Meet the Agents: An Interview with Gemma CooperHarry Bingham
Gemma Cooper represents authors who write for children, from picture books to young adult, fiction and non-fiction for the Bent Literary Agency. You can find Gemma’s page on the Bent Literary Agency page here, her twitter feed is just here and of course, her Agent Hunter profile is here!
What books/authors do you love in YA and Children’s Fiction. Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
Recently I’ve become a huge fan of Rainbow Rowell and devoured all her books in the space of a few months. I adore the way she writes about love, and her characters are always so flawed and interesting. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate is a big favourite of mine – I love the vulnerability of the narrator, and the short chapters mean it’s a one-sitting book and it always makes me cry. WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead is the book that brought me back to middle-grade fiction – the blend of genres, the skill of the writing, the characters – it’s a book that has everything. For younger fiction, I love HAMSTER MASSACRE by Katie Davies. It’s very voice-driven and quite irreverent for a 7+, which felt different for the market at the time. Other favourite authors – Jenny Valentine, Morris Gleitzman and Erin Jade Lange.
On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
I’m looking for all areas of children’s non-fiction, from picture books to YA. Personal interests are history, science, pop culture and art. I loved THE NOISY PAINT BOX by Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPre, which explores artist Kandinsky’s synaesthesia and its effect on his art.
Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment?
Animals and anthropomorphic characters—I love stories with either animals as the main character, or with a close bond with a child. Or what about historical fiction seen through the eyes of an animal—major events in history with a dog or cat or pig or…etc. narrator?
I want an epic MG fantasy adventure. Something that feels cinematic, with excellent world building, a big cast of interesting characters and scope for a series.
I never get tired of reading about characters falling in love in YA. My favourite part is the flirting and the teasing and the almost-kisses. It’s hard to stand out in this area, so ideally this project will have a unique way of telling the story
What’s your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
It’s easy to make mistakes when lots of agencies have different process for submissions, so I try to look past most basic errors. If possible, always try to refer to the literary agent by name, and don’t do the ‘I know your submission requirements said to do X, but I did Y instead.’ If you accidently make an error, that’s one thing, but being deliberate about it can be frustrating as the requirements are there to help us get to your submissions quicker.
Ideally, I suggest people follow a simple template for a covering letter.
Dear [Agent’s Name],
I am seeking representation for my [age – MG/YA etc.] [genre] manuscript [title] complete at [word count rounded to nearest 1000 words].
[Insert Pitch – 1 or 2 paragraphs explaining your plot. Introduce your main character. What does she want? What’s preventing her from achieving those goals? And what are the stakes if she doesn’t achieve them?]
According to your submission guidelines I have [consult the specific guidelines for the agency, posted on its website. For the Bent Agency, you’d say, ‘pasted the first ten pages of the manuscript below.’]
I am a member of [any writing organisations] and have won [any relevant writing prizes]. [Then add anything relevant to your role as the best person to write this book.] Thank you for your time.
What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?
When I look at my client list, the biggest thing they have in common is strong voice. So when I read a sample, I want to instantly picture the main character jumping from the pages and telling me their story. I’m not the biggest fan of prologues, and usually don’t read them.
Do you have any unpredictable loves?
As a kid, I taught myself to write in fluent hieroglyphics, and I still have a bit of an obsession with Egypt and that period of history. This weird skill means I also like mysteries and secret codes.
I have a twin brother, so strong sibling stories are always going to be of interest. Also, I grew up on a building site in a caravan as my parents knocked down our house, and rebuilt slowly – so we had a fair few Christmas dinners spent sitting on crates around an upturned bucket for a table. I love my quirky family, and would rather have books with strong family ties than the orphaned kid.
What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
I can only read something for the first time once, so don’t rush to send your submission out. Yes, I’m happy to look at resubmissions if they’ve been revised, but it’s harder to look with fresh eyes when you remember a time when something didn’t work.
How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
I see around 6000 submissions annually, and take on about 2-3 new clients a year.
Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
I do Google someone I’m considering representing and will take a look through their Twitter feed if they have one. I’ve had some clients join me who have no social media presence, and that is okay if they aren’t comfortable with that. It’s better to have no social media presence than a bad or neglected one. As an agency, we will help clients if they want to be more active on social media but don’t know how to go about it.
When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
Not having a one-line pitch ready. I like an ‘X meets X’ style of pitch because then I can instantly see where the book would fit on my list and in the market. Often when people are pitching face-to-face, they give far too much detail on the characters and back story, when really you just need a good one-liner to get an agent interested.
What character (from any book) would you be and why?
Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde’s comic fantasy series, which started with THE EYRE AFFAIR. Thursday works as a literary detective, so doing her job of hopping from the real world into the fictional world would be awesome. Picking her is a bit of a cheat as I could then go into any of my favourite books and hang out with the characters. Thursday is also a fantastic female protagonist – smart, kick-ass, impulsive, owns a pet dodo, loves her quirky parents, juggles her husband and kids while working in life-threatening situations and is obsessed with books. Basically, she is amazing!