judge any YA novel, so the key really comes down to voice, characters, and storytelling.

Mary Trainor asks:

What do you look for in a query? Specifically, do you like it when an author puts information in a query about themselves, or do you think this is unnecessary?

Thanks for doing this, Mr. Malk! We all appreciate it.

Hi Mary,

The most important thing is to present yourself as a professional who is serious about what you’re doing.  You can do this by showing clearly that you have a strong grasp on your work, and where it fits into the market.  It’s useful to give a short synopsis of your book and I do think it’s necessary to give some biographical information.  Even if you don’t have other publishing credits, you can relay some information about yourself, why you chose to write this book, who your favorite authors are, or anything else that you think is relevant and helpful.

Brooke R. Busse asks:

You represent Sonya Sones. Is it difficult to find a publisher for verse novels in the current market?

Hi Brooke,

I’m also very proud to represent Stephanie Hemphill, who has published several well-loved verse novels including YOUR OWN, SYLVIA, which won a Printz honor. Needless to say, it’s a genre that I’ve always enjoyed and admired.  I think it can be a bit harder to find a publisher for a verse novel in some cases, but, like anything else, the work will speak for itself, and if it’s executed skillfully, it will work.  It’s important that there’s an organic reason for the novel to be written in verse; that it’s truly the best form for the story to be told.  If that’s demonstrated in the writing, I do think a publisher will be intrigued.

DAFaylor asks:

My question is this: How often do writers use pen names and do you ever recommend it? For what reasons do writers use pen names? Thanks!

Hi DAFaylor,

Sometimes writers use pen names because they’re protective of their privacy.  In other cases, it may be because a writer wants a “fresh start” under a new name or because a writer is well-known in a certain genre and wants to try a distinctly different genre and prefers to do that under a different name.  It’s a very personal decision and I don’t have a strong opinion on it. I think it’s entirely up to the writer.

Vanessa Carnevale asks:

Is there anything in particular you can think of that could completely wow the socks off you in terms of a PB or MG ms?

Hi Vanessa,

Beyond finding the next Roald Dahl, E.B. White, or Judith Viorst, I would just say a great voice that I’ve never come across before, characters that leap off the page, and a story that makes me think about it long after I put down the book. 

KatyAH asks:

I am an author/illustrator – that chimera who writes the story that inspires the pictures that inspires the story. How do I query a picture book or chapter book presenting both sides equally and how would I do this in an email submission? A submission of examples without content and vice versa doesn’t quite represent the whole.

Hi Katy,

If you have illustrations for the story in the form of a picture book or chapter book dummy, the best way is to mention in your query that you’re prepared to send a dummy for the project either as a hard copy or as a PDF.

Carmen asks:

Do you think it’s necessary to put comparisons to other books and a marketing paragraph in a query letter?

Hi Carmen,

I don’t think it’s necessary, but I do enjoy when authors will sometimes draw comparisons between their books and others, just in the sense of saying “I think that readers who enjoyed X will be likely to enjoy my book.”  It doesn’t have to be done in the  high-concept way of saying “My book is X meets X” but rather just as a way to show that you have a clear grasp on where your books fits into the market.

Brilliant, no? One more huge thank you to Steven for participating in WriteOnCon a second year and giving us his time and expert knowledge!

Steven Malk is the third generation of his family to be involved in children’s books, as both his mother and grandmother owned children’s bookstores. He opened a West Coast office for Writers House in 1998, and represents a wide range of authors and illustrators, including Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith, Marla Frazee, Kadir Nelson, Sara Pennypacker, Jennifer Donnelly, Brett Helquist, Sonya Sones, Adam Rex, Deborah Wiles, and Cynthia Rylant, among others.

22 thoughts on “Q&A with Steven Malk of Writers House”

  1. Wonderful questions and beyond-the-call of duty reflective, honest responses.

    It’s so good to hear that while there will always be new ways to publish words, there’s nothing like a great voice to tell a great, classic story.

    I love writing. I love writers!

    Best of all, here’s to the people on the other side of the desk who champion writers and will fight to the finish to get our stories out of our computers and into the hearts of readers.

    Thanks, Steve. Take care.

    -Pamela Ross

  2. Thank you for your advice on so many areas of the writing process. Great to get such detailed, concrete advice!

  3. Thanks so much Steven for answering our questions, Steven, including mine on debut MG authors. I’m Casey McCormick’s blog partner at Literary Rambles and interview some debut and middle grade authors on Mondays so I will check out your list and contact some of your authors. Thanks.

  4. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to give such detailed answers to our questions.

  5. I have to say that of all the Agent Q&A forums that I read over the years (and there have been many), Steven always has the best and more thorough answers. He rocks!

  6. Thank you so much for your time and for the answers you gave to our questions. Your answer to mine was very helpful, and helped me realize that it could be all too easy to see my wide interest in different forms of writing as scattered and unfocused — I will ensure that I don’t give that impression, and that I work hard to make sure that all my writing is as well-crafted as possible.

    Thanks again.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to craft such well-thought-out answers to these questions. I’m a multiple-genre writer, and I appreciated hearing that it can be done and isn’t frowned upon as long as the writing is equally strong in all of my projects.

  8. That was super! Sorry I missed the live version, but I’m thankful that the WOC crew left it up so we could see it.

    Thanks for donating your time, Mr. Malk.

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