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Get Ready- For A Literary Agent

This week we'll talk about the why, the when, the what, and the how of literary agents. Today I'm starting off with WHEN ARE YOU READY?

Some writers are happy to manage their careers as children’s writers solo. They're comfortable with finding markets for their work, negotiating contracts and addressing a million issues that pop up along the way- some large, some small. They don’t want an agent.

Others can’t wait to land an agent. They pull out the business-sized envelopes to mail out queries before the ink is even dry on a manuscript. They query before a manuscript is finished.

For me, neither of these was the right approach. And I firmly believe that entering the hunt for an agent from the wrong direction isn't just unproductive. It can lead you to sign with an agent who is wrong for you and it can reduce your precious novels and picture books to dead on arrival.

In my opinion there is only one time to query literary agents.

By the light of a full moon?

During the months of September and October- post summer pre holiday?

When you have an offer on a manuscript so a hungry agent is likely to snap you up?

NO NO and NO.

The time to find a literary agent is when you are READY. That sounds so simple. It seems to go without saying. But nearly every failed agent/client relationship can be traced to that simple cause-- the writer wasn't ready to sign with an agent. Any agent.

How do you know you're ready?

1. You've done your research on agents. Tomorrow we'll talk about the best ways to learn more information about literary agents, their business personalities, and their specialities. On Wednesday we'll discuss the myth of querying widely.

2. You know yourself. Do you want an editorial agent or someone who rubber stamps your work and sends it right out? What can an agent do for you before and after the sale? Which attributes are important to you? We'll discuss this- along with a check list of things to ask your perspective agent on Thursday.

3. Your work is right. 
Getting Ready Secret A

Writing a perfect manuscript is hard.

Actually it's impossible. Perfection is a myth. You don't need to have written a perfect manuscript to land an ideal agent or to sell that manuscript to a publisher.

But your writing must be crisp and mature. It must be as good, and in most cases, better than writing you see in published books. Why? The authors of books in print already have relationships. You are new. It takes something extra to break through. Don't compare your writing to someone who's been in the business for thirty years or a celebrity who'll sell books because moms and dads liked their last movie or record.

Your writing doesn't have to be perfect. But to land your ideal agent it should be fabulous.

You know how to achieve this- study, read, and write. Again and again. Day after day. Until your writing sparkles. Until it's so good that your target agent can't possibly say no.

But here's the trick. There's a second part of this equation.

Getting Ready Secret B

Your work must be salable. Nobody is looking for a 5000 work picture book and no reputable agent will sign you if you send him or her something like that. If you write fantasy your story has to break new ground. It can't be another Harry Potter or Twilight or Eragon. The fact that those titles are instantly recognizable shows you the competition in that field is stiff. But sales in other areas is even tougher, particularly in this economy.

A writer must be true to themselves. Write what you believe in. Debut historic fiction is still published.
But it must be stunning.

I know this will sound controversial. And it will upset some people. But bear with me. Consider whether the novel you dream of writing should be your first book. Maybe it's a bit more quiet and introspective. The novel closest to your heart might do better standing on the shoulders of one or two more commercial titles. You'll have a better shot at landing a great agent if the work you present is something that agent- and most other strong agents- feel confident they can sell.

How do you know if your book is salable? The only way is to study the market. Go to book stores. (Forget comparison to titles published twenty or even five years ago. They aren't relevant here.) Read Publishers Weekly- not just the magazine, but Children's Bookshelf and their spring and fall listings of all children's books to be published that season. Talk to people and learn the market. Become a member of the children's writing community and learn.

I'm not suggesting you try to write for trends. I don't advocate throwing away literary and chasing the commercial market. I'm merely suggesting you approach your writing career and your agent hunt with your eyes open,
leading with your strongest suit- whatever that may be.

What tips would you offer a friend looking for a literary agent?



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)
Timely Topic
:) I'm selectively querying agents for a YA. I recently received a request for a full. There are a few more agents I would like to query. Should I mention, my YA is currently being reviewed by another agent? Will that peak interest or is that a no no?


Apr. 13th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Timely Topic
This is just my opinion-- but I don't think an agent is impressed if someone else has requested a full of your manuscript. Mentioning it might even sound a bit amateurish.

Unless it's an agent who expects an exclusive (a whole different ballgame) I'd be clear that this is a simultaneous query and let it go at that. I wouldn't even query "exclusive" agents when I had a full out.

When you get an offer that's the time to let everyone know you have an offer on the table and you need a response from them within a week or two weeks (be specific on the timeframe). If you don't do this you're burning bridges and children's publishing is a small world.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
Yes yes yes. You need friends in this industry for all sorts of reasons. Finding out the scoop is a very very important part of an agent search!

It's not gossip. It's business.
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:10 am (UTC)
My advice would be, if possible, to talk to some of the prospective agents' clients. Find out this person's working style. Are they good about returning calls? (Some aren't!) Do they normally ask for a lot of revisions...do they have insightful comments?

Word of mouth is pretty important in planning a relationship like this.
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:58 am (UTC)
oops The comment block is jumping around and my response was posted above.

You're so right Kelly. I wouldn't marry someone without meeting their friends and I wouldn't sign with an agent without talking to some of their clients.

Some people aren't bothered by an arms length relationship with their agent. Probably most people want more.

And you're also so right on word of mouth. Agents, editors, publishing houses--- and yes writers have reputations. I need to know someone's reputation before I do business with them.
Apr. 14th, 2009 02:38 am (UTC)
Excellent post and SO true. I got the wrong (for me) agent when I wasn't ready for one, and the right agent when I was ready and knew it- if you don't KNOW if you're ready, most likely you're not. I didn't and wish I'd heard advice like this at the time :)

Boni Ashburn
Apr. 14th, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC)
Great post, Tami. I'm not ready yet, but good info. to file away for when I am.

Apr. 14th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks Kelly. Hope you're having a great semester! Marion Dane Bauer is a peach!!
Apr. 14th, 2009 10:34 pm (UTC)
I am having a great semester, and you're right, she's wonderful!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )