Editor / Agent Spotlight

Editor Spotlight: Karen Chaplin of Quill Tree Books/Harper Children’s/Teen

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! Today, I’m pleased to have with us, Karen Chaplin, Executive Editor at Quill Tree Books / Harper Children’s/Teen!

JR: Hi Karen, thanks for joining us today!

 

KC: Thanks so much for having me!

KR: To start with, could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor at Harper?

KC: Sure! I had a bit of an unconventional path to becoming an editor. I started out on the children’s managing editorial side of the process—copy editing, scheduling, proofreading. I did that for a few years until I made my way to editorial, first in academic publishing, then back to children’s, where my heart always was. I look at all my different jobs as huge learning opportunities, and even though I didn’t go the traditional route, I still use all the knowledge I gained from my time in managing editorial and academic publishing. They were extremely valuable experiences.

 

JR: You’re right, that is unconventional. But thankfully, you wound up in children’s books! And speaking of which, what was the first book you worked on?

KC: When I was at Puffin/Penguin Young Readers Group, my very first acquisition was a four-book YA series call The Specialists by Shannon Greenland. They were such fun books! About a girl who was recruited into a secret spy group, which eventually became her family. Sort of a version of X-Men meets Spy Kids.

JR: X-Men meets Spy Kids? I’m in! What do you enjoy the most about your job?

KC: I love working with my authors. Collaboration, exchanging ideas, being creative—it’s exciting to bring an author’s vision to life and have a small hand in it.

 

JR: When I read the books you’re involved with, it is some eclectic list. Is there anything that you look for in particular?

KC: I’ll say that one of the things that unites my fiction list is a strong narrative/character voice that takes me back to being a kid. It’s so hard to do, but when it is done well, these characters feel like they could’ve been me, or one of my friends, back in the day. And as for nonfiction, I love learning new things, so the stories I like to bring to readers are ones that are little-known or a different perspective or experience on a familiar time period.

 

JR: Are you very hands-on with your authors?

KC: I try to take cues from my author. I’m happy to be a very hands-on editor if my author needs me to be. At the same time, I never want to be too hands-on that I crush the creative spirit. But I tell my authors I’m here if they need me.

 

JR: That sounds like a good policy. What advice can you give to authors?

KC: What I tell my authors is to read in the category you want to write in—learn everything you can from other authors. Writing is a craft, and you can always get better and learn new things. I would also say don’t get caught up in trends or word counts. Write until the story feels finished. You can always go back and revise—that is probably the biggest part of the writing process.

 

JR: Great advice! Now, I have to know, what was your favorite book as a child?

KC: Wow, that is a tough one. There were so many! I was obsessed with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Harriet the Spy. I also devoured Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus and Ramona.

JR: From the Mixed-Up Files? Well, you certainly came to the right place for that! I read that you also liked the Encyclopedia Brown, which I loved as well, but if you had been friends with him, do you think he might’ve gotten on your nerves for being a know-it-all?

KC: Ha! I did love Encyclopedia Brown—and really mysteries in general. I was a huge fan of all thing mystery—Agatha Christie for one. And yes, I do think I would’ve gotten a little annoyed with Encyclopedia Brown, but he was clever and always right….

JR: I LOVE Agatha Christie! And Then There Were None is one of my all-time faves! I know that you’re also a fan of The Great British Bake Off. You posted a challah that you baked, which looked delicious. Do you enjoy baking in general? If so, what’s your specialty, and follow-up, did you make enough for everyone?

KC: You’ve done your homework! Yes, I got into GBBO, probably a bit late, and it inspired me to make a challah, which looked great but turned out dreadful. (I will conquer bread one of these days!) I do really like to bake in general. I make a lot of banana bread, which my family devours within a few hours of it coming out of the oven, usually not even leaving me a slice.

Karen’s Actual Challahs!

 

JR: Well, they do look great, so when you conquer bread, save me a slice! How can people follow you on social media?

KC: I’m on Twitter @capchapreads

JR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today!

KC: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to chat!

 

Well, that’s it for this month, my mixed-up friends! I’d like to once again thank Karen Chaplin for joining us, and until next month, Happy Reading!

