Interview with Literary Agent Jill Corcoran
BETHANY HEGEDUS: I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jill Corcoran, Associate Agent at the Herman Agency, while we were both in attendance at the NJSCBWI conference. Many know Jill from her blog, which is full of newsy info and Jill’s trademark sense of humor, but seeing her in action—even as a new agent—she is a sight to behold. She is at once smart, savvy, welcoming and generous. We are glad she took the time to talk with us here….
BETHANY HEGEDUS: We’re interested in career transitions within and outside the publishing industry. You have an MBA, are an author and now you’re an associate agent! Please tell us how these changes in your career came to be.
JILL CORCORAN: I studied English at Stanford University, concentrating on literary criticism. Had I known years later that I would be critiquing others’ work in both my writers critique group and as an agent, I would have cherished my educational path. However when I graduated in the mid-80s, I had not heard of editing or agenting, and I was living in the time of Gordon Gekko. So off I went to the finance Mecca that is The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business where I studied Finance and Marketing. I soon discovered Wall Street was not my calling, for a plethora of reasons, and began my career marketing everything from cereal to sneakers at Leo Burnett Advertising, LA Gear, Mattel, and at my own consulting firm, LAUNCH! New Product Marketing.
When I started having children and stopped working, my brain begged for intellectual stimulation. Having spoken nothing but baby talk for five years, out poured some awful picture books. Everything changed when I joined SCBWI and started taking UCLA Extension classes with Kristin O’Connell George, Madeleine Comora, Ann Whitford Paul, Caroline Arnold, Sonia Levitan and others.
Fast forward a few years and I caught a number of agents’ eyes with a poetry riddle book, of all things. I chose Ronnie Ann Herman of Herman Agency because 1) she got me as a writer, 2) she had 30 years in the business with an amazing reputation (yup, I asked around), 3) Ronnie represents many of the leading PB authors and illustrators in today’s children’s book market, and 4) most of the clients Ronnie signed back in 1999 when she started the agency are still Herman Agency clients today.
In February of this year, Ronnie asked me to join her as an Associate Agent at Herman Agency representing MG and YA authors.
BETHANY: How do you think this varied experience informs your role as Associate Agent?
JILL: I look at manuscripts as both works of art and as products to be marketed. I know some authors think that is cold but my view is shaped by my education, work experience, and writing life.
An author’s passion and hard work creates the art. But, the book must impel customers to part with their dollars. This practical view of creativity helps me understand what is publishable. It helps me choose publishable manuscripts and direct them to the appropriate publishers.
BETHANY: Tell us about Herman Agency and about your role as Associate Agent.
JILL: Ronnie Ann Herman started Herman Agency in 1999 and represents many of the leading illustrators and author/illustrators in today’s children’s book market. As a former Art Director at Random House and Associate Publisher at Penguin Books’ Grosset & Dunlap, Ronnie art directed thousands of children’s books during her more than 20-year publishing career. Ronnie is also the author of 8 picture books with 1,000,000 books in print.
Most of Ronnie’s clients are PB author/illustrators or illustrators. Ronnie has sold CB, MG, YA and adult over the years but her heart is in picture books and that is why she brought me in to expand the company.
For a single author who writes YA and PB, for instance, I will rep the author’s YA and Ronnie will rep his/her PB. When an author signs with me they are signing with the Herman Agency and they will benefit from both Ronnie’s and my expertise, dedication and effort.
For my clients, Ronnie and I will work together to create a submission list. While Ronnie is very familiar with different houses’ and different editors’ preferences, I also have editors contacting me, telling me their preferences so that I can direct the right books to their attention. Ronnie will handle all contract negotiations until I know contracts inside and out.
BETHANY: What types of work are you looking to represent?
JILL: I represent Chapter Book, Middle Grade and Young Adult authors. I am a huge fan of humor. If you can make me laugh or crack a smile, you are my kind of writer. Even in a serious literary book, there is room for humor.
Some of my favorite books are Frindle, Stargirl, Speak, Stuck in Neutral, How I Live Now, Millicent Min, Good Enough, Seeing Emily, Things Left Unsaid, Flipped and Because of Winn Dixie. I would also love to find funny books that are mixed prose and graphic novel a la Wimpy Kid and Bruce Hale’s Prince of Underwhere.
For published Chapter Book, Middle Grade and Young Adult authors and SCBWI members, please email a query plus the first 10 pages of your manuscript to: Jill@HermanAgencyInc.com. No attachments, please.
BETHANY: What’s the biggest challenge in selecting clients?
JILL: I have to love a book to take it on, to commit to that book and that author for the long-haul.
Sometimes, I have a manuscript crush. I’m enamored by its beautiful language, blinded by its witty and fun, or steamy and dark characters, swept up in its sexy plot. But with time away from its intoxicating pull, I begin to question the book’s integrity. Recognize flaws. Be irked by the little things. Sometimes an author can make the changes to turn a crush into true love. But if not, I must be honest with myself and with the author.
The books I represent also represent me. Editors judge my taste by what I submit to them. I owe it not only to myself but to all the authors I represent to be highly selective and utterly in love with each and every book I represent.
BETHANY: I see on your list you have the well-established picture book author Anastasia Suen as well as debut author J.E. MacLeod. How do you work differently with up-and-coming and already established clients?
JILL: I really had to think about this one. Honestly, I don’t think there is a big difference. I am here for every one of my clients for whatever they need. If one needs more critiquing or more hand-holding, that’s my job. If one needs more career advice, I’m here. More space without nudging, that’s fine too. My relationship with my clients is a partnership. Open and informative.
BETHANY: How do you feel the overall economic downturn is affecting our industry, aside from layoffs within the industry?
JILL: The economic downturn means there are fewer customer dollars available to purchase books. I would hope this means only the best of the best would get published, but in reality it means that publishers and book sellers are more risk averse. While no one can determine the sleeper that will become the next blockbuster, publishers and book sellers must buy and stock what they know they can sell.
But, no publisher wants to fill their pipeline with just another book in this popular series or that derivative of another publisher’s hit. Every agent, editor and publisher is looking for the next breakout, fresh manuscript that will draw customers to books, and in turn, enrich the lives of children.
BETHANY: What is most exciting about your new endeavor?
JILL: Discovering talent. When I read a manuscript that I know I have to represent, I get all jumpy inside. I can’t read fast enough, yet I’m savoring every word. The thrill of knowing that I will be bringing this book to children and that they will experience what I felt when I first read the manuscript makes me giddy.
BETHANY: Thanks, Jill. It was a pleasure.