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.

Categories: Authors, Children's Books, How I Got My Agent, PiBoIdMo, Picture Books, Publishing, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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61 Comments

  1. I absolutely loved reading in more depth about how Susanna got her agent. I honestly think that often it is this “chance” encounters in real life or on line, that help further our writing and our writing careers. These blogging friendships are also so important for the ongoing moral support.

    I do find it interesting that library/school visits play such an important role in your promotion. This is something I am SO looking forward to if/when published. However, that does suppose one is living in a community in which one’s books are sold and available.

    I have been getting into Goodreads the past few months, so I was interested to read that they are also part of your marketing strategy.

    I would love to know if you have met any of your illustrators and have you had any say in their illustrations?

    Thank you both so much for this wonderful interview.

    • Joanna – I have never met any of my illustrators or had any say in the illustrations. In fact, I could tell you some stories! – but that would be a whole other post!!! I have, however, become email buddies with 2 of my illustrators in particular, and friendly with a third as well. And these 3 have been hands-down wonderful! I have asked them to make me coloring pages and drawing activities, paper dolls, masks, and mazes and even help with publicity postcards and they have all been happy to help out and done a beautiful job on everything. (You can see them all on my website on the school visit page.) I have been fortunate in the illustrator department 🙂

      • Susanna, as a follow-up question, do your illustrators also actively promote the books? I would assume they would, but it must be strange to not have any control over what they do or don’t do.

        • That really depends on the illustrator. To my knowledge, Jeff (Phyllis) and Mike (Can’t Sleep WIthout Sheep) do work hard at it. Nicole (Not Yet, Rose) lives in Europe where I’m told things are a lot different – they don’t seem to do a lot of school visits, for example – so I don’t think she does as much of that, but she has worked diligently trying to get ROSE picked up in other languages. The other illustrators I really haven’t worked with much and they have MANY books out – I think things are going well enough for them that they maybe don’t need to put in the kind of time I do.

  2. Thanks for a great start to a Monday . . . marvelous interview and a cup-o-joe 😀

    Susanna, appreciate the tips on marketing!

  3. I like reading these post. It is interesting to see how the “getting your book published” world works! I’m going to check out Punxsutawney Phyllis 🙂

  4. I love Susanna and love this interview! Great job, ladies!

  5. Great interview ladies! I hope April Fool, Phyllis sells like hot cakes so you can seel your third. It is such a clever and fun book to read. I love how you met your agent Susanna, and can imagine the same things about having to see them all the time. Lovely story!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Catherine. You should have witnessed the agonies I suffered during those 6 months… it’s a wonder I’m still married 🙂 Thanks for your good wishes for April Fool, Phyllis – she definitely needs a boost this coming April Fool season as she was a bit late from the gate in 2011 🙂

  6. Phyllis is a great character! I love Susanna that you had the courage to say you write children’s books that day. I’ll have to remember this story, because sometimes I’m hesitant to say it after I’ve had disastrous results telling people “I’m learning the craft of PB.” Thanks for sharing the amount of work you do post-publication. It’s eye-opening. I guess technology like Skype or FaceTime has also opened up a whole new market of “school visits” too. I love all the things you do on your blog! Thanks Julie for a great interview.

    • It was hard, Stacy, admitting I wrote! But I’m glad I did. I’m very new to Skype visits, and I’ve never even heard of Face TIme, so thanks for bringing that up – I’ll go check it out immediately 🙂

  7. Great interview. Like Stacy, what struck me was that you had the courage to say you write children’s books. It is easy for me to say I’m a writer, because I’m a journalist. But I find it very hard for me to say I write children’s books. Good lesson — it opened a door for you. I believe it was destiny. Have just finished reading your books, and I love Phyllis. I also hope that you sell a lot of books so you can publish your third book. Was really surprised to learn you have never met your illustrators or have had any say. Fortunately you have good illustrators.

    • It IS hard to “admit” you’re a writer, especially when you are unpublished. That is one thing I think will be easier after publication (I hope).

    • Part of the reason I said it, Pat, was that I never really thought she’d ask to see my work! Just proves that my mouth goes faster than my brain 🙂 Thanks for your kind words about Phyllis, and yes, I’ve been very fortunate with my illustrators!

  8. Great interview! It’s so fun to hear how other picture book writers got their start, and your story is simply amazing. I guess you really were destined to meet your agent, and it sounds like it has been a wonderful relationship. I found an agent through SCBWI and am so happy to be represented…though no sales yet 🙂 I’m glad you have had good success, even in this market, and like your advice of writing from your heart. That’s all we can do, right? I also appreciate hearing how you do your marketing, in case I’m lucky enough to have my own to do one day 🙂 Thanks again for a great interview, Julie and Susanna!

    • Hey Kerry, maybe you would like to appear on this series?? I’m always looking for participants. 🙂

      • Thanks for thinking of me, Julie. I’d be happy to appear on the series…but wonder if we should wait until I actually sell something? With the market the way it is, don’t know if and when that will happen. What do you think? I do feel extremely fortunate to have found an agent who took me on based on a picture book manuscript, though 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kerry, and I hope you’ll be setting forth in the wonderful world of marketing very soon with your first published book 🙂 Be sure and let us all know when that first sale comes in – you’ve got a built in blog tour 🙂

      • Thanks, Susanna. That’s very kind of you. It is almost unreal how supportive fellow PB writers are. I’m so glad I found PiBoIdMo this year and met so many talented and enthusiastic people. Good luck with Phyllis. I hope to see that third book on the shelves before too long!

