by Tom Owens
Literary agent Mary Cummings, a familiar face to attendees at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, is finding her new world filled with old friends. “I’ve known (agent) Betsy Amster for many years; she teaches workshops at the Loft a few times annually,” Cummings said after joining Amster’s Los Angeles agency. “We’re a good team: Betsy has invaluable industry insights and experience, while I bring expertise in books for children and teens.”
Cummings remains based in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
“Those who believe agents must live in New York might wish to ponder the reasons for their beliefs! From my Loft years, I have relationships I’ve built with editors (yes, most of them based in New York, but not all). I was recently in New York, and editors were cordial and eager to speak with me about my clients and projects.” Editors on Cummings’ itinerary included Christy Ottaviano, Kate Harrison, Jennifer Greene, Jennifer Wingertzahn, Susan Kochan, Reka Simonsen, and Emily Easton.
Cummings’ first New York City trip reinforced one message.
“Do children’s book writers need an agent?“ she asked. “Well, it often helps. I can get doors opened for my clients that they can’t open themselves. In fact, I become more and more amazed that today’s editors have time to read anything at all that doesn’t come to them from an agent.”
What does it take to be a Cummings’ client?
“At this time, I am not representing nonfiction, nor am I taking on chapter books or early readers. Please know, however, that I am taking on very few clients. I have to say no many more times than I am able to say yes. In fact, I’m taking on almost no new clients at this moment, but that will be changing in a few months (hint to readers: if you send something that an agent admires, but doesn’t take on, it may simply be because of the cycle they are in with current clients. Try again in half a year or so).”
This new agent isn’t keen on generic “To Whom It May Concern” approaches. However, she doesn’t judge someone solely on one query.
“I don’t spend much time looking at the query,” Cummings said. “I just go almost immediately to the writing sample. That’s going to tell me if this is work that’s ready, or close to ready, for serious consideration for publication.”
Cummings hasn’t been an easy convert for some children’s publishing fads.
“I have less appetite for hype and gossip than many other agents,” she admitted. “Blogging does not interest me. I’ve turned down several novel manuscripts that have strong commercial appeal, simply because I just didn’t like them. I have to like them to be effective. I have to LOVE them. I’m not the right person to represent ‘dark’ novels, for example.”
Nevertheless, Cummings has built a varied roster of authors.
“I have clients from all over the country, some of whom, such as George Shannon, have published many books” she said. “Others are as yet unpublished. I have a number of Minnesota-based clients, including Loretta Ellsworth.”
Cummings is a published author in her own right and continues to create books, time permitting.
“Being a writer for children, I have insight and empathy that is of help to my clients,” Cummings said. “While I haven’t much time these days to write, I am revising a picture book set in an urban classroom, as well as finding my way with a picture book biography.”
Author Ellsworth learned in just one book deal how well this mild-mannered Midwesterner would fare in serious publishing negotiations.
“I’ve known Mary for years. She’s known throughout the Twin Cities as such a force in support of children’s literature. My only worry was that she is so Minnesota-nice that I wasn’t sure she would be able to compete against some of the more aggressive agents I’ve met. But what most attracted me to Mary was her enthusiasm for my work. She loved my stories and that enthusiasm came through when she spoke to editors. I wasn’t just another client to her and I knew that she’d be upfront with me, would always be responsive and very professional, as I’d experienced in her work at the Loft.”
The pairing clicked immediately.
“I was impressed with how Mary represented my novel, how she selected editors who she thought would work well with me, how she negotiated with the editor (even getting me a bit higher advance), and how she handled herself during the negotiations – I was a nervous wreck, but Mary was so calm!“ Ellsworth said. “I’m hoping Mary will continue to represent my future novels, to advise me on my career and guide me as I continue to explore my own writing limits. My next novel will be out in February, 2010 from Walker. In a Heartbeat was the YA novel that Mary sold.”
Cummings credits another Loft fixture, author Lisa Bullard, as her career muse. But the role of muse seems to work both ways.
“There were several good reasons I encouraged Mary to consider the literary agent route. Somewhere over 10 years ago when Mary was running the Education Program at the Loft and I was working in publishing, she invited me to teach my first Loft class,” Bullard said.
Bullard noted that, during Cummings’ tenure, the Loft began offering several important opportunities for children’s book writers: regular classes taught by professional writers, an annual Festival, a major Fellowship, and a special apprenticeship opportunity for advanced writers.
“I knew that the network of editors and writers that Mary has built would be her most invaluable building block if she decided to pursue the idea,” Bullard said. “I also knew that she has the organizational and follow-through skills needed. And she cemented my confidence by creating an alliance with an established literary agent who could teach her the hands-on business side of agenting. I’m thrilled for Mary that things have turned out as they have.”
While Cummings’ path has changed, her mission hasn’t.
“This is a different way to continue to help children’s book writers, and to get great books out to kids,” she said. “There are superstar agents who make lots of money, but, just as for writers, many of us don’t make lots of bucks doing this. But we do it anyway, and the rewards are “inner and inherent.”
Submission requirements for Cummings, as indicated by Publisher’s Marketplace, are:
For children’s picture books and for middle-grade and young adult novels, please address your query to firstname.lastname@example.org Please embed the text of your picture book or the first six pages of your novel in the e-mail. No illustrations, please. Please understand that owing to the number of inquiries we receive, we will respond only to those that interest us.
Writing as Thomas S. Owens, he is the author of several books on sports, sports card collectibles, history, and health. Tom is a frequent contributor to the Children’s Literature Network’s Radar magazine. He and his wife, Diana Star Helmer, who is also a children’s book author, reside in Boone, Iowa.
Copyright CLN 2009. All rights reserved.