Do I need an agent? How do I find one?

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Today I answer a series of questions from a reader who has completed her first book. Does she need an agent? What should she do next? Read on to learn more….

A reader named Hilary submitted the following questions to the Publication Coach:

I have finished the first draft of my book for 10-14 year olds and need some advice about the publishing process. Here are my questions:

  • Should I devote more of my time to revising my draft or, should I concentrate instead on approaching publishing companies?
  • Should I be approaching publishers or looking for an agent? (I’ve heard that commissions for children’s books are so low that there isn’t much incentive for agents.)
  • Is it safe to use a website such as Authonomy in order to get feedback and hopefully get noticed by publishing staff?
  • What about submitting my manuscript to <a paid manuscript submission site.>

Although I’ve read books about getting published, I’m still such a novice I’m not sure what is the best approach!

Congratulations on finishing your book, Hilary! That’s no small achievement. But for anyone who thinks that writing is the hardest job in life, the publishing world may be a bit of a wet fish in the face.

Now that you have a manuscript (yay!), you need to do two things: (1) continue to polish it and (2) start learning about the publishing world. For starters, I highly recommend that you seek an agent. I don’t believe commissions on children’s books are any lower than those for other books (usually between 8 and 10%) although the relatively low cost of children’s books may be a factor. That said, there are certainly children’s agents around, so try to get your manuscript in front of one.

To meet an agent, you should get fully involved in the writing community in your genre (yes, every genre has its own community). This may mean attending workshops, taking courses, volunteering etc. Sounds like a lot of work, eh? It is! But it’s as necessary to the publishing process as applying your fingers to the keyboard is to writing.

Another thing you can do is look at other books — similar although not identical to the title you’ve written. In the preface or the acknowledgements section, the author almost always thanks his/her agent. Then find that person and research them. What kinds of authors do they represent? Why are you a perfect match for them? Then you need to learn about the art of the query letter. I highly recommend you read Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write or the Sell Your Novel Toolkit — both by Elizabeth Lyon.

These days some agents have blogs. I interviewed Nathan Bransford a few months ago (he’s an agent who found another agent to represent his own young adult book — so that should tell you something!) His site is a great resource and has lots of terrific information on the art of finding an agent.

Finding an agent is as difficult as finding a publisher. But the good news is that an agent will not only negotiate for you, he or she will help you shape your manuscript so that it is as attractive as possible to publishers. That kind of help is invaluable. Remember: no reputable agent charges for reading a manuscript.

I hadn’t heard of Authonomy before (probably because it appears to be a UK site) but I’ve now checked it out. It’s sponsored by HarperCollins and is free. It looks half decent to me although I’m not sure I’d count on it doing much heavy lifting for you. It seems to me more the kind of place to go to for support than for publication deals. A friend of mine points out that you should also be careful about whether this constitutes “first publication.” Publishers other than HarperCollins might not be thrilled to learn you’ve already placed your manuscript on a HarperCollins website!

As for the paid manuscript submission site, I’d avoid it. I cannot imagine reputable publishers taking the time to check it out. It’s not as if there’s a universal shortage of manuscripts right now.

Thank you, Hilary, for sending your questions to Ask the Pubcoach. I wish you the best of luck in finding an agent and a publisher for your new book.