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.