SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Jessica Sinsheimer, Agent, Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency

 

TwitterPictureJessica  Jessica Sinsheimer has been reading and campaigning for her favorite queries since 2004. Now an agent at the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, she’s known for #MSWL, ManuscriptWistList.com, #PubTalkTV—and for drinking far too much tea. Always on the lookout for new writers, she is most excited about finding picture books, YA, MG, upmarket genre fiction (especially women's/romance/erotica, thrillers, mysteries) and—on the nonfiction side—psychology, parenting, self-help, cookbooks, memoirs, and works that speak to life in the twenty-first century. She especially likes highbrow sentences with lowbrow content, smart/nerdy protagonists, vivid descriptions of food, picture books with non-human characters, and justified acts of bravery. You can follow her on Twitter at @JSinsheim.

 

 How did you decide to become an agent?

 It actually wasn’t one conscious choice. I’ve always loved reading, writing and editing—so when my college roommate finished her internship at an agency, and said they needed someone, I was curious enough to try it out. Much as the Very Professional (and Mad Men-esque) atmosphere of that office terrified me, I still loved the work so much that I looked forward to going in every day. After several internships—at a publishing house and a magazine—I had the ridiculously good luck of landing with Sarah Jane as her assistant.

 I think what really propelled me forward was that I kept asking questions. I was always trying to see how every piece fit together, and how best to maneuver with that information, once I could see the big picture. Sarah Jane was always encouraging me to take on my own work—but I was scared, actually, of taking that step. I was so worried  that I’d do something wrong and ruin an author’s life! But then in 2008 I read a manuscript—Falling Under by Gwen Hayes—that I loved so much, I couldn’t stay away. I HAD to have that book! The deal was pretty stressful as first deals go—two similar offers from two Big Five houses, negotiated over the phone. But I made it! And the book, even now, continues to sell—in seven countries and four languages.

I’ve always cared more about finding the work that speaks to me than reading with a “Will it sell? Okay, how much is it worth?” mindset. Of course that’s important—but that’s not the reason why I’m here. I’m here because I want to connect with the work that reminds me how much I love reading. Being part of the creative process with an author—I actually LOVE editing! I love seeing a writer take my notes and run with them—is gratifying in a way nothing else is.

 

You started #MSWL. What prompted that?

It started because there were SO many things that I wanted in my inbox—but no one knew my interests until I’d already sold, and announced, something like it. I wanted a way to tell people that I wanted ALL THE BOOKS. And if I was having this problem, I figured, others would be, too.

So I emailed about twenty agents and editors on a Monday, suggesting that we all post our wishes on the #MSWL tag that Thursday—just as a fun, interesting thing to do. Most, of course, wrote back and said they were too busy. But when the day came, suddenly so many people were tweeting, the tag trended—and I ended up in Twitter jail (when they temporarily freeze your account because you send too many tweets per hour). I had no idea it would grow so quickly. There are a lot of ideas that never do. But I thought it would be useful and, therefore, worth a try.

We’ve since grown, and now have an amazing website, ManuscriptWishList.com. Each agent and editor can now log in and update his or her own profile, so everything remains current.

For writers, this is an amazing opportunity to look into the minds of agents and editors, and see what they want now—not what they wanted months or, likely, years ago, when they bought the book that just hit the shelves. The market moves too quickly for that. You can find people with niche interests that match your work—and get an insider’s view of the brains behind the industry. It’s the really specific #MSWL I love most—an Arsenic and Old Lace in orbit for YA? Awesome!

We seem to hear a success story every week or so—there have been so, so many matches because of #MSWL, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.

 

What's on your manuscript wish list? What reels you in?

I’m always thrilled to find smart, active protagonists who know what they want and go for it—I’d love a spy novel (James Bond with a female protagonist would be amazing), a Dangerous Liaisons for teens, and/or a psychological thriller in a beautiful setting. I love the contrast of highbrow sentences with lowbrow content, beautiful settings and ugly motives—with a huge emotional range.

I’m also a huge fan of magical realism, especially for middle grade. Works that challenge our understanding of how the world works (adults always pretend we know exactly how everything works, even though we totally don’t!) are often compelling.

There is also such a need for characters with underrepresented viewpoints. I’d love to see a character like that in a position of power—and have things go well!

For picture books, I tend to prefer non-human characters, quirky/funny plotlines, and (if you’re a professional) gorgeous illustration. I’m not wholly opposed to rhyme, as long as it feels natural. I’m always fond of fractured fairytales, STEM elements woven in naturally, and biographies of lesser-known (but incredibly interesting) people.

 

What do you see your role as once you sign an author?

I see myself as something of a blend of editor, life coach, friend, lawyer, creative partner and someone who can see the big picture and help you navigate that. I’m a little bit of a benevolent control freak, but with a sense of humor. I completely overuse bitmoji when texting clients. I hear about their lives, their loves, their ideas, their passions—because all of that shapes who you are as a creative. I’m enormously fond of unusual marketing. One of my clients, Margot Harrison of The Killer in Me—coming out from Disney in July—wrote the most wonderful novel about a young woman on a road trip to stop a serial killer, and made postcards that say “Hi Mom…yes, I’m wearing sunscreen…drinking lots of coffee so I can stay up tonight and track a suspected serial killer”—which I immediately sent to my own mother, of course, with a note that PROMISES I’m safely at home, no serial killers in sight.

Of course I’m here to sell your book and get you the best possible deal. But there is so so SO much that goes into getting you to that point—and making sure everything goes well after. And I want to be there—to keep you as calm, happy, and informed as possible—every step of the way.

