Today Marianne Knowles is chatting with Emily Mitchell, who joined the Wernick & Pratt Agency in May 2013. Emily began her career at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, handling submissions, subsidiary rights, and coffee. She then spent eleven years at Charlesbridge Publishing as senior editor, contracts manager, and director of corporate strategy. At Charlesbridge her books included A Mother’s Journey by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Alan Marks (a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book); Music Was IT: Young Leonard Bernstein by Susan Goldman Rubin (a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist and winner of the Sydney Taylor Jewish Book Award); the Aggie and Ben series of early readers by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer; and Flying the Dragon, a debut middle-grade novel by Natalie Dias Lorenzi. After a brief post-MBA stint in the non-publishing world, Emily is thrilled to be back where she belongs in children’s books. She is accepting new clients in all genres for children.
Marianne Knowles [MK]: You “grew up” professionally in children’s publishing, then spent a year in a corporate setting. What brought you back?
Emily Mitchell [EM]: I left publishing because I thought I owed it to myself and my family to try something more lucrative (and justify more fully the expense of my MBA) before I was too old and entrenched to make the switch. I came back because I realized what I really owed myself and my family was not to feel empty and purposeless all the time. Corporate America is wonderfully fulfilling for many smart, capable, and caring people; I am just not one of them.
MK: How does your experience as a literary agent compare with your work as a children’s editor?
EM: Since my job at Charlesbridge included contract negotiation and management, switching to the agent side of the desk is not much different at all. I still divide my time between editorial work (reading and responding to submissions, offering editorial comments and suggestions to authors) and contract work (negotiating and reviewing contracts, pitching work to editors and third parties). The biggest difference is that, as an agent, I’m exposed to all the different houses and can see patterns and trends within the industry as a whole, as opposed to understanding the world from only one publisher’s viewpoint.
MK: What makes you keep reading a query or submission?
EM: Voice. I’d rather have a weak plot with great voice than a whiz-bang story with weak or boring language. (Note: I would still want to fix the weak plot.)
MK: Are there particular kinds of books you’d like to find among all the queries?
EM: This is always a loaded question, because as soon as I say I’m looking for X, all I’ll get is X. I do like humor and history and smart kids and cows. For comparison, some of my favorite books are The Westing Game, Superfudge, The Penderwicks, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and anything by Jan Thomas or Jon Klassen.
MK: What personal qualities tell you that there’s potential for a good working relationship with an author or illustrator?
EM: Dependability: if you say you’ll send me a revision within three weeks, do you send me a revision within three weeks? And if not, do you at least give me a heads-up?
Flexibility: if I make a suggestion that you think is stupid, do you try it out before telling me it’s stupid? Publishing is collaborative, no matter how brilliant your work is.
Dorkability: Are you kind of a nerd? Do you enjoy embarrassing yourself or your children in public? Do you know all the words to “The Monorail Song”?
MK: What do you see as the agent’s role in the three-way relationship of agent, author, and editor?
EM: I see the agent’s role at first as a matchmaker: finding the right fit between manuscript and editor, and more broadly between author and editor. Once a book is contracted, the agent becomes a sounding board, available for advice or suggestions from either author or editor as a project evolves. Sometimes this means being a translator (“You’re saying X but he’s hearing Y; let’s work through what each of you really means”); sometimes it means being a cheerleader (“You must chill! You rock! And they love you!”); sometimes it means being a heavy (“The manuscript was approved five weeks ago; where is her check?”). In every instance, the agent is an advocate for the author: supporting her work, talking him up at industry parties, thinking about career development and personal success.
MK: Describe some aspect of children’s publishing that you think is better now than it was when you were starting out.
EM: NO MORE FAX MACHINES! I still have nightmares about trying to schedule Bologna [Book Fair] appointments by fax back in 2000. More seriously, the internet has made it possible to work with authors and illustrators all over the world, without the barriers of ridiculous postage rates or time-zone impossibilities. More voices from more parts of the world can only make us better, closer, smarter, and more compassionate as readers and creators.
MK: You’re active on social media. In your opinion, how important is it for a children’s author or illustrator to have an online presence when submitting?
EM: I don’t think it’s necessary for every author to have a social-media presence. Cultivating an online self takes time and energy and a willingness to be actively visible to strangers. Some people are masters at it, but others don’t like it at all. That’s fine: better not to tweet, than to tweet rarely, badly, and/or resentfully. That said, I do think it’s helpful for authors to have their own website, and critical for illustrators to do so. It takes very little skill to set up a simple (free!) WordPress or Blogger site to highlight your books, interests, and connections. And for illustrators, I want to be able to see your portfolio (ideally without bad Flash or frames) without having to “Look Inside the Book” on Amazon.
MK: On the Wernick & Pratt site you state that you are, in your heart of hearts, a twelve-year-old boy. Care to elaborate?
EM: I realized long ago that I would never be an elegant, sophisticated, intellectual, graceful type of person. I am okay with that.
Welcome back to children’s publishing, Emily! And thanks for visiting with us at Writers’ Rumpus.
Wernick & Pratt Agency specializes in children’s books of all genres, from picture books through young adult literature and everything in between. The agency represents both authors and illustrators. It was established in January 2011 by industry veterans, Marcia Wernick and Linda Pratt. Emily Mitchell joined them in May 2013. See their submissions policy here.