There are many heroes in a book’s journey and one of them is the literary agent. Today The Mixed-Up Files is thrilled to chat with Jennifer Rofé, agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc.
Thank you for having me! I’m a fan of the Mixed-Up Files, so it’s a delight to be here!
You were an English major at UC Davis where you were a columnist and copyreader/editor for the university newspaper. After college you were a staff writer and managing editor of a wine trade magazine, then a middle school teacher prior to joining Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. What made you decide to become an agent for children’s literature and how did your background prep you for the career you now have?
When my uncle married my aunt and I found out she wrote some of my favorite cartoons, I became interested in children’s media. But during college, this transformed into an interest in journalism and publishing, and teaching also nagged at me. So, I decided to become a teacher and then segway into educational publishing. While I was teaching middle school, I met Andrea Brown, and I realized that agenting was a beautiful combination of my interests — education, writing, and business. So I asked her how I could get her job.
A film agent I work with recently pointed out that teacher-turned-agent is not the typical path. It’s really not, and it’s given me a different perspective. It probably wouldn’t be surprising to know that I ran a rigorous reading program in my classroom, which means I became familiar with what books were attractive to middle grade readers and teens. Also, when it comes to working with authors, I approach it from an education standpoint — I want aspiring writers and authors to learn about the industry and what they should be doing in order to succeed. And let me tell you, dealing with parents and public school bureaucracy served me well in becoming a good negotiator for my clients.
People from outside the publishing industry don’t always understand why a children’s book author needs an agent. Can you explain why it’s so important to have representation?
First and foremost, an agent is your advocate. Beyond the editorial guidance we can offer, we target editors for your work, negotiate your contract, and handle the slew of matters that arise during and after the publication process. We’re like a GPS system guiding you through the process and making sure you’re on the best route for your journey.
You often say that you look for the “So-What? Factor” in manuscripts. Can you explain?
For me, the “So-What? Factor” is that element of why a story matters, why I care about a character and his journey, what’s at stake, and what makes a story stand apart from others. The example I often use when describing the “So-What? Factor” is my personal experience with the well-received middle grade The Year the Swallows Came Early (HarperCollins 2009) by my client Kathryn Fitzmaurice. The first draft I read of this book told the story of eleven-year-old Groovy who had a large sum of money stolen from her. But when it came to this crucial plot point, I was left asking, “So what?” Beyond the disappointment of the circumstances, why did I care? There had to be a greater purpose for that money and now Groovy’s dreams are dashed; she must figure out how to recover and still make her dream possible. What that money was meant for, how Groovy copes with betrayal, and how she salvages her dream became part of the “So-What? Factor.”
You’re passionate about middle grade books and we know that one of your favorites is Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Cheldenko, obviously a story with the “So-What? Factor.” Would you name just a few more that touched your heart?
I do have a soft spot — a really big soft spot — for middle grade. Of course, I always love my clients’ books, like The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, which is a lovely and poignant story (my favorite chapter is The Part of Marisol that Shines). Also, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen, which is so “holy crackers and cream cheese” funny that you will laugh out loud. The voice is infectious and I highly recommend it for boys and reluctant readers. Another favorite is The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman, which had me laughing on every single page, until it had me crying because I felt deeply for Calvin. A current favorite is Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, which is a perfect book that all middle grade authors should study.
Three forthcoming middle grades I’m excited about are A Diamond in the Desert (Viking 2012) by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, which is based on the true story of a baseball team in a Japanese internment camp that went on to win the Arizona state championship; A Thunderous Whisper by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Knopf 2012), which is about two teens who are drafted into a spy network weeks before Hitler’s bombing of Guernica; and Neversink by Barry Wolverton (WaldenPond Press 2012), which is an epic adventure about a puffin who must save his island-home from owls. It is genius.
One thing that may be confusing to new authors is the fact that the author/agent relationship continues long after the initial offer of representation. Can you explain how involved you are after the sale of a book and what tasks you perform on behalf of the writer?
