Today I am so pleased to introduce Susanna Leonard Hill
to the How I Got My Agent
series. Susanna is the author of seven picture books, the most recent being April Fool, Phyllis
– the second story featuring the lovable groundhog Punxsutawney Phyllis
. (I adore Phyllis! Talk about a great character-driven story). Other titles include the funny and clever Can’t Sleep Without Sheep
and the sweet Not Yet, Rose. Susanna has also recently launched Just Right Books
on her blog, where people can review and recommend beloved picture books for the list. It’s a great way to find perfect picture books to give this holiday season. And now, on to Susanna!
You have an unusual story of how you got your agent. Can you share it with us?
It’s true. I did not get my agent the usual way. In my case it was fate. Or maybe destiny 🙂 Really. Here’s
what happened: when my oldest daughter was about to start kindergarten, we moved out of the city to a house without much of a neighborhood. All my daughter’s preschool friends were left behind. I hated to think of her marching bravely, but alone, into her kindergarten classroom not knowing a soul. So I called the school and asked for the names of a couple of her classmates who lived nearby so that we could get together and play once or twice and she’d have a couple of friendly, familiar faces on the first day of school. One of the women I called was happy to bring her son over to play with my daughter, and as the two of them chased each other around the yard we talked about this and that. “Do you work outside the home?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m a children’s literary agent.” “Really?” said I. “I write children’s books…” She said she’d love to see what I’d written. But nothing is simple. I had never shown my work to anyone. “What if she hates it?” I asked my mom. “Then every time there’s a kindergarten get-together – Halloween, the holiday concert, etc – I’ll have to see her, and she’ll be all lord help me there’s that woman who thought she could write
, and I’ll be all I wish I was invisible
!” Awkward!!! It took me 6 months to get up the courage. Seriously. Finally my husband told me I had to do it. “If you don’t,” he said, “you’ll never know.” So I did. And she liked my stories. And the rest, as they say, is history 🙂
What an amazing story! It shows us how important it is to get over our fears and get out of our own way!
How has having an agent changed your writing process? Your writing career?
My agent has not changed my writing process. I write. I make my stories as good as I can. And then I send them to her. Sometimes she likes them and out they go on submission. Other times she doesn’t think they’ll work as picture books. Every now and then she thinks they’re close but not quite right, and in that case she might have a vague suggestion of what I might do to improve the story to make it sale-able, but she’s not an editorial agent – the kind that will really work in-depth with you to tweak your story. As for how she’s changed my career, I think I owe her my career 🙂 I didn’t have one before I met her, so I’m deeply grateful to her for taking me on and for all that she’s done.
The picture book market continues to be tough right now. What suggestions do you have for PB writers looking for an agent?
I wish I had a really good answer for this – something concrete that writers could say, “Oh, OK! I can do that!” But all I can really say is the same thing you’ve probably heard many times before: write the best stories you can write, the ones that make your heart sing, because your passion will come through, and those will be the stories that really shine. Submit those. Good stories will always find homes – with agents, with editors, with publishing houses.
Those are very encouraging words, actually. I like the notion that the best way forward is following the guidance of our hearts. All else will follow.
Your second Punxsutawney Phyllis book, April Fool, Phyllis! came out this year. Congratulations! What’s on the horizon now? Will we see any more stories with the lovable Phyllis?
You know, I am very fond of Phyllis 🙂 She’s cheeky and brave and believes in herself in a way that I wish I could. I would love to do at least one more Phyllis story (I have actually written one :)) but it’s going to depend heavily on how April Fool, Phyllis! sells. If sales aren’t strong enough, Holiday House is not likely to take the risk on another Phyllis manuscript. I have a few other stories out on submission right now, but as we all keep coming back to, the market is very tough right now. Having publishing credits doesn’t necessarily help you in selling a new manuscript. In fact, if your sales haven’t been that strong, it can actually hurt you.
Another good message for the unagented among us: there is no panacea. Even post-publication, writing is a labor of love and not necessarily one that brings instant fame and fortune.
In light of the tough market and the need to put up good sales numbers, what have you been doing to market your books? Have any of the strategies worked better than others?
Marketing, for me, is one of the toughest parts of the job. I have no training in marketing. In real life (as opposed to online :)) I’m on the shy side – definitely not an outgoing saleswoman type. I don’t feel comfortable tooting my own horn – I’d much rather toot someone else’s! But these days there’s no money to market mid-list books, and publishers expect you to do it yourself. They assume you have a website, a Facebook page, a blog, and a twitter account and that you’ll be active in social media. I do not have a twitter account, but I have slowly added everything else over time, learning as I go. I have painstakingly constructed a mailing list of schools and libraries within a radius I feel comfortable driving for visits, a VERY time-consuming job, and one that constantly needs updating. Whenever I have a new book out I make a postcard on Vistaprint or gotprint and mail to my list. I also mail a flyer or postcard at the beginning of the school year to let people know I do school and library visits, book fairs, festivals, anything where books are sold, and I do all my own scheduling for these. I search out opportunities to be interviewed on blogs, local and online magazines, radio etc. I do giveaways on GoodReads and on my own blog and other people’s blogs to increase awareness of my books, and I donate signed books to charitable organizations and causes – Reach Out And Read, Light Up The Library, fight against Parkinsons, and many others. I have bookmarks with my characters on them that detail my contact info and pencils with the names of my books on them which I give away at book fairs and school visits. With help from my daughter, I have made book trailers for 5 of my books and posted them on YouTube. I attend as many conferences for teachers and librarians as I can. And I spend what time I can reading up on how to do all of these things better and looking for new ways I can get the word out. I don’t really know if any of these ways have worked better than others – it’s very hard to measure the effect of any of them 🙂 The tough part, aside from the fact that I’m figuring it out as I go along, is that all these things take a lot of time – time away from writing which is what we all really want to be doing.
For the record, I think you are doing a fabulous job! I’ve only “met” you through your blog, but because I’ve come to know and love you through that venue, I’ve bought two of your books. Marketing can be a morass, but it’s good to know what published authors are doing, so thanks for sharing and being so honest about what it’s really like.
Lastly, I know you’re participating in PiBoIdMo. Do you have any favorite ideas that have come up that we might see on the shelves someday? 🙂
I actually have a non-fiction idea I’d like to follow up on, and two different holiday-related story ideas I’m keen to pursue. Thanks so much for having me, Julie, and if anyone has any questions, I’ll be sure to check in so I can answer them!
Ooh, can’t wait to hear more! Thanks so much for being here, Susanna, and I look forward to being the proud owner of many more of your books as the years go by!
If you are a picture book writer with an agent or an agent with picture book writer clients and would like to be featured in this series, please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo (dot) com.
, Children's Books
, How I Got My Agent
, Picture Books
· Tags: Authors
, Can't Sleep Without Sheep
, Children's Books
, How I Got My Agent
, Julie Hedlund
, Not Yet Rose
, Picture Books
, Punxsutawney Phyllis
, Susanna Leonard Hill