Thursday, January 27, 2011

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Alyssa Eisner Henkin

Thrilled to give you today’s interactive interview, which features Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. As always, details on the interactive part are at the bottom. Enjoy! (And I'm pretty certain you will...)

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

AH: I have been an agent for four years now. I was incredibly fortunate to begin my career at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers prior to joining Trident. At S&S I was the editor of many books still dear to me, including Laurie Halse Anderson’s THANK YOU, SARAH and THE MOTHER DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB by Heather Vogel Frederick.

But after about six years, I sought a more entrepreneurial environment in which I could sell rather than buy books. This stemmed largely from my innate editing style: I often pitched ideas for books to authors rather than always waiting for the “perfect manuscript” to cross my desk.

Luckily for me, a few months later I learned of a position at Trident Media Group for a children’s and YA book agent. After meeting with visionary Chairman Robert Gottlieb and Executive VP Ellen Levine, I was entirely sold on this infectiously creative environment. Trident offered me a terrific opportunity even though the last time I’d technically sold anything was in fifth grade during the kosher for Passover candy sale.

But this job was better even than chocolate-covered marshmallows. I got to pursue my passion for finding authors, work with them to polish their manuscripts and ideas on both a commercially conceptual level and a line-by-line editorial level, and then sell (or die trying to sell!) those projects to a variety of different publishers.

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

AH: I’m blessed with clients who work hard, dream big, and take constructive feedback incredibly well. In turn, I’m candid with my authors both about what is stellar in their manuscripts, and also about the modifications that I feel will help those manuscripts achieve success. Philosophically speaking, I’m a tortoise and value long term creative careers. Nothing’s more gratifying than to see a book that once accrued a stack of rejections earn hefty royalty checks over time.

In the short term, though, I work harder than hare! Amidst this competitive climate every author needs a tireless and detail-oriented advocate whether it’s for crafting a killer book pitch, negotiating the best deal possible, ensuring that contracts and checks are cut expediently, that editorial letters arrive on time, that book jacket designs are not tantamount to third grade Photoshop experiments gone awry, that marketing and foreign and film sale efforts are strategic and timely, so as to give each project a strong start. Amidst a climate when only 30% of books are actually reported to earn back their advances, this kind of championing is essential.

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

AH: I’m proud to have my hand in a stellar book list for 2011, and the following are just some of many that I ADORE:

This winter my client Utah Book-Award nominee Bobbie Pyron has a classic and riveting dog adventure forthcoming from Harper Collins entitled A DOG’S WAY HOME. The most recent review in Publishers Weekly’s galley talk compared this gem to “THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY meets BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE.” Numerous Newbery medalists and bona fide non-dog-lover critics alike have admitted to crying up a storm, and loving every second of a book that’s already accruing award buzz. Knock on paws!

In summer, the incredibly prolific Lauren Barnholdt has written a true to life YA winner entitled SOMETIMES IT HAPPENS. One part Sarah Dessen, and one part Judd Apatow, Lauren marries romantic poignancy with high school humor and pitch perfect dialogue. The author is a true success story who began publishing in paperback original and now has made the leap to hardcover original fiction.

In fall, my romance and YA client Sarah MacLean, author of The New York Times and USA Today Bestselling NINE RULES TO BREAK WHEN ROMANCING A RAKE, kicks off a new series set in Regency London. There’s no rhyming to be had in the title, but the premise is so delicious and so absorbing that fans will no doubt be voracious for more.

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

AH: I predominantly represent middle grade and young adult fiction. I am also seeking a select number of projects that crossover into the world of women’s fiction or historical romance, as well as a select number of illustrated picture books.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

AH: In query letters I look for everything in the text body of the e-mail: a thorough and intriguing description of the book, five sample pages of the manuscript, and a brief paragraph summarizing the author’s prior track, or other relevant work experience. Full disclosure: If I love the book or even just the sound of it, there are few pet peeves that can ruin anyone’s chances, and I have been known to break my own rules on occasion.

That said, I only accept electronic submissions. I only read attachments on material that I have previously requested, and while I do try to respond to every query in a timely manner (i.e. a month’s time), follow-ups, particularly those done over the telephone, can be a little distracting amidst a work day.

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

AH: I’m looking for middle grade novels with big, swashbuckling plots from mystery to adventure to wish-fulfillment premises. I have a particular penchant for classic middle grade books (especially illustrated ones) that in tone feel like they could have been written forty years ago (or forty years from now).

I’m also keen on tween series in the vein of my first sale (Jessica Burkhart’s Canterwood Crest series) or the aforementioned MOTHER DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB.

On the YA side, I’d love to find more epic romances, historical or otherwise, more snarky contemporary-set novels in the vein of EASY A, and a YA counterpart for Stieg Larson. We’ve all certainly seen many dystopian and paranormal projects, but I’m welcoming to those genres if the premise and the writing feel inventive, and/or dare I say, spiced with humor?

