Book Broker—an interview with Kevin O'Connor
Agent: Kevin M. O’Connor / O’Connor Literary Agency
Email: email@example.com – I have an open submissions policy, send me a short pitch and up to 10 pages of the manuscript in the body of the email
Preferred genres: Kids—picture books, middle-grade novels. Adult nonfiction—science, history, serious biography.
Bio: Since his first job out of college at Sesame Workshop, Kevin has always worked at the intersection of business and creative. He has hands-on experience in a variety of media: animation, live action TV, toys, live shows, music, educational apps, and t-shirts. In addition to Sesame, he’s worked for Fisher-Price, VTech, Kidz Bop, Barnes & Noble, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s inked deals with Chrysler, Nestle, McDonalds, Intel, and all the major publishers.
He is a Columbia University grad and the founding director of the Center for Nonfiction, a Columbia University Community Scholars project dedicated to helping journalists and scholars understand the formal needs of trade publishers.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
For me—a short pitch that makes me want to dive into the manuscript, followed by the first few chapters. I like to have the writing speak for itself rather than long synopses or character descriptions. Set up the urgency about why this book now and why you are the perfect person to write it. Then I’ll definitely want to read!
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Mostly it’s not understanding what the formal requirements of publishing are. I get a lot of 2,000-word picture books (which isn’t a thing!) or 200,000 word novels with a male antihero. And lots of books that are for “everyone 8-100.” That isn’t a market. It’s much easier to focus on a specific audience and then grow from there. That’s how Harry Potter happened. Rowling focused on middle-grade kids—and did it so well it connected to the eleven-year-old in all of us. I wish we did a better job as an industry defining what sells for writers. I can’t believe how many MFA students I talk to who don’t understand the basics of publishing.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
Serious biographies. I loved The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf about Alexander von Humboldt. Just the perfect book for me in that it touches on science, history, and biography about a person who’s name you may vaguely recognize—but who is really influential.
I do a lot in middle grade. Always looking for contemporary middle grade humor/action.
4) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
The narrative voice is what I’m really looking for. Does it convey confidence, humor, personality? Do I want to spend 32 pages with it (in the case of a picture book) or 250+ in the case of a novel or adult nonfiction. I recently read a manuscript that didn’t set clear rules about who the narrator was, what they could know, what point of view they had.
I’ve loved an unreliable narrator ever since my 10th grade English teacher introduced me to Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O. I love that the way we can tell a story affects so much the content. See Nabokov’s Pale Fire—an outrageous combination of plot, narrator, text, anti-text, subtext… all those fancy English PhD ideas!
5) When you sign a new client, to what extent do you work through additional revisions together before their manuscript is ready for submission to publishers?
I’m definitely an invasive hands-on editor in the early stages. Maybe it was all the screenwriting classes I’ve taken, but I love working with an author to make a plot feel authentic and built from the characters’ wants and needs coming into conflict with each other.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I wish agents were able to give personalized, detailed feedback. And the same thing from editors. I try to get back to everyone with a comment. But I truly get so many submissions, it’s overwhelming. So much of the time it isn’t that the writing is poor or the ideas aren’t good. It’s just that I don’t have the right reading experience, editing chops, or industry connections to truly be of help. I really try to emphasize that you have to keep going. I’m just one guy with my own personal taste and capabilities.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Diana Goetsch’s This Body I Wore (FSG) about her later-in-life coming out as trans. Diana has been a poet and writing teacher for years and years, and everything came together for her to finally put this gnawing discomfort together and realize that expressing her true gender was essential to who she was and her happiness. Her writing is exquisite and it’s painful and illuminating to vicariously live through her experience in the book.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Being an agent – I have to push the envelope. My clients Ali Kamanda and Jorge Redmond are college friends who wrote the picture book Black Boy, Black Boy as a way for fathers to talk to their sons about self-esteem and pioneering African and African-American figures. It comes out in August from Sourcebooks eXplore.
In a totally different vein, Russell Ginns (writing as R. U. Ginns) has a book of middle-grade stories that are truly “hilarifying” (hilarious + terrifying)! It’s called 1, 2, 3 Scream! and comes out in September from Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House.