Very Practical Advice, Part XII: Hide and Seek

Hello, readers —

Only three agents left in my ongoing series on agents scheduled to attend the upcoming PNWA conference, to help you make your meeting choices. Kudos to our good webmaster Andrew, who has now made it possible for those of you who have not been following the whole series for the past few weeks to check them out in the archives. Thanks, Andrew!

Today, I’m stepping out of alphabetical order a little, because two of the three remaining agents are very, very difficult to track down. The third was gloriously easy — sales pouring out of the standard databases as though I’d just stuck a nickel in the right slot machine — and hey, I’m only human. As a reward, #3 gets a blog all to himself.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to lump the other two together — one has a blurb posted on the PNWA website, and one does not; one has a listing in the standard agency guides, and the other does not. What they do seem to have in common is not posting their sales on the standard industry databases; neither apparently has a website. So really, I have had to rely almost exclusively upon their own promotional statements (where they exist) and a whole lot of web surfing to find out anything about them. Which, as you may have noticed, does not put me in the best of moods.

Speaking of which: I notice that there are a few more agent blurbs now up on the PNWA’s website, including more pictures, as well as blurbs for Farley Chase and Byrd Leavell. Check them out, if only so you can recognize them by sight at the conference.

The first agent for today, and the one who took the time to post a blurb on the site, is Ann Tobias of A Literary Agency for Children’s Books (how, oh HOW do they come up with these names?). Here’s that blurb:

“Ann Tobias (Agent) is both a children’s book editor and literary agent. She heads A Literary Agency for Children’s Books, which was established in 1988 in Washington, D.C., and is now located in New York City. As an agent, she represents authors and artists of books for children of all ages –from infancy through adolescence — picture books, mid level novels, young adult fiction, and selected nonfiction and poetry.

“Ann is also the Executive Editor of Handprint Books, a start-up children’s book publishing company in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Handprint Books specializes in picture books but has begun adding novels for the mid-level reader to its list as well.”

As I said, I wasn’t able to pull up any sales for her or her agency on the standard industry databases, and in doing some research, I found out why: she is listed in the standard agency guides as preferring not to share information about specific sales. Hmm. Makes it a trifle hard for prospective clients to figure out what she likes to represent, doesn’t it?

(Since I have been going on regular diatribes for several weeks now about how much more useful SPECIFIC preference information is than general category information, I will spare you the repetition of it here. Suffice it to say that EVERY marketing category contains a broad range of possible books.)

So: if you write for the children’s or YA markets, I would suggest that you try to pitch to Ms. Tobias at the conference. I wish I could narrow it down more than that, but without either a stronger indication from the lady herself or a list of recent sales, I’m afraid I cannot.


Let me share what I was able to find out. She does seem to sell pretty consistently in her chosen field: 12 last year and 23 in 2002, and with her editorial connections, that makes abundant sense: Ms. Tobias used to be a children’s editor for Harper & Row (THAT’S how long ago it was!) and Scholastic. She has also freelance-edited for William Morrow and Dial. The good editorial connections cut both ways, however: she has said in past agency guides that she obtains most of her clients through recommendations from editors.

She has also apparently submitted the same piece of advice to The Guide to Literary Agents for years on end, advice so unusual that it bears repeating here:

“Read at least 200 children’s books in the age group and genre in which you hope to be published. Follow this by reading another 100 children’s books in other age groups and genres so you will have a feel for the field as a whole.”

It’s probably good advice, although I would suspect that as an expectation, it is a standard that would rule out from authorship any parent who had a child under the age of 6. Even if you read to your kids like a fiend, when would a working parent have time to read that many books?

Her overall point is well-taken, though: it does behoove an author to know her target market. And evidently, Ms. Tobias does commit very heavily to those writers she does sign: I found an interview on the web where she stated that she does submissions to only one editor at a time, rather than a mass submission, and lets each editor have it exclusively for 2 months. (Which, interestingly enough, is the length of time her agency guide listing says to expect as a response time for queries. This is not an agency for impatient souls, I’m guessing.) She also indicates that she does quite a bit of editorial work on her clients’ books before sending them out.

Actually, that web interview was rather interesting; if you are planning to pitch a children’s book at the conference, you might want to check it out.
Two statements she made there struck me as yielding useful information about how to pitch to her:

In response to a question about what impresses her in a new manuscript: “Everything else –plot, characterization, setting, pacing, language — emanates from the theme. So, one of my first questions when I get a manuscript is, ‘What does this author want kids to think about?’ If an author can extend a kid’s thinking without preaching, then I’m interested in that manuscript.”
Later in the interview, she returned to this notion: “I’m talking about writing that does what it sets out to do. If the theme is strong and the writing makes it all work, then that is what I’m looking for.”

I find these very telling statements, even though they sound general at first blush: good writing alone is not enough for her to pick up a book, nor is a good story, necessarily. I would guess that she prefers a children’s book that has a moral over one that does not. And all of the charming Roald Dahl-ish embellishment in the world may not help win her over to a book without a point.

So if I were planning to pitch to Ms. Tobias, I would practice and practice my pitch until I sounded like the reincarnation of Aesop. The FIRST words out of my mouth at the meeting would be a one-sentence statement of theme, followed by another sentence explaining what a child could learn from the book. THEN I would start to talk about characters and plot.

I would also guess that she has a strong preference for books that read well out loud, based upon another statement in that interview: “I’m looking for writing that is honest, where the author has paid attention to the language and the rhythm. I’m not talking about poetry, but internal rhythm that good prose has. I’m looking for writing that moves me, writing that makes me think, that shows me something funny even.”

