Interview With Danielle Smith

*First appeared in SLO NightWriters Newsletter

Danielle Smith began her agent career at Foreword Literary Agents in 2013 where she represents picture books and middle grade books authors and illustrators. Her enthusiasm for children’s literature began as a young child, but grew exponentially when her own two children were born. Shortly thereafter she began reviewing books at her now top rated children’s book review site There's A Book. For more than five years she’s been involved professionally with books through print and online publications. Danielle is also a middle grade book writer, a member of SCBWI and can frequently be found on Twitter (@the1stdaughter) talking about anything from children's books to the BBC’s Sherlock to her own parenting woes & joys.

Being a blogger myself, I am curious how did you decide to start a blog with children's book reviews.
When my son was about 18 months old, he loved books. He loved reading and wanted to read constantly, but I had hard times finding good books for him. The town we lived in at the time had a poor library, my husband and I were in school and didn't have money to spare and I kept thinking: “I can't be the only parent whose kid loves to read so much, struggling to find books for him or her.” I decided to look into it. That was five years ago.

How did you become an agent?What did you want to be when you were a child?
If I had known what an agent was at the age of 8 or 9, I would have said that was my dream job. Through the course of writing my book review blog, I have interviewed authors and editors and I met other book bloggers. One of them was Pam van Hylckama Vlieg. Pam is one of the partners at Foreword Literary Agency now. She started with blogging shortly before I did and we became good friends. Pam started interning with Laurie McLean, who is now another partner at Foreword Literary. I signed with Pam for a middle grade book I wrote. I started working with her and learning about agenting. Then Laurie, Pam and Gordon Warnock started Foreword Literary and needed somebody to work with children's books, picture books and middle grade books. They asked if I was interested in doing that full time. I was so excited about the offer! It was scary at first – when I started my blog five years ago I would have never thought that I would become an agent. But it is neat because what I enjoyed about reviewing was being able to promote books from authors that I really loved. The transition seems perfect. Now I get to work with authors and help them publish their work.

Can you tell me what exactly an agent does? What are your responsibilities once you sign with a writer?
When I decide to represent a writer or illustrator, I will review what they have written, give them revision notes and let them know if something needs to be worked out or if edits are needed to make their work really shine. Once all is done, I submit it to the editors of publishing houses I feel would be interested in it. I spend a lot of time researching and making sure that I picked the right editor for each book. I have a lot of different clients – some of them are more interested in making sure that their book will get great marketing plan and the publisher will get their book out there, others are more interested in working with certain people in a particular publishing house. Then I negotiate the terms of contract. After that author works with the editor and once the book gets published I help with marketing. Our agency is very hands on. We have a whole publicity group that works to promote the author.

Do you continue to work with the author on their next books? Are most relationships long or short term?
I prefer to work with the author long term. I am not a project based agent. I recommend that picture books authors I take on have three or four books completed. For me to just take them on for one book project would feel strange.

You ask to see 10 pages of manuscript. What is it that catches your eye in those 10 pages?What are you dying to see?
I am definitely a character driven reader and agent. Usually when I read a manuscript I consider really good, it is because I become connected to the character even in just those 10 pages. There is something so compelling about that person or the story surrounding that person that I want to read more and figure out what is going to happen to them. There is a big difference between just writing a story and writing something that is compelling. If I could ask for anything, I would say I really want a magical realism story. There are not too many middle grade books like that. Betsy Bird, who is a librarian at New York Public Library and reviews books for School Library Journal, points out there aren't very many middle grade books that feature characters of color. If there is a book with a character of color, then it is what the story is about. There should be books in which characters are different races or nationalities, but it is not something that needs to be pointed out. I would love to see that.

What kind of homework should writers do before they contact you?
I think the first important thing is to read the agency web-site and guidelines. Hopefully before they've done that they finished their book. Don't submit unless you have the whole book. Do some research. I am surprised by the amount of people who mass mail. It is worth your time to look at the agent's blog or web-site if they have one, find out who their clients are, see what deals they made – most agents that I know don't just sign for a project, but want to work with the author long term. It is a partnership you are getting into and you should invest some time into finding the best one for you. If you know what the agent likes to read and what kind of authors he or she represents, then you know if he or she might like your work.

What are the most common mistakes or turn offs?
I think it starts with the query. If you send a very long query that goes into too much detail or does not talk about the book, that is a turn off. I like 3-paragraph query that talks about the book and a little about yourself. Authors need to do their research and remember it is a business relationship. They need to be professional.

For beginner writer who doesn't know the business, what is the best way to search for an agent?
There is a site called Query Tracker. It is a really good site that lists agents. You can search by genre and you can look at each agent and read what other people said about them in comment section.

Does a geographical location matter?
It's a personal choice. For example I don't have any clients that live nearby. Our agency is all virtual, we don't have an actual office. We do Skype meetings and video conferences. I get excited when I get to meet my clients, but to me geographical location is not important.

Is it important nowadays that the author you represent has an established social media platform?
I don't think it matters. It is nice if the author already has that established and it helps with promoting the book, but it is not required. I have a mixed bag – some of the authors have followers and some don't.

Do writers need an agent?
It depends on what you want to do. If you want to publish with a big publisher, then you are going to need an agent, because they won't accept things from general public. But if you want to do your own promotion, you can just self publish. Our agency tailors to authors needs. We can represent you with a big publisher house, or help you with promotion and marketing if you self publish. We can help you to avoid mistakes that might cost you money.

For more information, visit the Foreword Literary site: http://forewordliterary.com/
Check out Danielle's submission guidelines: http://forewordliterary.com/foreword/danielle-smith/

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