 

Jonathan

Agent Spotlight: Alexander Slater, Trident Media Group

Alex Slater has been with Trident Media Group since 2010. His clients include Ali Novak, Janae Marks, Jodi Kendall, and other award winning and bestselling authors. He is most interested in stories that blend genres, in characters that have been historically underrepresented, and in voices that enrapture him to the point of missing his subway stop. His list focuses intently on middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction, but peppered throughout are adult thrillers, literary fiction, Coen Brothers-esque crime noir, pop culture, narrative nonfiction, and in particular, graphic novels for all ages. Alex lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

It’s not often I get a rush of excitement reading an agent’s manuscript wishlist, but Alex Slater’s tweets hashtagging #MSWL set my heart aflutter. Just one of my many favorites:

Please send me #MG that you’re afraid pushes the envelope, concerning topics some might think “aren’t suitable”…yet that’s exactly why you had to write it. Send me your truth. #MSWL

Who could resist a request like that? Slater’s wishlists beg for qualities like “empathy,” “heart” and “humanity,” paired with concepts that “burn down white supremacy,” in genres including creepy MG, graphic novels, and work by marginalized authors. This lit agent also gets serious props from current clients like Keah Brown, who gushed not long ago: “he just lets me be and fights for the things he knows I want. He’s a real one.”

Slater’s clients include two 2020 middle grade debuts, Claire Swinarski (What Happens Next) and Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington). He reps graphic novelist Breena Bard (Tresspassers) and middle grade authors Amy Ephron (The Other Side of the Wall), Jennifer Blecher (Out of Place), historical nonfiction kidlit author Tim Grove (Star Spangled, May 2020), and Adam Perry (The Magicians of Elephant County).

Welcome Alex!

I love that you’re actively soliciting middle grade fiction that addresses topics that some may consider unsuitable. I’m drawn to books like this myself. But aren’t you courting a massive headache? How would you go about persuading an editor (or for that matter, a librarian, parent, bookseller) that envelope-busting middle grade subjects are not “niche” books with low sales potential (or perhaps worse, books likely to be censored or rejected by gatekeepers)?

FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks is an important and timely debut about systemic racism, criminal justice, and cupcakes.

The Congressman, and award-winning children’s book author, John Lewis has devoted his life to getting into “good trouble,” that is, engaging in types of civil disobedience, and it’s an activity we should all participate in. Getting into necessary trouble that pushes boundaries and changes minds for the better is my goal as an agent and as a human being.

In regards to the books I help publish, that means seeking out stories with the themes, characters, or plots that the gate-keepers of the past didn’t trust children enough with. That gate-keeping got us to where we are today. If we don’t push past it, if we don’t ask more questions, or seek more stories, we don’t progress to where we need to be for our children’s children. So yes, it’s a risk to ask editors, booksellers, or teachers to step into this same frame of mind, but I will point out that it’s only bestselling books that ever get banned.

You’ve been in the lit agent business for a decade now. What’s changed in the middle grade marketplace in that time? What changes are you excited about, what changes less so?

In the past decade, publishers finally began believing that audiences want more diversity in their literature. The bestseller lists don’t lie, and more stories that exist outside of the white American experience have been breaking on to it. Middle grade books with people of color on their covers are no longer automatically shelved, artwork hidden, into a section at the back of the bookstore. They are now face out, front and center, on display when you walk inside, or featured on websites. And while diversity is no longer as hidden, and in fact it’s celebrated and sold, the numbers continue to show that predominantly white stories are being published, and the marginalized stay marginalized. There is still much work to be done.

Breena Bard’s graphic novel, TRESPASSERS, publishes in May 2020.

Another part of the marketplace that cannot be ignored is the explosion of graphic novels and their high demand among readers. In just the past couple years we’ve seen practically every major publisher establish their own graphic novel imprint, if they didn’t have one already, and a vast majority of the graphic novels that are selling so well are for middle grade audiences. Five years ago most agents were barely looking for or taking on graphic novelists because the books were so costly to produce and the advances were too small to justify the time. Now, the exact opposite is going on. I had a graphic novel sell last year in a six-figure auction, on only a proposal. Some might say this is just a bubble, but again, whole imprints operate now for these stories, and as a category they’re selling better than any other book in all of publishing. It’s a really exciting time because it feels like creators have all the control.

