Jennifer Rofé is a literary agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA). Jennifer earned a BA in English with a minor in Social and Ethnic Relations from UC Davis, and has a background in secondary education. Jennifer has been on faculty for the Big Sur Writer’s Workshop; the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop; and WNBA, PCCWW and SCBWI conferences.
BBS: Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf, Jennifer.
JR: Thanks for having me!
BBS: PBs have reportedly been a very tough sell for the past few years. Is that still the case today?
JR: Across the board, the marketplace has become even more difficult on account of the economy. This has certainly affected the already challenging picture book market. But, they’re still selling, so take heart.
BBS: What types of PBs are selling best right now? What types do publishers seem to be “over”?
JR: Short, snappy, character-driven picture books are doing the best right now. Picture book writers should aim for texts under 1,000 words, though I encourage aiming for 500.
BBS: When publishers say they’re looking for “multicultural” books, does that mean books with more than one culture represented–or does it mean books that feature a specific ethnic group? Does the definition of “multi-cultural” vary from publisher to publisher?
JR: There’s no across-the-board answer to this question. I’d say it’s each and both. Ultimately, it’s important that an author’s representation of all characters be realistic and genuine. I, for one, find myself somewhat put off when it seems an author is including a rainbow of characters in an attempt to make her book multicultural.
BBS: How does the unpublished PB author know when the time is right to seek representation for their work? Should they have a certain number of manuscripts in their portfolio?
JR: For those writing only picture books, I do think it’s best to have at least three strong texts when looking for an agent. A challenge that picture book writers can run up against is that they may be very prolific, but a small percentage of their manuscripts will be viable for the market. Having an offer from a publisher is also a fine time to secure an agent.
BBS: What are the qualities an author should look for in an agent?
JR: A positive reputation and/or being connected to a well-respected agency are qualities authors should consider when looking for an agent. Beyond that, an author should consider if the agent has (recent) sales to major publishers and if the agent’s body of work aligns with the author’s project(s). There’s a great deal of information out there about agents, and authors should have no problem doing their research. Of course, this research should be done before querying agents.
BBS: What are the qualities you look for in a prospective client?
JR: First and foremost, I need to know if a prospective client is willing and able to revise – if not, then I won’t be able to work with the writer and I certainly won’t be able to connect her with an editor, who will expect revisions. I also consider how many projects/works in progress the writer has and if she is knowledgeable of the industry, belongs to a critique group of some sort, and is willing to spend time marketing her book once it’s published.
BBS: What percentage of your current clients are African American (or people of color)? Do you actively seek out writers of color to represent? Why or why isn’t that a primary factor in your selection process?
JR: Ten percent of my clients are “people of color”. Though this isn’t a primary factor in my selection process, I do find myself attracted to stories featuring multicultural characters where race isn’t the issue. For instance, Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu (Penguin 2009) and the forthcoming How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins 2011) feature a Chinese and African-American protagonist, respectively, but race is not the central focus of either story.
I’ve never really explored why this is. It could be because of my own background, it could be a personal taste. I minored in Social and Ethnic Relations in college with a focus on multicultural literature, so this is something that has appealed to me for some time.
BBS: It’s been suggested that the industry tends to keep Af-Am writers in a box regarding the types of books they’re willing to publish (i.e., street lit, historical fiction, historical non-fiction). Have you experienced this with any of your clients? Why or why not, do you think?
JR: I haven’t experienced this with my clients, but I have been in the situation where a book featuring African American characters that the author intended for the mainstream audience was, had we gone with an interested publisher, slated to be published under the company’s “ethnic” imprint. As this wasn’t the author’s vision for the book, we went with another publisher.
BBS: What are some of your favorite books recently written or illustrated by African Americans?
JR: My current favorites are the picture book Around Our Way by none other than Tameka Brown (Abrams, 2010) and the middle grade How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins, 2011). :)
Outside of children’s lit, I’m a big Toni Morrison fan, and The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of my all-time favorite books, so any chance I have to talk it up, I do. It’s a must read!
BBS: How important is networking for the unpublished author? With whom should they be networking…editors? Agents? Other writers? Is it more important to network with one group above all others?
JR: Networking definitely plays a role, and I think authors should be networking with other authors and attending conferences where they can meet agents and editors while learning about the industry. SCBWI (www.scbwi.org) is an absolute must for aspiring authors. But even more important, unpublished authors should be focusing on honing their craft. It doesn’t matter how many people you know if you don’t know your craft.
BBS: You speak to writers a lot and you give out lots of advice. What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our readers with…that you almost hesitate to say out loud, but you know would make a tremendous difference in their writing careers if they heeded it?
JR: Publishing is an art and a business. Aspiring authors need to really, truly study their craft. I have a client who literally takes published books apart to see how the author built and developed the story. An aspiring author should also aim to understand how his/her book fits within the business – where on the shelves would your book go? Who is your audience? How does your manuscript stack up to those currently being published? Is your idea marketable for a broad audience? If a writer is serious about being a published author, then he/she must study and do research.
BBS: Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your straightforward and honest answers. In keeping with that openness…meatloaf or sushi?
JR: Wimpy sushi. In other words, California and shrimp tempura rolls.
BBS: New York or LA?
JR: “From the South Bay to the Valley, from the West Side to the East Side…looks like another perfect day. I love L.A.”
BBS: Charlie Brown or Lucy?
JR: A delicate balance of both.
For more information on Jennifer Rofé and ABLA, visit http://www.andreabrownlit.com