Monday, October 31, 2016

Into the Woods...

Karen Grencik

... in search of red foxes.

I graduated from the graduate program at Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults (VCFA) with a four-book contract for picture books that highlighted my love of American folklore and history. But, as much as I knew about writing and story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing. And it is, foremost, a business.

I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. This relationship wasn't a hard find. I already had the contract in hand, or rather contracts. This meant, I already did the hard work. This is never a good idea. Like any relationship, you want to get to know each other, ask questions, and make sure it's a good fit. You don't get married after only a first date. And an agent-writer relationship is akin to a marriage. ( See Mary Ann's wonderful discussion on her relationship with agents!) This agent sealed the deal with the contracts, but a couple of significant  issues arose. She had signed the boiler plate contract. The contracts included a couple of damaging, very strict clauses:  the option clause, which gives the publisher the privilege of publishing your next book, and the non-compete clause, which restricts the author from publishing another book that competes with the work in question. This first agent didn't negotiate to reword or remove them, and I didn't know enough to ask what they meant. Needless to say, that relationship ended in a quick divorce. I found another agent, via one of the agent's clients, but more problems arose.  According to this new agent, because of these clauses, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere, and she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses because she wasn't the agent on record.

 In other words, my career was not only stalled, it was completely derailed.

 That relationship also quickly, of course. Determined, I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses, and then I renegotiated the particular clauses myself.

My first two picture books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The second book was published a year later. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract was cancelled. Thankfully, I had a strong circle of friends, in particular Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer, who understood that business side of things and shared their wisdom and support through those many years.

But there was yet another, stronger riptide I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picture book market was bottoming out. The very genre that I had studied, loved, and sought as my career was no longer an option. What the heck do I do now? Where do I go from here?

Writers have to find a way to adapt. 

Into the woods I went, searching for a place where I belong. 

The challenge became in combining all that I had learned and loved in folklore and history. For a long while, it was a hit-and-miss effort. Finally I had this manuscript, Big River’s Daughter. It was a middle grade novel, an historical American fantasy. By now, I was unsure if it even fit in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant. Even historical fiction was having a hard time.

And that’s when I learned my greatest lesson: the importance of patience and perseverance.

I met Emma Dryden via Facebook, when she was describing her experience as a passenger on a Windjammer cruise – the very one I had gone on as I was researching my book, Big River’s Daughter! I’ve known about Emma for decades; she’s legendary in the field. It turns out, she had just started her own business, drydenbks. I signed up, asking her a crucial question: Where do I fit in now?

And of course, Dumbledore that she is, she helped clarify my thinking and create a plan that would help me achieve my goals. Not only do writers have to adapt to the shifting markets, sometimes they have to make their own place.

Part of that plan included an introduction to agent Karen Grencik, who it turns out had just started a new agency, Red Fox Literary. And this time, I wasn’t shy about asking questions – even dumb ones. And we talked, and talked, and talked. I was cautious given my previous experience. Still, it didn’t take long before I knew: She was the one! One month after we teamed up, Karen sold Big River’s Daughter. Three months after that, she sold my second middle grade novel, Girls of Gettysburg.

All things happens for a reason at the time they are supposed to happen. As River plunges into the wilds of the frontier, taking on the Pirates Laffite and the extraordinary landscape of the mighty river herself in the rough-and-tumble Big River’s Daughter, there is that truth of River’s journey: if one perseveres, life can be full of possible imaginations.

 Speaking of perseverance and possible imaginations, don't forget to enter our Book Giveaway to win a copy of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market 2017!

--Bobbi Miller


Yvonne Ventresca said...

Thanks for sharing your journey!

Michelle Houts said...

This is so wonderful, Bobbi! You and I had similar experiences.You found Karen in the woods, and I found her at the mall! Here's my story: Karen and I also sought assistance from the incredible Emma Dryden before Karen sold my second Middle-Grade novel. Writers do need to be adaptable and it sure helps when we have a great agent behind us! Thanks for sharing, Bobbi!

Rebecca C said...

This is such an important message to share--the need for patience and perseverance in our search for the RIGHT agent. So glad you found Karen! I love the books of yours that she's found homes for!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Super post, Bobbi. We have a similar experience of having a contract in hand, and approaching an agent to negotiate. In my case, after determining that I was not "his kind of writer," he then proceeded to trash the publisher. Man, talk about Prince Charming turning into a toad! I'm glad you recovered from your disastrous "elopement" and found your place in "the woods." Your "adaptation" story is so reassuring. I had four book published during the Big Recession...and all of them are now out of print, which makes me worry about submitting again. The ever changing world of children's publishing...I can remember not so long ago when we were told picture books were dead. Cheers, fellow TA.

BJ Lee said...

Wonderful post Bobbi! Thanks for sharing your journey!

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. So many people would never guess all the struggles that go into each step on the path to publication. Happy you found the perfect agent at last!

CS Perryess said...

You landed in a great spot -- Karen's a keeper! May things continue to go swimmingly.

Bobbi Miller said...

Yvonne and Rebecca: Thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words.

Michelle: Thank you for sharing your story. A fellow kit, too! Karen and Emma are quite the team, too.

And Mary Ann, too. It really is amazing how similar our stories are. Your story of 'Prince Charming' really hit home.

Bobbi Miller said...

Marcia: You are quite right. The writing of stories seems very glamorous and carries the same allure of old black and white movies, with the author pounding away at a typewriter, spewing out wisdom for the ages. The business of writing, however, is anything but.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, BJ and CS, for your kind words! And I agree, Karen is a keeper!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Bobbi, for sharing your Agent Story.
These personal honest tellings make us that much smarter and give us that much more hope.