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Interview: Holly McGhee and Elena Mechlin of Pippin Properties Literary Agency

Photobucket [1]Write children’s stories or YA novels? Then today’s post is for you. I recently had the opportunity to conduct a joint interview with Holly McGhee and Elena Mechlin of Pippin Properties literary agency [2], an agency specializing in representation for authors of children’s literature–from books for the youngest of readers (Jeremy Tankard’s Boo Hoo Bird), to middle-grade readers (Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux) and young adults (Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere). Pippin Properties was founded in 1998 by Holly McGhee, who’d spent a dozen years in the publishing trenches before breaking out on her own. Just over a decade later, Elena Mechlin joined her, bringing along a great love for children’s literature and a desire to find gems in what is commonly known as the slush pile.

I’m thrilled they’re here today to talk about Pippin’s vision, the impact of the digital age on the marketplace, what makes for an eye-catching query, and more. Enjoy!

Q: Tell us a little about the formation of Pippin Properties literary agency. How and when did it begin? What was your vision for distinguishing your agency from others out there?

Holly: I had been an executive editor at HarperCollins and too often I found it difficult to convince the entire acquisitions committee to bid on the projects I loved, so I decided to set out on my own with no committees or rules, to succeed or fail on the projects I believed in. That was in the spring of 1998.

The company philosophy is The world owes you nothing, you owe the world your best work—we expect that from ourselves and from our clients and from the editors and publishers with whom we work. We’re ruthless when it comes to making good books—the publishers we work with recognize that, and it’s why we place about 90% of the projects we take on.

Q: Children’s writers don’t necessarily need an agent to get a publishing deal with a children’s story, because many houses are open to direct submissions by writers. What are the benefits to seeking representation if you write children’s stories?

Elena: Well, I’m not necessarily sure that this is true. While many smaller publishers are open to unagented submissions, the big six as well as some of the other larger houses still rely on agents to bring them the best of what’s out there. But apart from merely getting in the door at a major house, one of the biggest benefits of having an agent is having a relentless advocate and partner, somebody who knows the industry inside and out and who knows the major (and minor!) players in a way that a lone author does not and cannot.

And of course, there’s always the business end of things too. A good agent will negotiate the best contract they’re able for you. We always say, “you never know how bad your contract really is until you have a bestseller”.

Q: How has the digital age affected children’s publishing, if at all?

Holly McGhee’s photo courtesy Foster Brooks

Holly: Certainly in the YA market, many, many more readers are buying their books digitally, and in general, the authors are compensated as much financially per book as they are on a hardcover—the rub is that publishers are receiving a much greater share of the income than authors are, and that stings, and that is what you are likely reading about in the news. For middle-grade, there are some digital sales, but not to the same degree. In picture books, there has been much more “news” about books for the Nook, the Fire, and the iPad than actual sales. And it’s becoming clear that the more “bells and whistles” we add to picture books, often at a huge cost, the lower the price must be to compete with all the other cool stuff available in the APP store. For “plain vanilla” picture books, those without moving parts or interesting things to touch, the sales have not been impressive so far.

The real fantastic news, however, is that publishers are making the actual hardcover “physical” picture books with more care and attention than ever—nicer paper, spot varnishing, thick boards, because it’s become clear that hardcover buyers cherish the illustrated book as a work of art and are looking for those special well-made ones that will stand the test of time. Yeah!

Q: What are you looking for right now?

Holly: I don’t read to be entertained—I read authors who require me to think, who make me laugh or cry, who help me understand the world and my emotions better. I don’t think about whether people in general will buy or read the book—I focus on how I feel—can I put it down, or not? I always figure that if I feel really strongly about a book, somebody else will too. Capture me with your voice—then take me on a journey.

Elena: A great middle grade series. It can be fantastical, but it has to feature real kids with real emotions dealing with some real world issues (in addition to fighting the odd dragon, ogre or petulant god).

Q: What are your favorite children’s stories (that you don’t represent; don’t want to get you into trouble!), and what are your favorite adult novels?