  9. Thanks Julie and Susanna! I love this realistic, honest post about today’s publishing/marketing world. Susanna, it sounds like your stories are adorable, and I will definitely check them out.

  10. I love how you met your agent. That’s awesome!

  11. What a wonderful interview and so indepth, thankyou Susanna. I too have been nervous about saying I am a writer, and in fact know of two agents. One actually asked me what I was doing, at a SCBWI meeting and I am ashamed to say I backed away, feeling not quite ready yet.
    This is certainly interesting and an eye opener on how much you have had to do and willing to do, to promote yourself. Being a full time worker will make it harder to find time to market oneself., especially the way you have done, so well.
    Thanks again for a terrific interview.

    • I know it’s hard, Diane, but one way you can help yourself feel a little braver is by preparing a pitch for one or two of your stories so you have something articulate ready to say. I’m the queen of, “Well, you see, it’s about this girl and she has this thing…” when people ask me what my story is about 🙂 If you prepare something ahead, you’ll always have something intelligent and potentially agent/editor-engaging to say. If you want to practice, I know this blog where they do pitches on Wednesdays 🙂

    • Promoting ourselves is yucky! I’ve only had a small taste of it this week with my entry in a contest and it just doesn’t feel great. I now have a much greater appreciation for what it means to be an author who has to go out there and market their books! I’m in awe, really, of everything Susanna has done.

  12. Great story of how you met your agent! Love that. You were being a good mama, too. 🙂

  13. I love the story of how you got your agent, Susanna. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Great interview Julie! I “know” Susanna from her blog (and her awesome comments on my own!), but it was great to get to know more about her. Always love to hear the story of an author’s journey 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Coleen. I always like learning things about different authors’ journey’s too. I read some interesting things about Martin Waddell on Joanna’s blog this morning 🙂

  15. Karma, fate, seredipity, destiny, chance? Makes me think of the phrase: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Well in this case, one very prepared, talented and extremely NICE person got her opportunity! And now she is paying it forward by helping us all along the path to better writing so that we, too, can be ready when opportunity knocks. Thanks to Susanna for sharing your story, and to Julie for featuring it!

    • You’re too sweet, Cathy 🙂 But it’s true – so much of it is about being ready when opportunity unexpectedly shows her face. It’s like I said to Diane above (patientdreamer), you can help yourself so much by being prepared, especially if, like me, you tend to trip over your tongue when you’re nervous 🙂

    • Cathy, I couldn’t agree more with your comments!

  16. Awesome interview!! I love the agent story. Susanna’s books are awesome-I just ordered all of them for my school library! From a school librarian’s perspective, author visits are a must-you will have hundreds of new little fans each time you visit a school. Kids LOVE author visits-especially when they are really interactive and lively.They also love it when you will sign their books-if you send out order forms prior to a visit, you will sell a ton!! We have a hard time getting authors in because the cost is usually so high and our budgets are small. However, I have been lucky over the years, networked here and there with the Tejas Storytelling Association and fellow librarians, and we have been able to get at least one author visit a year since I opened the library in 2007. I am really looking forward to skyping with Susanna soon at my library!

    Thanks, Julie for writing this story! Very enjoyable and informational!!

    • You’re so nice, Kelly! I’m thrilled that my books will be in your library. And I’m looking forward to Skyping with you. I have a very lively, interactive presentation and I’m anxious to see how (or whether – yikes!) it translates to Skype 🙂

    • Wow – a connection made through the post! How exciting!! Glad for both of you.

  17. Thanks, Susanna, for sharing your story…and for listing the ways you developed your writer’s platform. I am attempting to do so before I am published, so your ideas were most welcome!

    A very helpful post, Julie…keep up the good work!

  18. Best of luck, jarmvee! It’s a lot of work, but so worth it when you get such lovely comments and enthusiastic support as everyone has shown me here! 🙂

  19. Wow, what an awesome story! Might that happen to any of us? Congrats for taking the opportunity! I really enjoyed this.

    Thank you so much for sharing this interview! 🙂

    • I don’t know if you’ll meet an agent the same way I did, Karen, but certainly if you keep writing and honing your craft and submitting you have as good a chance as anyone of getting published 🙂

  20. Wonderful interview Julie and Susanna. It’s great to hear about how Susanna got her agent and what were her experiences from that day forward. Nice to meet you, Susanna. I will definitely look for your books to give to my youngest for Christmas!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the interview, Angela. And you are so sweet to consider buying the books. If you’d like them signed you can mail them to me and I’ll sign them and mail them back 🙂

  21. Susanna, It was interesting to find out how you met your agent, and all the work that is involved in your continued success. Great interview Julie, and anything with Susanna is always guaranteed to be fun!

  22. Fun meeting agent story. I guess if the querying process doesn’t work out how I think it will, I’ll just tell my hubby we need to move 🙂

  23. Thank you for sharing all this awesome advice Susanna! So much to be aware of! And Julie – what a fantastic interview. I’m glad you had Susanna over to share. I’ve got a couple of her books ordered from amazon that my kids will get for Christmas. I can’t wait to read them myself!

    • Gosh, Abby, you too? You guys are all so nice getting copies of the books! Like I said to Angela above, if you want them signed you can mail them to me and I’ll sign them and mail them back 🙂

  24. Thanks for all these great comments and support for Susanna and her books! I appreciate them, and I know she does too! 🙂

  25. Hi Susanna, thanks for posting your story here. BTW I think you are doing a great job at promoting yourself and your books on-line. I see your name everywhere. 😉

  26. Susanna, you are such an inspiration to me! I love your interview (thanks, Julie, for sharing this with us!) and I am sure your books will find a home in the marketplace for many years to come!

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