Anyone interested in either illustrating or writing for a living must at some point ask themselves, “Do I need an agent?”.
If you’re like me, wide-eyed at how competitive the field is, and looking at ways of making illustration your career, your next question may well be, “How can I get one?”.
To help dispel the mystery, I recently went along to an Agents’ Party hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The idea of the Agents’ Party is to provide real insight into what agents actually do, what they are looking for in new writers, and a potentially life-changing opportunity to meet them. Business cards at dawn!
And so I arrived nervously at the 6th floor of the opinion-splitting new Foyles on Charing Cross Road to see 120 or so other writers and illustrators. Immediately interesting to me, was that the audience was overwhelmingly female. Moreover, it also became clear that writers vastly outnumbered the illustrators.
While that fact was ultimately reflected by the five panelist’s conversation, illustrators reading this should certainly read on – the agents’ remarks on how to capture their attention will resonate for wordsmith and doodler alike.
Which kind of books recently resonated with you and why?
While I couldn’t accurately make out the couple of names the five agents mentioned (soz), all had similar reasons for their interest, and all of them inherently emotional.
“It made me cry…”, “It was dark and funny…”, “I love adventure stories.”
Lauren Pearson from heavyweight agency Curtis Brown gave a little more: “I love a good marriage of tone and personality.”
Julia Churchill, of A.M Heath Literary Agents, cut right through the issue: “If this is about your pitch, just be focused and show clarity. It’s all about the third paragraph of the cover letter – broad strokes with a clear architecture.”
How does one benchmark against other authors or illustrators?
All of the panelists agreed on the need for authors to read around the age group they’re writing for, and to read into the area of literature they’re interested in.
Lauren suggested “Emulate the classics, you’ll learn a lot.” Julia agreed, saying, “Reading teaches you.”
However, Jo Williamson of Antony Harwood Ltd was quick to add, “Set your own benchmark. Read your own work.” In other words, find your own style. “Don’t just copy Oliver Jeffers,” says Penny Holroyde, of illustration powerhouse Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency. “We’re looking for new voices.”
When is a work in progress ready for submission?
Be constructively hyper-critical of your work. You don’t need an editor per se, just lots of people that will read your work and give you honest feedback. It’s not the agent’s job to assess your work. If it’s not good enough, they won’t write to you with a list of changes.
“No one deserves to see a first draft. Don’t hurry it,” says Julia Churchill. “Look at problems with your work right in the eye.”
“If you think it might be ready, leave it for a couple of months and then read it again.” Yasmin Standen, from The Standen Literary Agency added, reinforcing the message that it’s worth taking the time to get it right.
What is the editorial role of agents?
Pretty light touch, cosmetic differences from the sound of it. Their feedback is there to make something already saleable even more saleable. This isn’t just being finicky or difficult, it’s to ensure that the one shot you get with a publisher is a goal.
They want you to meaningfully reflect on their feedback, and they admire authors and illustrators that can give them more than they ask for.
What goes through the mind of an agent when reading something for the first time? What’s the X-factor you’re looking for?
Again, each agent had their own idea of that special something.
Ella Diamond Khan, one half of the rising star that is the Diamond Khan & Woods Literary Agency put it most poetically: “It’s the manuscript that makes us forget we’re reading for work.”
The entertainingly pragmatic Julia added contrast, asking herself “Can I sell this? Will I love pitching it?”
For Yasmin it’s all about the characters. “Do I connect with the main character? Do I want to go with them on their journey?”
Penny Holroyde again spoke up for the illustrators. ”It may sound obvious,” she began, “but you might want to make sure your portfolio includes, er, children. You’d be amazed how many don’t. Show me children! And not just in profile.” Penny looks for pinpoint consistency in how characters are drawn with a variety of brilliant expressions, and in different poses and places.
“And whatever you do,” she continued, “Don’t send paper. Email. And make sure our journey to see your work is a short as possible. I don’t want to have to follow link after link. A PDF of your work is better than a link to your website or online portfolio.”
Does anyone accept picture books in rhyme?
Traditionally, rhyme has been hampered by translation for global markets but that appears to be a diminishing barrier. What’s more, “It’s actually gaining momentum, thanks to supermarkets like Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s.” According to Penny Holroyde.
How many clients do the agents have?
Typically 15 – 20 authors per agent. “Any more would mean spreading myself too thinly.” says Jo Williamson. Ella Diamond Khan’s currently small business is expanding; “I have 8 and am aiming for 20”.
If you rejected my last submission with nice comments, should I submit my next work?
All of the agents say, definitely, yes!
The Q&A over, we were invited to find and pitch to the agents around the room, and it was this part of the evening that highlighted how important the relationship between you and your agent is. They’ve got to relate to you and love your work.
Self-publishing is becoming ever-more prevalent as retail channels, technology and promotional spaces widen, certainly rewarding the more entrepreneurial among us. But you need a lot of chutzpah, knowledge and energy for that journey, as Asterisk would say.
Agents play a fundamental role in allowing writers and illustrators to continue being unfettered creatives, and it’s in their interests to push your work as far as it can go, and for the right money.
I’d also heard a lot of the collective wisdom presented here before, in part from the Children’s Writers and Artists Year Book but also, crucially, from my local children’s illustrators’ gang (ok, crit group) that our SCBWI rep Anne-Marie Perks moderates with care.
If you haven’t already, do get the book for the essential contact list, and join a crit group for the essential feedback loops.
Agents are simply looking for exceptional work that they love and can sell. If an agent replies to a submission email at all, it won’t be to offer guidance or coaching, and it may take weeks for the reply to land. So the mystery is certainly dispelled but, like all good thrillers, the suspense will remain until the end!
If you have any questions or anything to add, please give us a shout in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll do my best to help further!