SCBWI North Bay: Finding and Working With an Agent with Molly Ker Hawn, The Bent Agency

A little shy of two months ago, I attended my first official SCBWI event. After brief how-do-I-get-there panic (Outside Lands > anything else happening in SF), the very agent I was aiming to see suggested over Twitter to take the ferry.

Genius.

One train and one ferry ride later, I arrived at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The store alone sent me into full literary-nerd mode – I’d heard of Book Passage for ages, and here I was, in real life! (My awe could also have been caused by severe sleep deprivation – back-to-back early shifts at work tend to mess with my head.)

The talk began right on time. An SCBWI rep thanked the store owner – the famed Elaine Petrocelli – for allowing us to use the space and filled us in about other upcoming events.

After a short introduction, the star of the hour – Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency – got up to speak. At the time, I’d been querying for a year and was very familiar with The Bent Agency. One of their agents had my full MS…and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was hoping Ms. Ker Hawn might drop some insider info as to when I may hear back (she didn’t).

Ms. Ker Hawn began with a brief recap of how she got into the industry: after living next door to Jenny Bent at university, the latter repeatedly tried to get her involved in publishing – year later, Bent won.

Ker Hawn, who lives in London, has about twenty-five clients. Her workday starts around 9AM and ends at 11PM. “By the time [my kids] are in bed,” she said jokingly, “New York is still going.”

She keeps going, too. With an average of 150 queries hitting up in her inbox each week, it is no surprise her days are long.

The witty and articulate agent peppered her talk with plenty of wisdom, stressing the importance of the standard word count of your genre and reading your work aloud.

Delving into the subject of queries, Ker Hawn took a moment to explain how comp titles are an excellent tool to catch an agent’s attention – but only when used intelligently. “For God’s sake, don’t say Harry Potter,” Ker Hawn quipped, getting a laugh from everyone, myself included.

Ker Hawn’s event was full of good-hearted laughter. While discussing beta readers, Ker Hawn said, “Never think feedback from someone you feed is legitimate.” Her meaning? Kids (and spouses) are not ideal beta readers, even if they fit the age group you are writing for. You want someone who will offer honest, constructive feedback – not someone who may dance around the truth to spare your feelings.

Next on the docket were agencies and agents – how they may respond to your work, getting The Call, and questions to ask during The Call, etc. Some of the best questions she suggested asking were:

-What is your vision for my book?

-How many clients are you currently working with?

-How often will you be in touch?

“Because you are all sensitive flowers,” Ker Hawn joked, “I try to keep in touch often.” This, of course, varies per agent, so depending on how sensitive of a flower you are, you want an agent willing to work with you at your level. However, Ker Hawn took a moment to emphasize how it’s important to remember that your agent has other clients. “Waiting your turn” is inevitable.

The event ended with a quick Q&A. “How have I been talking for two hours?” Ker Hawn said after she realized the time. Her answers to inquires – like much of her talk – were concise and to the point. (I snuck in one about whether I could query a new MS even though I hadn’t heard back from one agent who’d had the full since January. Her reply? “Oh God, yes. Go for it. Next question.”)

A gracious (and well-deserved) round of applause later, the event wrapped up. I had to make my way home right away, but I noticed Ker Hawn stuck around to talk with writers one-on-one. Given that she had spent two hours talking and was under the weather, I thought it was gracious gesture to stay and very reflective of how passionate she is about helping writers.

With my three pages of notes in tow (remember, I’ve been querying for A WHOLE YEAR and still came away with notes. That’s how much wisdom she fit into two hours), I bid Book Passage goodbye feeling more than a little inspired. Both Ker Hawn and SCBWI lived up to my expectations, and I look forward to attending more Bay Area events down the road.
-S.P.

words and opinions entirely my own

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