How I Found an Agent — Part One
I do not have an agent but I will. Oh yes, I will. So assured am I of this fact that I’m taking you, internet readers, on this journey with me. If I succeed you can cheer me on. If I fail, cheer for me anyway and I’ll do the same for you.
Because you’re reading this article I assume you’re somehow wrapped up in this author/illustrator business and you know why you might want an agent. So I’m not going to explain all that. I’m also not an expert on agent-finding so don’t get mad at me if I do it wrong (again with the cheering).
A little about me and my starting point… I studied illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design then slipped into the world of fashion and surface design, which is what I’ve done for the bulk of my career. A few years ago it felt like it was time for a switch so I began working toward a children’s book portfolio and finally I’m feeling ready(ish) for the next step.
Part one of this journey is all about research and preparation, which is helpful to think of as a series of questions:
1) What do I want?
Time to brainstorm! What sort of books do you dream of writing or illustrating? What do you like to draw? In what style? Which age range and genre?
Answering these questions allows you to:
- focus your portfolio on the type of work that energizes you
- research agents who will love what you do and who have the right connections
- learn the shop talk. “Why, yes! My novel is a middle-grade urban fantasy with a hint of magical realism.” It’s a bit like discussing fine wine.
As I developed my children’s book style I realized (through much trial, error and agony) that not only do I want to illustrate picture books, I also have a soft spot for middle-grade fiction. And I love to… write! (Wait, what?)
So my “what I want” list goes something like this:
- I want to write &/or illustrate picture books — especially fantasy, fairy tales, myths and legends.
- I want to illustrate middle-grade spots and covers.
- I want to write and illustrate middle-grade fiction.
- I still love surface design and want to decorate the world with pretty pictures and patterns
2) Who do I want?
Once you’ve sorted yourself out, figure out who can help you get what you want. But in a sea of choices how do you find the agent who wants to find you? And do I need to tell you to research agents before you approach them? If you didn’t know that just pretend like you did and let’s move on… Step one here is to find out who the agents are. Start a spreadsheet, put in names, agencies, all the stuff.
Look in these places:
- Twitter. I don’t love Twitter myself but agents seem to say lots of things there, important things like they’re looking for submissions for blah blah blah. Or they just acquired so-and-so. This is helpful, pay attention.
- I like MSWishlist.com. It’s pulls tweets from agents, editors, publishers, etc. It’s easily searchable and has other helpful info.
- Hopefully you have a few author/illustrator friends. Suck them dry for agent information.
- If you don’t have the aforementioned friends, join a group. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has been amazingly helpful to me for making connections in the book world. Troll their site (scbwi.org) for agent info. There are always agents at retreats and conferences so check out the faculty lists.
Once you have your fancy spreadsheet, figure out which agents rep the things you want to do. Compile a top-ten list.
3) How do I talk about what I want?
This is the elevator-pitch. You’re telling the agent what you want. The idea is to figure out if it’s a good fit so it helps to be specific in the beginning… but not too specific. Elevator pitch, remember? A few sentences of description and a hook or question at the end.
My pitch goes roughly like this:
“Currently I’m writing and illustrating a middle grade historical fiction novel. I also love illustrating fantasy, myths and fairy tales so I’d love to find an agent who reps both middle grade and picture books. (*Insert something personal here.) Can I send you a portion of my novel to see if it might be a good fit?”
The *insert something personal* note comes from your fabulous research and shows an agent you respect their time and are paying attention to what they like. Mine could be something like, “I noticed that you’re looking for historical fiction with strong female protagonists so I thought you might be interested.”
It’s a good idea to have some examples in your head of what your book or your work is “like”. Are there other things published similar to yours? Is it a hybrid? Figure that out so you have talking points.
If it’s a possible fit they may open the door to submission. And when they do…
4) What do I have to show for it?
This is where you bring all your research, writing and portfolio prep to the table. It’s your shining moment of glory so make sure you’re prepared with the goods. Obviously what you’re offering varies depending on what you do but here are examples of what you should be prepared to show:
- A cohesive portfolio that demonstrates what you wish to be doing
- Book dummy
- Sample chapters (first 10-50 pages)
- A finished manuscript
- Story synopsis
- Story Outline
- Cards with contact info
Offer it up and keep your fingers crossed! If you don’t hear back from them send a follow-up within a week or two thanking them for their time and asking for their thoughts. (Bonus points if you throw in something personal you remember about them or something specific you discussed together.)
As for me I'm headed to the LA SCBWI conference tomorrow so cheer me on as I take my own advice! And stay tuned for part two of How I Found an Agent.