Ask the Agent: Children's books, writing coaches, & agents
We had a bunch of questions come in this past week, so let me get to several of them…
This came from a reader in the Midwest: “I’m at the point where I think I’d like to work with a writing coach. How can find someone reputable? Is there some sort of accreditation out there? Do you have any recommendations?”
That’s a wonderful question. I think a writing coach or mentor is a GREAT idea. Getting another set of eyes on your manuscript is always helpful, and finding someone who has experience, who is a little farther down the path, is one of the best ways to move forward in your writing career. I don’t know if there is any accreditation service of note (but I’d love to hear from readers who can suggest such a service), but there are a ton of experienced writers who serve in this capacity part-time, helping other writers who can benefit from their wisdom. I know of several, but it probably wouldn’t be fair to name one or two. Going through a reputable writing organization like RWA or SCBWI or ACFW is one way to find a good writing coach. Exploring some of the people available through Writers Digest or a good conference is another. But you may want to simply start asking around through writing friends or those at the next big conference you’re attending.
This question came in on the website: “I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”
We have our own in-house expert on children’s books. Erin Buterbaugh handles all the chldren’s stuff for MacGregor Literary, so I posed this question to her. Here is Erin’s response:
I wouldn’t say having an agent is any more or less vital for a children’s writer than it is for any other writer. If you have the connections to get your manuscripts in front of the right editor, the know-how to package/position your manuscript and your brand in the way the editor expects, and the confidence to negotiate your own contracts, then certainly, go ahead and submit directly to a publisher (keeping in mind that some editors flat-out don’t accept unagented manuscripts). Some areas where a children’s writer needs to be especially savvy (and where having an agent who knows the children’s arena is a big advantage) include presenting your brand as a children’s author and knowing the requirements/characteristics of the imprint you’re submitting to.
For instance, rather than receiving a single picture book manuscript from a debut author, most editors prefer to see two or three manuscripts (or at least ideas) that demonstrate some understanding on the part of the author as to her “brand,” or the themes/characteristics/voice that make her picture books distinct and recognizable, such as a zany sense of humor, or whimsical subject matter, or multicultural family tales. Because picture books are so expensive to publish, an editor prefers to make that investment in an author who has more than one idea along the same lines, the hope being that if the publisher is successful in pairing a complementary illustrator with a story and finding an audience for it, that same audience will seek out future stories from that team looking for similar themes or subjects, rather than the publisher doing all that work to find out that the author’s next ideas are completely dissimilar. An agent can help you refine and develop your brand as a picture book author and advise you as to which manuscripts to present together in order to give the editor the best overview of your work and the best idea of the kind of audience you’ll appeal to.
Regarding the specific characteristics of various imprints, if you don’t know that a certain picture book line only publishes books under 300 words, you’re wasting your time submitting your 900-word manuscript, no matter how good it is, just as an imprint that only publishes middle-grade isn’t going to have a place for your early reader series. A good children’s agent is familiar with the parameters of the various imprints/lines and will help you avoid wasted submissions and dead-ends.
And a related question about children’s books: “I am a kidlit author & illustrator. Over the years I went from picture books to chapter books to novels and most recently to board books. I do the full span of kidlit formats, and it’s rare to find agents who are willing to represent all of them, and of those who do there can be specifications: only funny picture books, etc. It keeps me from submitting to them since not every picture I’ve written is funny. Should I submit anyway? Is there a way past this obstacle?”
You have to understand that nobody can represent everything. I don’t even review children’s books, since I don’t sell them, wI don’t have the background with them to feel terribly competent in exploring them, and don’t have the contacts in publishing to really sell them. So sending me a children’s manuscript is on par with sending me poetry – it’s pearls before swine. It might be great, but I wouldn’t know it. So my advice for you would be to do some research on the agents who represent the types of projects you write. If you’re not involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI, called “squibby”), check them out. They do local, regional, and national conferences, and are the leader in getting together authors and agents for children’s projects.
“If I’ve published 2 books on my own, without an agent, does that make me more valuable or less valuable to a potential agent?”
Generally that would make you more valuable to a literary agent. It shows experience and the fact that publishers want to work with you. Of course, if you’re a novelist and both the books bombed, you may find it tough. Right now publishers are staying away from writers (even good writers) who have had a bad track record. (And I don’t say that to be negative, by the way – just pointing out the facts.)
“Will an agent represent a book that is actually two novellas in one volume? One POV character crosses over from the first book into the second.”
Beats me. They might if the writing was really good. Most agents aren’t looking at the format so much as the genre, the quality of the writing, and the personality of the writer. That said… I’m not sure this particular idea will appeal to agents. Are there some good comparable titles you could list, to show this has been done a bit?
“What is the single most important factor in your decision to rep and work with a new writer?”
Hmmm… There are several factors that are important to me – the voice in the writing, the importance of the book, the fact that the writer isn’t crazy… But if I had to pick one thing, for me it would probably be the salability of the project. If I don’t think I can sell it, then I’m not going to represent it, no matter how much I like the author or his/her work.
Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? Send it to me, and I’ll try to get to it this month!
Chip, now that I realized why I wasn’t getting updated posts, I was able to track this down! lol Thank you for answering my question (“I am a kidlit author & illustrator. Over the years I went from picture books to chapter books to novels and most recently to board books. I do the full span of kidlit formats, and it’s rare to find agents who are willing to represent all of them, and of those who do there can be specifications: only funny picture books, etc. It keeps me from submitting to them since not every picture I’ve written is funny. Should I submit anyway? Is there a way past this obstacle?”)
Yes, I’m a long-time member of the SCBWI and have actually co-headed organizing conferences. I’m thinking you answered it by saying no agent reps everything. Actually, there are a very rare few that do, but their taste may not match up. So then I guess if you write in all formats, you can only expect an agent to rep some : /
One more question from me: I have two traditionally published nonfiction books, but would like to find an agent to represent my fiction series. I’ve heard ‘stick to one or the other,’ but it is what it is. How difficult is it to find an agent who will help me cross over?
Crossing from fiction to nonfiction (or vice versa) is really starting over, Jane. Fiction readers tend not to read much nonfiction, and nonfiction readers don’t cross over to read much fiction. Two different audiences, and two different voices — fiction is showing, nonfiction is telling. It’s not impossible to write both (and yeah, I know of several authors who write both fiction and nf), but it isn’t easy.
Interesting. I didn’t expect that answer.