Let me first clarify that some agents and agencies work with authors on a book-by-book basis. At ABLA, however, we sign up clients with the intention of helping them build a career. That being said, an agent’s work goes well beyond selling a manuscript and negotiating a contract, as there’s much to handle after the initial sale of a book. There are multiple steps leading to publication, including (but not limited to) the editorial process, copy edits, cover design, subrights. After publication, there’s marketing and promotion with a publisher, royalty statements, new editions of a book, next books. Each step poses its own challenges that an agent helps manage and guide an author through.
Jen, you’re one of the rare agents who is also a writer. Your picture book Piggies in the Pumpkin Patch, co-authored with illustrator, Mary Peterson, was recently released by Charlesbridge. How did you decide to collaborate? What was it like crossing to the “other side?”
Our collaboration happened naturally over the course of many discussions – it all sort of fell into place, and we had a great time working together on Piggies! As for being on the other side, it was eye-opening. The revision process, even for a short and snappy picture book, can be grueling, and marketing is a job of its own! I can say with certainty that I am a better agent for the experience of publishing a picture book. I get it now in a way that I couldn’t have understood it before.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a beginning writer?
Don’t just read, study. Study how successful authors craft their books. I tell writers that Picasso didn’t become Picasso overnight. He first copied and studied the masters before him in order to learn his craft, and then he found his artistic voice and became the Picasso we know. Aspiring authors should do the same. Also, join SCBWI and attend their conferences.
We know you love books, but tell us what you love about the children’s book publishing industry. What frustrates you?
I’ll start with my frustrations because it’s nicer to end on a positive note:
I get frustrated when publishers are wary of embracing changes in the marketplace until that change begins to creep into the mainstream. I wish there was more widespread excitement about experimentation. The view from where I stand can be amusing because I can see a moment where a genre change is on the horizon, but there’s still resistance to it. Then a handful of months down the line, I see this change creep into the mainstream and before I know it, everyone’s hungry for the same thing. But I also understand a publisher’s need to be slow-to-change.
Now for the lovely part. I love how vibrant the industry is — from the books being published to the community. I love how generous and supportive the community is. Do you know of an organization like SCBWI that exists for adult authors? I don’t. And what about the leagues of forums, blogs, websites and Twitter chats that offer helpful information for writers and authors? It’s wonderful! Also, I love the variety of material available to children and teens. And currently, I’m not-so-secretly loving that Hollywood is looking to the kids’ market for material because frankly, kids’ books rock.
I am always looking for middle grade — literary, commercial, tender, funny, quirky, girl-oriented, boy-oriented. I love it all. I’m pickier with YA, as I have a lower threshold for teenage angst, but I’m looking for mind-blowingly smart books that experiment with format (think Jonathan Safran Foer), swoony romances, and funny. I’m also interested in YA about extreme religion. As for picture books, I’m particularly interested in author-illustrators, and I like character-driven picture books, the short and snappy, and the very beautiful.
We at the Mixed-Up Files believe that kids will always read books. No matter how popular e-readers become and exciting opportunities for the future aside, there will always be those that must touch and smell the printed page. Can you speak to that?
I agree — there’s an additional sensory experience in reading a traditionally published book. I like holding a book, flipping through and dog-earing pages, underlining favorite passages. I also like the way books look stacked on my nightstand, lined up on my shelves, left open-faced on the coffee table. And there’s satisfaction in handing over to a friend a book they must read immediately.
That being said, the industry is changing and we would be remiss to not grow with it.
If you could make your mark on the publishing world with one personal opinion, what would it be?
The world is more colorful and diverse than many books portray. We need to consider our growing and changing populations when writing and publishing books for children and teens. We need to make more room for books featuring multicultural characters. This is just one reason that I adore the books Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu and Lamar’s Bad Prank, Crystal Allen’s book I mentioned earlier.
Thanks for joining us today, Jen. You’ve opened our eyes, made us laugh, and given us books to study. That, too, is what agents do.
Diana Greenwood writes from her home in the Napa Valley. She is represented by the amazing Jen Rofé. Diana’s debut novel, Insight, Zondervan (Harper Collins), is available now. Visit her website at www.dianagreenwood.com.