I think the very best creative partnerships come with absolute trust, and so I’m very selective as to who I let into that space. And I want to be sure that I can always make time for clients, should someone need something last-minute.

 

 

On the Shelves Bookbug

 

What sets Bookbug apart from other bookstores? Bookbug-newsletter-graphic

In some ways, we are distinguished in the very same way that any/all thoughtful independent bookstores are distinguished, that is: our inventory is a direct reflection of our unique selves and of our community. Every staff member of the store has meaningful input into which books are placed on our shelves, which events we host and how we evolve to better reflect the needs of our community. For being a relatively small space (2,500 feet), our inventory is quite deep and our event calendar is in-step with stores much bigger in size and/or market, so I guess that distinguishes us also.

What has been a successful author visit and why do you believe it was more successful than others?
 
We've been fortunate to hone our event booking, marketing and execution skills to better ensure that all of our events are successful (with success defined by audience attendance, book sales and/or energy and enthusiasm in-store as a direct result of the event), but I can offer that one particularly successful event we hosted with a recognizable (though non-'huge'-celebrity) author happened in part because the author himself chose (for this dog-themed book) to reach out to our local animal shelter and to promote a shelter food drive in conjunction with his visit. We had a huge response to this drive alone and an incredible audience at his event, in part because of ASPCA's strong following in our community and also their allowing us 'borrow' their dramatic (and enormous) dog statue to place outside of our store for added intrigue. This was just one stand-out event, but many of our most successful author events do involve a strong community partner in some way, so I encourage authors and/or event planners to always consider creative ideas in this regard.

How much handselling do you do? What in your opinion makes a best-selling book?


We handsell every day and all the time; that's very much part of what our customers expect of us and/or why they come back repeatedly to Bookbug: knowing that thoughtful/loved/well-matched books will be placed directly into their hands.


Criteria for a bestseller can be a moving target and dependent on so many different factors, including national buzz, local love and/or mass distribution (curriculum assignment) magic, but I can offer this statistical fact about our store: close to 90% of our bestsellers are books we are simply crazy passionate about and many of those do not show up on bigger bestseller lists, which I interpret as Bookbug doing its job to advocate for fantastic work that is otherwise falling under the radar of broader 'bestsellerhood' frenzy.

 

What would you like to see more of from authors/illustrators in terms of community involvement?

Not every author is an extrovert who wants to be (or perhaps even should be) the primary champion of her/his work, but each one has an obligation (I think) to understand the hard work (and many steps involved) in marketing, promoting and selling a book, and to build honest relationships with those that can help them. I realize I am biased here, but I do think, that in addition to building relationships with local librarians, teachers and other writers and illustrators, this means that authors/illustrators should get to know (really know) their nearest indie bookstore. Many authors assume this to mean that they should go in to their nearest indie, introduce themselves, and hard-pitch their work (or worse: email or cold call), but building an honest relationship is rarely achieved this way. A better bet always involves: browsing the store, discussing books and getting to know the actual people behind the actual counter (likely to be there every day in case of many stores) in order to build a true possible ally for your work and develop a longstanding mutually beneficial relationship.

 

Personal book recommendation?

Golly there are gobs, and without category guidance, my brain went to the most recent one I hand-sold (and genuinely love): The Bear and the Piano for its tender telling of a successful artist's relationship to his home.

 

The Return of Draw This and More Tips for Illustrator Members

Borrow_Vashti_Harrison

One of our May Draw This! winners, Vashti Harrison, was contacted by both indie and traditional publishers as soon as she was featured on our homepage, Twitter, and Facebook as a winner. She’s on her way to being published for the first time, and it was participating in an SCBWI contest that tipped the scales for her. We had just decided to end Draw This!, as we were beginning to see the numbers of participants dwindling, but upon hearing the great news from Vashti, we decided to bring it back. Helping launch our members’ careers is what we live for here at SCBWI so we’re thrilled to keep this feature going. Our next prompt is: Admire. Click here for Draw This! guidelines: https://www.scbwi.org/calling-all-illustrators-2/

 

4 Art Tips

There are many other ways that participating in SCBWI features, awards, grants, and contests can help get illustrator members the exposure you need to get discovered. 

 

* When you submit your art to Art Spot and the Bulletin, you get the chance to be featured in the Bulletin, which is read by 25,000+ members, agents, art directors, and industry professionals. Click here for submission guidelines: https://www.scbwi.org/art-spot/

 

* When you submit your art to our contests, like the Tomie dePaola contest, grants, like the Don Freeman Grant, and awards, like the Bologna Illustration Gallery award, the winning art is featured prominently on our website and social media. Click here for grant and award information: https://www.scbwi.org/awards/grants/for-illustrators/

 

* When you upload your artwork to the SCBWI Illustrator Gallery, you have the opportunity to be viewed by art directors and editors searching for the illustrator for their next book. (https://www.scbwi.org/illustrator-gallery/)

 

* When you participate in both international and regional conferences and the portfolio showcases there, you are eligible for portfolio awards and your art is seen by art directors, editors and publishers. Click here for information on the Portfolio Awards: https://www.scbwi.org/awards/grants/portfolio-awards/

 

And, by participating in any of these features, you are greatly increasing your chances of being chosen as our monthly Featured Illustrator, promoted on our website and social media for a full month. 

 

So remember, take advantage of the many ways SCBWI can help you get more exposure and put your work out there!