Interview with Literary Agent Susan Hawk

by on Feb.01, 2013, under Contests & Giveaways, Literary Agent Interviews

Susan HawkSusan Hawk represents authors who write for children of all ages, babies to teenage.

I come to The Bent Agency from Children’s Book Marketing, where I worked for over 15 years, most recently as the Marketing Director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and previous to that as the Library Marketing Director at Penguin Young Readers Group. While at Penguin, I also worked for a time in Dutton Editorial, acquiring projects for that list. My favorite part of that time was being able to read new submissions — finding something wonderful and imagining where it can go was thrilling to me then and remains so now.

I handle books for children exclusively: picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA, fiction and non-fiction. In middle-grade and YA, I’m looking for something that makes me laugh out loud, I’m a sucker for bittersweet, and I can’t resist a character that comes to understand how perfectly imperfect the world is. I want a book to stay with me long after I finish reading, and I’m looking for powerful, original writing. I’m open to mystery, sci-fi, humor, boy books, historical, contemporary (really any genre). My favorite projects live at the intersection of literary and commercial. In non-fiction I’m looking for books that relate to kid’s daily lives and their concerns with the world. In picture books, I’m looking particularly for author-illustrators, succinct but expressive texts, and characters as indelible as my childhood favorites Ferdinand, Madeline, George and Martha.

1. What is the best part of being a literary agent?

Calling a client to let her know that we have an offer! A close second is reading something and knowing within just a couple pages, that I love this project.

2. How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

Though I love falling in love with a book, I don’t represent books, I represent writers. I want to form a long-term partnership with my clients, helping to build and develop their career over time. A key part of that is open and honest communication, from both sides, and a mutual understanding that we’ll both work hard to reach the goals we set.

3. What’s something coming out now/soon that you’ve represented and are excited about?

I’m very excited about The Ninja Librarians of Passaic, coming from Sourcebooks in Spring 2014, a fabulous fantasy novel about a girl who falls into a magical and mysterious library, whose wings stretch through time. It’s an amazing world, a great adventure, and the main character is a particular favorite.

Another project I’m thrilled about is 17 First Kisses, a YA novel also coming in the Spring of ’14 from Harper. It’s the story of best friends competing for the new boy in town – who may or may not be worth it – told in chapters that alternate between senior year and the past, revealing family loss and the history of this knotty best-friendship.

4. What are the primary mistakes you see writers make in the query process?

Sometimes I see proposals that feel as though the author has spent more time thinking about how the project should be marketed than writing the very best book they can. I think writers can get caught up in how competitive the book market is. And it is very competitive, so I can understand that. Still, dreaming up marketing plans may come at the expense of your project and in the end, what makes me excited isn’t your marketing expertise, it’s your writing. Don’t ever shortchange that.

5. With fiction partials, what makes you stop reading and start skimming-or stop reading altogether?

I want a book that grabs me from the first line and gives me an immediate, strong connection to the main character. I want to fall in love! Anything that gets in the way of that could stop me – too much exposition, a setting or character description that feels familiar or weak, writing that doesn’t read smoothly, or feels workmanlike.

6. Your agency website says that you’re interested in young adult, can you elaborate more on YA subgenres (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi, etc.) that you might consider? When considering middle grade manuscripts, what subgenres do you lean toward (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi, etc.)?

I’m open to most any genre in both young adult and middle grade, as long as the characters are vital and complex, and I’m captured by the voice. My taste skews literary, though I do want strong plotting and for something to happen to the characters.

I hate to rule genres out because as soon as I do, I read something unexpected and wonderful that based on genre alone, I might not have picked up. That said, I’m not usually drawn to books about horses, animal adventures, wilderness survival stories, or straight-up romance. But if you’re planning on querying me with a project like that, don’t worry – you might have the horse book that will change my mind about horse books, so send it along!

There are some genres I love: mystery, science fiction, and witty, sly humor. I like thrillers, ghost stories and horror, but shy away from anything too bloody or gross – give me tons of creepy atmosphere and I’m happy. I’m interested in books with unreliable narrators, and unique or experimental writing styles. I’ve always loved historical fiction, am especially drawn to English history, and want stories about times and places that haven’t been covered before. I’ve been a fantasy reader forever, though I’m not looking for high fantasy, or anything Tolkienesque. I’m also interested in graphic novels and author-illustrators for picture books.

7. Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where people can meet/pitch you?

I’ll be at the 2013 SCBWI Agent’s Day in Newport Beach, California in March, the Niagara Falls Writers/Illustrators Retreat and Conference in May, and SCBWI Carolinas 2013 Annual Conference in September. I hope to do a few more conferences as well, so check our Agency blog for updates: http://jennybent.blogspot.com/.

8. Is a writing platform important for unpublished writers? Does it weigh in on your decision to represent? Are you a fan of social media?

I don’t make the decision to take on a debut author on the basis of their platform, but I do think it’s helpful for an author to have established some online presence. But before doing that, it’s a good idea to think about the time you have to maintain such a thing. Writing daily, or even weekly, blog entries can be very consuming. Creating a twitter account and following agents, editors and more established authors can take much less time. The writer knows what will work best in their life. I do think that there are so many sources of information for writers out there, and it’s a good idea to tap into that!

9. Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?

Never stop reading. Join or create a writer’s group, if you haven’t already. Take a break and go do something that has nothing to do with writing or your book – none of us are any good if all we do is work, and you never know how something unexpected will inform your project. And have fun!

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