Hi Ali, I’m so excited to welcome you to our Editor/Agent Spotlight here on the Mixed Up Files, thanks so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me on the Mixed Up Files blog! I’m excited to have a chat with you and your readers.
What was your path to becoming an agent? Did you always represent children’s books?
My path to becoming an agent started when I won a writing contest in first grade, which gave me that write-and-read bug that sometimes bites us early. I confess to many nights spent reading with a flashlight under my covers where my mom would enter and slowly tiptoe her retreat. After all, if the most terrible thing I was doing was defying bedtime for Little Women, things were going alright. This led me to a journalism degree in college and a job in communications for a small non-profit in Atlanta where I served as a trade magazine editor, among other in-house communications roles. Fast forward to a move to New York, then Connecticut, a set of twins and a third baby later, and I found myself a stay-at-home mom for ten years who read voraciously in her free time and fell in love with a book called The Lightening Thief. This led me to an attempt at writing a book, where I realized I was a better editor than writer. Landing an internship at an agency in CT was the key that opened my door to agenting when I decided to go back to work. And, yes, Rick Riordan’s voicey, funny adventurous worlds made me fall in love with kidlit, so children’s books have always been my passion.
What were some of your favourite middle grade books to read when you were growing up? Would you say that has influenced what you look for in terms of representing MG books?
My favorite middle grade books were Hatchet and Box Car Children. I loved the adventure and seeing kids surviving on their own.
Reading these books made me feel a sense of safety, that even in dire circumstances with enough willpower and ingenuity, you could overcome something bad, even young. I also loved Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia. Charlotte’s Web, in particular, was the book that taught me that not every story has to end happily or how you want it to for it to mean something. That sometimes the ones that hurt are the ones that stay with you, and mean something more. Last one, The City of Ember was my descent into dystopian fiction.
Would you say there is any common denominator among all the authors and books you represent? Either within children’s books or across all the genres you represent?
I think most of my books are what I’d call “upmarket” though I do have some very commercial or very literary (on the adult side) titles on my list too. Upmarket to me means a very commercial concept, a fairly fast-moving plot, but an emotional heart with something to say. For instance, my client Lora Senf’s The Clackity is a middle grade book in which a pre-teen living in a haunted town with mostly friendly ghosts goes to an otherworld haunted by an evil ghost to save the last adult left in her life, her aunt. But she suffers from anxiety because of the loss of her parents, so the book is a lot about overcoming and finding hope in darkness. I love that horror teaches kids how to be brave! Another client title, is an upcoming YA “toxic friendship” novel called Dead Girls Don’t Say Sorry by Alex Ritany that asks the question, “What does it mean when your best friend dies and your reaction is relief?” It’s told in alternating timelines, unfolding a tale of layered deceptions culminating in her best friend’s death. On first read, it feels a bit like a thriller, but it’s ultimately about finding yourself and loving yourself and others after being subjected to an unhealthy friendship.
Do you ever ask authors for a revise and resubmit? If you do, what is the difference for you between offering representation knowing that you’ll want to make editorial changes before going on submission, and asking for a revise and resubmit?
I have offered Revise and Resubmits, though fairly rarely. R&R’s typically require a far more in-depth revision than what would happen editorially before one of my signed authors go on submission. There’s usually something more major wrong, and I need to see if the author can pull off a good solution.
Have you seen a difference in what kind of queries and material you are getting since Covid—whether that’s topic, theme, volume, polish…?
I just see a lot more queries flying into my inbox in huge batches as soon as I reopen. I think I had 644 after three weeks this time. Maybe it’s that agents are closing and opening more frequently, and people are waiting and ready when we reopen so it’s an influx. I typically see people following hot trends, so I’m getting way more middle grade horror in my inbox than I used to and far less YA fantasy. As to level of polish across the board, that’s fairly similar to year’s past.
How important is the query for you? Is there anything in a query that makes it an automatic “no” for you? Do you generally look at sample pages regardless of the query?
The query is initially far less important to me than the sample pages. Your writing is the most important! If your writing isn’t up to par, then the concept, even a brilliant concept, won’t get you a request. I used to read part of the sample first, and if that was engaging, I’d go back to the query to read. These days, on my Query Manager form, I ask for a high-concept pitch of a few sentences. I read that first now because it’s time-saving for me and it shows me if you understand what a good concept, hook, quick plot summary and stakes are. I’m also better oriented after reading it, so then I read the sample. I’ll go back to the query if the sample is good. You might get an automatic no if you send me something I don’t represent or if your word count is so far outside genre conventions, it will never work.
What are some of your current favourite MG novels, either from clients or non-clients?
Client books, you say? I mean, I’m super, super biased, but I think The Clackity is brilliant; it’s Bram-Stoker nominated. But I also happen to have read book two of that series, The Nighthouse Keeper, which comes out in October, and Lora’s pulled some sort of magic move, because her sophomore novel might even be better. We’ll see what the readers think, but I’m just amazed at how much hope she packs into middle grade horror! Also, I’ve got a MG novel called Henry Higgs and the Tangle-Hedge on sub, and that’s more speculative fantasy with an autistic hero, and it’s both hilarious and darkly beautiful and so real, and I can’t wait for that one to find a home. Kurt Kirchmeier’s MG debut The Absence of Sparrows is beautiful and is my Charlotte’s Web in that it stays with you because of how real the ending is. And I’d be remiss not to mention Ally Malinenko’s middle grade horror work as well; Ally’s repped by Rena Rossner.
What are some of your current as well as all-time culture faves—TV shows, movies, music etc—that might give querying authors a sense of your overall aesthetic?
Oh gosh! Dateline NBC, The 100, Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent, Virgin River, Castle, The Rookie. These sort of speak to some of the things I rep – thrillers and suspense, speculative fantasy, scifi, dystopian, romance, women’s fiction, stuff with humor or adventure. Stuff with high stakes. For books, I read a lot of SFF in my downtime. Recent favorites are Project Hail Mary and my most favorite this year, the Murderbot series. I’d love to rep something like Murderbot, humorous, smart scifi that deals with what it means to be human. I love Mainak Dhar’s SFF work. Tau Zero is awesome. Seveneves challenged me but was expansive and fantastic. Erin Craig’s work in YA horror is next-level and ignited something in me. In music, I’m a big fan of Imagine Dragons, REM, Evanescense and the Cranberries. And I have to add Big Bang Theory to the list of TV shows. That’s so random but it does say A LOT about me…
What are you loving about representing children’s book authors these days?
I love the idea that I might contribute to the canon of literature that touches and changes kid’s lives like those early books did for me.
And finally, where can people find out about what kind of projects you’re looking for and how to query you?
There’s a couple places to try: my agency’s website www.spencerhillassociates.com. Look at my bio and the submissions page for wish list items. And of the submission page, you’ll find the link to my Query Manager page. This is the only way to query me, no emails please. On my personal website, I post a wish list under the #MSWL tab, and my deal announcements under the Deals tab, so authors can see what I’m placing: https://aliherringwrites.wordpress.com. And I post a lot of #MSWLs on twitter. My handle is @HerringAli, where I remain active and uber chatty, so come say hi.
Ali, it’s been an absolute pleasure doing this spotlight with you and I can’t wait to check out some of the books you mention.
Thanks again for having me!