A Literary Agent Answers Your Fevered Questions: Querying, Graphic Novels, and Books for Children -The Toast

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPrevious installments in this series can be found here. Have a question for Ginger? Ask her!

What do you think about the usefulness of joining something like QueryTracker to find an agent? Cold-calling and blindly submitting seems futile and terrifying in equal measure.–Allison

QueryTracker is helpful; Publishers Marketplace is probably more helpful. Agents and editors use PM to report our deals and keep tabs on who is buying what. It is worth the cost of subscribing for a month. You can research what people are saying about agents on Absolute Write. Literary Rambles has a series of extremely thorough and detailed profiles of agents (oh look, here I am) that include interviews and articles they have written.

Another method is to identify what books are similar to yours and find out who the agent is for that book. For instance, just a totally random example: if you’ve written a novel akin to Gretchen McNeil’s young adult thrillers, see if she mentions her agent in the acknowledgements of her book or on her website (shocking development: I am her agent!) That agent would probably be open to handling more YA thrillers, so put that agent on your list to query.

Cold-calling an agent is futile, as you suggest. If you do make it past the agency’s receptionist, you’ll have an awkward, stilted conversation where the agent tells you to just query them according to their website instructions and then tries to get off the phone as soon as possible. Not that I have ever done that.

Finally, treat the querying process like it’s busy work that has nothing to do with you or your book. Keep a spreadsheet of responses from agents. When you get a pass, log it and send out another query. Keep notes on the agents you’re interested in working with. Think of this as potential research for a future book and not some kind of agonizing series of rejections. I mean, yes, they are a series of agonizing rejections—but if you want to work in business without rejection, don’t work in publishing.

Do graphic novels need to be entirely finished or is it safe to query if only the script is finished?–James C.

The graphic novel market is small, and the only publishers you could send just a script into (without artwork) are the larger houses like Vertigo and Dark Horse. Those are the only companies that would have access to artists to attach to a script without artwork already in place. The other graphic novel publishers are going to be looking for works that are either by an author/illustrator (people like Alison Bechdel and Gene Luen Yang), or a script with an artist already attached. So, if you’re an unpublished author and you’re submitting to the smaller houses, not only should you have finished the entire script, but you should also have at least some finished pages of art.

And you might already know this, but the artwork for a graphic novel can be done by multiple people. You can have a separate penciler, inker, and colorist. You could find someone who does all three, or someone who does two out of those three. So you could be dealing with not just one artist, but up to three other people working on the illustrations for your book.

If you are looking to break into the graphic novel market, the best way nowadays is to publish your own web comic series. I can name other books and graphic novels that have started there, but the most pre-eminent example is Jeff Kinney’s massively successful Wimpy Kid.

I would like to know if you have any advice for how to go about getting a children’s book published. More specifically, what does an agent want to see from me in order to decide whether they want to help me get such a book published? I know basically the story outline but have not written the whole thing, and I am capable of producing finished illustrations of a sort, but am not sure if an agent would want to see that or if the publisher normally organizes the illustrations separately?–icebergmama

I believe what you mean by “children’s book” is picture book. The publishing industry uses the term “children’s book” to refer to all books for those 18 and younger, while many “civilians” (my own term for those who have chosen a life where the words “joint accounting” mean nothing to them) often mean picture book when they say “children’s book.”

Picture books are produced in a slightly different way than middle grade (ages 8 to 12) and young adult (ages 12 and up) are, because of the graphic element. Usually, if the author and the illustrator are separate people (and not just different personalities or Twitter handles, but actual separate people in separate bodies), the author sells the text to the publisher first, and then the publisher finds a well-known illustrator to create the artwork. Years often go by between those two events. Successful illustrators in picture books usually have full schedules for years to come.

What an agent would want to see from you, is the full text of the picture book, indicating what page of the picture book you view each line of text appearing. Here is where you might think, ‘oh, that’s just a few hundred words; picture books are so short, they must be easy.” Here is where I say “sure, like poetry! Poetry is SUPER easy to write.” (Here is where a poet throws a shoe at me, not realizing I was being sarcastic.)

If you have credits and experience as an illustrator, you could submit a “dummy” (a rough draft of the book, unbound) to an agent. But again—a publisher is going to want to pair your text with an established illustrator. Unless your artwork is excellent, stick to just the text when querying and submitting to agents.

I’m about to attend my first writers conference, and I have my first pitch session with an agent. To say that I’m nervous is an understatement. Do you have any tips on how to survive?–Anonymous

First, here is a lot of basic advice that you could apply to other parts of your life, but applies to surviving a pitch session:

– Make eye contact.
– Shake their hand firmly yet not too firmly.
– Smile.
– Don’t cry.
– Make sure you don’t have coffee breath.
– Make sure there is no food in your teeth.
– Make sure there are no very visible stains on your clothing.
– Don’t be hungover.
– Don’t be drunk (true story).
– Don’t be high (also a true story).
– Don’t yell.
– Don’t storm out.
– Relax.
– No, really, try to relax, this will all be over in 10 minutes or less. Root canals take more time.

Here is some advice which is more pitch session specific:

– Know what kind of book you have written.
– Know how long your book is in both page and word count.
– If you have written some kind of children’s book, know how old your protagonist is. If he is ten and you’ve just told me this is a young adult novel, prepare to justify your reasoning.
– Have a one minute plot summary that you have memorized that describes the first 20% of the book. Give us the set up, the main character, and the main conflict. No need to tell me how the heroine saves the day, just tell me who she is, where she is, and who is trying to stop her from saving the day. If you cannot memorize this because you know you will just freak out and freeze up, go ahead and bring a page of notes to help you. The agent has likely done this dozens of times before and has had people read their pitches because they were so nervous.
– View your book with a critical eye, and come up with questions an agent might ask you about world building, plot twists, your main character’s motivations, etc. Have answers ready.
– Be able to reference three authors whose work is similar to yours. Bonus points if one of those authors is handled by the agent you are pitching. Yes, that is totally blatant brown-nosing but who cares, really?
– Do your research ahead of time and know at least one client that the agent handles.
– If the agent asks to see your work, ask for their card. Write down what they tell you they want to see. I ask for the first 50 pages to be emailed to me as an attachment, and for them to mention where we met in the first line of their cover email. People sometimes are so nervous they forget what an agent asked for, and so they wind up sending the wrong thing.
– If your pitch goes quickly and you have a few spare minutes, have a couple of general questions about the business memorized so you could pick the agent’s brain—but only if they invite you to do so. I usually do.
– Remember you are not the only nervous person that agent has met with ever, or even that day. It is OK to be nervous. It really is.
– Don’t mention if the agent has rejected your work in the past.
– Don’t argue with them over the differences between SF and fantasy.
– Don’t lie in wait for them outside the pitching room if you didn’t get a pitch slot and follow them until you corner them in the elevator.
– And finally: thank them for their time, thank the organizers of the conference for letting you have a pitch slot, and then go get yourself a drink to celebrate surviving.

You’ll be fine.

Ginger Clark is a literary agent at Curtis Brown. The opinions expressed above are solely hers, and do not reflect the opinions of her employer or colleagues. Would you like to ask her a question about publishing and writing? Email her and she might answer it in a future column. No question is too specific, obscure, or small. If you wish to send her a professional query, please email her at her Curtis Brown email address.

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