Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Agent Susan Hawk Talks Picture Books

When I did the Monster List of Picture Book Agents post featuring Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency, I had a hard time finding what she was looking for when it came to picture books. I was so curious, I decided to ask Susan if she'd answer some questions. She graciously agreed and today she's sharing some really great information about why she represents picture books, what she looks for in a manuscript, common submission mistakes, and even the current preferred word count.

Thank you so much, Susan, for coming to do a picture book centric interview with me! It's a tough, highly competitive market, especially when it comes to picture books. Why do you choose to represent picture book authors?

First, thank you Heather for inviting me to do this interview!  I’m so happy to be here on your great blog.

Now, on to picture books: There are a couple reasons I represent them, but the most significant is that I love them.  I’ve always been a passionate reader and have so many distinct memories of the picture books I read as a child – this is when I began to understand the pleasure of a good book.  As an adult I’ve grown to admire the way the limitations of the form inspire the most careful selection of words; and the way a successful picture book marries story and art to create a whole greater than its parts.

It’s an interesting time for picture books right now, and though it is indeed very tough, I’m happy to be a part of their future!

What elements do you think a picture book needs to be successful?

There are a number that have to be just right; it’s a complex dance between art and text – and a text that appreciates the art, by giving it room to tell the story too, is key.  As a parent, I come to appreciate more and more a text that will stand up to many, many, many…many re-readings.  I love a picture book that has a sweet, smart twist at the end.  The books that have true lasting power feature an identifiable, lovable, and real main character.

What types of stories strike your fancy?

I’m interested in funny stories, family stories, strong girl characters, stories with heart.  Really, I’m open to anything, as long as it grabs my attention and won’t let go.

What mistakes do you see in submissions in general, picture book submissions in particular?

Length – very often I receive submissions that are too long.  Right now, the sweet spot is 300-550 words long.
Message-driven – writers often want to convey a value with picture books, and unfortunately, I often see texts that live to serve the message, at the cost of a good story.
Rhyme – Rhyming picture book are very, very hard to pull off.  And they are limiting, because the writer is constrained to tell their story within a certain framework.  I frequently ask writers if their story truly needs to be told in rhyme.  If not, then don’t.
Originality – I’d love to see more truly original picture book concepts!  There are lots of well-worn story ideas out there, and I’d encourage writers to read, read, read to learn what has, and hasn’t been done before.

There is such a variety of picture books, are there certain types you prefer to (or not to) represent?

I am especially looking for a wonderful character, someone who is going to jump off the pages and into kids’ hearts.

I’d love to do some non-fiction picture books – biography, history, science – particularly when the story revolves around a particular person; in essence, is still a character-driven story.

I am not especially drawn to board books, rhyming texts, message driven or purely educational texts.

Who do you represent?

You can learn more about who I represent on my blog, Susan Says, but here’s an overview: I represent books for children exclusively, and that runs the gamut: picture book, chapter book, middle grade and young adult.  My clients run that gamut too – writing very early concept picture books; writing and illustrating a picture book about a sweet dog whose smart nose leads her places she never thought she’d go; to a chapter book series about a lovable oddball named Fishstick; to a middle grade fantasy that’s completely unlike anything I’ve read before; to a contemporary Southern middle grade mystery.  All these projects are in the works or on submission now – so stay posted!

You've started a great blog, Susan Says, and are on Twitter. Who do you hope to reach?

Thanks for mentioning that Heather!  It’s relatively new, so I appreciate the shout-out.  I’ve got a couple goals – the first is to give writers searching for an agent a clear sense of the kinds of projects I’m looking for and my approach to this business.  Writers are told again and again: do your research, make sure you’re querying agents that represent work like yours, and that seem as if they’d be a good fit for you.  So, I hope I’m giving people the information they need to make that determination.

As the blog goes forward, I hope that it will also be a place where my clients and other friends in the business will join me in a larger conversation about the amazing children’s book world we’re part of!

If after reading this you think Susan might be a good fit for you and your work, check out her Monster List of Picture Book Agents listing, go to her blog, and check out her twitter feed too!


  1. Great Post! Wonderful interview, full of good questions! thank you!

  2. Wow! Great interview! Thank you so much, Heather and Susan!

  3. Terrific questions and very useful answers! Thank you for doing this interview and thanks to Susan for taking the time to answer your questions!

  4. Susan may be the first agent I've come across who is interested in nonfiction. It's interesting to note that she prefers character-driven to plot-driven stories. I'll keep this in mind as an aspiring nonfiction writer.

  5. Such great information!

    Thanks so much--

    Sarah Frances

  6. Great interview! I recently discovered Susan's blog and I'm already impressed. So helpful!

    And this is a really great feature. :)

  7. Great interview, Heather and Susan. Thanks!

  8. Awesome interview, Heather!

  9. I love your idea of this interview. Great stuff!

  10. Sweet interview! Thanks Susan and Heather! Susan shared so much! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  11. Thanks to you all! It's so great to hear you enjoyed the interview and found it useful.

  12. It's always so nice to hear from agents who represent picture book clients. Thank you for this fantastic interview! Great information!

  13. I'm so glad you highlighted picture books. It really is a side of publishing that doesn't get much attention. I'll have to pass the link on to my picture book writing friends in my writers group. Thanks!

  14. So great to see the focus on picture books and I love Susan's new blog! Thanks for all the great information.

  15. Hurray for another agent in love with picture books!

    Thanks for an informative and helpful post with lots of terrific links!

  16. Always wonderful to hear from Agents who rep picture books. Thanks so much Susan and Heather!

  17. Thanks Susan, for this insightful post. I especially appreciate your list of 'submission mistakes'!

  18. Great interview. So wonderful to hear that there are agents who still want to represent picture books.

  19. Thank you for the wonderful interview with Susan! I went to her blog and there is even more great info there that every picture book (and other book) writer should check out.
    Love how clear she is about what types of books she is interested in. The info she shared about what makes a great picture book is extremely valuable.

  20. his was really an attention-grabbing subject, I’m very lucky to be able to come to your blog and I will bookmark this web page in order that I could come back another time.
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  21. Awesome interview! Thanks so much for sharing, Heather & Susan. Very helpful!

  22. It's not often that agents will be so forthcoming about what they are looking for! Thanks for a wonderful interview, Heather...and thank you to Susan for sharing so much with us. :)

  23. Many thanks for such concrete, helpful information!