COMMUNITY LEARNING HUB: ONLINE MODULES

6.10 EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT… AGENTS!

There can be a lot of mystery surrounding literary agents. Do you need one? How do you get one? What’s it like on the agent’s side of the desk?! 

In truth, all agents work a little differently. But whether independent or part of a larger agency, this Question and Answer style article will hopefully demystify the role of an agent, providing answers to some of the most frequently asked questions. 

To make the article as easy to follow as possible, it has been split into the following sections: 

  1. Submitting to agents
  2. Submitting to publishers with an agent
  3. After the deal

SUBMITTING TO AGENTS

How many ‘finished’ stories do you need under your belt before you consider submitting to an agent?

It’s worth looking at an agent’s website for their specific submission guidelines, but most agents will ask to see three stories. If these texts pique their interest, they might then ask for additional texts. So, whilst there isn’t a specific number, having five finished stories would be a good place to start. 

Are agents looking for range or consistency? 

Some authors find it hard to decide whether to submit all rhyming texts, all prose texts, a bit of both? A wild card? Actually, it’s more important to send your best texts. So, if your best texts are rhyming – send those. If you can write in rhyme and prose, that wouldn’t be a bad thing to showcase if the concepts and writing are strong, too. Some authors are quite specialised and are taken on in one specific style. Often writers branch out into other areas and genres and age groups as their career develops, with their agent’s support, but there’s no requirement to be so versatile.

Do agents read all manuscripts, or do they reject a title on the email / query letter?

Unless a submission is outside the realms of what an agent represents, then as far as I can gather agents do read all the manuscripts they receive. However, it is worth taking the time to make sure your query is addressed correctly, including the correct spelling of names and titles. Since time is precious, an agent might not finish a longer text if it doesn’t grab them, so it’s worth ensuring you have a strong pitch line at the top of your manuscript and an engaging opening. Agents are often reading submissions in the evenings and at weekends, so need to make quick decisions. 

What should you include in a query letter for a picture book be? 

Query letters tend to be relatively short, usually one side of A4.  Be sure to include your pitch(es), why you’re looking for representation, and a bit about you, for example any writing courses you’ve done, any awards you’ve been listed in etc. Comparison titles aren’t overly important for picture books, at least not as important as they are for middle grade or YA. Anything you can do to tailor your query letter to a specific agent, would be time well spent. 

How many times should you submit the same manuscript before you move on to submitting a new one?

In this case it is perhaps useful to consider the responses you’re getting. Are you getting personalised feedback? If so, there’s clearly something in your writing and that story that people like, so it might be worth putting any editorial notes into practice and trying again. Remember you don’t often get a second chance at a first impression so don’t send it out to too many too early, in case you want to use any feedback to make revisions. However, if you’re just getting form rejections or even just silence, it might be best to move on from that text since something about it just isn’t connecting. Having said that, it only takes one ‘yes,’ so if you really believe your manuscript has what it takes, persevere and send it out to all the agents you think it’s the right fit for.  

Does being on Twitter or Instagram add any advantage when it comes to getting an agent? 

Social media can be a good way of making connections and staying abreast of the industry.  Once you’re published, it can be a good way to reach people whose decisions might make a difference to the sales of your books, like teachers, reviewers and librarians. But authenticity is key. If you’re just doing it out of duty or are not finding it enjoyable, it probably isn’t worth it. When it comes to agents, following them on social media can be helpful because they sometimes post their MWL (manuscript wish list) or notify their followers to an opening or closing of submissions. Some agents will also share when they are taking part in pitch competitions, 1:1s, panels and other events, so this can help you connect and gain feedback. 

Are there certain times of the year that are better/worse to submit?

There are a few times in the year where a response might be slower, such as around book fairs and holidays. But in general, you should send your texts when they are ready. Agents will often review submission in blocks and/or have a back log, so there’s no way of guaranteeing when your text will be read. Also, a busy time for one agent might be perfect for another one.

If an agent likes a submission, what’s the next step?

If an agent likes something in your submission, they will generally ask if you have more texts to share. This is so they can get a feel for your writing and where it fits in the market. Then they might arrange a time and date to chat, either in person or on the phone or virtually. The agent-author relationship is very personal and both parties need to be confident they can work together and have similar vision and ambitions for the future. If this went well, an agent might offer representation. 

SUBMITTING TO PUBLISHERS WITH AN AGENT

How involved do agents get involved editorially? 

This varies greatly. Some agents don’t edit at all, some others might be prepared to work with an author on their concept if it shows potential.  However, if the writing and the story are a long way off, it may not be an economical use of an agent’s time, which is something they have to consider. In general, most agents will do at least one round of edits before they send a text out.

What is the role of the author once a book goes on submission?

In my experience, the author doesn’t have a large role to play in this part of the process. Once a text is ready, your agent will prepare a submission package and distribute the story to the places where they see your work being well-received. On occasion, I have been asked to think of further title ideas if a book was turned into a series at a later date, but otherwise it’s a matter of crossing your fingers (and toes) and …waiting! 

How important or not is it to pre-published writers to have their own website?

If you don’t already have a website, I wouldn’t worry too much about this. Once you’re published, it’s something your publishers can help set you up with.

AFTER THE DEAL 

What is the role of the agent once a text is acquired?

At the point of acquisition, an agent will check your contract and agree the terms, ensuring a fair deal. There is then usually an introduction between writer and editor, often via email, and then the next stages of making a book can begin! 

Why do picture book authors often have multiple publishers and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

Advances for picture books can be low, so if you just relied on one book a year, you wouldn’t make much money. Splitting your work between publishers allows you to publish multiple books a year, and you can have different ‘strands’ with different publishers. For example, you might be a funny writer at one place and a more heartfelt one somewhere else. There aren’t really massive disadvantages to this – it’s more that you have to be sensible with scheduling, so that your books aren’t competing with each other.

If your work’s about to go on submission to an agent or you’re almost at that exciting stage, good luck, and I hope this article was useful. 

Next Topic: 6.11 Submitting to agents: Everything You Need To Know About… Publishers!


Clare is a children’s writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts – sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015 and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. She also writes for the Maverick Early Readers scheme. You can find out more about Clare on her website http://www.clarehelenwelsh.com and by following her on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh

Clare is also our Writer in Residence for the Hub, and teaches our online Picture Book course.