Agent Interview – Steven Malk
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was lucky enough to grow up around children’s books, as both my parents and grandmother owned independent children’s bookstores. I started working at my parents’ store when I was 16 and did that for six years. While I was in college, I interned at an agency and realized that it brought all of my interests together: getting to interact directly with writers and artists and be a part of their creative process, while also managing the business side of their careers. I knew immediately that it was the right job for me. After almost four years at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, I opened a West Coast office for Writers House in 1998, and I’ve been with them ever since. I’m lucky enough to work with some of the authors and artists whose books I used to sell, and I’ve also done my best to bring new and different perspectives to the world of children’s and YA literature.
How long have you been agenting?
About 12 years.
What are your feelings about the children’s book market right now?
It’s a very different market than when I started. The whole landscape of children’s publishing has changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. But I still think that the market is very open to fresh new voices and great writing. There’s nothing that excites an agent (and a publisher) more than finding a great new talent.
Do you feel a children’s lit writer absolutely needs an agent (this is kind of a loaded questions isn’t it)? If so, why?
Do I think that absolutely every single writer needs an agent? No. Every writer is different and each one has varying goals and visions for their career. That said, if you can find someone who “gets” your work and shares the same long-term vision for your career, I think it’s invaluable to have an advocate and partner who’s dedicated to making that vision a reality and helping to insure your success. The industry is constantly changing and it’s difficult to have the scope and knowledge necessary to be successful without the help of an agent, especially while still finding time to write and be creative.
What kind of questions should a writer ask a perspective agent before they sign with them?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to find the right agent for you as opposed to just any agent. I understand the impulse to want to get your work out there as quickly as possible, but it’s important for writers to take a step back and take their time in making the decision about where to submit their work. A writer needs to figure out what he/she wants in an agent, and spend as much time possible trying to figure out who that is, rather than just shooting blind. Ideally, once you find an agent who likes your work, you’ve already done your homework and know a lot about them. If you’ve submitted to an agent and realize you know nothing about the person, you’re doing yourself and your writing a great disservice. I do think there are a lot of important questions to ask, such as finding out how this agent likes to work, making sure that you have the same goals (both in the short-term and the long-term), etc. Again, it’s a very important decision, so take your time with it, especially before you submit.
Some agents have a full written contract, some a verbal one. What kind of contract do you have with your writers?
We have a written contract, although there are some writers who prefer to operate on a handshake.
Do you ask for edits from a perspective client before you sign them on?
It all depends on the client; everyone is different. It’s not at all unusual for me to ask for revisions before I sign them on, and it’s actually quite common. Revision is an incredibly important part of the process, and I’m always interested in how a writer handles it. It’s important to realize that if an agent is taking the time to give you feedback on your work, that’s genuine interest. If an author takes the agent’s comments and incorporates them in to the manuscript, there’s an unwritten obligation to go back to that agent before sending it elsewhere. I’ve been surprised in a couple of cases that writers don’t seem to know this.
How about after they’re signed? Do you offer editorial suggestions before you submit the manuscript to an editor?
Yes, it’s quite uncommon for me to send something out – especially by a first-time writer – and not ask for revisions first. The market is more competitive than ever, and it’s worth it to me to take the time to make something as polished as possible. The goal isn’t just to sell a manuscript; it’s to put it in the best possible position to succeed. And the better shape a manuscript is in, the more likely this is to happen.
What kind of manuscripts would you like to see more of?
As generic as this sounds, I’d love to see more manuscripts that have a unique voice.
What kind of manuscripts do you get far too much of?
I tend to see too much stuff that’s derivative of whatever’s popular at the moment; stuff that’s trying to capitalize on a trend. I want manuscripts that would succeed and stand out independent of any time or place. I have no interest in what’s “hot” at the moment.
What makes a manuscript stand out to you?
Again, I would say great voice, unique, well-developed characters, and good writing.
Do you accept unsolicited submissions?
Yes, although I’m not taking on many new clients at the moment.
Do you have any advice for writers?
My biggest piece of advice, as I mentioned earlier, is to slow down and take your time. Resist the urge to hit save on your manuscript and immediately start sending out emails to anyone who’s accepting submissions. Trust me, it doesn’t feel good ag an agent or receive a submission where your name has been filled in at the top and it’s obvious that every other agent in the business is receiving the same submission. Even if it takes you an extra 6 months, year, or 3 years to break through, in the scope of an entire career, that’s nothing if it means doing it right. If you want to have a long, successful career in this field, it’s crucial to present yourself as a professional who’s taking his/her careeer seriously, as opposed to someone who’s just looking for the first deal that comes along.
Another important piece of advice is to read as much as possible. This sounds obvious, but I’m always surprised by how many writers haven’t read beyond a few classics or popular titles. For example, if you’re writing picture book texts, and you haven’t read people like Judith Viorst, Charlotte Zolotow, and Ruth Krauss (and I don’t just mean their most popular titles), that’s a problem, in my opinion. It’s important to educate yourself about the field you’re working in as much as possible, and to look at both old and new titles. I also highly recommend that every writer read DEAR GENIUS: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.