I was fortunate enough to meet literary agent, Erzsi Deàk at last year’s South African SCBWI conference. The first thing that struck me was Erzsi’s humour, the second was her enthusiasm and willingness to give of her time, the third was her knowledge of the industry, and the fourth was her no nonsense approach.
Having started out as a journalist, Erzsi has been part of the SCBWI scene for many years, starting the French chapter in 1995 and going on to run the international arm of SCBWI for nearly ten years. She founded and organized the SCBWI Bologna Conference and currently edits the SCBWI Bulletin international page, “Here, There & Everywhere”. She is a published author, and writes regularly for the Children’s Writers & Illustrators’ Market. In 2009 she began working with the La Martinière Groupe in France and acquired approximately 40 titles for two of their imprints.
She started her own literary ageny, Hen & Ink in early 2010 and represents authors from all over the world.
She appears to spend an inordinate amount of time on planes.
I’m delighted Erzsi (pronounced "aire-zshee") has agreed to be interviewed on Absolute Vanilla .
Okay, first off, I have to ask, how did the chickens get involved?
First off, I think they are funny, awkwardly beautiful creatures that just have to know that even as they preen, the world is giggling. Add to this, years ago, when about to hatch Daughter Number 2 I was repulsed by chicken on my plate. And everyone was serving it wherever I went. Then, I wrote a graphic novel script entitled CHICK HEN and fell in love with these gawky beauties and found myself writing CHICKENS IN TIGHTS, CHICKS IN THE CITY and COCK-A-DOODLE-DON’T! Chickens are elegantly hilarious and they wanted a voice! Finally, fluffing my own tail feathers, it was the obvious jeux de mot for the name of the agency.
Let’s talk about your involvement with SCBWI – what made you join the organization - and become so involved - and what do you believe the SCBWI gives its members?
I joined the SCBWI one lonely November about six months after Daughter Number Three was born (clearly my daughters have been turning points!). It was 1995 and Paris was under siege – bombings and transport strike (5 weeks). I’d been eying the SCBWI for about two-to-three years but had never been a good joiner. But when I read Rebecca Gold’s piece about her SCBWI launch in Argentina, an idea bubbled to the surface. I wrote and asked about starting a chapter. And retired from bossing everyone around in France in 2001 and as international godmother in 2008. Thirteen years was a lucky number!
You started out as a writer, and you’re a published author, so why the switch to a literary agent?
I’m still a writer, I just also happen to be an agent now. And some would say, finally an agent. I’ve been talking about it for at least 15 years! It was when I was scouting for a French publisher that I fell upon the amazing Siobhan Curham and her terrific self-published book, DEAR DYLAN, that had just surprised everyone by winning the Young Minds Award in Britain. When she didn’t have an agent, I pitched her my long-kept secret and we took off out of the barnyard together, selling her book + her next novel in a two-book deal over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to Egmont UK.
How have you found the life of a literary agent? Has your life changed more than you expected?
Nope. I love it. I read all the time and wield a fairly opinionated editorial pencil. It’s what I’ve always done, now I can just put a name on it.
How would you describe your agenting style, and how do you like to work with your clients?
If you mean editorial v. non-editorial, see above. :-) I’m demanding and often require a number of revisions. But I’m thrilled when the CLICK happens and/or I receive something that is ready to go out the door with little editorial work. Communication is key and I try to keep in touch with each client as often as necessary. We’ve built a friendly and supportive coop at Hen&ink and I’m thrilled with my chicks and love working with them and seeing their projects … hatch (sorry).
Hen & Ink works with several partners, how do you feel this improves your business offering?
Since we are young, I like the idea of offering a loose consortium of partners to my clients (and anyone who visits the website). Eventually, I hope that we can all work together closely on joint projects. Recently, Hen&ink client Sarah Towle was lucky enough to work with our partner Raab Associates and the results for her app, BEWARE MADAME LA GUILLOTINE, have been phenomenal.
Many have said that given changes in the industry (the rise of e-publishing, the force of the likes of Amazon on publishing, development of new publishing business models, recessionary woes) the role of the agent must necessarily change. What is your view on this? And how do you see agenting going into the future?
My goal is to offer transmedia possibilities to my clients (the growing partnerships play into this as well). We are not looking to work as an e-publisher, or otherwise, at this time. We are working with those who know their fields inside and out and are, ideally, on the cutting edge of developing technologies. The point is to be relevant for each client.
What, for you, is the key to a good story, and can you give some examples of books that really stand out for you?
A beginning, middle and a satisfying end. A hook that won’t let you go and that you never forget, even after you’ve closed the book. Characters you love or feel for.
A YEAR DOWN YONDER by Richard Peck and LEGEND by Marie Lu stick in my head as terrific stories. There are tons of books I love. HOLES by Louis Sachar. THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall. THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman. MISSING MAY by Cynthia Rylant. WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech. AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES by John Green. WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. Lloyd Alexander’s THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES. To name a few middle-grade and YA titles.
