Last time we looked at the different routes to publishing your children's book in our series on How to Write a Children's Book. If you decide that the traditional publishing route is for you, you will hear lots of conversation around agents. How do you find an agent? Do you need an agent? How do you work with an agent once you find one?
6 Essential Questions About Children's Book Agents
Most writers know there are literary agents out there. But if you've never worked with one before, the world of agents can feel like a giant mystery.
Through this article, I'll answer six of the questions I hear most about securing an agent for your project.
1. Do I Need a Children’s Book Agent?
If you wish to publish with a traditional publisher, then yes, you'll need an agent since most publishing houses only accept “agented submissions.” This means that your agent is the seller of your project versus you.
And similarly, you are the “seller” of the project to your agent though in this case, you do not pay an agent for them to represent you; they make money when your project sells.
Why do publishers often only accept agented manuscripts? Three primary reasons:
Volume of submissions
That's right, publishers receive thousands of submissions every year. They cannot possibly read each one and many end up in the “slush pile,” which is an unfortunate description for the many, many manuscripts that go unnoticed.
At some houses, an editorial assistant may be assigned to give manuscripts a “first read” and forward to an editor if they think it has potential. By receiving submissions through an agent, a publisher is able to focus their attention on a fewer number of ideas, though even this volume can still be high.
This is a biggie. Like any relational industry, editors come to rely on certain agents to deliver what they are looking for. If, for example, I'm an agent specializing in children's picture books, I will know which of my editors will appreciate hearing from me.
Perhaps as an agent, I have a track record of bringing highly sellable concepts to editors. Or maybe I have a niche representing BIPOC authors, and I know which publishers are eager to add more diversity to their list.
Having a knowledgeable intermediary
The agent can play an important role in communication between the publisher and the author, helping with contract negotiation and relaying project direction.
If a publisher knows and trusts an agent, they will appreciate an agent's help with maintaining good author relationships. And conversely, an author will appreciate an agent's ability to help get answers they seek and ensure they are getting a good deal.
2. What do children's book agents do?
To build on the above, let's review here the role of an agent. It's important to remember that as an author, you are “hiring” an agent to work for you, yet they will not make money until they sell your project. The usual commission is fifteen percent of your earnings.
An agent is your representative to the publishing house and will:
- Be the first reader of your work after you submit a query letter (more on this below)
- Offer suggestions for how to improve your manuscript before it goes “on submission”
- Pitch your manuscript to editors at traditional publishing houses
- Manage the submission process
- Negotiate a contract on your behalf should someone decide to publish your work which can include various categories of rights, e.g. audio rights, merchandise, etc.
- Advocate on your behalf and keep you apprised of project progress and any issues that need to be addressed
- Receive and evaluate royalty statements and disperse your payment
- Share industry knowledge that will help you grow as an author
3. Where do I find literary agents for my project?
This is where the work is. Unless you happen to know someone who can make some intros for you, finding an agent is going to take some research and outreach, and it can, unfortunately, be a painfully slow process. Here are several ways to begin your agent search.
Start with children's book authors and books you love. Often an agent will be credited on an author's website or you can conduct online searches to obtain this information.
Publisher's marketplace is a membership-based website where you can search for recent book deals, agents and agencies. There is a $25 monthly membership fee, so people often join for a month or two to do some research. They also have a $10 quick pass for more limited access.
Twitter and other social media
There is an active writer community on Twitter where you'll see posts by agents and news of writer conferences that often provide opportunities to chat with agents and/or pitch your work. Similarly, Instagram is a great place to learn of literary agencies and follow along with projects and new releases.
Query Tracker is an online query tracking system that allows users to find agents and publishers, list those they are querying, and track responses.
Good ‘ol fashioned research can lead to the websites of many literary agencies where you can read what types of projects they are looking to represent as well as what they require in terms of submissions (for example, query letter plus manuscript).
Often an agency will specialize in certain types of books (adult fiction, middle grade, memoir) and will tell you, too, what they are not looking for.
Word of mouth
If you find a writing community—in person or online—you will find them a wealth of information as people are often willing to share resources with one another, the good and the “be wary.”
