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Stephen Barbara is the Agent and Contracts Director for the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. His clients include acclaimed novelist and picture-book author Lynne Jonell, Teddy Children's Book Award winner Tammar Stein, and novelist Lisa Graff. He was interviewed by Anita Loughrey in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What made you want to work in children's literature as a literary agent?

SB: I was an agency assistant in 2005 when I discovered middle-grade author Lisa Graff (The Thing About Georgie (HarperCollins, 2007)(excerpt)(blog)) at an MFA reading at the New School in New York. She was my first client, and I netted her a two-book deal at auction. That had a large influence on me. I sensed opportunity in the children's world, and I pursued it.

Do you have a background in publishing?

SB: Yes, but not an extensive one. I worked at the Regan Books imprint of HarperCollins for a few months in 2004 before deciding to enter the agency business.

How did you get your start as an agent?

SB: I got my start working as an assistant and bookkeeper at a grand old agency in midtown Manhattan. I did that for a year. Then, in January of 2006, Don took me on as an agent and contracts director. I haven't looked back.

In your opinion, what makes a good agent?

SB: You need tenacity, which is a quality of businesspeople. And you need taste, which is a quality of people in the arts, because without taste you'll never discover the writers that the publishers love.

Great agents are rare, I think, because these two qualities don't often come together. You were born to agent if you have both the good eye and the drive to sink your teeth into business.

Do you represent writers and illustrators?

SB: Just writers.

How many clients do you represent?

SB: About twenty-five at present.

Do you represent on a project-by-project basis, or do you take on the "whole" writer (i.e. everything they produce)?

SB: I'm most interested in representing an author's career. I rarely, if ever, represent only one project.

At what point in a manuscript do you "know" you either want to work on the project or not?

SB: In the early going. I'll toss a query or manuscript after a couple of pages if it's not grabbing me. Life is too short. Likewise, when I love something I'm jumping out of my chair and reaching for the phone after just a couple of chapters--that moment of discovery is so exciting.

What does the ideal query letter say?

SB: The ideal query letter is a business letter: smart, correct, and to the point. Focus on briskly summarizing the premise of your project in a sentence or two, establishing pertinent information like the setting, conflict (if your novel doesn't have one, that's a problem), and protagonist or hero. Include a short but relevant bio.

Avoid the temptation of comparing your novel to War and Peace (1865-1869). You don't want to come across as sounding desperate.

What "turns you off" a manuscript right away?

SB: Pages of exposition, lots of dry description, flat writing, lack of tension, lack of dramatic conflict, conventional scenes (particularly characters waking up in the morning and staring at themselves in the mirror or brushing their teeth), clichés, banalities, formulaic prose, lack of a striking voice, and tin-eared dialogue.

From an agent's point of view, what are the "realities" of children's book publishing?

SB: You're referring to the harsh, bunny-eat-bunny world of children's publishing?

Truth be told, we're living through a golden age, and it is a good time to be in the field. Editors are acquiring. Authors are producing a variety of great work. The books are finding their readers. Advances are rising, and there is a nice amount of money floating around.

Yet children's publishing has avoided going the sink-or-swim way of adult publishing. There is still the notion that you build an author's career even if it takes time.

It is wonderful to be on the scene now.

What was the easiest book to sell and why?

SB: I negotiated a two-book deal with Scholastic that happened quite rapidly, as I recall. The editor who ultimately won the project was printing out the manuscript and emailing me the same day I sent it, and she put in a preemptive bid a few days later.

In retrospect, it seems easy, but it would be difficult to do again. So many things have to come together for such a quick sale--the right submission list, the right timing, and the right manuscript.

Have you ever represented a book that you loved but couldn't convince an editor to publish? What advice do you give your authors in this situation?

SB: Generally speaking, if I'm in love with a project--really in love, over the moon in love--I will sell it. It may take me six or even ten months, but I will find the right editor. The project you can't convince the editors to publish is the one you don't love but took on thinking it would be an easy sale. The universe won't allow that, I've learned. It is a wicked little irony.

Are you accepting new clients now?

SB: Absolutely. I'm always keen to find great new writers.

Do you give pre-submission editing and revision requests to your clients?

SB: Yes. I tend to spend a lot of time on story development with my clients. I've come to see that the work you put into a manuscript with your clients prior to submission is invaluable. There's nothing like a brilliantly executed piece of storytelling to set the editors' pulses racing.

Do you specialize in any particular genre and/or are you looking for anything in particular at the moment? What are publishers telling you about the market and what they'd like to see?

SB: I've had a lot of success with middle-grade fiction and it continues to be my favorite category. I would love to add more middle grade.

I would also like another literary YA novelist on my list--someone who can write gorgeously and deliver a story with impact.

It's hard to be more specific than that. You have to leave yourself open to being surprised by things you weren't consciously looking for.

How many new clients do you take on each year?

SB: I signed nearly 20 writers in 2006, but only half as many in 2007. I'm getting pickier. I'm looking more and more for the Derek Jeters, so to speak, the best new talent.

Quite honestly, I'd be happy to sign only a few new writers each year, if they were writers I absolutely adored and wanted to represent forever. That's kind of my philosophy. I would rather be great at just a few things than mediocre at a lot of them. So it's all about focus, focus, focus. That's the objective.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children's non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers' Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008's Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org


about me & cynsations

Cynthia is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of fiction for young readers. Graphic novelist. Fond of cats, comics, and cocoa.

Cynsations is a source for conversations, publishing information, literacy and free speech advocacy, writer resources, inspiration, news in children's and teen literature, and author outreach.

Note: via various means and mirror sites, Cynsations has about 6,000 regular subscribers and averages 80,000 page views a month.

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