What do you consider the biggest challenges for new authors trying to break in at this moment?

If we frame this question with the theory that fewer books are being bought in bookstores, and therefore even fewer manuscripts are being acquired by publishers, the big challenge is getting an editor to see and strive for the long-game in children’s publishing. What I mean is, editors are under a lot of pressure within their companies to acquire books that will make a big splash, and usually, those tend to be debuts.

However, if an editor truly just loves a beautiful, quiet, meaningful novel that doesn’t have real film/TV potential yet, it’s harder for them to ask their companies to invest in it. And if they do, it’s harder still to ask them to invest in that author’s second book, because the sales numbers “weren’t there” to continue justifying that investment. My main goal is to launch careers, and that shortsightedness makes it difficult for everyone.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, by Claire Swinarski, is a beautiful middle grade debut about sisters, secrets, and astronomy.

How do you help your clients build a career, rather than just being one-hit wonders?

Well to expand on my last answer, the way to build a career is to make the best decisions you can along the path of that career. That means going with the right publisher, if you’re lucky enough to get a book offer. It means, at the outset, asking them what marketing and publicity plans they intend to engage in when the book publishes. I’ve had auction situations with my clients that presented us with options like: a higher advance here, but no marketing plans yet; or, a lower advance there, but a fully dedicated team and set of criteria aimed at marketing the book in a great way. In the end, we’ve gone with the lower advance, but with the publisher and editor we feel the most confident in.

That’s having your eye on the long-game. And having an agent to discuss these choices and decisions with is essentially just career managing. When you don’t have these options it of course gets much tougher, and ultimately, I work with my clients to help them make the best work they can so we can get to that place.

How editorial are you as an agent? Can you give us an example of the kind of editorial advice you might offer a middle grade debut author? What kinds of traps or mistakes do you see new authors making/falling into most often? What kinds of editorial work do you think you’re particularly good at or suited to?

In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL, internationally bestselling author Amy Ephron takes readers to London at Christmastime, where a fantastical journey awaits.

Once at an SCBWI event I was critiquing an excellent opening chapter. I told the writer to please send me the full manuscript after the conference. When she did, I realized the rest of the novel needed substantial work. But I loved the ideas she had and, more than anything, the character’s voice was stunning. So we spent about 9 months going back and forth with edits, working on the novel act by act. I’m happy to say it eventually sold to a major publisher.

So that’s the advice I would give: break the book down to its parts. Map the project out with index cards; storyboard it. Scene by scene. And always, always, read the book out loud to yourself. It helps fine tune the characters voices, and shows you trip-ups in the prose.

You seem to really get around as an agent, particularly since you worked in the foreign rights department for Trident. Two questions: What qualities make a middle grade book likely to be picked up by foreign publishers?

Foreign publishers are looking for the same thing domestic publishers are looking for; stories their readers will connect with. If you have a novel about baseball, for example, it’s going to be difficult to convince those editors to buy a book about a sport their audiences know nothing about. However it’s all relative. A country like Japan though, would be interested in baseball! But the UK? Not likely. Meanwhile, genres like the Western actually do work in places like Germany!

Anyway, it’s a fun part of the business. Overall, foreign publishers love irresistible characters, like everyone else. And indeed, some foreign publishers are a lot slower in adding necessary diversity to their lists, but they usually follow the lead of American houses, so that is changing.

And: I’m assuming you hear a fair amount of juicy gossip. What’s the hot topic of the moment for people in the kidlit industry worldwide?

I’m hearing that vampires are back, pass it on.

Author Tim Grove tells the little-known and inspiring story behind the national anthem and the stars and stripes.

Tell us about some of the new and debut books your clients have coming out in 2020. What do these books have in common—or rather, what’s the thread that connects your sensibility to the books you acquire?

A book that just published, and was mentioned previously is FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON by Janae Marks. I’m very proud to represent this important and timely novel about systemic racism, criminal justice, and cupcakes. Also out soon is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT by Claire Swinarski, which is a beautiful middle grade debut about sisters, secrets, and astronomy.

