Hi, everyone! I’m so excited to welcome Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency to our Agent Spotlight here on The Mixed Up Files. Molly leads the London office of TBA and works with authors from all over the world — including Angie Thomas, Hilary McKay, Dhonielle Clayton, Casey Lyall, Stephanie Burgis, Meera Trehan, and many more—selling directly to publishers in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia. I’m also lucky enough to call her my agent, and she graciously agreed to answer some questions about querying, author-agent relationships and the publishing world today. Thank you, Molly!
MD: Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to the podcast The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing, where each episode begins with the agents critiquing query letters listeners have sent in for feedback. What are you looking for in a query letter? Other than NOT addressing you as “Dear Sir” or “Dear Agent”, how important is the personalization part of the query letter for you?
MKH: I know writers really agonize over query letters, so I’m pretty forgiving when I’m reading them. A hook-y pitch is most important to me, and maybe a line or two of bio. It doesn’t have to be long. You don’t have to convince me that you’re interesting; I’m trying to evaluate your book, not you. Personalization is less important – I don’t need to be flattered or to be convinced that I’m The One. If there’s a particular reason they’re querying me, then I’m glad to hear it, and it’s always nice to hear that someone enjoyed a book I represented (and why), but there’s no need to scrabble around for a connection that isn’t genuinely there.
MD: My query to you was the old fashioned way: a cold query with no connections. What percentage of your clients would you say have come to you that way?
MKH: That’s such a good question! I think a lot of people assume that you need an ‘in’ to find representation, but most of my clients have come to me via out-of-the-blue queries. There is nothing – nothing – like the feeling of reading a submission from someone I’ve never heard of and feeling that zing of recognition that they’ve written something special.
MD: Something that’s not often talked about is that sometimes a writer’s first agent is not their forever agent. My understanding is that before querying a new agent one must no longer be with a previous agent. What other etiquette is important to know when looking for a new agent? How should the author handle putting information about it in a query letter? Have your clients who’ve previously had other agents come to you through recommendations or through the slush pile?
MKH: I think most agents would agree that it’s bad form to approach a new agent before you’ve parted ways with your current one. I personally am uncomfortable with it. Once you’ve formally terminated your agreement, you can say in your query that you were previously represented by [name] — you might as well say who your old agent was, because potential agents are likely to ferret that out anyway via Publishers Marketplace or Twitter or some other online source. The important thing that agents will want to know is whether your current project has been submitted to publishers by your former agent.
In the last couple of years I’ve started working with a few writers who’ve had previous representation, but not even all of those came with a personal referral. It’s lovely when they do, because a recommendation from a current client is the kind of praise I value most. It’s not at all necessary, though.
MD: In the UK, it’s uncommon to see middle grade novels in hardcover. In the US recently there was a lot of brouhaha on social media about Barnes & Noble no longer stocking a majority of hardcover middle grade novels. Have you seen this hurting newer North American MG releases? Have you seen this changing how publishers are buying middle grade novels—and going about their sales and marketing of them?
This has been quietly brewing for several months as publishers try to talk B&N out of this approach. It is specifically about middle grade fiction, from what I understand. I wonder if we will see more simultaneous hc/pb publication as a result. It’s a huge blow to the ecosystem. https://t.co/1n9fejO4A9
— Erin Murphy (@agentemurph) August 18, 2022
MKH: I know that many children’s writers saw B&N’s shift to stocking fewer hardcovers as a targeted attack on MG, but we’ve been watching their overall buying practices change for a while now. And when you look specifically at MG, B&N has reported returning about 80% of the hardcovers they bought in from publishers. You don’t need an MBA to see that the status quo wasn’t sustainable.
I’m starting to see more publishers plan to release new MG simultaneously in hardcover and paperback – that’s an interesting solution. A lot of libraries will be happy to keep buying the hardcovers, and the retailers can have the editions that they think they can sell. I don’t love the effect this has on advances and royalty earnings, of course – a paperback sale earns less than a hardcover sale. But I want there to continue to be a wide range of children’s books published for a diverse audience, and some experimentation is going to be necessary to make that happen.
MD: What are you loving about being a children’s book agent these days?
MKH: The same things I’ve loved since I started: the thrill of discovery, the sense of satisfaction I get from helping books I care about find an audience, the camaraderie of the children’s book industry, the satisfaction of effectively advocating for authors and making them as much money as I can. And I love working with my team at TBA. We have such a good time, and we’re constantly learning from each other. I’m very lucky.
MD: Where can people find out about what kind of projects you’re looking for and how to query you?
MKH: I’ve got detailed information here and I keep it up to date. I read all my queries myself and respond to all of them, as long as spam filters don’t get in the way.
Thank you again to Molly for this fabulous interview!