Rx for Writers

Writer's Support Room - Publishing Paths

Jan Fields, ICL web editor, has published in many and varied children’s and family magazines including Boys’ Quest, Highlights For Children, Shining Star, Crayola Kids, Ladybug, Single-Parent Family and Charisma-Life.  Though she began her career writing for adults exclusively, she was soon lured into the challenging world of children's writing. Jan has taught adult and children’s writing for over twenty years. In addition to this busy schedule, Jan is the editor of Kid Magazine Writer e-magazine. She is a member of the SCBWI and a repeat speaker at local SCBWI conferences. Her articles about writing have been published both in print and online markets such as Keystrokes, Byline, Children’s Writer, and Children’s Book Insider. Her first middle grade novel is presently in production with DRG Publishing. In her spare time, she sleeps.

"The Skinny on Agents"

by Jan Fields

I get a lot of emails asking me about literary agents - do children's writers need one, when do we need one, why do we need one, where do I find one, and how much do they cost. Clearly, people wonder about agents and what they do. So, let's try to answer some of the most common questions.

WHEN DO CHILDREN'S WRITERS NEED A LITERARY AGENT?

Agents aren't interested in writers with great ideas or unfinished books, not unless the writer has a name that will automatically sell the book. Jenna Bush could get an agent without a book manuscript, but Jan Fields could not. If you're reading this, you probably could not either. You have to write and polish the book manuscript first.

Agents aren't interested in magazine writers because magazine writers don't need agents and don't make enough money from sales of their work to be a feasible client for an agent. Now, if you are a published novel writer with an agent to sell your novel manuscripts, you may be able to get your agent to submit some material to magazines (usually excerpts to your novel) but even that doesn't happen often. Magazine submission simply doesn't pay enough to interest agents in getting involved with the process.

Agents are usually interested in picture book authors unless the author already has a few books sold. This isn't universally true - I had an agent for my one and only picture book manuscript - but most of the time, an agent isn't interested in selling a lone picture book manuscript because there just isn't enough money in it. Not unless you really look like you'll be producing a stream of sale-able manuscripts. And most of the publishers who are interested in publishing picture books by "unknown" authors are also open to direct submissions, so you don't need an agent anyway.

Agents aren't interested in you if you've already self-published your only manuscript. That's because publishers aren't interested in buying previously published material, and having an agent doesn't change that. The only thing that can change this is if your self-published book has been a huge success, a kind of "cult hit" but that is extremely rare and even then, it would be easier to interest a publisher directly than to interest an agent.

Most of the writers I know who write only nonfiction do not have agents - nonfiction, especially educational nonfiction, is often written by assignment and found by writers themselves. Again, like picture books, the money is often low. And educational publishers can be fairly rigid about terms, so there just isn't a lot for an agent to do.

Agents are primarily interested in polished novels - for intermediate readers (also called "middle grade novels") and young adults. Although it is definitely possible to sell a novel without an agent, an agent will speed the process. So - if you have a finished, polished novel, you could probably sell it on your own, but an agent could help sell it quicker.

WHAT DOES A LITERARY AGENT DO?

A literary agent markets a manuscript to a publisher by mining his/her contacts in the industry. A literary agent will usually get your manuscript read faster because the agent has a "track record" of offering manuscripts that editor knows she'll like. A literary agent will often get more detailed rejection letters, because the editor has a certain investment in helping the agent learn to match manuscripts better. The detailed rejection letters can be both helpful and a little horrifying.

After the agent makes a match between your manuscript and an editor, the agent can also help negotiate for the best possible contract. Agents are often more familiar with contract terms and how far they will bend. And since reputable agents deal only with reputable publishers, choosing a good agent will keep you from being sucked into a bad publishing deal with an iffy publisher. A good agent will also help you make contract decisions that will help your career in the long run as well.

An agent will also field "permissions" for your book after it's been published. If someone wants to use an excerpt from the book, the question will be dealt with by the agent. So - primarily, agents are about selling inside the industry.

Agents aren't usually involved (at all) in promotion of your book after it's published. Agents will be interested in what you've got for sale next - since that's where the next big check will come from.

So the primary value of an agent is Saving time and money in submitting manuscripts to publishers. Getting the best possible deal in the book contract.

WHERE DO I FIND AN AGENT?

You can find lists of reputable literary agents through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators -- once you become a member. You can also find a list of agents in the Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market and at Agent Query. You can also find well-known or popular agents through the discussion boards at Verla Kay's site.

Many writers find their agents at conferences (again, usually via the SCBWI) - the more you know about an agent, the better chance you have to make a good connection. Today, many agencies has websites, and sometimes online journals. So, do a search on the agent's name to find all the information available about the agent online. With a website or online journal, you can find out who else the agent represents. Researching those writers will help give you a sense of the type of writing the agent likes.

When you contact an agent, follow the agent's preferences exactly (you probably found out how the agents liked to be contacted during your exhaustive research on the agent - I usually do). Mention things you know about the agent and why those things made that agent more appealing to you - you like his humorous blog, you feel like your voice blends well with the other authors on his list, you enjoyed his panel discussion at a conference - this will help the agent see that you did your homework, your research. Agents like working with writers who are willing to work to get what they want - it shows you're likely to have a strong career ahead of you. Breaking the rules, on the other hand, just shows you're (1) going to need to be educated on the industry or (2) you're going to be hard to work with.

HOW MUCH DOES AN AGENT COST?

They don't. An agent is paid 15% of what you make when the book is sold - 15% of the advance and 15% of the royalties. Sometimes they also charge you office expenses (which also come out of the money you make when the book is sold.) Reputable agents do not charge you to read your work. Reputable agents do not charge you to edit your work. Reputable agents do not suggest you go hire Dr. Book to edit your manuscript. Reputable agents do not ask you to pay a lump sum to defray office expenses for the submission process. By and large, reputable agents are making a gamble, they are betting on their ability to sell your book and make back their expenses. Because this is a gamble, they have a huge incentive to work hard and sell the book. If you pay them up front, you remove all that incentive because the agent has already been paid and selling a book is hard work.

So, if an agent contacts you and offers to represent you but explains that you need to send money for ANYTHING before the process begins - decline the offer. Remember, an agent who is gambling on you only wins if you win - that's the way you want it.

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