Thursday, July 24, 2014

Agent John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary Talks Picture Books

Not too long ago I featured John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary Agency on the Monster List of Picture Book Agents. He's an agent at Greenhouse Literary Agency representing Young Adult, Middle Grade, and of course, picture books. 

Unfortunately, finding picture book specific information when trying to make an informed decision whether or not your work might be right for an agent can be tough. While I was putting together John's post, I had picture book-centric questions that I wondered about. I asked John if he might answer them. Fortunately for us, John was happy to. 

So, my lucky people on the agent hunt, read on to find out what John is looking for when it comes to picture books, learn about his agenting style, and more. If he sounds like he might be a good match for you and your work, give him a try. John is a super nice person, and that's the best kind to work with!

Why do you choose to represent picture book authors?

I love picture books. They’re deceptively simple and deeply sophisticated. Part prose, part poetry, they distill story and character down to their essential elements. And they’re fun! My first week in publishing I saw an editor and an agent leave a party to gush over galleys for a new picture book they’d both worked on. They were so excited, like little kids. And I thought “yep, this is what I want to do.”
What do you look for in a client?
I’m looking for someone who loves to write and create, who is eager to work on many projects, and many different kinds of projects. An author with a single book-of-their-heart who will never write another story probably isn’t the best fit for me. I’m looking for career-clients interested in growing and developing over time.
How would you describe your agenting style?
I’m a very editorial agent. I like working creatively with my clients, from the idea stage to line-level tweaks. I’m also very communicative. I like chatting with my folks by phone, email, text, whatever. I also hope to pair authors with the perfect editor. When an editor and a client totally hit it off, creatively and personally, I know I’ve done my job. Finally, when I say I want career-clients, that’s another way of saying I like to manage and develop the trajectory of an author’s career, to help build their audience and hone their craft from book to book.
If you take on a client because of their mass market appeal picture books, would you also represent other things they wrote if they had merit?
Absolutely. If a client writes or illustrates in multiple mediums or markets, all the better! Some of my clients illustrate as well as maintaining careers in character design and commercial artwork. I have clients that write picture books as well as middle-grade and y.a. Versatility is never a bad thing.
What types of stories do you see a place for in today’s picture book market?
Stories with a universal theme told in a fresh way. A picture book with a clever concept will (usually) only go so far without a deeper conflict, some pain or tension that the reader can relate to and has experienced. At the same time, a familiar story, for example, “a child’s first day of school,” might be relatable, but will likely feel too generic to stand out in our competitive marketplace. It has to be both familiar yet fresh.
In general, how much revision do you do with clients to get their picture books submission ready?
It varies, but often a client and I will go through several revisions before I send a project to editors. Those revisions might include story level changes, the arrangement of spreads (if the client is an illustrator or author/illustrator) and line edits.
What are some of the elements you think a picture book needs to be successful?
I think stringent prose is essential. Picture book texts are so short— typically fewer than 800 words— that every syllable counts. Humor goes a long way as well. Not every picture book must be funny, but I’m personally drawn to clever and quirky styles, and I think many editors are as well. Finally, to me, picture books need tension— a conflict our protagonist solves for himself or herself (without Mom and Dad sweeping in to save the day).
What types of picture books are you not looking to represent?
I’m very picky about rhyming picture books, which I think are difficult to do well. When I see a rhyming text, my first question is, “What is the rhyme adding to the story?” Are the rhymes interesting? Is the meter engaging? If not, I may ask the author whether the story might be stronger if told in straight prose. I don’t represent spiritual or denominational projects. I’m all for a positive message, but story and character come first. I typically don’t represent what I call “lovey-dovey” picture books, where focus is how much or in what way a mother loves a child or vise-versa. There are some beautiful examples of these already on bookshelves, but these aren’t what I’m looking for, personally.
What do you like to see in a query letter? Do you have any submission pet peeves?
When I read a query, I’m looking for a brief description of your project: who is the main character, what is the conflict? I’m also looking for a bit about you, your background, and publishing history (if any).
A query is a brief, professional letter between you and a potential future business partner. So avoid gimmicks or whacky styles in the hopes of standing out. Never write your query in the voice of your protagonist. Let your creativity and originality shine through in your writing; let your query be simple and to-the-point.
Are there common mistakes you see in picture book submissions in particular?
Texts that are too long (over 800 words), poorly done rhyme and meter, overly-familiar stories without fresh twists (monsters under the bed, first day of school), and unprofessional illustrations are the most common reasons I reject picture books.
The Greenhouse Literary website says to allow up to 6 weeks for a response and if you haven’t got back by then, email the agent again. Do you send out many personal rejections? What does a form rejection letter mean to you?
I send out very few personal rejection letters. If I’d like to see a revision, I’ll ask for one specifically. However, I’m usually open to future projects. If you get a no the first time, please do query again. That’s a good way to develop a relationship with an agent. We like to see authors and illustrators developing with each new project. Sometimes the second or third try is the one that wins me over.
What picture book authors do you represent? Have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
I represent several authors, illustrators, and author illustrators, including Julie Bayless, and Lisa Marnell. Vin Vogel’s debut picture book THE THING ABOUT YETIS will be published by Dial early next year; Vin is also illustrating Brooklyn kiddie-rocker David Weinstone’s debut picture book, MUSIC CLASS TODAY, coming from Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

A huge THANK YOU to John for the wonderful interview! To learn more about John, be sure to check out his listing on the Monster List of Picture Book Agents. You'll find lots of great links for further research. 

17 comments:

  1. Excellent interview! Thanks, John. Thanks,Heather.

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  2. Thank you Heather for this great interview.
    Thanks John for your time and sharing your perspective.
    Although Heather, you might have forgotten some pertinent questions for John like: what is his favorite ice cream flavor, favorite PB and what cartoon character he most relates to.
    I'm just kidding. This was super helpful!

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  3. www.rachelhamby.comJuly 24, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    Great interview, Heather. John sounds like the perfect agent for me! :) Back to work!

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  4. Nice interview Heather. Thanks for focusing on the picture book side.

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  5. Love this interview, Heather! Thank you so much - it is great to get a peek inside. ;)

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  6. This was an interview with the best questions and answers. Thank youyou

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  7. Fantastic interview, Heather! I learn so much from these. And great, specific info from John. Thanks to you both for this.

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  8. Excellent interview, Heather! John sounds like an awesome agent. Thanks so much for the share:)

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  9. Thank you for this interview. It's exactly what I was looking for.

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  10. Thanks Heather, my buddy, my pal. Great interview. John sounds BODACIOUS! Supercalafraalisticexpealadociously bodacious! Whew.

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  11. Thanks for the great information! Makes me hopeful that the second or third or fourth or even fifth story is the one to sell.

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  12. Wonderful interview. I can attest that John is the most awesome agent in the universe! I met him at an agent pitch at NJSCBWI last summer. We signed a few months later…and thanks to John my first PB, DADDY DEPOT will be published by Feiwel & Friends in 2016! John is always quick to respond and he is a brilliant editor. Keep writing, people! Dreams do come true!

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  13. I'm so glad to be able to share such helpful information with all of you. Thanks so much to John for taking the time to give such excellent detailed answers to my questions. And thank you, Chana for sharing your story! It's always great to hear of dreams coming true!

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  14. Thanks for the great interview. Very helpful.

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  15. Excellent interview ... really helpful advice! Thank you!

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