And STICK WITH ME by Jennifer Blecher will be out later in the year (cover to be revealed). It’s her second book, and it continues to discuss bullying and finding your voice during those difficult middle grade years. Personally, all these books share a strength of narrative voice that makes me gasp with how alive the characters feel, and with how permanently they etch themselves onto my heart.

Anything you’d like to elaborate on that I haven’t asked you? How’s life treating you?

Life is great, thank you! Our son Miles just recently turned one, and while my reading pile is getting backed up these days, my peek-a-boo skills have never been sharper.

Follow Alex’s infrequent tweets @abuckslater.

Agent Spotlight with Ann Rose of the Prospect Agency!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! Are we in for a treat today! For my last post of the year, I’m pleased to welcome Ann Rose, who besides being a really great author, is also an agent with the Prospect Agency!

JR: Hi Ann, thanks for joining us today!

AR: Thanks for having me.

JR: To start, could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an agent and also about the Prospect Agency?

AR: Absolutely. A million years ago (okay, maybe not that long) my niece had asked me to read some books with her. She was a vivacious reader and her friends really weren’t but she wanted someone to fangirl with over books. So I told her to tell me what to buy, and we started our own little book club. After one of her favorite characters died, and she called me sobbing, I told her I’d write her a book and this is were my story truly begins. As a girl who has never liked to do anything halfway, I decided if I was going to write her a book I was going to learn everything there was to know about the publishing industry which included getting an internship at an agency on top of my forty hour(+) a week job managing a portfolio of applications for all of America and part of Latin America.

I found agenting to be fascinating, and I loved how each day brought different challenges to conquer, so after a few years, and my day job being eliminated (thanks corporate America) I took to agenting full time and found a home with Prospect Agency. I call it serendipity because really all the stars aligned to make it happen, and I haven’t regretted it a day since.

JR: That’s a great story. I hope you’ve found some books for her that don’t make her sob now! 🙂 How did you get your first client?

AR: I met my soon to be client at a SCBWI conference here in Houston. She had requested a manuscript critique and from the very first sentence of her story I knew I found something and someone special. I requested the full manuscript. Her book then went on to be sold to Macmillan and comes out next Spring. We are already talking about next projects one of which is a Graphic Novel that I’m super excited about and can’t wait until it’s finished.

JR: You must be very excited about that. What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

AR: Publishing is always changing in some way or another which is why I really like this industry; nothing is ever boring or stagnant. Editors come and go, and they move around—which is always interesting to try to keep track of. I’m excited to say that the amount of diverse books written by diverse authors seem to be getting more attention in the market which is awesome and something I’m always on the lookout for.

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

AR: I love working with my clients. I love helping them bring their manuscripts to another level. I love challenging their abilities and constantly watching them grow as writers. I love texting them and telling them how a particular part of their story made me laugh or cry. And once their books get out in the world I know I’m going to love how readers love their books as much as I do.

JR: Your clients must love having you in their corners like that.

Like me, I see that you’ve moved around a lot. Funny that I almost moved to Texas from New York, but wound up in Florida, and you moved from Florida to Texas. Do you think that living in different places has helped influence your taste in books?

AR: I don’t think the places I’ve lived affects my taste as much as the people I meet. But I will say that my move to Texas (and since I didn’t know very many people here) gave me more than enough opportunities to read lots of books.  Now the longer I’m here and the more people I meet and the more integrated my family gets into the community does take some of that pleasure reading time away.

JR: Your friends will just have to understand that you have books to read! 🙂 What sort of books do you look for?

AR: I look for books that make me want to keep reading. I know super specific, right? But really, it’s the voice and heart of a story from the very first line that helps pull me through. I’m always looking for books to take me to new places and that allow me to experience new cultures and worlds. I may have moved a few times, but I haven’t traveled nearly as much as I’ve wanted so anything that can show me something different than I’ve seen before. So, I’d love more diverse books written by diverse authors in my inbox please. (Of all age groups MG-Adult. If it sounds like I could like it send it my way.)

