A FEW WORDS ABOUT AGENTS
One of the first questions students ask me is, "Do I need an agent?"
The answer? Not necessarily. Some publishers still accept unsolicited manuscripts. The Children's Writers and Illustrator's Marketplace is a good place to start if you are looking for a publisher. Attending conferences and joining the SCBWI can also help you connect with editors. It is true, though, that many publishers only accept manuscripts from agents. The next question, therefore, is, "How do I find an agent?"
The Marketplace includes a short listing of agents. If you join the SCBWI, you can also find a list of agents in the members section of their website. The Association of Author's Representatives allows you to search its members by specialty. Publisher's Marketplace is a good resource too. Be aware that not all agents represent children's books, and of those that do an even smaller number represent picture books. Be sure to read the listing carefully and go to the agency's website to see if they have additional guidelines.
If the agency is accepting queries from prospective clients, follow the instructions exactly. Some accept queries by email, others prefer snail mail. Some only wish a letter as an initial contact, others request the entire manuscript. Following instructions is the first step in putting yourself in an agent's good graces, so do what the guidelines say.
WITH ONE MAJOR EXCEPTION: Do not send money. Ever. Any agency that asks for money up front to read your manuscript is a scam. Likewise, agencies that refer you to an "editing service" that will revise your manuscript for a hefty fee. Agents earn their money by placing manuscripts with publishers. That's why genuine agents are very selective about the clients they accept. Real agents do not ask for money up front. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous people out there posing as literary agents. The website Preditors and Editors has been keeping track of literary scams for years and is always worth a visit. The Street Smart Writer: Self Defense Against Sharks and Scams in the Literary World by Jenna Glatzer is another excellent resource.
Okay. You've done your research and received a positive response from an agency. They want you to sign on! Congratulations! But what else do you need to know before you sign on the dotted line? Here are a few things to consider:
- How long has the agency been in business? If it's a new enterprise what is the agent's background? Obviously, a well-established agency has well-established contacts. New doesn't necessarily mean inexperienced, however. Some agents strike out on their own after having worked at an established agency for several years. Editors and other publishing professionals sometimes decide to become agents, too. The main criteria for a good agent is a deep familiarity with the world of children's book publishing. In other words, you want someone who knows the ropes.
- Who are the agency's other clients and what recent sales have they made? This information may be available on the agency's website. If not, ask. Of course, brand new agencies may not have any sales yet. In that case, ask how the agent how she sees the agency developing and growing. How does she plan to network in the industry? What organizations does she belong to? Is the agency a member of the AAR (Association of Author's Representatives)? What conferences or publishing industry events does she attend or plant to attend? For example, many agents attend the annual trade show, BookExpo America, sponsored by the ABA (American Booksellers Association) to meet publisher's reps and get a look at new trends in the market.
- What fees does the agency charge? Agents all charge a standard fee upon making a sale. Some also charge the author for any cost incurred in the process of marketing the manuscript, including postage and copying fees. Please note, this is not the same as asking for money up front. It is a perfectly legitimate practice. It is also less common now that agents and editors correspond by email. Agents who do charge these fees should be able to give you an ball park figure of what additional costs marketing might involve. It should be fairly modest. Certainly no more than twenty dollars for a picture book manuscript.
- What's the agent's personal style? Does it fit yours? Personal style is hard to define but all important. Yes, the agent-writer relationship is a primarily a business relationship, not a friendship, but this is someone with whom you anticipate a long and productive association. You want to be comfortable with one another. This is why it's good to at least talk to the agent over the phone if you can't meet in person. What are your mutual expectations? Some agents are very hands on. They are willing to look at works in progress and make editorial suggestions. Others prefer to see only manuscripts that are polished and publisher ready. How often do you need to communicate? Some agents check in with clients monthly. Others, only when they have placed the manuscript with a publisher. The agent may have questions for you, too. This is a chance for both of you to get a good sense of how well you can work together.
These may seem like an awful lot of questions to be asking when you feel like you should be celebrating. Many times writers are so eager to sign on with an agent, they're afraid that if they ask too many questions, they'll appear too picky or difficult and sour the deal before it can be closed. Actually, agents are used to talking. If fact, that's why many of them become agents. They're good at communicating. An agent may feel better about working with a writer who has questions rather than one who asks none at all. It is your career you're talking about here and signing with an agent is a serious step. You want to make sure it's a step in the right direction. If the answer is yes, then by all means sign on the dotted line, break out the champagne, take a day to celebrate. Then get back to writing!