Interview with Mary Kole Agent at Andrea Brown Literary
By Theresa Rizzo
Date: November 2011
Mary came to literature from a writer's perspective and started reading at Andrea Brown Literary Agency to see what it was like "on the other side of the desk." She quickly found her passion there and, after a year of working behind the scenes, officially joined the agency in August 2009. In her quest to learn all sides of publishing, she has also worked at Chronicle Books and earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. At this time, Mary is only considering food books, food memoirs, cookbooks, adult literary fiction, and, for the children's market, young adult and middle grade fiction and truly exceptional picture books from authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators. She prefers upmarket premises with literary spark and commercial appeal. Her favorite genres are character-driven fantasy, paranormal, dystopian, thriller, horror, adventure, humor, contemporary/realistic, romance and mystery. She operates the Andrea Brown East office from Brooklyn, NY, and blogs at Kidlit.com, which has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer's Digest Magazine for two years running.
Which categories do you currently acquire?
Which category has a special/constant place in your heart?
Answer: Picture books, middle grade, and young adult on the children's end of the spectrum, and food narrative, food memoir, and cookbooks on the adult and non-fiction side of things.
2) What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial? Single spaced or double?
Answer: I do not request a synopsis with submissions, but if the writer has one, double-spaced and two pages is the way to go.
3) In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?
Answer: Poorly written queries top my list, as do writing samples that do not start in the right place for the story (it's very easy to tell once you've read slush for any length of time). Queries that aren't personalized and that come with attachments (not allowed per our submission guidelines) are the best way to shoot yourself in the foot. I would like to see more voice in writing samples, right off the bat.
What are the most compelling elements you
feel are necessary for a good
read? What particularly
grabs your attention?
Answer: Voice, characterization, and starting in action with a very strong sense of conflict and the present moment. I see a lot of writers start with a lot of telling and too much information, or start in a moment but yank the reader into a flashback on page two…that means they haven't found the right opening yet. And beginnings are crucial because that's often the only part an agent or editor will look at.
5) For you, which elements in a fiction submission are terminal problems garnering automatic rejections and which are tempting and fixable meriting a look at a revision if a talented author is willing to accept your advice?
Voice Weak-- Voice or voice that seems incongruous for the character's age (important in children's books) is a dealbreaker.
Weak Grammar-- Also a dealbreaker…if a person can't handle grammar, how will they handle revision and other more important craft issues?
Common plot-- For a popular market like children's books, plot really needs to be fresh. If it feels too contrived, an agent or editor won't go for it.
Poor character development-- Characters are our curators through a story, so if there's a weak character, the reader has no emotional foothold. I, personally, can't bring myself to care about characters who feel too slight or ill-defined.
Story is too controversial (ie rape, politics, religion—what else?)-- This doesn't bother me. For children's books, though, keep in mind that it's often a more squeamish gatekeeper who is buying the book, whether it's a parent, teacher, or librarian…they're the ones who tend to have issues with controversial topics, especially for younger readers.
Mediocre / uninspired writing --Complete dealbreaker, same as voice.
Excessive use of violence or cursing-- I don't mind it but, again, see my above comment about gatekeepers.
Lacking genre –specific requirements like, suspense/sexual tension/ world-building --Categories and genre are really important in children's books. I urge writers to learn the guidelines, read what's on shelves, and fit into the mold of today's marketplace (but put their own unique spin on it) before doing any genrebusting or other shenanigans. Learn the rules first, then break them.
Pacing is off—plot is too slow-- A dealbreaker, especially in children's. Tension, pacing, conflict…all of that has to be present, often in spades.
Story starts in wrong spot-- This is hard to pull off until you know better, so it's fixable…if you get editors or agents to read past your problematic opening. Honestly, that might be the bigger hurdle...
Ending is unsatisfactory-- This is also fixable. The elements you can't really fix easily are character, voice, and writing craft. Plot is nothing compared to those.
6) Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (ie. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?
Answer: If the writer left a mark and their story is promising, they will usually get a more personalized message from me. I do tend to look more closely at conference submissions where the author made a good impression.
7) Besides the writing, the story and the talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, ie. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?
Answer: Knowledge about how the publishing industry works, a tech or marketing savvy, a willingness to work on making the book a success even after it's published, and a sense of realistic expectations…those elements all make for a dream client. Too often, we meet people who have no idea about the business or unrealistic stars in their eyes. Optimism and energy are great, don't get me wrong, but it's often the practical, resilient, and hard-working authors who enjoy long and successful careers.
8) Do you have any pet peeves?
Answer: Tons. Way too many to discuss here. Plus, listing them all out would just spike my blood pressure. I'd have to say that the biggest is that writers obsess over query letters at conferences and in questions instead of delving deeper into writing craft issues. I understand this, but I also think that writers need to think more deeply about craft first, and then obsess over getting published. Put the horse before the cart, not the other way around.
9) What are you addicted to?
Answer: Cookbooks! And the food they inspire me to cook--dining, food issues, and discovering new flavors and cuisines is a long-standing passion of mine. I used to work in the kitchen of a two-Michelin-star restaurant in California.
10) What have you always wanted to do?
Answer: I want to visit every state in the US, ideally on a cross-country drive in an RV, and sample lots of regional eats along the way. I've been to 34 states so far. After that, I'll move on to countries. I've been to 18 and can't wait to add more to the list. In addition to cooking and cookbooks and food, I honesty think I am addicted to travel.
11) Do you have a favorite quote?
Answer: Too many to mention, but one specifically about children's books is from legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom: "The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth."