I know that a lot of my posts and emphasis is on helping independent authors who are primarily self-publishing or working with small publishers. However, there are many authors who are hybrid–they self publish and they work with traditional publishers. And there are authors who really don’t want to ever self-publish, either because their genre isn’t as conducive to self-publishing–academic books, children’s books, some literary novels–or they don’t want to learn the ins and outs of publishing a book or pay someone to do it for them.
I was traditionally published in the beginning of my career. I did 5 books with large publishers–three nonfiction and two fiction. The non-fiction one’s I didn’t use an agent. I had the right expertise and was invited to write books for the two companies where I published. However, the fiction books did need an agent. This was before self-publishing was something easy to do and we had the ease of distribution we do now.
For those who are already convinced that going with agent is what you want to do, scroll down to the red header where I start into the steps for finding agents. For those who are still debating, read on.
Why would I go traditional after more than a decade of building a press and helping other authors become good self-publishers? Because I’m writing Middle Grade children’s books with contemporary themes. I know that these books, like picture books and early reader books, are primarily sold in school settings, to libraries and through bookstores. The primary medium is paperback and/or hardback. Yes, they do sell to individual consumers but it’s hard to gain a lot of traction because they tend to first be found in libraries and bookstores based on an extensive PR and marketing campaign.
My adult fiction sells three times more in ebook than in print. Though my print books do get in libraries and bookstores, they don’t get to readers that way because there are only a few copies in each venue. The independent publishers I know who do middle grade books–even mysteries and SF and Fantasy–have a hard time getting traction. I do know two people who have done well with self-published middle grade books, but to do that it took nearly a year after release of doing that hard work–talking to individual schools near where they lived. Doing presentations and assemblies. Talking to local libraries and doing the same, then expanding that to beyond their local area.
They also both shared what their upfront financing was like. They both did print runs of 5,000 to 10,000 books up front. One author told me he had to do this to get into schools. He was marketing entire school districts after getting some good testimonials and reviews. When an entire district agreed to including his books and letting him do assemblies, he also had to agree to carry enough books to sell to at least 30% of the students in that age range. It ended up well for him, but he had to carry that outlay of money for six months as he visited each school and sold books.
Why get an Agent when there are publishers who let authors query without an agent?
There are a few good children’s publishers who actually let authors query without an agent regularly, and actually do contracts with them. If you are an adult fiction, genre author there are many more small and independent publishers who still take queries without an agent. But in Children’s publishing the list is pretty small, and though a few imprints of the Big 5 will take queries without an agent, they tend to be in very specific categories like Own Voices books for traditionally underserved authors. I don’t fit in that category.
Also, I want to try for the bigger publishers not only for this book but for future books because I envision a series, and have many other Middle Grade ideas. After all, I’ve been thinking about this for 40 years <big smile>. To try for the biggest publishers, or even well established smaller publishers that only do children’s books, one either needs a good agent or a personal connection to an editor. So, I’m back in it again. Here’s my approach (learned from years ago when I had an agent). As I was once with Writer’s House, a good size agency, I’m confident that this approach will work again. I just have to update all my knowledge on expectations and who is available.
OKAY, I’m in. What are the Steps?
FIRST, make sure you have read widely in the genre you are publishing. For me, I wrote a children’s Middle Grade book back in the late 1970’s. In fact, it was my first book publication. A Trip to the Moon was published by Utah State University Press in 1979. Along with it, I developed a game that was packaged with the book and given to students who completed a reading program to help them quickly move to a higher level of reading. However, since then I hadn’t read any Middle Grade books. I didn’t have children of my own. My step-children were teenagers when I met my husband and married. So, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do. The topics covered, the depth and complexity of plots are quite a bit different than when I wrote that first book in the 1970s.
So, for the past six months I’ve been devouring Middle Grade contemporary fiction and, in particular, fiction with themes that relate to the book I’m writing. It’s opened my eyes to the competition and what is being published now. I’ve also been able to develop a list of six to seven comparable (often referred to as comps) books to what I’m writing. It is important to both agents and publishers that they have a general idea of the direction you are taking and how it compares to something that has sold decently.
