As an aspiring picture book author, I had high hopes for breaking into children’s publishing. I worked on my craft, joined a critique group, revised and polished my picture book manuscripts, then sent them off to publishers, hoping my dream would soon be reality. That’s when I encountered two seemingly impossible hurdles: the slush pile and, worse yet, the wall – you know the one I mean – the one that has this sign posted: “Open to Agented Submissions Only”. So, after two years of submitting picture book manuscripts unsuccessfully, I decided it was time to seek an agent. That search took over a year, but finally, with an agent representing me, I sold my first book, then three more, all acquired by top-notch publishers. What made the difference? Having an agent. Taking that step, however, required thought. Here are six questions to get you started.
Question #1: Am I ready for an agent?
Newer writers sometimes seek representation prematurely, so my first bit of advice is to make sure that the manuscripts you are presenting reflect your very best work and clearly demonstrate an understanding of your form. For example, it should be clear from your picture book manuscript that you understand that the story needs to be told in 14 spreads and that the text needs to leave room for the illustrations. Your text should be so smooth and tight and full of heart, that it will be clear to prospective agents that you’ve spent a lot of time revising and polishing. Finally, an agent is not going to be interested in just one picture manuscript. They will want to see a body of work. So make sure, before sending that first story to an agent, that you have a whole portfolio of at least five solid stories that are ready to be seen.
Question #2: Are you sure you want an agent?
How can you be sure that you want and/or need an agent? Here are a few considerations: 1) If you intend to self publish, you do not need an agent. 2)If you are primarily interested in publishing for the children’s magazine market, you do not need an agent as most children’s literature agents are interested in representing book-length projects. 3) There are still a few publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts, so it is possible to submit on your own. 4) However, if you are serious about publishing with a traditional publisher and want the expertise of someone who not only knows the market, but also has the skill to negotiate a contract to get the best terms possible, and who also has many contacts within the industry to help connect you with the right editor, then I would recommend that yes, you might want an agent. That is what I decided was best for me.
Question #3: What kind of agent do I want?
Once you decide you want an agent, the next consideration is what kind of agent you want. Some agents, for example, are highly editorial. Is that something you are interested in or would you prefer an agent who sends out your work without that editorial stage? Different agents also have different philosophies regarding submissions. Some prefer to send pieces out one at a time in small batches. Others send larger batches. And what is their procedure for following up on pieces they have submitted? Most important, what would YOU like from an agent? These are all questions to consider before starting your search. You might even take the time to create a list/chart of what you are looking for in an agent, so that when you start your search you can keep track of which agents fit those requirements.
Question #4: How do I start my search?
I started my search for an agent by doing a little investigating to see which agents and agencies my favorite authors were represented by. Then I went to those agencies websites and read through every bio of every agent, making notes as to which agents I thought might be interested in my work. I also signed up for my local SCBWI’s annual conference and made a special effort to meet each agent there, not to foist my work on them, but just so I could get a sense of what they were like. I also looked online for interviews with prospective agents. A fantastic resource for that is Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, which includes a page with links to dozens of agent interviews. Finally, once you are ready to query your list of agents, go back to each agent’s website and follow the submission guidelines EXACTLY. Then, be patient…. This journey is not for those who are in a rush.=)
Question #5 How do I know the agent I am querying is legit?
Unfortunately there are some scammers out there hoping to offer representation to gullible writers. To avoid finding yourself in unwanted situation with a questionable agent, it’s helpful to know a few things. Legitimate agents will not charge you to read your manuscript, nor will they demand any upfront costs. They will not charge editing fees, nor will they submit your work to publishers that charge fees. For more details on this important understanding, I recommend you check out an expert source called Authors Beware, managed and run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This, in my opinion, is a must read before beginning your agent search.
Question #6: What do I do when I get the offer?
Most likely an offer will be preceded by a phone call. This pre-arranged phone chat is a chance for you and the agent to connect live. It’s your chance to make sure your are both on the same page and can communicate easily. It’s also your chance to get to know them a little bit better and to make sure they will represent you in the way you want. (Remember they are working for you, and you are benefitting from their expertise and connections.) So, before “the call”, as it is excitedly known, go back to that list you generated (see question #3) and create a list of questions that you want to ask during the call. If the call indeed ends with an offer, be excited, but also keep your wits about you. Make sure that before signing the contract with your new agent that you read the fine print carefully and ask any final questions that you want answered. Once you’ve signed, have a little celebratory chocolate (or whatever)! Then be ready for the next step… going out on submission as an agented writer!
Laura Sassi has a passion for telling stories in prose and rhyme. She is the author of four picture books: GOODNIGHT, ARK (Zonderkidz, 2014) which was a 2015 Christian Book Award® finalist, GOODNIGHT, MANGER (Zonderkidz, 2015), DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE (Sterling, 2018) which was featured on BBC’s Cbeebies Bedtime Stories and won First Honors in the 2019 Best in Rhyme Award, and her newest release LOVE IS KIND (Zonderkidz, 2018).
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