Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Query Questions with Heather Alexander

Note that Heather is no longer an agent but a freelance editor. I'll leave this up in case it helps with questions about her editing somehow. 

Writers have copious amounts of imagination. It's what makes their stories so fantastic. But there's a darker side to so much out of the box thinking. When a writer is in the query trenches, their worries go into overdrive. They start pulling out their hair and imagine every possible disaster.


Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a new series of posts called Query Questions. I'll ask the questions which prey on every writer's mind, and hopefully take some of the pain out of querying. These are questions that I've seen tossed around on twitter and writing sites like Agent Query Connect. They are the type of questions that you need answers for the real expert--agents!

If you have your own specific query question, please leave it in the comments and it might show up in future editions of Query Questions as I plan to rotate the questions.

Today I bring you insight from an agent from In With The New. Heather Alexander has joined Pippin Properties. (And Pippin just happens to be the name of one of my dogs, giving me extra reason to like this agency.) Thanks for your time, Heather!


Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
No, but a few in a row might. 
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
Yes, I do, unless it’s totally not for me (like a chapter book about time travel in space with pizza-monsters or something). I tend to read a bit of the query to get a sense of the story, and then skip to the sample pages. If I like what I read, I’ll go back and look for more about the author.
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
Nope, I read them all myself!
If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
If a manuscript has a prologue, I tend to skip it because I want to see if it’s necessary. So yes, I want it included because it’s part of your manuscript. But I probably won’t read it.
Some agencies mention querying only one agent at a time and some say query only one agent period. How often do you pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested?
At Pippin, we’re wide open to sharing queries. I’ll suggest a colleague at another agency if I know it’s not for any of us, and think it’s a good match.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
I don’t mind a reminder if we’ve met, or if we have something in common. I prefer that to just jumping in, which seems so form-letter and impersonal.
Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
I mean, sure, sweat over it a little. Make them the best you can. But then remember that those are some of the least interesting bits. I just asked a potential client to change half the names in her story. It’s not a deal breaker in a query. (But, if your characters’ names are Timmy and Bobby and Sally, I’m going to think you didn’t put much thought into it, and that’s a bummer.) Titles aren’t real until they’re printed on the cover (and I’ve even seen them change after that).
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
Seems to be about 40-60 a week so far, and out of that, I guess I’m requesting one or two. Maybe three.
Many agents say they don't care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?
It’s not a make-or-break situation, but it is nice to know that someone is active in or connected to the kid-lit world. I like to know people are participating in the community, and not working in a vacuum. I think it’s more important for an illustrator to have a portfolio online.
Some writers have asked about including links to their blogs or manuscript-related artwork. I’m sure it’s not appropriate to add those links in a query, but are links in an email signature offensive?
I don’t mind links to artwork or portfolios. If you’re an artist, I’m going to want to see what else you’re up to. Better to provide it than make me go digging. So, no, not offensive to me.
What does ‘just not right for me’ mean to you?
That I didn’t click with the writing or the story. That gut thing isn’t there. It means the same thing as it does in dating.
What themes are you sick of seeing?
It’s not really a theme, but I’m getting really tired of snarky protagonists. We get it. Teens are snarky. But what else are they?
Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent? 
Absolutely! I’m bringing all of my editorial experience to this job. Get ready for the wringer.
What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
Hmm, so far? People who send queries to 50 agents at a time (which is gross to start with), and then forget to BCC. 
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
Boy YA. Great, weird, marvelous art. Literary middle grade. I’d especially like something that makes me laugh and cry at the same time.
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 
Oh, boy. Favorite movies include, in no particular order, The Goonies, The Holy Grail, Tron, Rocky, The Karate Kid (the original one), Elf, Roman Holiday, Airplane, and Babe.

Books. Here’s a smattering: The Twits by Roald Dahl, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, all the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour, everything Andrew Smith writes, the Curseworker series by Holly Black, The Raven Boys (the whole Raven Cycle) by Maggie Stiefvater, Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, Feed by MT Anderson, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, Great Expectations by Dickens, aaannnd, I guess I’ll stop. There are a million.


Heather Alexander comes from a family where the constant ​​refrain was, “Don’t forget to bring a book!” In college, she hid THE PRINCESS DIARIES between Dickens and Hawthorne. One Children’s Lit class later, and her path in publishing became obvious. Heather landed in editorial at Penguin, where she happily stayed for six years, working with ​both​ debut and veteran authors and illustrators. As an agent, she is ​excited to develop new talent and help shape careers, which is what she loves to do best.

Pippin Properties, Inc. is an agency devoted primarily to picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels, but we also represent adult projects on occasion. We are always on the lookout for writers and illustrators who take the challenge of creating books seriously and are willing to give the publishing world nothing less than their very best.


  1. All right, first comment got eaten. Let's try this again!

    Comment Response: Take Two!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Heather. Even though I don't write in these genres it's still a learning experience to read this. I also have to admit that when I saw 'The Goonie's' I said--quite loudly-- "HEY YOU GUYYYYS!"

  2. Great interview. I have to say that as a teen I was never snarky, so I like that agents are starting to get sick of the constant portal of teens as being counter-society.

    I have a query question, actually:
    Is it a turn off when an author mentions in a query that the story is from more than two POVs, or would an agent rather be told upfront than find out when reading? Would the fact of multiple POVs be a deal-breaker for a story being accepted?