Chapter 17: I Need an Agent!

This is one of two sample chapters from the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. The complete text of the chapter is included, with minor corrections, but the format has been altered to suit the Internet.

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In This Chapter

At some point in your career as an author or illustrator, having an agent in your corner can look like a very good thing. In this chapter, I show you what agents do, help you decide whether or not you really need one, and give you info on how to find one.

Secret Agents

Not too long ago, children's book agents were pretty uncommon. I'm talking about the 1960s, when authors and illustrators generally represented themselves. Those children's book agents who did exist typically worked for a larger agency and may have handled clients in other areas, too. Not enough money was being paid to children's book illustrators and writers to support more than a few agents. But oh, how times have changed. Publishers have grown busier, our genteel little business has become more profitable, and now people can make a living as agents for children's book writers or artist's representatives. On hearing about all the closed doors in children's publishing, in fact, many authors and illustrators decide they need to get a literary agent or an artist's representative. After all, they reason, the rules against unsolicited submissions some publishers have don't apply to agents. Provided that the agent is someone a publisher knows (which isn't always the case because anyone can call himself an agent), submissions from an agent are treated with respect.


A literary agent acts on your behalf, selecting and writing to publishers with your manuscript, negotiating with the publisher, and generally going to bat for you. Some also work with you to help you develop your career. An artist's representative, or artist's rep, gets your samples out to publishers and otherwise acts much like an agent.

What's in It for You?

Of course, an agent doesn't only help you get your foot in the door. What does an agent do? Agent Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary notes three main functions:

Artist's reps do similar work. They typically make sure the right publishers see your work with several sample mailings per year and annual personal visits with art directors and editors. When asked, they follow up with more print samples and books or suggest possible artists for a manuscript or program need. They also negotiate your contracts and handle invoicing and payments from publishers.

An agent may withhold some of the rights associated with a manuscript, as explained in Chapter 23, but rights to illustrations are more likely to stay with the publisher because they can't easily be sold independently of the text.

What's in It for Them?

For this work, an agent or a rep gets a commission from you. Agents typically charge 15 percent, although a few still charge what used to be the standard 10 percent. Artist's reps receive higher commissions of 25 or 30 percent because their expenses are higher. (They share in the cost of buying directory pages and pay for printing and postage on mailings.)

With the exception of the commission, all this sounds great, doesn't it? The question is, should you take time out from sending manuscripts and samples to publishers to send them to agents so you'll have someone who will be sending your work to publishers for you?

To Agent or Not to Agent?

Indeed, agents open doors. But first you must open theirs, and that's a challenge, too. Finding someone to represent you can be more difficult than finding a publisher, because the established, reputable agents and reps are as selective about new clients as publishers are with new authors, if not more so. They have to be selective because usually they represent all of your work, while you might work with two, three, or even more publishers over the course of a few years.

Playground Stories

Agent Sandy Ferguson Fuller of the Alps Arts Co. says: "I think the decision whether or not to contract with an agent is a very personal one. In today's market, it is probably advantageous to have an agent to "get in the door" if you're able to convince a reputable, experienced agent to take on your work. [el] That is not to say that a writer can't tackle the market without an agent. If an individual has the time, desire, and savvy to research potential publishers, make the contracts, and submit in accordance with guidelines, many publishers still can be approached without an agent."

In fact, many of the best reps and agents admit to having a "referrals only" policy on new clients, meaning their doors are closed as tightly as the doors of the publishers you want them to open for you. They'll only look at someone who comes to them with the endorsement of an existing client or publisher. These same agents and reps often go on to insist that they're still open to someone with unique qualities--if you can get that referral or personal contact.

Before you start to feel irritated with this apparent lack of helpfulness, consider the sad fact that most agents and reps have as many clients as they can handle and may receive thousands of contacts annually, partly the result of closed doors at publishers. People often try to use agents and reps as the entry point to publishers, even when they're not ready for one. One agent I know tells me that she gets about 200 queries from possible clients per week--and she'll maybe take on a handful of new clients a year. Agents can't do their job for the existing clients if they don't close their doors; they'd end up spending all their time dealing with their mail and e-mail.

The situation is somewhat different for authors and illustrators, so consider the following before you decide what to do.

Now or Later?

Your ability to find an agent might depend on the kind of writing you do. Nonfiction, especially for the institutional market, does not earn large advances and get high sales numbers, so many authors in this area represent themselves. Picture book authors, because they split royalties with an illustrator, are also less likely to have an agent. Conversely, good fiction writers are relatively more attractive to an agent, especially if their work is strong enough to garner interest from multiple editors--possibly leading to an auction, which agents love. (You'll love them too, if one of your books is auctioned!)

Before trying to land yourself an agent, it's important to ask yourself if you're ready for one. Do you have several publishable manuscripts complete and ready for submission? Agents want to represent someone with a career in front of them, not a one-shot wonder. They particularly don't like being offered a manuscript that's dog-eared from making the rounds.

Class Rules

Don't even bother to contact an agent if you don't have a good backlog of unsubmitted material.

