Updated: Apr 28
If you want to be traditionally published, you've probably heard that you need to pitch yourself to literary agents. While you can get traditionally published without one, there are lots of benefits to securing an agent for your manuscripts. But before we get into the how, let's look at the what.
What is a literary agent?
A literary agent is a professional who represents authors and their written works to publishers, film producers, and other interested parties. Agents help authors get published, negotiate contracts, and manage their careers. They also provide guidance and advice on how to improve the quality of your manuscript.
Literary agents are invaluable to the publishing process, as they provide the expertise and knowledge needed to make sure an author's work gets the best possible opportunities.
You can read more about what literary agents do here.
How to get a literary agent
The process of getting a literary agent for your children's book is called querying. Think of it like a job application - an agent has to accept you so you need to put your best foot forward to find the right agent for you and your work.
Here's how it works:
Step 1 - Research Literary Agents
Before you send your query letter, it's important to do research on the agent you plan to contact. You can do this by looking up literary agencies online, following literary agents on social media platforms like Twitter, or using a website like Manuscript Wishlist or QueryTracker. Make sure you know the agent’s submission guidelines, what type of books they represent, and if/when they are open to queries.
It’s important to look for agents who are seeking stories like yours; if an agent doesn’t represent picture books and you’ve written a picture book…you’re not a good fit. Don’t just look at the genre though. Some agents want nothing to do with rhyming picture books but will happily consider picture books in prose.
Often, what they’re looking for changes. Perhaps last week, an agent really wanted a non-fiction book about an influential person in history but then they were flooded with those manuscripts and now, they’re looking for something different.
Where can you keep up with those trends?
It’s best to look to the literary agents individually for this information. Many will post their #mswl on Twitter openly so following them could keep you in the loop. Others will regularly update what they are looking for on Manuscript Wishlist or on their agency website but this varies from person to person.
Step 2 - Personalize Your Query
Once you’ve found the agent(s) you’re going to query, it’s time to make your query letter a little more personal. Start with the agent’s name and while not mandatory, it’s often helpful to put in a few lines about why you think this agent would love your manuscript. It could be as simple as: “I saw you were looking for picture books that focus on multigenerational families and have a manuscript that I believe fits that well.” Then, dive into the rest of your query letter.
The letter itself is like a cover letter—it should draw the agent in with your book concept and then reveal more about yourself and why you’re the best person to tell that particular story. That does not mean you need to list awards or writing credentials…your reason or experience for writing could be personal. What was your inspiration for writing the book in the first place? Lots of authors forget to talk about that but it’s powerful.
The purpose of a query letter is to get the agent to want to read more about your book and you.
If you want more help drafting your query letter + get access to the actual query that got Chelsea Tornetto agented (x fast) click here.
Step 3 - Sell Yourself
In the next sections of your query (different from the query letter!), you need to sell yourself and your book. Literary agents will usually ask for all or most of the following:
Website/social media links
Sample of the story (or the full book if it’s under 1,000 words like a picture book)
Let’s break each of these down:
When writing your author biography for a query, be sure to include a brief description of your writing experience, any awards or publications you may have, and a few lines describing your current work. Make sure that the information is concise and relevant, as this will help agents get a better understanding of your writing style and potential.
Additionally, be sure to include a few sentences about yourself and why you are passionate about writing. This will help agents connect with you and your work on a more personal level.
Website & Social Media Links
Agents fully recognize that not all authors will have a large following let alone have a website or social media dedicated to their writing yet BUT if you do, it’s a great insight into you as a person.
Your website and social media links can be used to connect with readers, share information about upcoming books, and promote new releases. Having an active and engaging presence online can help to build an author's brand and boost their career. Again, you don't need them before querying literary agents but you will want them before your book gets published as part of your marketing plan.
Start by reading your book carefully and noting down the main plot points and characters. Next, create an outline of the story, including the beginning, middle, and end. Then, write a synopsis that clearly summarizes the main plot points and characters. This is different from the pitch because you’re just communicating the “what” rather than trying to intrigue the reader. Especially for picture books, this section should be brief.
When querying agents for traditional publishing, they want to see "comp titles" or books that have similar elements to yours. This acts as proof that your book will be successful in today's market, which is why it's so important to find great comp titles for your query.
In traditional publishing, it is not a good thing to say that you can't find any or that your book is too unique to be compared to other books. The fact is that there should be elements of well-written books found in your writing!
Let's take Vicky's book GINGERSNAP SNATCHER for example. This can easily be described as WHO TOOK THE COOKIE FROM THE COOKIE JAR but with a rhyming, holiday twist, and a Latinx family. From that description, you as a reader know exactly what to expect from the book but also what makes it special.
Comparable titles are not intended to detract from what makes your book original.
To find some, start by researching popular books in the same genre. Do any of them have similar themes, messages, characters, or content? Look for writing styles too - if your book rhymes, don't automatically use a Dr. Suess book as a comp unless your rhyme and meter have similar patterns to his writing.
Here are some tips for finding comparable book titles:
Ask for recommendations. Ask family, friends, or even Facebook groups on social media. “Hey, I loved (insert book title) and would love to find something else like it. Recommendations please!” This will help you find additional comps that are well-loved by other readers.
