Okay. This is a most unusual call story! Not only is it for a picture book (WAHOO!), but Hannah's agent, Laura Biagi, joins the fun to give her side of the process! Enjoy!
Read all the way to the end for some bonus news.
Diamond|Man: a PbParty Success Story
Hannah Holt: In March 2015, I heard about Michelle’s PbParty contest through a writer’s group on Facebook. I researched the participating agents and—wow! It looked like a great opportunity.
On the day of the deadline, my finger hovered over the send key. Then, BLOOP. My computer crashed. I logged in again as soon I could, but the contest was already full. I could only cheer from the sidelines.
Meanwhile, I kept researching and querying—researching and querying. A few nibbles surfaced over the next few months but nothing substantial came along. When Michelle announced the next PbParty, I jumped at the chance.
This time I came prepared with better technology AND more story knowledge. In the months between the first PbParty and the second, I had queried my original story pretty widely. After weighing the responses, I decided it was time to try something new. My new lead manuscript, Diamond|Man, was a picture book biography of my inventor grandfather, Tracy Hall.
As for technology, I set up an account with LetterMeLater.com and scheduled my email in advance. That way no computer glitches, work issues, or kids calling would make me miss the deadline.
It worked! My entry arrived before the contest filled. Next, I waited to see if my manuscript would make the top twenty.
When the day of the announcement came, I scanned the list anxiously, like a kid waiting for the parts in the school musical to be announced and…
Wahoo! I made it into PbParty the Musical! Okay, not a musical but still. My critique partners and I celebrated over email.
Then came the next round of waiting. Would I get any requests? I hadn’t queried Diamond|Man very widely, so I wasn’t sure what reaction it would get. My story had an unusual format. Would it be too strange?
Laura Biagi, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency: As an agent, I love online contests because there are so many intriguing projects all in one place. I was particularly looking forward to PbParty because of its focus on picture books. As I perused the entries, there were a lot of great projects that impressed me, but I remember opening Hannah's and just thinking, Wow, this is different and unique and could be really, really cool. I requested it immediately and couldn't wait to read the full picture book manuscript!
HH: Miracle of miracles, I ended up with four fabulous requests: three agents and one publisher.
I only submitted to the agents because I knew I wanted an agent before approaching publishers. Contract negotiations were/are definitely not in my wheelhouse.
Five days after I sent off my manuscript, I received a request for more material. Four weeks later came a phone call and an offer of representation. WOOHOO! At that point I nudged all the remaining agents, and shortly afterwards I received an additional offer from Laura Biagi.
LB: When I opened up Hannah's manuscript, I flew through it and got more and more excited each time I returned to it. It completely lived up to the snippet I'd read on PbParty, and more! I hadn't seen anything quite like this dual biography, on the one hand telling the story of how a diamond is formed in the earth, and on the other telling the story of Tracy Hall who invented a revolutionary diamond-making machine. And tucked into the Author's Note was the revelation that Tracy Hall was actually Hannah's grandfather—what an incredible connection!
There were a number of editors who I knew would love this book and who were looking for nonfiction and biography picture books. The manuscript engagingly and beautifully got at Common Core and STEM concepts that I knew the market was hungry for. Plus, this was so well told, bold, and fresh that I was certain it was a book that kids as well as parents, librarians, teachers, and booksellers would all get excited about and want to read again and again, lingering over the words.
So I called Hannah up one evening, told her everything I loved about the book, and offered representation!
HH: Now I had a choice. The first agent thought my manuscript was ready to send as it was. Laura wanted a revision. I asked both agents for a few weeks to think things over.
As time went on, I found myself revisiting Laura’s comments over and over again. Her feedback really resonated with me. So even though it required additional work, I knew it was the better path. I went with Laura.
LB: Hannah had done an incredible job with Diamond|Man, but I thought the manuscript would be even stronger with a bit more emotional connection brought into the Tracy Hall half. Editors usually want to feel an emotional connection to a submission right off the bat, and they are so used to seeing polished manuscripts that, if a project can benefit from it, an extra bit of tweaking can go a long way.
Hannah was stellar at revision. We went back and forth a couple of times before settling on something I was thrilled to get into editors' hands. I called up the editors I felt were perfect for it, pitched it with all my enthusiasm, and people started reading!
HH: The revising was worth it! Diamond|Man received a lot of initial interest from publishers once it went on submission. It seemed like a book offer could be coming in at any moment!!! But I still had normal chores to do, like fixing meals, cleaning toilets, and teaching piano lessons. Life continued rotating like a Jack-in-the Box handle until...
One day, Laura called to say she was setting up phone calls with the interested editors so they could share their artistic vision of the story with me. Note, this was still before any official offers.
And I was like, “Um, yes. That sounds like a smart thing to do. Um, hold on while I check my calendar.” And then I hung up and had a panic attack.
One of my critique partners calmed me down and convinced me that talking to an editor wouldn’t kill me and would probably be the healthy, grown-up writer thing to do.
LB: It definitely won't kill you! When editors want to speak with an author about a book, it's a very good sign. These editors wanted to know more about the unique formatting of Hannah's book and talk about their vision. When there's serious editor interest, it can be very helpful for authors to talk with the interested editors to get a sense of their plans for the book and what it would be like to work with them.
HH: So I came up with a list of questions for the phone calls. I ran my questions by Laura, and she assured me she would stay on the phone during the calls. Agents are helpful in oh-so-many ways. In my opinion, every writer needs a great agent and a few good critique partners.
And guess what? The calls went great! It turns out editors are normal, wonderful book-loving people!
One of the editors, Kristin Daly Rens, had a clever idea for how to handle my book’s unusual format, and I liked her bold artistic vision for the illustrations. When her house, Balzer+Bray, swooped in with a pre-empt, it was a joy to accept.
Diamond|Man, the story of my grandfather and his revolutionary diamond-making machine, is tentatively scheduled for their Fall 2018 list!
LB: Kristin and the Balzer+Bray team have been amazing and have found an awesome illustrator for Diamond|Man, Jay Fleck, who is working away! We cannot wait to see how he marries Hannah's text with his art. It's going to be such a phenomenal book!
HH: In retrospect, it was good I failed at the first PbParty. It gave me extra time to switch the story I was submitting. I’m pretty sure Laura wouldn’t have requested my original story...because we’re still working on it. :)
I’m so glad my publishing path led to Laura. Even before our first book deal I thought, this is a person I would be happy working with for a long time. And really, working with great people to make beautiful books—is there anything better?!
LB: I feel so lucky that Hannah and I were brought together too! She is a dream client and I adore working with her.
HH: My parting advice is this: don’t let failures ground you—let them grow you.
LB: I second that! I would also add to keep pushing yourself to learn from every experience.
HH: Thanks again Michelle for having me (us), and thanks Michelle and Sharon for keeping the PbParty going! Happy writing trails everyone and good luck!
LB: Thank you, too, Michelle and Sharon—and best of luck to all the writers out there!
Hannah Holt participated in the September 2015 Picture Book Party (#PbParty). Her debut picture book Diamond/Man is forthcoming from Balzer + Bray. Hannah's engineering background and love of science inspire many of her books, including her SCBWI WIP Award winning picture book text: A Father's Love about the animal kingdom's best dads. You can find Hannah chatting on Twitter and occasionally posting on her ill kept blog.
Laura Biagi joined JVNLA in 2009. She is actively building her client list, seeking adult literary fiction, young readers' books, and nonfiction. She also handles the sale of UK and Australian/New Zealand rights, as well as audio rights. In the past, she has worked closely with Jean Naggar and Jennifer Weltz on their titles, as well as the submission of JVNLA's titles internationally.
Laura's writing background has honed her editorial eye and has driven her enthusiasm for discovering and developing literary talent. She studied creative writing and anthropology at Northwestern University. As a writer, she has participated in workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She is the recipient of a Kentucky Emerging Artist Award for fiction writing.
Laura grew up in a small town in Kentucky and maintains a fondness for Southern biscuits and unobstructed views of the stars.
As of now, no promises mind, but as of now, I hope to have another Picture Book Party in March! Sharon and I should both have the sort of schedules in the spring to allow us to arrange the agents and the rest of the organizing.