An Interview with Literary Agent Steven Malk
Originally published in the May/June 2001 SCBWI-Michigan newsletter.
Steven Malk grew up around children’s books. His grandmother opened one of the world’s first children’s bookstores in 1952, and his parents owned White Rabbit Children’s Books, located in La Jolla and Costa Mesa. After working at the White Rabbit for six years and the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency for four, Malk opened the West Coast office for Writers House in 1998.
When is it time to seek an agent?
When you have a well-written, polished story that you have a lot of confidence in. It’s really different for every writer. Some people prefer to try selling a manuscript, or several, on their own. When you feel like you are almost ready to break through, maybe getting personal rejections from editors, that’s a good time to consider submitting to an agent. I personally love working with new authors from their start.
Do unagented authors have any room to negotiate with publishers?
I hate to go into specifics because every book is different. Someone with a good sales record is in a position to ask for a larger advance. This is also true if you are selling to more than one house. But I really want to emphasize that the advance, especially with picture books where the advances are generally pretty small, is just an advance against royalties. Once you get a book out, the royalties become much more important. An escalation clause, for example, can make a big difference in your long-term income.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Working alongside writers and creative people — being a part of the process, helping them strategize. I especially like finding good matches for authors and editors. I only take on stories that I feel really excited about. And I try to find editors who will be passionate about a particular book and a particular author. This is one area where I think it can be a serious drawback not to have an agent. Even savvy writers who attend conferences and network can’t keep track of all the editors at various houses, especially their particular tastes and strengths.
What’s your least favorite part of your job?
I don’t relish rejecting people. I do get a lot of slush. But I also get some very thoughtful cover letters written by intelligent, kind people who have obviously done a lot of research on me.
Why does it take so long to get a response from an agent?
Many publishers are closing their doors, so more writers are turning to agents. What’s hard for people to understand is that agents and editors don’t spend their workdays reading submissions. I am working for and with my established clients during “office hours.” All my reading gets done at night or on the weekends.
When is it reasonable for a writer to follow up on an exclusive submission to an agent?
I’d say eight weeks, in writing. Include the title, when you sent it, etc. Just be professional.
What does a typical day’s stack of submissions look like? I could get up to thirty on a given day. If an average day brings twenty, probably two of them have good cover letters that really make me want to read more.
You hear it said so often: make sure your cover letter is thoughtful and professional. Those marketing guides and articles are there for a reason – it’s surprising more people don’t take advantage of that advice. It’s always a turn-off when I get a letter which was obviously sent to ten other agents. Many people disregard submission guidelines — send several mss. instead of a query, don’t enclose a SASE, etc. or do something as basic as misspell my name.
So what makes a query or cover letter engaging?
It sparks my interest in the story, tells me more than the title and word count. It’s great when a writer can clearly describe the appeal or “hook” of his or her own work and say why I’d be the best representative for it. Sell yourself to me. Professional credentials help, but aren’t necessary. You might mention other authors whose work you like or who inspire you. CWIM has some really good examples of good queries and cover letters.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Be selective. Only send out your best work. If you send an editor who likes your work everything you write in the hopes she’ll like something, the relationship can start to suffer. You want an editor to get excited every time she sees a manuscript with your name on it. You can do yourself a disservice by sending out stories for the sake of having things circulating. It’s much better to have one good story out than four so-so ones.
Anything else you want to add?
I think that sometimes writers get so focused on the “sale” that they lose sight of the goal – putting out a great book. It’s so important to look for the right editor, the one who really “gets” your work and will be excited about it for a long time. A book sale is really a series of sales. An author or agent sells it to an editor, who in turn sells it to her colleagues – other editors, marketing, etc. The publisher sells the book to the sales force, who will sell it to bookstores, who sell it to consumers. You need an editor who will stay passionate about your book and really champion it every step of the way. With publishers becoming so big and having such large lists, it’s important to have someone advocating for your book.