Are you ready to commit to working with an agent over the course of several years? Unless you're a bad personality match or have conflicting ideas about what approach to take, expect to work with your agent for some time. Don't expect an agent to take you on a trial basis. They want to help you build a career and to share in the fruits of that effort.

Info for Illustrators

Illustrators might need to be represented more than authors do, and more published illustrators do seem to have reps. The main reason for this is the overall market for illustrators is different from the market for writers. Both work on trade books, but the textbook market is a much larger one for illustrators than it is for writers. Writing in textbooks is often done in-house or by teachers on a for-hire basis. And sometimes, excerpts from existing trade books are used. However, textbook publishers, when working on a major new textbook program, may want literally hundreds of pieces of new, high-quality illustration, done to often quite precise specifications, in a short period of time. They can't take the time to sift through the samples of individual illustrators, so they tend to turn to artist's representatives, either directly or via the design studios doing the basic design work on the books. When this work is available, it keeps a lot of illustrators busy.

Can You Keep a Secret?

In the textbook market, SRO is a hot term. No, it's not short for "standing room only," but for "school rights only." Artist's reps push for this with textbook publishers, to prevent them from reusing your original work in other types of books.

For the most part, though, you can't get this work unless you have a rep. A rep, when contacted by a textbook publisher, can suggest illustrators for a large number of different illustrations and can vouch that each of them will deliver on time, and deliver work that's as good as their samples promise. The textbook publishers like this because they know what they'll be getting, and they can take care of a batch of illustrations more quickly than by contacting illustrators one at a time.

So much textbook work is available that even reps who spend most of their time marketing their clients to trade houses tell me that more of their income--meaning more of their clients' income, too--comes from educational projects than from trade ones. Educational illustration not only pays well, it can also be a good training ground for the more time-consuming (and, let's face it, prestigious) work needed to create picture books.

So illustrators are well advised to seek out a rep, and you'll be pleased to know that they will mostly be prepared to work with you, even if you're just getting started. Do not contact them, however, unless you are ready for them. Here are some questions Chris Tugeau asks in an article on her firm's website:

Can You Keep a Secret?

Some illustrators have an agent, not an artist's rep. Why do they do that? As one of them told me, "I write as well as illustrate. Agents deal with editors, reps often deal only with art directors [el]. Second is the potential for secondary rights and reversions to be sold through an agent. Most artist's reps do one-time sales, [and] do not follow up on other markets." She notes, too, that she's not interested in textbook or other for-hire work, and that she's a bit too "artsy" for most reps.

If you can answer yes to all those questions, you may be ready for a rep.

Whatever you decide, remember that the time you spend trying to find an agent or rep, a search that may not succeed, could be time spent on trying to find a publisher. For this reason, even if you do decide to try to find someone to represent you, don't stop contacting publishers directly yourself.

Getting to Solla Sollew

Looking for an agent or a rep can be like the Dr. Seuss book I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. In that book, a very determined and angry character overcomes enormous obstacles to get to a place where there are no problems, "or at least, very few." When she does get there, she discovers that in fact the only problem is that she can't get in.

It's easy to believe that if someone is representing you, all your troubles are over. They aren't. Your agent may not be any more successful at placing your manuscript or finding you illustration work than you are. You may not agree with the approach the rep is taking, or the rep may offer you too little guidance with your work, or too much.

It's best to go into a relationship with an agent or a rep with your eyes wide open and your expectations reasonable. Be sure to have a written contract with them. (Most will offer this as a matter of routine.) You are entering into an important professional relationship, one that's potentially closer than with any one publisher. You can work for several different publishers, but you're only going to work with one agent at a time.

Where Are They?

If you decide you want to have an agent, use resources such as Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market or Ellen Shapiro's Writer's & Illustrator's Guide to Children's Book Publishers and Agents to locate them. Do your homework before you contact them and be prepared to ask questions.

It's reasonable for you to ask them about what they will be doing for you, but only after they've expressed interest in representing you. Nothing turns off an agent faster than someone calling them and asking questions that they could have found answers to in a standard reference book or on the agent's own website. The Association of Author Representatives (AAR) has a list of questions you can use.

Can You Keep a Secret?

When looking for an agent, ask about fees, other clients, and if the agent belongs to the Association of Author's Representatives (AAR)--although some reputable agents do not belong. AAR's website includes several useful resources including its Canon of Ethics, suggested questions to ask of an agent, and member's list.

Illustrators can visit the website of the Society of Photographers and Artists Representatives (SPAR), and find lists of artist's representatives.

Find out not only their commission structures but what costs they pass on to you. If they want to charge a reading fee before they'll look at your manuscript, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. Agents can legitimately pass on some expenses, but those charging reading fees are not living on their commissions, which is what you want them to do.

Of course, you should also talk to other writers and artists, attend conferences, and follow other paths that may lead you toward finding the rep you want. That may be the only way to get in touch with an agent whose doors are otherwise closed. But just remember that having a rep won't land you in Solla Sollew.

The Least You Need to Know

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Copyright © by Harold Underdown 2008 ( Google + Profile ). All rights reserved. One copy may be printed for personal use, but may not be otherwise reproduced, either on paper or electronically.