Simon Whaley chats to literary agents Amber Caravéo and Joanna Moult of the Skylark Literary Agency.
Amber Caravéo was the Editorial Director at Orion Children’s Books, and Joanna Moult edited Cressida Cowell and Alex Shearer, among others, at Hodder Children’s Books. They joined forces to establish their boutique literary agency representing writers of children’s and young adult (YA) books.
Why did you leave publishing to establish Skylark Literary?
Being a literary agent involves all the same skills we needed as editors, but with added freedom. In the major trade publishers, the further you progress up the ladder, the more your time is taken up with strategy, profit-and-loss charts, and project management, rather than actually working with authors on their wonderful books. Unsurprisingly, it was the creative work with authors that we particularly loved, so setting up our own literary agency allowed us to get back to working directly with authors once again, and we’ve never looked back!
How buoyant is the children’s book market? Does it differ much between the three key markets (emerging readers, middle-grade readers, or teenage readers/young adult)?
The mood in children’s book publishing and across the market is really positive right now. It feels like we have all finally emerged from the pandemic with new and exciting ambitions for getting books to readers. There is always, ALWAYS, a discussion about which age group or genre is really flying at the moment but we know that, if we present a really wonderful book with a great, clear, commercial hook to the market it will be snapped up, no matter if the current received wisdom is that no one is looking for that anymore. We are all, fundamentally, just readers looking for the book that sweeps us away and that we can rave about to other readers!
What challenges does the children’s book market face at the moment, and how might prospective authors overcome this?
The biggest challenge is that the market is flooded, and new authors have a lot of other authors and books to compete with. There’s no surefire way to overcome this, but, as with any business, knowing your market by reading and enjoying lots of other books that are already out there for your target age group, working at your craft and ensuring your writing is top-notch will all help enormously. Being prepared for lots of school visits and social media engagement is helpful too!
Publishers consider character diversity in books these days. What impact has this had on the children’s book market?
Yes, publishers are much more conscious of the need to represent all voices, so readers have the opportunity to see themselves in the stories. It is better now than a few years ago, but it still has a long way to go before there is fair representation across the industry.
Do rhyming picture books translate well, and what other rights do you sell for your authors?
It’s possible to sell foreign rights in rhyming picture books, but it’s harder because a foreign publisher has to make the rhyme work in their own language—and that can be challenging! Alongside translation rights, we also sell audio rights, US rights, film/TV rights, and merchandising. All these are dependent on the book selling well in the first place. As a book gains traction in the market, selling other rights becomes increasingly straightforward.
Do you only gain new clients through your usual submissions process?
We participate in writer conferences, events, and one-to-ones where we might meet and work with talented new writers. Sometimes editors or writers from organisations like SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) reach out to us and sometimes publishers recommend new authors to us.
What common mistakes do potential children’s authors make when submitting manuscripts to you?
Now and then we receive a submission addressed to ‘Dear Sirs’ which, as we are a team of two women, gives the impression that the writer hasn’t considered the recipients of their email. Given they are expecting us to take a decent amount of time to read carefully and consider their work, this doesn’t seem a very fair trade! We love it when writers say why they are approaching Skylark, and our Twitter timelines can give you all the material you need to get a sense of us. We also really appreciate it when writers have checked our submissions policy on our website. For example, we ask for the full manuscript from the outset and it’s a little disappointing when we only receive a partial manuscript. Another common mistake we see is stories that are far too long for their target readership. This is problematic for publishers because books that are over-long are daunting for readers, expensive to produce, and costly to translate for international markets.
Amber and Joanna’s Top Tip
Craft a submission tailored to the agent you are approaching. Read the submission guidelines and follow them. Make a shortlist of your absolute favourite agents and submit to them, with a long-list in reserve. Then, if you receive feedback that seems consistent or you want to take on board, you can make changes before approaching new agents.