Updated: May 1
As an aspiring children's book author, you're probably starting to wonder how to actually get your book published. How to get a literary agent. Most importantly...where to even begin!
If you've decided on the traditional publishing process, then your next step (after writing your book) is to get a literary agent.
But there's a lot that goes into it so let's start at the beginning.
What is a literary agent?
There are a lot of misconceptions about agents and what they do. Think of a literary agent as a real estate agent. When you're trying to sell your house, a real estate agent can get it out to the wider market. How often do you see a “for sale by owner” sign and after a while, you see an agent’s sign in the yard?
The fact is that an agent has knowledge and connections that can help your house sell faster and for more money. A literary agent does that for an unpublished manuscript that you've written when you want to be traditionally published.
The biggest publishers in the industry don’t accept unagented submissions so that’s the main reason people want a literary agent. So for example, if you want your book on a shelf at the Scholastic book fair, the only current way to do that is through an agent.
Check out more about the traditional publishing process in this video:
So how do literary agents do it? They have established connections with publishing house editors. They know who is looking for a story like yours and who isn’t. And they can leverage their connections to get you the best deal possible.
Agents are also capable of navigating the legal side of publishing. For my last contract, my agent made over a hundred requests for changes in the contract before she sent it back to the publisher, many of which were agreed to. But the changes she requested were things that I wouldn’t have even known to ask!
A literary agent is your advocate.
The downside is that an agent is difficult to get. It takes time, patience, and a great product. But if you want to (even eventually) make this your career, it helps to have someone in your corner.
How to Get a Literary Agent - The Exact Steps
The process of “applying” for an agent to represent you is called querying and there’s a lot that goes into it. To help you stand out from the crowd, check out these tried-and-true tips to help you get agented:
1. Send your strongest manuscript
When an agent likes your picture book, they usually respond with “What else do you have?” Most of the time, agents are looking for career authors, so you want to have a few other manuscripts on hand but you should be sending out your strongest one to capture an agent’s attention and give yourself the best chance of gaining representation.
One of the best ways to do that is to put your book beside similar titles and pinpoint what makes yours special. If you can’t find anything, then head back to the drawing board and get to work!
2. Find strong comps
Comps (comparable titles) are other books that are similar to yours. When you query agents, they may ask for comps. Some authors get confused by this because they think that agents and publishers are looking for stories that are 100% unique. But that’s only half true.
Agents and publishers want to make money, which means they don’t want to take risks. They want to know that your book will sell. So the key is to find other successful books that have elements similar to yours and present those as evidence that your book will be a hit!
It’s also proof to an agent that you’ve been investing time in reading other picture books and learning about the industry. If you can’t find any/many, you can always say: _______ meets _______ to pull specific elements from other titles.
Do NOT mistake strong comps for big name authors. For example, if your book rhymes, don’t name-drop Dr. Suess unless your book is similar to his in many ways. Instead, find other rhyming books with similar content and themes as yours.
Strong comps = relevant to your book.
3. Do your research
The submission requirements for agents are all different which means you need to read carefully before you submit.
Not only that but their tastes change. An agent might have been looking for non-rhyming picture books about seasons one week but then received hundreds of queries for books like that and is now looking for something different this week. Their tastes are fluid as they see, hear, and learn what publishers are actively looking for.
Some agents use an online platform for queries while others prefer email. Many who ask for emails don’t want attachments so it’s important to read the guidelines for each agent you’re interested in before you query them.
4. Keep track
Make sure you develop some way to keep a log of who you’ve submitted to and what their response was. Most agents don’t want to be queried by the same person more than once but that is a loose rule. It’s more about the impression you left on them.
5. Use social media
Throughout the year, there are various Twitter pitches that you can participate in. During these events, agents skim through people’s pitches and favorite the ones they like. When they do, that’s an invitation to query them!
But Twitter is a great tool outside of pitch events too. It’s the best place to network with authors, editors, and agents in the traditional publishing industry easily and for free. All you need to do is start following some literary agents and before you know it, your recommendations will be full of people from the book industry that you can connect with and learn from.
For more information on how to use Twitter to get traditionally published, check out this video:
A lot of people ask me: how do I hire an agent? What do I pay them?
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
Firstly, an agent needs to accept you, not the other way around. It’s comparable to a job application in a lot of ways. The process of “applying” for an agent to represent you is called querying.
To query an agent, you need to prepare a query letter, manuscript pitch, and unpublished manuscript. You follow the submission guidelines for the agent you’re interested in and then…
It's important to note that not all agents will respond to every query. They get hundreds, sometimes thousands each week so it's important that when you are querying, you stand out from the crowd. After a lot of queries and a lot of patience, you’ll (hopefully!) find your agent.
Once an agent accepts you, it’s their job to sell your manuscript to a traditional publisher. Then, the publishing process begins. First is editing, followed by illustrations by their in-house professionals. The publisher will handle--and pay for--everything, including your literary agent.
The publisher will send a check to your literary agency. The agency will deduct their earnings and then write you a check for the rest. Most picture book agents get about a 15% commission on sales. Some people see that as a downside because the margins in publishing are small but I don’t see it that way.
In my most recent contract, my agent got me an increase of 15% on my advance so...she kinda paid for her own commission! If I had been working with the publisher as an unagented author, it is unlikely that I would have been able to successfully negotiate a pay increase. I probably wouldn’t have even asked!
So the moral is that you don’t pay a literary agent. They don’t get paid unless they help you become a published author. Your success is their success!
Need help getting a literary agent for your picture book?
I'm sharing my top 3 tips that will help you stand out from the slush pile so you can get your picture book agented.
No matter where you're at in the querying process, you'll learn the tried-and-true tips and tricks that have helped my students secure a literary agent faster than average...and with less stress and guesswork!
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