THE AGENT SEARCH: Sharing My 5-Step Process
Updated: May 22, 2019
Well, now that summer is here and my schedule is a bit more flexible, I finally have time to start the agent hunt. In case it’s helpful to any other newbies, I thought I’d share my process—time will tell if I see the fruits!
Step 1: Make sure I have multiple agent-ready manuscripts.
I know the typical advice is to have 2 or 3, but I wanted to pad things a bit, and also give myself more time to hone my craft and revise my pieces. So I waited until I had 5 manuscripts that I consider to be ready for an agent's eyes. I’ve learned that jumping in too quick can lead to disaster, so I’m taking more of a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach this time around.
Step 2: Research.
As someone new to the children's publishing world, I had to start from ground zero here. I needed to answer questions like, do I really need an agent, or should I just pitch publishers directly? What does an agent do? How does an agent get paid? Do I need to find a local agent, or can I find one who is across the country? I pored over my Writers Market books, blog posts, the SCBWI board, and any other sources I could find to give myself a sense of this foreign landscape. After my investigation, I learned:
That I should query agents rather than publishers. The main reasons? First, I do have multiple stories, rather than a single one-off manuscript. Second, I appreciated the reality that you can submit to publishers after getting “no’s” from a bunch of agents, but you can’t really submit to agents after getting “no’s” from a bunch of publishers—they want an open slate of options to pitch your book to. And third, I’d like to be published by a trade press, which typically are only open to agented submissions.
An agent helps with contracts, can facilitate some additional editing/polishing to your manuscript, and has connections that grease the wheels in the direction of publication.
Traditionally, an agent gets paid via a portion of the advance/book sales (often 15% domestically); I learned that any agent that charges reading fees or has other up-front costs should generally be avoided.
Finally, some may consider this a really dumb question, but I learned that it is not necessary to find an agent within your own geographic area. With many agencies based in New York (fittingly, since that’s where the big trade publishers are), this means the pool of possible agents is much larger than what it would be if I were restricted to Detroit (or even Michigan). Yay!
Step 3: Curate a list of potential agencies and/or agents.
There are a number of places to start with this, but I used the 2019 Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market publication. It lists 141 agencies that have been vetted as legitimate and that do not demand reading fees, etc. I read every single entry in this list, looking for keywords that indicated a potential fit for my work. I specifically looked for mention of “picture book submissions” (I was amazed at how many agencies for the children's market did NOT accept picture book submissions), as well as notes indicating that they were open to new authors or frequently signed authors out of the “slush pile”. I also highlighted entries that offered supportive advice or emphasized the goal of the agency as supporting the author throughout their career.
From this read-through, I ended up with a spreadsheet with 30 entries. For each entry, I entered the following from the Writer’s Market listing into the spreadsheet: Agency name, agency website, agent contact (if provided), contact email, and any notes/quotes that were helpful/specific.
Step 4: Identify specific agents.
For this step, I visited EVERY agency website from the list of 30, and read through EVERY agent profile on each of those website (some were single-agent outfits, others had 10+ agents to sift through). Since pretty much every agency specified that you should only submit to one of their agents at a time, I updated my spreadsheet as I went with the name of the particular agent that I identified as the best fit for my work after my profile perusal. In the spreadsheet, I linked to each agent’s profile page, and also linked to that agency’s submission guidelines.
After this step, I had 13 agents to submit to. How did it go from 30 to 13? Well, some had merged/closed up shop. Some were closed to submissions entirely. Some had no agents accepting picture book submissions. A couple just didn’t seem like a good fit for my work (they emphasized themes/viewpoints that I just don’t have).
Step 5: Craft the query letters.
This is what I am working on now. I’m not sure at this point if I’ll try querying all 13 at once (I did ensure that all of these agents are fine with simultaneous submissions), or if I want to divide them into batches (for example, the 6 that seem like the best fit would be queried first, and then the next 7 would be queried if nothing came of the first batch). I’m still thinking on this (if you have advice, please share!).
As far as the actual drafting of the query, I found a few sources that provide helpful guidelines in terms of structure and content:
This 2016 blog post from author Jo Hart gives great pointers on how to structure a picture book query letter, as well as tips from professionals on do’s and don’ts.
This YouTube video from Emma Walton Hamilton is from 2011, but it gives a super helpful breakdown of the different parts of the query letter and even gives examples of how those pieces might be worded.
So, there you have it! We’ll see what comes of the search, if nothing else this will be a great learning experience! Hopefully May flowers will bring Agent showers. 😊