Voice is inevitably hailed as the key ingredient in a strong story, how would you suggest a writer learns to discover and hone “voice”? Which authors stand out for you as having really strong voices?
Well, everybody in the above list, for sure. As far as how I suggest a writer learns to discover and hone voice? Let down the self-editing defenses. Embrace revision. Really, let yourself go and your characters speak. It’s great when you have a VOICE to start with, but if you start with a plot and then fall into a story and then the voice is trailing behind, at some point, one has to pick up the battered voice, dust it off and give it a holier-than-thou position. Voice is everything. It’s what makes your work different from the next writer and it’s what makes readers keep coming back to that book. To you. With my clients, we generally beat the story till the voice sings.
You represent authors from all over the world, yet you have said that “foreign” stories tend to be too specific to a country. What then do you look for when you receive a submission from foreign authors and what is your view on multicultural stories?
A twofold question! First, some stories don’t have to be specific to a country and others do. Simple as that. Some stories specific to another country will travel, say, to the US, but others won’t. It’s all subjective, of course, but that said, if there is not universal theme within the story, it’s unlikely to travel. I’m all about the details in a story as well, so I wouldn’t want a story about diamond hunters in Africa transplanted to Wisconsin to stay local. But I would want there to be an emotional thread within that could reach across cultures, countries and other divides and touch readers anywhere.
Multicultural stories. Same answer, really. As long as there is an emotional thread that speaks universally, good. I’m not interested in any didactic or victim stories, but am happy to see a well-rounded manuscript about a character from another culture or background that speaks universally.
It is always said that getting published is tough, and it seems that it is getting still tougher. Many now say that it is imperative for writers to use the services of a manuscript assessment agency in order to get an agent or a publisher. What is your view on this?
Just write your best work and then revise it again and again til it shines and then put it away for a month or two and then take it out and polish it again til you can’t look at it’s so bright. Then let it rest. Read it. See if it still sings. If it does, send it to a few targeted agents or publishers. If it helps to use an editorial service, do. If it helps to attend a workshop that kicks you in the backside to write the story that’s been screaming to be written by you, then take that workshop. The main thing is to get the words out. And then embrace the revision process.
The publishing industry is continually on the look for the “next big thing” – what is your view about trends and do you look for stories which follow trends or do you look for stories that grab you?
I always look for stories that grab me! It has to be love, love, love. And if that is the “next Big Thing,” well, cool!
Do you feel the market is dominated by a few big name authors, or do you feel that there is always room for debut authors?
Debut authors are taking over! Everyone is just born and just published. Of course, there are still established authors, but much of the material I see on the scouting side of Hen&ink is blasting the news that this is a DEBUT author! And s/he is only 12 (can you believe it!?). S/he wrote it while everyone else was ice-skating. Etc. There’s always room for great work. And if you have a story attached to you, you are even more of a marketing tool, so that doesn’t hurt you, for sure! But if you aren’t a 22 year-old newlywed with a mega-deal for a sci-fi paranormal romance trilogy that will knock the socks off of everyone, just write your best book and send it out. For me, the work speaks more than the backstory. Though a good backstory is great to work with should the work prove worthy!
What is your sense of what publishers are looking for right now?
Original work. Stories well told. It doesn’t hurt to have a platform so they can find you, but many are really just looking for a good story.
What sort of story would grab you right now? Is there anything you’re specifically looking for?
Something original, well-written and obviously worked and crafted so that we don’t notice it’s been worked and crafted (that make it look “easy”!). Something that touches me, making me laugh and cry, possibly, making me cry from laughing (if it’s too dark without any light, it’s not for me). I’m not big on horror, nor am I interested in unnecessary or gratuitous violence. Can’t stand didactic or message-driven texts. Want the story to be the story to be the story that I come back to again and again – whether awake or in my dreams. Looking for FILMIC work – ie, visual and detailed with writing that sounds like a nightingale. Okay, I’ll stop there. No, wait, I want to smile and nod YES! when I read a manuscript.
Are you currently open to submissions and if so, what is your preferred means of contact?
We are going to be instituting the Open Coop Day, ideally starting in February. Please watch the Henandink website and the Hen&ink Literary Facebook page for announcements. This will be a policy one day a month accepting queries and submissions. We believe it’s important to stay accessible. But we are limited in time and our eyes are still crossing with the number of submissions waiting to hear back. And, we hate the leave-them-hanging policy. We want to get back to everyone. But we are human and if you haven’t heard, write us at email@example.com. For submission guidelines, please visit the website.
Many thanks to Erzsi Deak for this interview.
To find out more about Hen & Ink please go to: henandink.com
To read Henandinkblots, the Hen&ink Literary blog, visit henandinkblots.wordpress.com/
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