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

AH: Definitely via e-mail at

Thanks again, Ms. Henkin, for these awesome responses. No, really, they were awesome. We almost don’t even need to do an interactive interview--but we will, anyway. Just for kicks:)

If you have a question for Ms. Henkin, feel free to ask it in the comments below. Ms. Henkin will then drop in a few times today and leave her answers down there for you. You have until 6:00 p.m. EST tonight (which is 3:00 p.m. PST), so don’t wait!


Pam Harris said...

Great interview! I have no questions right now since it was so thorough, but I'll be sure to return if I think of any. :)

Krista V. said...

A question I should have asked already: You mentioned being interested in a select number of illustrated picture books. Does that mean you're only interested in picture book writers who are also illustrators?


Anonymous said...

Hi Alyssa, thanks for the post! I have a full with you and have two questions: if you feel a submission is flawed, what makes you take it on anyways? And second, do you read in the order you receive subs and where are you in your reading pile now? Thanks!

Stephanie@thecrackedslipper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie@thecrackedslipper said... rid of my first comment as the kids are climbing on me, and random buttons are being pushed (both literally and figuratively! Snow day number two, whew!)...trying again...

Alyssa, thanks for the great interview! Krista, thanks for providing the venue!

I have a quick question. Can you tell me how you feel about cross-genre projects? Interesting new take or impossible to sell? When querying, would you recommend focusing on the story and hoping an agent gets it, or trying to explain the cross-genre angle?

Thanks for taking the time to reply!

Anonymous said...

Hi Alyssa,

I too have a submission with you, thanks so much for the interview above, it's wonderful. Could you tell the other Anonymous and I your time frame with submissions?

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Also thank you Mother Write for the great interviews.

rebekahlpurdy said...

What are some of your favorite books? And is there any one in particular that made you want to get into agenting?

Anonymous said...

I am deciding between going to the Big Sur conference or spending the thousand dollars on a book editor. Do you have recommendations for which is more worth it?

Anonymous said...

What types of YA fiction are editors looking for right now? Is the market shifting?

GreaterGatsby said...

I've gotten revision comments from an agent but the manuscript is still out with other agents - would you recommend holding off on revisions until I hear back from everyone? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

On average, how many publishers do you send a manuscript out to? Thanks

Jenny Phresh said...

I love what you wrote here: "I have a particular penchant for classic middle grade books (especially illustrated ones) that in tone feel like they could have been written forty years ago (or forty years from now)." After my own heart! Will query indeed.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I've seen hybrid genre tags floating around the blogs and I'm tempted to use one for my query, specifically, Historical Fantasy. My MS is based on tales of historic landmarks and eastern djinn lore. Is it better to just call it fantasy? What do you think about the tags?

Anonymous said...

I laughed when I read what you wrote about book jackets. How much input do your authors get when putting together a cover design?

Alyssa Eisner Henkin said...

For the most part, I focus on picture book writers who also illustrate their own work. But if I come across a manuscript that's not illustrated, but that has big potential, I'd be open to representation.

Sometimes submissions need some structural work...a bit of cutting, bringing the central conflict into the forefront etc. etc. But if I love the voice, and if the author and I share a vision for the plot, I'm certainly open to helping a bigger revision along.

Right now I'm making my way through fulls and partials requested in the late fall and the early winter.

As to cross-genre submissions, it's hard to say hypothetically what would appeal and what would feel overly ambitious. But if it's a YA novel that might have a crossover audience amongst women's fiction readers, I may say pitch it as full-on YA.

As far as submissions, I respond to unsolicited queries typically in 2-3 weeks. But with partials and fulls that I request, it often takes more like a month to two months.

Having started in publishing around the time that books like A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Princess Diaries, and The Spiderwick Chronicles were coming out (my first boss Kevin Lewis acquired that one!) definitely made me understand the huge impact of children's publishing. This kind of synergy made me want to represent properties that I could have a shared risk AND a shared reward in...

I've never been to the Big Sur Conference, though I hear it's wonderful. It might boil down to whether you're in a networking/getting inspired mode or whether you'd rather hunker down and revise hardcore.

I think editors overall are looking for commercial YA, and that means different things to different people. Lately I've seen slightly fewer paranormal projects, and more things that are dystopian, gamer-inspired, and historical sell. But if the writing and the plot feel inventive and exude teen appeal, I think editors are excited to read, regardless of the topic.

It varies but I typically submit to anywhere between 6 and 12 editors at once, depending on the book.

Liesl said...

Thanks! Alyssa was already at the top of my agent list, but this helps me get even more of a sense for her style. Sounds awesome!

Alyssa Eisner Henkin said...

Herewith are a few more answers...I'll check in again this evening to respond to any more questions. Thanks for having me!