4. How do I query a children's book agent?
Keep in mind that while an agent is looking for a good-fit project, you are also looking for a good-fit agent. That's why it's important to do your research on the agencies that represent what you're writing.
The traditional way of finding an agent is through sending a basic document called a query letter. This is your one-page sales pitch that needs to pack a lot in a little amount of space.
It's going to be helpful here to revisit our topics about Story Intention and Target Market as these are a few things you'll be mentioning in your query. The Write Practice has a wonderful article on writing query letters that you can find here, but typically for a picture book, you'll want to make it short and snappy.
Since most agents ask that the entire manuscript be included in the submission, writing a long query letter is unnecessary.
You'll divide your letter into three brief paragraphs:
1. The Why Paragraph
This is where you'll tell the agent your project and why you are choosing to send them your query. For example:
Because of your interest in books that cultivate social-emotional learning, I am submitting to you my manuscript for BE BRAVE LITTLE ONE, a 32-page illustrated picture book.
2. The What Paragraph
This is the section where you sell your book by describing the story. Focus on your story intention to write a strong pitch.
An article from www.kidlit.com shares an awesome sample of a succinct pitch line:
A quirky picture book with a great friendship hook and spare text, HARRY AND HORSIE is sure to blast your imagination into the stratosphere!
This gives the agent just enough information to know the heart of your book.
3. The Who Paragraph
This last paragraph is for you to tell the agent a bit of your background and tout any connections you have in the writing and publishing world. Why would you be a good partner with this agent?
Remember, a potential children's book agent is asking themselves, “Can I sell this project/person?” Don't count yourself out if you are previously unpublished, but certainly mention any ties to the writing community you do have! A great idea is still a great idea, regardless if it's your first or fortieth book.
5. What should I expect while querying a children's book agent?
Getting traditionally published is a long game. These are a few things you can unfortunately expect during the query process.
A long wait time
Many of the agency websites will tell you what you can expect. For example, “We will respond within six to eight weeks if we are interested in your project. You can assume a no if you don't hear from us by then.”
It's simply a very crowded industry which means a lot of great ideas simply won't be acquired. As much as it's hard to hear a no or hear nothing at all, I will encourage you to move on and forward as quickly as possible!
When you consider the number of inquiries showing up unannounced in someone's inbox, you might better understand an agent's inability to respond to everyone.
The need to keep writing
One thing that is within your control is your decision to keep writing while you wait. Putting your mind on something productive will mean less focus on waiting for “the yes!”
6. What do I do when I get a yes?
When you do finally get a positive response from an agent, you'll likely set up a phone call to get better acquainted and then sign a contract of representation. Make sure you read this thoroughly!
If you need advice here, you can get assistance from The Author's Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization of writers. An agent may also give you feedback on potential changes needed before embarking on the submission process.
Remember, you are beginning what hopefully becomes a long-term relationship. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of landing an agent, but a bad agent is worse than no agent at all!
And yes, it's also possible that a particular agent will not have success selling your project and you'll be on the search again. This is not meant to discourage, rather to underscore the writing/publishing can be subjective and unpredictable, just like life itself!
Query Your Agents Boldly
As you can see, the process of finding a children's book agent can be a long one, but if being traditionally published is your dream, then it will be worth the wait.
In almost every instance, signing with an agent is the first step towards getting a traditional publishing deal. Do your research. Write a query letter that best represents your book. And then go forth boldly and query agents!
With hard work, perseverance, and just a bit of luck, you can sign with the agent who is perfect for you.
And as an extra bonus, take a look at this list of several book publishers who do accept unagented picture book submissions. Make sure you still do your homework before pitching your book directly.
What questions do you still have about finding a children's book agent? Let me know in the comments.
Set your timer for fifteen minutes. Look at the instructions for writing a query letter above and write the “what paragraph” and the “who paragraph.”
I'm Marianne Richmond—writer, artist and inspirationalist. My words have touched millions over the past two decades through my children's books and gift products.
Basically I put love into words and help you connect with the people + moments that matter. You can find me on my website, Facebook, and Twitter (@M_Richmond21).