That said, I’d love to see some more middle grade of all genres in my inbox. As well as more adult stories. Rom-coms – historicals with a strong feminist twist (that do or do not have romance) LGBTQIA+ stories. I’m also hoping to open up to graphic novels in the near future.

For a comprehensive list please visit my MSWL page at Ann Rose Manuscript Wishlist

I do try to keep this updated.

JR: That’s great that you represent a wide variety of books and genres. What do you want in an author/agent relationship?

AR: I’m looking for a long-term monogamous relationship. This sounds like a dating service listening doesn’t it, LOL. But seriously, I’m looking to help authors grow their careers. So while it would be great to find that one “Harry Potter” in the bunch, I really want people that I can work with for a long time, because while those big breakout books do happen they are more the exception than the rule. My authors are like my family—we call ourselves the Rosebuds, and I love it.

JR: I LOVE that name! Except now, I’ll probably start thinking of you as the Citizen Kane agent!

You’re also an author of your own books, Road to Eugenica and Breakout. Can you tell us a little bit about them, and also, do you think it helps you to look at your own work through an agent’s eye, or do you sometimes get too critical of yourself?

AR: Sure.

Road to Eugenica came out in 2018 and basically it is about a girl with superhuman abilities from another dimension on Earth—who is being hunted for those abilities. This is actually the book I wrote for my niece all those years ago (and rewrote a number of times).

Breakout is about a group of teens who are forced to work together to escape and AI enforced prison, except, who do you trust when everyone is guilty?

As for looking at my work through an agent’s eyes, I don’t really do that. I mean it would make sense to, I guess, but it’s still an artform, and so I have to write what my heart wants me to. Whether that’s what’s “hot or not” really doesn’t matter to me as a writer. While sure I’d love to sell all the things I write, it’s a journey and with each book I learn something new along the way.

JR: Your books sound really good. Love Sci/Fi and going to have to pick them up! What advice can you give to authors?

AR: Keep writing. If it’s in your heart and something you can’t not do than keep doing it. If you are writing just because you think your book is the next Harry Potter and you will never have to work another day in your life than maybe it’s time to quit while you’re ahead. Publishing/Writing in general is not for the weak of heart. It’s not easy or simple, and the people who love it and stick with it are the ones that will see their time (eventually). It’s not the newest get rich quick scheme. It takes a lot of sweat (and tears) and determination but if you can handle a lot of “no’s” and there will be lots of them. It will make the “yes’s” all that much sweeter.

JR: I can vouch for the seat and tears part! What was your favorite book as a child?

AR: I used to love those choose your own adventure stories. I remember sitting at my friend’s house for sleepovers and staying up way too late deciding if the character should take a ride in the gondola or not. Which I guess it makes sense why I’m a writer now, because I like being the one to make those decisions.

JR: I think I might’ve gasped when you answered! The CYOA books were among my favorites as a kid. My dad always used to get me one whenever we went to the bookstore. And speaking of being a kid, what’s one thing from your childhood that you miss and wish could come back?

AR: Do kids do lip-sync contests anymore? Because if not that should definitely be a thing. I remember going all out having contests and choreographing for lip sync contests as a kid. Those were the days.

JR: Going to have to find out which song was your go-to for lip-syncing. Before we go, I have to ask, I read that you trampoline enthusiast? I’m afraid of even doing standard jumps, so like how good are we talking?

AR: Good? No, I’m horrible. I just think they are lots of fun.

JR: Where can we find you on Social Media?

AR: You can find me of course on Prospect Agency’s website – www.prospectagency.com

On Twitter I’m @annmrose – Twitter

On Instagram I’m @totally_anntastic – Instagram

For my author page, you can find me at Facebook

JR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us today!

AR: Thanks again for having me. This was such a blast.

 

Well, that’s it for this month, Mixed-Up Filers! I’d like to once again thank Ann Rose for joining us. You can check out her books over at Indiebound

I’d love to stay and chat more, but Dorian Cirrone is having me scrub the ballroom floor for our big Mixed-Up Files New Year’s bash!

To the rest of you, Happy New Year from your Mixed-Up Files team!

Jonathan