Alvina at the Blue Rose Girls blog bravely posted a photo of her messy office, so I decided I should do the same. I'm proud of my messy office! Look how colorful it is! Look at those beautiful illustration samples on the bulletin board! I'm especially proud of the full moon poster over my desk. My astrology friend is always talking about the importance of the moon to creative people. Once, when I was 16 years old and couldn't sleep, I went out in the garden and the full moon cast my moon shadow. The moon and I have been friends ever since.
There are definite advantages and disadvantages to having a children’s book agent, many of which depend on who your agent is and their strengths and weaknesses. One obvious advantage in having an agent is being able to get your work into the hands of editors who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Another advantage is having someone who knows the business negotiate the publisher’s contract on your behalf. However if your agent doesn’t know the children’s book business, doesn’t have a rolodex full of editors to contact, doesn’t have experience in negotiating contracts, you certainly might be better off managing your relationships with editors and publishers on your own and keeping the 15% commission for yourself.
Good agents are real networkers. They attend conferences, they regularly correspond with editors from an array of publishers (corporate and independent alike), they know the tastes and preferences of individual editors, and they keep current with news of the publishing biz, such as the formation of new imprints or changes in publishing staff. The children’s book publishing world is vast, with many different options for writers---a good agent will know which arena best suits your writing, whether that’s trade, institutional, or mass market. Tricycle Press is a solid trade publisher but I’ve had agents send me projects that were really suited to a mass market publisher. It’s important that an agent knows not to waste her client’s or an editor’s time by sending a publisher projects which don’t work for their list.
There are unscrupulous agents out there and writers should do their homework when choosing who to submit their work to. Luckily, there are websites that keep track of agents to avoid (like http://accrispin.blogspot.com ). Talking to fellow writers or attending SCBWI conferences are also good places to start your research.
Once you find the right agent, it can make all the difference in the world to your professional career. The right agent can provide encouragement, direction, and professional savvy, in doing so making the author/agent partnership incredibly powerful. Getting there, however, takes some responsibility on the author’s part. This can mean: 1) Finding the right agent for you and your work. 2) Having reasonable expectations. 3) Being clear with those expectations. 4) Trusting your agent’s suggestions to make your work more publishable. 5) Providing your agent with projects she can sell.
An author can get published by Tricycle Press without an agent. In fact, roughly a third of our authors and illustrators are unagented. At the moment, it may be easier for an illustrator to get their work seen by editors and art directors through illustration websites such as ispot or portfolios.com, or by setting up their own websites. But writers may soon have more and more forums for their work on the web. Certainly blogs are gaining more popularity and it might be conceivable that one day editors will look for writing talent on the web, just as they now search for illustration talent on the web.
As an English Major who made sure to take a creative writing course every semester, I'm familiar with the terror of the blank page and try my best to bring to my work as a children's book editor sympathy and respect for those who trade in words.
Those many writing classes I took in college taught me firsthand that writers, especially unpublished ones, do not get a lot of encouragement. They are told that publishing is one of the most competitive industries around, that editors receive hundreds of manuscripts a day, and that you are more likely to be attacked by a grizzly bear than to publish a book. It’s a little offputting.
What I have found, working on the other side of the publishing business, is that things aren’t all that grim for those with talent and those who take their craft seriously. Good, careful writing and imaginative stories are not flooding publishers' mailrooms. It’s HARD to write and though at times it may feel like one cannot throw a rock through a Starbucks without hitting a novelist, as many people have a talent for writing as have a talent for painting a landscape or playing the piano---which is to say, not THAT many people can actually do it. What makes writing different is that everyone uses words everyday while, on the other hand, few people know how to wield paintbrushes or tame musical instruments. That means that many of the submissions my publisher receives were sent in by someone who saw their nephew making friends with a cat and dashed off the story in fifteen minutes. So, even though Tricycle may receive between twenty to thirty manuscripts a day, when reading day comes around, we editors may have to go through five or six HUNDRED manuscripts before coming across one writer who genuinely has a gift with words, and who has spent time honing their craft and their voice.
With children’s writing, however, it’s not simply a matter of knowing how to string words together. As an editor I also look for another talent that’s just as rare: that of understanding the child’s point of view. Between childhood and adulthood most of us pass through a veil of forgetfulness---as adults we often look on children as short aliens. They talk differently than we do, they value things differently than we do, they have weird fears and phobias, dislike foods for no good reason, and can spend hours entertaining themselves with a stick and a sandbox. It’s not often that an adult can access a child’s sensibility. When I see a writer capable of this, I, as an editor, sit up and take notice. Combine this ability with good writing and the author will most assuredly stand out from the hundreds of manuscripts in the unsolicited manuscript pile.