Agent Interview: Mary Cummings

Q: Describe what you're looking for in 25 characters or less.

A: Lyrical, vibrant or funny

Q: What other agents do you admire most?

A: I admire agents who behave professionally with clients and editors, who are dedicated to getting top quality writing for young readers out into the world. These are the folks I consider my peers.

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: Wow. Tough one. As I rep projects for young readers, here are related favorites. Some. Too many to choose from.
Peter Brown's THE WILD ROBOT is one of my favorite recently published novels for tweens. Crockett Johnson was a genius. Ditto on Margaret Wise Brown. I like most everything by Cynthia Rylant. Ditto for Mac Barnett and for Kate Di Camillo (I know they are very different from one another. I have broad tastes!). Kelly Barnhill.
I love the work by my clients, whose sensibilities are all over the map, from hilarious to lyrical. I don't take on anything I don't have real enthusiasm for because it's not a good idea for me or for the client.

Q: What sets you apart from other agents who look at the same type of material?

A: A long time ago, when I first became involved in the book world professionally but before I was an agent, I assumed that people who worked as editors or agents would -- for the most part -- be able to spot and respond positively to quality work of whatever kind. That just isn't the case. Someone may think "wow! this is so great, so beautifully done," etc. while someone else will go "meh." There are lots of subjective and objective factors at work.
I do take more risks than many other agents. While I represent a variety of career writers, I particularly enjoy working with new writers, and sharing in their joy as they get their first (or second) book published.

Q: What is the best advice you can give someone who is considering submitting work to you?

A: Be ready. Wait to submit until your work is in the very best shape it can be. Get opinions from peer writers via critique groups, classes, etc. Go to conferences (SCBWI and others) and avail yourself of opportunities to have work critiqued and to learn about the field from conference sessions and workshops.
Look at both the agency website and my website before submitting (amsterlit.com and cummingskidlit.com). Read the articles I've written. Follow the submission guidelines. Spell names correctly (it's "Betsy" Amster, not Betty and "Cummings" not Cummins). If you have multiple projects (manuscripts) you want to submit, hang on to all but one of them. You lose credibility by sending multiple, although feel free in your query to mention other work, including noting if it's picture book, early reader, chapter book, middle grade or young adult. Use a font that's easy to read. Include a bit of bio information with your brief query.

Q: Describe the ideal query letter.

A: Brief, professional, with a sense of personality and energy. Indications that you've taken the time to become familiar with some of the agent's preferences and wishlist. Bio info that includes experience with kids, writing background and/or background relevant to the writing project.

Q: Describe the ideal manuscript.

A: There are many types of "ideal" but excellence is at the core

Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?

A: Ignoring it. There are multiple ways that's evident, including:
Sending out a cattle call ("Hello, I have a ...") instead of personalizing the query.
Pitching in an area I don't represent (for readers older than teens, for example)
Hurling multiple emails for multiple projects (pitch only one, please. See above answer)
Sending an email, followed rapidly by a correction email because the sender discovered typos, or sent the wrong version, or had another idea and changed the ms, etc.

Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?

A: See above answer

Q: How much of a manuscript do you read before making the decision to reject it?

A: Nobody reads every submission/query to the end. We can tell quickly.

Q: Once you decide to represent someone's work, what is the process?

A: Once I decide I'm seriously interested, I consider sales potential, including making a preliminary list of editors who come to mind for the project (manuscript). If that looks good, I contact the writer to set up a phone call to talk about representation for the project. In that call, I discuss the rep agreement with the agency, what the person can expect in terms of communication from me, how an offer is typically made from publishers, contract negotiation, and other matters. I encourage the person to ask whatever questions s/he may have and we both get a sense as to if it is a good match to proceed.