The last step of a book’s journey takes place when it enters the hands of an eager reader. Before it gets to that point, a book must go through many different stages of development. One of the first stages after the manuscript is written, or at least conceived, is facilitated by a unique, behind-the-scenes player: the literary agent.
Steven Malk is a children’s book literary agent at New York-based Writers House, one of the largest agencies in the world. He works out of the San Diego office, which he opened for Writers House in 1998. As an agent, Steven teams up with authors to help them achieve their publishing goals.
“I’m a career manager, their advocate, the person in the author’s corner,” says Steven. The role of the literary agent includes negotiating publishing contracts, but it’s a much more comprehensive relationship. “It’s all about having a champion, which I think everyone needs and deserves in this business,” he says.
Steven’s passion for books and the business of books began when he was a child. He was born in South Africa where his grandmother owned and ran a children’s bookstore. His parents moved his family to San Diego in the late 1970s and opened their own children’s bookstore, The White Rabbit.
“I grew up with such a deep respect for books and the people who create them,” says Steven. He was privileged to meet many famous authors through his parents’ bookstore, including Beverly Cleary, James Marshall, and Barbara Cooney.
Steven worked in the bookstore through high school and college and learned how to hand-sell books to customers.
“I loved interacting with customers, trying to read their taste, finding out what they like … A lot of the time I was matching the customer or the kid with the book,” says Steven. “When I was in the bookstore, I was seeing the book in its final form. I was part of its last part of the process, selling it to the customer. Now I’m in the first part of the process, selling it to the publisher.”
Last fall, Steven had the opportunity to snatch up a debut author-illustrator, Elise Parsley, who sent him an email query about representing her children’s book If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! It doesn’t often happen this fast, but in Elise’s case, it took just 72 hours for her to land an agent and a book deal.
“As soon as I saw her work, I didn’t even hesitate. It was really hilarious and really accomplished for someone who is new,” says Steven. Elise’s book is due for publication in the fall of 2015.
Writers who are interested in approaching an agent with a query or manuscript can do a few things to give themselves an edge. In the case of children’s book authors, Steven recommends joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and picking up a copy of the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest. The annual book is a comprehensive guide to publishing and a list of contact information for agents and publishers. There are conferences and Writer’s Market books available for adult genres too.
“If it’s your career, you want to do it right. Even if you take an extra year to educate yourself and learn about the process, that’s nothing when it comes to a long career of writing,” Steven advises.
Agents walk alongside writers through their careers and are often the author’s only constant in an ever-changing publishing world.
“Right now, I’m finding Elise Parsley a publisher and negotiating her a deal with a publisher, but in twenty years we may be negotiating a film deal,” says Steven.
For Steven, representing authors and children’s books goes even further than the one-on-one relationships he forms with his clients. He considers himself fostering the love of reading in general by putting good books into the world for kids to read.
“That’s really important to me and the people I work with,” says Steven. “At the end of the day, they want their books to be out in front of as many kids as possible.”
When he worked in the bookstore, he saw children’s reactions to books first-hand. Now he is more removed, hearing kids’ reactions from clients who receive fan mail. Still, it’s gratifying to know that his work as an agent is making a difference for kids.
Even though he believes books can make a difference, Steven tries not to seek specific types or topics of books to represent. He believes the best work comes from a personal place for someone. Writers should write what they feel compelled to write, he says, rather than altering what they’re doing because of popular trends.
“I’d love to see more timeless, classic books out in the market. I’m kind of old fashioned, and that’s the kind of stuff I’m drawn to. The stuff that stands the test of time,” he says. He would love to represent “the next Charlotte’s Web.”
Most important of all is the impact the books make on the kids.
“I want to represent books that make a difference in a kid’s life or even changes a life, because all of us in the business believe that books can change people’s lives,” says Steven. “It’s an overwhelming, pretty amazing feeling.”
Photos courtesy of Steven Malk. Feature photo: Steven reading with his daughter.
Naomi Krueger is a freelance writer and managing editor of Books Make a Difference. She lives near Saint Paul, Minnesota where she enjoys gardening, biking, and reading good books.