Deborah Warren is the founder of East/West Literary Agency, which represents new and established authors and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. Clients include Kwame Alexander, author of the Newbury Award-winning The Crossover, James Dean and Kimberly Dean of the Pete the Cat series, and Antoinette Portis, author and illustrator of books including Now, and Best Frints in the Whole Universe.
Deborah is a faculty member for Writers Day on March 3 in Los Angeles. She talks to us about her agency, what makes a strong manuscript, and the Writers Day pitch sessions.
Erlina Vasconcellos: How did you get into the publishing business and what keeps you here?
Deborah Warren: I started East/West Literary in 2000, but my career in publishing really began in 1980 at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), in San Diego. When I left, I was VP/Director of Sales, and I credit those years for being the best training ground ever. You see, we’re committed to the business of selling. And understanding the in-depth process of acquisitions, sales, and marketing helps the E/W team attain the stated goals for each of the agency’s clients: to close the best possible deal with the best possible editor at the best possible publishing house. What keeps me in the industry? The like-minded souls in children’s publishing, the fabulously talented authors, illustrators, and editors whose main goal is to create books that are both windows and mirrors for today’s young readers. We need these books more than ever!
EV: You have said that you look for character-driven stories. Anyone who has tried to craft one knows that’s not easy to pull off. When authors/illustrators fail to deliver on character in a manuscript, what’s usually missing?
DW: True, it’s deceivingly difficult to write for children, but the end result must not only flow effortlessly, it must draw the reader in via any number of ways. When the manuscript falls short, it may be missing voice, cadence, relevant language choices, kid-appeal for today’s reader, or that “spark” or hook that will keep us reading, just to name a few. This is not to be seen as a check-list by the way. Every manuscript is different. There may be a fabulous premise but no follow through; a wonderful cast of characters but no plot.
But in response to your question, there’s no “failing” here. When we reject a submission, it is for a myriad of reasons, one of which could be that it’s not a good fit for our agency. Just as an editor must truly adore your manuscript to want to champion it from submission to published book, so must your agent. One of the most common mistakes is not taking the time to be sure we are the “write match” for you. Study our monthly newsletter. Note who our clients are. Read their books. Each agency has a personality. Does your personality fit ours?
EV: Besides character, what else makes you stop and take a second look?
DW: What we’re seeking is quality. A story, whether non-fiction or fiction, that will touch hearts (including ours); open a reader’s eyes to a fresh perspective; be that book you can’t put down. But here’s something to know about me: When I go shopping for new clothes, I don’t usually look for something specific. I’m open to falling in love with that perfect (or should I say “write”) fit that I’m not looking for or even know that I want. It’s all about the connection with me. That said, if you’ve written a Downton Abbey for MG or YA, we need to talk immediately! I also love the look and feel and concept of classic Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes, so I’m up to see anything in that genre. Battlestar Galactica was one of my favorite shows, and I’m still upset that it was cancelled. Oh, and I love re-imaginings of fairy tales, too, like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess Bride.
EV: You will be participating in speed pitch sessions at Writers Day. How can writers make the most of their limited time?
DW: Be yourself. Your manuscript pitch is only part of the equation. Pitch sessions are like speed dating. I am not only looking for a stand-out story, I am looking for people I love working with. You may have an amazing resume, but do we connect? Is there a sense of mutual trust? Are we the “write fit” for you and vice versa? Do you know whom and what we represent? For a great glimpse of our titles and genres, please see our monthly newsletter.
EV: Any pet peeves or things to leave out of a pitch?
DW: “My students/family/husband/grandma loved it…”
“I see this as a five-book series…”
Let’s start with the first book first.
EV: What about query letters? How does someone knock it out of the park?
DW: Show and sell. Use that one-page opportunity to project your personality through your writing as you wow me with your manuscript.
EV: What are your top three pieces of advice to pre-published authors?
DW: 1. Be clear on your expectations. Getting an agent —”any agent (please!)”— is not the end/all–be/all. Understand and appreciate the process…and YOUR process.
2. Be sure your writing is ready for an agent. Take time to hone your craft. As Penguin Senior Editor Stacey Barney told participants at an SCBWI Summer Conference, “Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.”
3. Write. Read. Write. Read. Repeat. Revise, revise, revise. Pace yourself. Put in the time.
To learn more about Writers Day, or to register for the event, click here.
For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.
Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she writes pictures books and for middle grade. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda
All photos courtesy of Deborah Warren. (Pictured with Antoinette Portis and James Dean)