Rhythm and surprise are crucial to reading out loud, so it might be a good idea to test-drive your work on some children (public libraries and elementary schools usually LOVE it when authors want to read their work to kids) between now and the conference. That way, you can nonchalantly work in an anecdote during your meeting about how the kids gasped this part of the plot or cheered that character. (It’s not a bad idea in general to see how your target market responds to your work; the prospect of pitching to Ms. Tobias will just give you additional incentive.)

And that is absolutely everything I was able to dig up on her.

Which brings me to our next agent, Alice Volpe of the Northwest Literary Agency. She has not posted a blurb on the PNWA site, so I went looking for information on her. As nearly as I can tell, NW Literary is not listed in any of the standard agency guides, nor does it apparently have a website. It also evidently does not routinely list its sales on the standard industry databases, and its clients are not, I gather, given to boasting about their connection with the agency in interviews.

In short, I’ve known employees of the NSA who were more forthcoming with information. How secret could anything any reputable agency does POSSIBLY be?

And it IS a reputable agency, very much so; that’s the strange thing. I’ve met Alice Volpe at several conferences (where, come to think of it, she had seldom posted blurbs), and I have found her charming, gracious, knowledgeable, and funny. My impression of her is that she is not the type of agent who exaggerates what she can do for a client (as some do, you know): she seems to shoot from the hip, and she represents some quite successful authors. I genuinely like this person.

So it was really, really bugging me that I couldn’t find a blurb for her; I wouldn’t care, if I didn’t think she might be a good agent for some of you out there. Since I remember having heard Ms. Volpe speak before, I went rifling through my notes from past conferences, to see if I had jotted down any preferences she may have expressed in passing back then. As I do not write (and seldom edit) much genre work, my notes on her are sketchy, I’m afraid, apart from this cryptic notation from 2003: “She likes fiction that keeps her awake.”

Sorry. Apparently, she didn’t mention WHAT keeps her from drifting off.

Eventually, I did find blurb she had posted for another conference, one where she was a speaker. To give credit where credit is due, this blurb was borrowed — for a good cause! — from the Write on the River conference, so do think of the fine people who put up that website with kindness:

“Alice Volpe has worked in book publishing for the last 30 years. She began her career ‘on the inside’ of the industry in New York, working at Macmillan, Harcourt Brace, and Time-Life, as well as in Tokyo, Japan for Time Life Books, Kodansha International, Harper, Britannica and Grolier.

“She has held the positions of book publicist, staff writer, editor and publisher, and opened Northwest Literary Agency ( in the 1980′s to help bridge the chasm between lone author and remote, corporate publisher. Her clients include J.A. Jance, Carola Dunn, Judith Smith-Levin, J. Carson Black, Lee Lofland, Jeffrey Layton and many others.”

There, that didn’t threaten national security, did it?

If you are a big fan of any of the writers listed above, but would like more information before you commit to ranking Ms. Volpe high on your meeting choice list, I have a humble suggestion. As you may have noticed, Ms. Volpe as listed an e-mail address in the blurb above. An enterprising writer COULD conceivably use that address to ask for a list of what the agency is looking for in a book at the moment. Heck, you could invite her to chat over coffee at the conference.

If, like most writers, you are too shy (or fearful of offending someone who might be interested down the line in representing you) to do any such thing, I can only repeat some advice that I gave earlier in the series: go to the agents’ forum on the first full day of the conference and listen very, very carefully to what Ms. Volpe says she wants pitched to her. And if you answer her description, dash on up to the dais after the forum is over (or speak to her after she gives a class, if she gives one), and ask if you can give her your elevator speech (which is the 30-second version of your pitch; don’t worry, I’ll write about it before conference time).

I know that this may seem rude to some of you, inconsiderate of other writers at the conference, or just plain pushy. I’m not going to lie to you — if you accost an agent outside of your scheduled meeting time, other writers will probably glare at you, and if you do it too far into the conference, the agent may be too tired to hear your pitch. Naturally, you should observe some basic rules of etiquette, such as not cornering an agent in the bathroom (I’ve seen it happen) and allowing them to eat their dinners unmolested.

However, if you are serious about using the PNWA conference — or any literary conference, for that matter — in order to find yourself an agent, being too polite may cost you vital opportunities. You really do want to walk out of the conference with permission to send SEVERAL agents your work, not just one. Hanging all of your hopes upon your single agent appointment elevates it emotionally from a nice conversation at a conference to the most mind-bogglingly stressful fifteen minutes of your life.

The moral (to make Ms. Tobias happy): do you really want to put all of your eggs in one basket?

It is perfectly acceptable to introduce yourself to someone standing in a hallway at a conference, even if that someone happens to be an agent. Even if that somebody happens to be the agent of your dreams, the one whose approval would make you faint dead away. Again, be polite, and try not to catch somebody who is obviously dashing into a meeting or the bathroom, but do not be afraid to introduce yourself. The agents really are at the conference in order to meet writers.

In my opinion, it is even more important to take advantage of this kind of hallway pitching opportunity with agents who make it hard to find out about them through the standard impersonal means. An agent who has neither a blurb nor a website should expect to be mobbed after the agents’ forum, I think, because until that agent expresses a firm opinion (in SOME forum, somewhere) about what kind of book she would like to represent, it is simply not reasonable to expect conference attendees to guess. It’s my considered opinion that many of the agents and editors who reserve expressions of their likes and dislikes for conferences actually enjoy the rush of popularity after they have finally vouchsafed an opinion.

But hey, ask me again a few weeks from now, when I haven’t just expended a couple of fruitless hours in trying to track down who and what a couple of recalcitrant agents represent. My mood will probably be more generous then.

The last agent tomorrow, then on to the editors! Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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