SECOND, determine/research what kind of book you have written. What I mean by this is the category (ies) one would list for the book. If you don’t know what these might be, a good way to start is to look up your comp books and see how they are listed. For example, if your comp book is Nora Robert’s new Dragonheart Romance Fantasy series, then look it up at your favorite online store and see what it lists for categories. Here is what I found for her book, Awakening.
Paranormal & Urban Fantasy
Fantasy & Futuristic Romance
Now you have an idea of where your book may lie in terms of categories. If that doesn’t seem to cover you, then look at a different comp book. When I was looking up my comps I found the majority of those books had the same three categories listed, even though they were very different books. My middle grade book fits in
Children’s Orphans and Foster Homes
Children’s Multigenerational Family Life
Children’s Self-Esteem Books
THIRD, now that you have your categories you can search for agents who look for books in those categories. There are many resources for this including Manuscript Wish List (MWL) and Query Tracker (QT). Though both of these tools are free, they aren’t always kept very current and tend to be generalized. A few actually give more details about the specific kinds of books in a category they’d like. But many of them simply say something like: “I represent adult fiction, YA, Middle Grade, and some nonfiction. That’s way too broad. Also these two venues don’t have a lot of incentive for agents to keep up their listing unless they are really trying to build a list–brand new agents.
My favorite tool to use in 2004 is the same tool I’m using now: Publisher’s Marketplace (PM). This does cost money, $25 per month. However, you can decide to just use it for one month and then not purchase any additional months. This is the place that agents publish their deals and many have a PM page for their agency or for individual agents. Why would they keep up this and not the other two? Because this is where they prove their reputation to publishers. If they sold a book to Random House for good money, they want lots of editors to know that so when they send a manuscript to another person that editor knows they are a serious player and will look at it right away. This is the industry tracker. Also, the most serious writers will be checking this out as well. Because they want agents they know have actually sold books like the one they might send.
How does an author use this? Now that you know your book’s categories, you can do a search for agents who have made deals in those categories. In the top menu, there is an item labeled DEALS, you want to select that and then chose DEAL MAKERS. On the right is how you narrow that. Look at the 2nd box. You choose type as AGENT and then category (this is the broad category for your book (e.g., fiction romance or children’s fiction middle grade or nonfiction, etc.). Then click the VIEW button.
Once you click view you will be given a list of the top agent dealmakers in that category. Not only is it a link to agents and their pages, but it also provides valuable information about how many deals they’ve made, how many deals were six-figures or more, and how many deals they’ve made in the last six months. Now you can start really doing your research based on agents who are actually getting deals in your genre. Below is the first part of a list for Middle Grade that I ran.
Let’s look at this information. I’ve only put in the top 5 out of more than 100 agents in this category. You can see it is showing their last 12 months of sales in this particular category. It is also showing their last 6 months and their most recent deal date in this category. NOTE: Most agents sell in more than one category. A few do not. In this case the top 2 are with agencies that specialize in children’s and YA fiction. So, it’s not surprising that their Overall sales is very high. Whereas the next three people on the list do children’s fiction but also do adult fiction, so their numbers are lower but still a good number for the time period.
If you are at all like me, you are looking at those six-figure deals and salivating. Right? It would make sense to go with the agent with the most six figure deals, but again you will want to do research. What I learned is that the vast majority of those deals are from someone they have represented for a number of years who has built their career as a bestseller and those deals are exclusive and offered by the same publisher who published their previous books. In other words, if you aren’t already a bestseller in the genre your chance of getting that deal is not as high. Sometimes debut novels DO go that high. But that is an outlier.
FOURTH, now the truly hard work begins. You need to start looking up each agent and seeing if your book fits their needs. Fortunately, PM can help you there as well. Because most of the agents in the list also have a page on PM. So, you first click on the agent name. Below is what first shows up for #5 Suzie Townsend.
You can see this is a summary page but you know more information including: which editors have acquired the books and which publishers. You can also see what categories this agent is ranked in as a dealmaker. For my search she is #5 in Middle Grade, but she is also #2 in YA and #6 in New Adult. So, immediately I know what other books she regularly sells. I can also look at all the authors she represents which will give me a good idea of the kinds of books they are writing. But the next step I would take is to click on her Marketplace Member Page. That is where she talks about herself, her experience, her client’s books both past and forthcoming, and provides a link to her agency site, and a link to submissions information. In this case, this agent also has several book covers with links to authors.
All in a few clicks you get a lot of information. Now you can research agents and make decisions about which ones might fit you and your book. The way I did this was to make myself a spreadsheet of agents who MIGHT be a fit. The things I track are agency, agent name, years in the business, number of sales in past year in my genre, names of any books the agent has sold that are on my comp list, a brief copy and paste of what that agent is interested in seeing. A link to their submissions policy. Once I have about 50 agents, I rank them from 1-50 so I know where to start submitting. I start at the top and work my way down.
For the most part, I submit to ten agents at a time. The only time I don’t do that is if someone has specifically said they require an exclusive submission AND can turn it around within 30 days. And I ONLY do that if that agent is in my top 10 list.
OKAY, AN AGENT IS INTERESTED NOW WHAT?
Now comes the even harder stuff. I know it’s tempting to just go with the first one who says yes, but I would caution you not to do that. If one said yes, it could very well be that others will say yes as well. One of the reasons I do ten at a time. There is an old adage that mentor authors taught me long ago. It is: “You don’t want just ANY agent, you want someone who believes in your book, your career, and has a communication style you can handle. You also want someone with a good track record who is honest.”
I can attest to this. In my previous agented life, I chose my agent because she was a big name and did big deals for lots of people. She also represented several authors in my genre that I liked.
I didn’t really ask a lot of questions, I was just happy to be represented. The problem was that I learned pretty quickly that I was nowhere near the list to pay attention to. She was doing the least amount possible to keep my book in front of people. In fact, when a publisher finally offered a contract, it took my agent 3 months to even look at it even though I wrote her weekly. I won’t go into all the gory details, but let’s say her communication style wasn’t good for me and the way I want to work with someone. I needed to know what was going on–not every day, but every couple weeks would be nice, especially when there is an offer. I also learned, after signing, that she was a one book agent. She took on a book for its sales potential (I understand that), but she really wasn’t looking beyond that one book. Of course, if you hit the bestseller list with the first book she’d stick with you.
So, this time around I’m looking for someone different. Someone who loves my book and understands I want to do more books. In fact, I see this with series potential. I want someone he sees that vision and is interested in selling it. Someone who likes me and will keep in touch on some pre-defined regular basis. Someone who will always keep me apprised of negotiations and understands that in the end I am making the decision because it is my intellectual property that is on the line. Someone who wants the publisher to be a good fit for me as well. It may be that I could get more money out of one publisher, but if that publisher isn’t interested in me beyond one book it’s not the one I want.
So, I have a list of questions and conversations if/when I get to the point of an agent wanting to represent my book. Of course, the ideal is to have several agents interested. We will see how it goes.
I’ll Win No Matter What Happens
The great thing about running a press myself, and having self-published, is that I know what I’m capable of on my own. I know what I can generate income on my own. I know I can professionally produce the book myself and I know what I can accomplish in marketing and PR. Though I would prefer a traditional deal with the RIGHT company, I’m not going to sell my rights to a publisher who can’t do any better than I can alone. I’m not going to sell my rights to a publisher who is not going to have any upfront investment in my book. I know there is a direct relationship between investment and marketing in publishing.
Most important, I’m also going to write the next book and the next. In that way, no matter what happens, I am prepared to move forward. If I find the right match in agent and publisher, I’ll have other books ready to go. If I don’t find that match in a year, I’ll have them ready for me to publish independently. I will still have told my stories and they will still be in the world to buy.
It’s a great time to be a writer. We have so many more options than were available when I started publishing regularly in the early 2000s.
Not sure what kind of a package you need to put together for an agent? Here’s a couple links to good articles from agents about that.
The many agents who do use Query Tracker or some kind of form begin with wanting a cover letter and the first five to 25 pages, depending on the agent. They also want all of that copied and pasted into the form.
From Juliet Mushens, President of Mushens Entertainment and named one of the most influential people in publishing in 2021.
This is from former agent Nathan Bradford who had to query an agent for his own book. He is now a book editor and author consultant, but still on top of the business. Did you know that even agents who write need agents to represent them? Nathan also shares another query that he did like and explains why.
Good Luck with whatever path you choose.