If you and the agent discuss exclusive status so far as his or her feedback on your manuscript is concerned, it's only polite to hold off querying until he or she gives you an answer on representation. If no such exclusivity has been discussed, you are still a free agent, I believe.

You can call the manuscript either historical fantasy or fantasy, and I don't think it makes too much difference.

As to jackets, in the cases where an author retains approval or consultation rights contractually, the agent and author get quite a lot of say. And even when those terms aren't granted, I think publishers work hard to get the right pacakge for each book, and one that the author will love, though, sometimes the process can take quite awhile, and it's clearly subjective.

Anonymous said...

In your experience, how important do you think it is for an author to be a member of various online social networks once their book is published?

Carolyn Abiad said...

Thank you! Glad to hear "historical" is a good selling point. YA Historical fantasy it is then...:)

Writer said...

How long is too long to wait after an agent requests your manuscript from a conference? In my case, it took me 10 months to finish the manuscript before I sent it to the agent.

sunny said...

If you sub a manuscript and it gets roundly rejected, how much do you keep trying before throwing in the towel?

writer said...

Can an author be both a nytimes best seller and a newberry winner? It seems the two awards/recognitions are very different kinds of books. Do you tend to gravitate toward on or the other? Also, can a young adult book receive the pulizer?

Krista V. said...

And that's it! (Actually, that was it an hour ago, but I wasn't able to check in until now.) I'll leave these last few questions up, but just realize Ms. Henkin may or may not answer them.

Thank you, Ms. Henkin, for spending the day with us, and thank you, everyone else, for your wonderful questions!

Alyssa Eisner Henkin said...

As far as social networking, it's wonderful to be a part of the vibrant author community online. Many of my clients have been contacted for speaking engagements or by fans through their websites, and it's really helpful to have that presence when you're starting out. As far as facebook, twitter, blogging, vlogging etc. I think that all depends on how much you enjoy this kind of networking and how much time you want to devote to it. If you love it and it helps build your platform, great. If you enjoy doing it sporadically, fine. If not, don't feel that it's a pre-requisite to success.

I can't speak for every agent, but if I requested a manuscript at a conference, and I received a query about it even ten months later, I'd still be happy to give it a read. Although it's always a good idea to remind the agent about the prior request, just to be on the safe side.

As far as rounds of rejections, it's hard to know when to throw in the towel. It might boil down to the type of feedback you're getting. If 20 people cite the same problem with the text, maybe it's worth revising it or putting it in a drawer for awhile and working on something else. But if it's getting lots of near-misses, it may be worth plowing ahead and querying additional agents.

Often the book that wins the Newbery or the Newbery Honor will hit the NY Times bestseller list after the award or honor is announced. Sometimes the Newbery winner is even an NY Times Bestseller before the award is given when there's a lot of pre-buzz. I think my personal tastes range the gamut from literary to commercial, and I'm open to winners and bestsellers of all stripes :) As to the Pulitzer, I don't recall a children's book winning in recent memory...but I'm not sure about the specifics rules..

Krista V. said...

Such thorough answers, Alyssa. Thank you. And thanks for taking a break on our not-quite buzzer beaters:)

Myrna Foster said...

Oy, today was a busy one! I really wanted to be here for the interactive part of this, but I think all of the questions I would have asked got answered. You even asked her my PB question, Krista. Thank you, Krista and Alyssa, for such a thorough interview!

Kelly Bryson said...

Great interview. It's nice to get to know Ms. Henkin, especially for all of her responses in the comments. Thanks!

Krista V. said...

Myrna, I realized as I was posting this that I hadn't asked that follow-up question about picture books, so I was glad this one was interactive so I could ask it later. As always, thanks for dropping by!

Really informative, huh, Kelly? Too bad Ms. Henkin doesn't rep adult urban fantasy:)

Janet Johnson said...

Great interview! Very interesting to see Alyssa's responses to everyone's questions. :)

Krista V. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Janet!

The Sisterhood said...

Krista, thank you for another great interview and for introducing me to another wonderful agent. I'm sorry I came too late for the questions... :(


PS. Agent Chelsea Gilmore from Maria Carvainis Agency has granted me an interview and will stop today by my blog to answer readers' questions, if anybody is interested.

Krista V. said...

Lorena, you're welcome, and thank YOU for the heads-up about your awesome interview. You're a woman after my own heart:)

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

Alyssa is my agent and I adore here!

The best part? She is very communicative. She always responds quickly and has time for me. She is funny and throws around movie and book references. She gets me and my books.

but mostly, she does not give up on her authors even if the chips dont fall where they should or where we hope.

Krista V. said...

Thanks for the comment, Shelli! I love it when clients stop by to gush about their agents:)

Dorothy Dreyer said...

Great interview! She had me at chocolate-covered marshmallows! :D

Krista V. said...

Dorothy, thanks for dropping in!