Holly: I love pretty much everything Marla Frazee has ever written or drawn. For middle-grade I’m a big fan of The Watsons Came to Birmingham as well. In YA, I like stories with real people. Adult-wise, I am reading lots of graphics right now—and recently blew through the Mary Karr memoirs.

Elena: Of all time, probably ELOISE. I spent hours pouring over her adventures as a little girl. It might just be my biggest inspiration for my eventual move to New York City. Also, FROG AND TOAD. I loved their friendship. Of the more recent set, my favorite picture book of the last year was probably ME, JANE and I adored INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN. My favorite adult novels are JANE EYRE and ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, which I read in Spanish my first time around.

Oh yes, and the work of Jasper Forde. He’s hilarious. His first book for younger readers just came out and I am dying to get my hands on it.

Q: What sort of query letters catch your eye? Can you share some of your favorites, and tell us what snagged your attention?

Elena: The number one thing a writer can do to catch an agent’s attention is show that you’ve done your research and that you’re querying Pippin because you know who we are and what we do. Then, tell us, in the best way you know how, what sets your story apart from the pack.

There are of course various gimmicks you can try, to varying degrees of success. We once had an author tell us that he was querying Pippin because of all the agencies, we seemed to have the most intelligent eyes. This definitely caught our attention, but I can tell you that we did not pursue representation!

Q: What one thing might unagented authors do to make themselves more intriguing to agents?

Elena Mechlin

Elena: Write a really good book. Also, a great query letter telling us why your book is so great. Having a fancy website or 1 million twitter followers probably isn’t going to catch our attention the way a well written paragraph or two teasing an incredible premise. At the end of the day, it’s all in the execution.

And I’d suggest going to conferences, too, if you can. If I’ve met you and enjoyed speaking with you, when your query shows up in my inbox, I’ll be that much more likely to be willing to give your manuscript a little extra time and consideration than the average Joe.

And one last thing. We often bill ourselves as an editorial agency, but I think that the biggest misconception is that this means that you can submit a half-baked idea or manuscript and we’ll help you mold it into fighting condition. Always lead with your best foot. You’ll most likely have one chance to catch our attention – make it count.

Q: Do you work closely with writers you believe hold promise?

Holly: If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life—that’s how it is for me. So yes, I work closely if you call it work. The first book I ever sold was by Sally Cook, and it was called GOODNIGHT PILLOWFIGHT. It wasn’t until a few years later that Sally and I cooked up HEY BATTA BATTA SWING: THE WILD OLD DAYS OF BASEBALL, on a suggestion from my brother-in-law and our mutual love of baseball. Sally then hit a block, and we went to lunch and I suggested she get a regular job so that she wouldn’t feel so much pressure to be my “cash cow.” That conversation should have been hard but it wasn’t—it was just truthful and because we trusted each other, it was all okay. And Sal did get herself a job at Project Sunshine, a charity that, among other generous acts, brings Yankee baseball players into hospitals to cheer up sick children. Through her work there, Sally met Ray Negron, who had been caught as a seventeen-year-old spray-painting graffiti on a Yankee Stadium wall—caught by The Boss himself. Steinbrenner made Ray a batboy to work off the damages rather than put him in prison. Sally and Ray made a connection, and came up with the book title YANKEE MIRACLES, the story of how Ray has been paying it forward all these years, and a story about humanity. We sold the book to Bob Weil at Norton in June of 2010, and it came out on September 3—Sally is like a sister—how can you not be close after going on that kind of journey?

Q: What more would you like writers to know about your agency?

Elena: We like to think that we represent careers, not books. We want to work with people who hope to make books their life’s work, not someone who happened to have one really neat idea and then that’s it. We love the challenge of bringing an author, first time or not, from where they are in their career today to where they want to be tomorrow.

Thanks for an informative interview, Holly and Elena!

Readers, you can learn more about Pippin Properties, including their submission guidelines on their website, www.pippinproperties.com [3]. Follow them on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5], and tune into their YouTube channel [6] for updates on all things Pippin. 

About Therese Walsh [7]

Therese Walsh (she/her) co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [8], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [9] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [10], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [11] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [12] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [13]). Learn more on her website [14].