Use online store recommendations. For example, when you're on Amazon looking at a book, there is a section labeled "also bought" that gives you insights into what other similar books people are buying. If you already have one comp title, this can be a way to quickly find books with similar elements.
Go to the library or your local bookstore. There are genre sections but there are also specific areas for bestsellers and new releases. Look at what’s popular and start asking how your book compares. You’re looking for “evidence” that your book will sell so finding similarities is a GOOD thing.
A target audience is a potential buyer or reader of a book. For children's books, the target reader and target buyer are different because children ages 3-7 (give or take) aren't usually the ones buying their books.
Publishers care about target audiences because they want to ensure that their time and resources are being used to create a book that will be successful. Additionally, having a well-defined target audience helps publishers to narrow down the competition when it comes to getting books into retail stores and on the shelves.
A great pitch should be attention-grabbing and convey the core message of your book. You'll want to keep the pitch concise and focused on the core elements of the book. Often, this should not give away the ending because the goal is to pique curiosity. If you'd like to see some great examples of short pitches, check out this video.
This is the easy part. An agent will specify how much they'll want to see of your book. Some will request just the first chapter while others ask for the first few chapters. If you have a picture book, they'll usually want to see the full book since they're so short.
While all literary agents are looking for something different, here are some quick insights from an agent:
Agents want something already polished and ready to send to a publisher. If your book is a first draft, it's not ready for querying just yet.
Even if your story is well-written and edited, it also has to be a good fit for what the agent is looking for. Just for example, if an agent already has a picture book that is funny with an animal main character, they are unlikely to take on another one because then their client's books will be in direct competition with one another. So sometimes, agents have to reject books even if they like them.
They have to feel like the book is something they can easily market. This speaks to the concept itself, the quality, and the intended target audience too. If the book is about something that doesn't interest children, it's going to be difficult to get a publisher onboard and since literary agents don't get paid until they successfully sell the book, they might choose to pass.
4. Wait. Rinse and repeat.
After sending your query to an agent, you should expect to wait up a while before receiving a response. Agents do not get paid for their time reviewing queries so it could take anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months (or more) before you hear anything. It is important to be patient during this time, as agents often receive a high volume of queries and take a while to respond to each one.
If the agent is interested in your work, they will contact you to discuss next steps. If the agent is not interested, they will likely send you a standard rejection email. Either way, it is important to remember that the agent's decision is not personal and to remain professional at all times.
What to do if an agent rejects your book
If you receive a rejection for your book, it's important to take some time to process the news and to give yourself a break. It can be discouraging and disheartening to receive a rejection, but it's important to remember that it's part of the writing process. Rejection can also be a great opportunity to make revisions, edits, and changes to your work so ask yourself if there's anything that you can do to improve.
Keep in mind though that not all rejections are because of the quality of the book. Sometimes, it has more to do with timing, personal reading preferences of the agents, or confidence that the agent can sell your particular concept.
It's also important to remember that you are not alone. Rejection is a part of the writing process and is something that writers of all levels experience. There are plenty of resources and support systems available to writers who have experienced rejection. You can reach out to writing groups, join online communities, and talk to other writers to get tips and advice about how to improve your work and get it accepted.
Finally, don't give up. Rejection can be discouraging, but it doesn't mean that your work isn't good enough or that it will never be accepted. All you can do is keep trying and keep striving to improve your work. With enough dedication and hard work, you can make your book the best it can be and find the perfect home for it.
Reasons an agent might reject your book
An agent might reject your book for a number of reasons. These could include:
not finding the book’s premise or characters compelling
feeling the writing style or voice doesn't quite fit the market
a lack of clarity in the plot, structure, or pacing
difficulty connecting with the characters or the story
simply not feeling the book is a good fit for their list.
It's important to remember that all literary agents have different tastes, so what one agent may reject may be just the right fit for another. It's always worth shopping your book around to find the right agent for your work.
Agents work hard to get their authors published, and they don't get paid until they do. That's why they may be picky when it comes to selecting the books they'll represent.
Literary agents/agencies typically receive a commission of 15% of the author's royalties, so they're motivated to make sure the books they represent will sell well. On average, agents make a yearly salary of around $50,000, depending on the size of their roster and the types of books they represent. The most successful agents, however, can make significantly more than this.
Just for reference, I [Vicky Weber] started at The Purcell Agency in mid-August 2022. Despite hours of work, pitching, and responding to queries, pending contracts in the new year meant that I got paid $0 from 2022 as a literary agent.
No matter how much an agent makes, they have to put in a lot of hard work to get their authors published and make sure the books they represent are successful. That's why literary agents need to be so selective when it comes to deciding which books to represent.
How long does it take to get agented?
It varies greatly from author to author, but generally speaking, it can take anywhere from a few months to a few years for an author to get an agent. Of course, this timeline depends on the author's level of effort, how well they market themselves, how much they network, and how well they understand the process.
It's also important to note that the amount of time it takes to find an agent isn't necessarily indicative of a person's talent or success; rather, it's more of a reflection of their efforts and approach. Ultimately, the key to success is to remain diligent and patient and to keep learning and growing as a writer.
For more tips check out this video:
Querying can be a daunting process, but with the right preparation and research, you can make the most of your submission and get your work out there!
Need more help? Check out our Kidlit Query Kit: