Last Sunday I began a blog mini-series on one of my favorite things in the world: writing for young readers. The first part focused on getting started: magazine or book?
I'm writing these grounded in my experiences thus far, after several years of concerted effort to self-educate in the field, making many mistakes, and having some breakthroughs. In other words, I make no claim to be a world expert in this, but I hope you find some of what I have to say on the topic of interest and use! There are many ways to get to Rome, if that's where you want to go, and these are just some of the paths.
Agent or Editor? To Whom Do I Submit?
It's a question that crops up all over the place in the blogosphere. You can go either route, but here are some things to be informed of when making your judgment call.
Literary agents are "gate-keepers" in the publishing industry. You might not like that, but that is how it is and it isn't going to change any time soon, epublishing to the contrary! So why not just skip the middle step and go right to the editors themselves? After all, their mailing addresses are listed in publishing guides, right? Well, many editors are closed to "unagented submissions." And those that are open to all submissions have large, teetering "slush piles" (open submissions) that take months if not years to slog through. You'll wait longer to hear back on average, and generally speaking your work will be read by a despairing intern doing their time in the Siberian outpost that is the slush pile to prove their worth to the editor. Their goal is to slog through slush as efficiently as possible, not to pause and admire your turn of phrase. Although you and they both dream of submitting/finding the diamond in the cistern, the odds are against both of you.
The other thing to consider is that although you can send work to an editor, this counts as "shopping it [your literary work] around" and you have then determined a path you have to stay on. Agents are not interested in considering work that has been shopped around to editors already, unless you have an offer on it and would like agent representation to finalize the deal. Why not? Because first, you thumbed your nose at agenting and went it alone. Second, many agents want the opportunity to have you work some revisions before they shop something on your behalf. (This serves two purposes: they see that you are open to revision and behave professionally--you are someone they want to work with. And their name is on the line with yours when they send your stuff out on their letterhead, so they do want it to be the best it can be.) And third, if you have already sent out your work to a bunch of editors, what can the agent do with it? You have already "tainted the pool," so to speak. And unless you have an offer, you are admitting to an agent that you have been rejected by a lot of editors already (kiss of death: do not quote any nice things said in a rejection; it was still a rejection). Unless you plan to overhaul the manuscript significantly, it will now need to stay shelved until after you sign a three book deal somewhere.
If you go to a conference and meet with an editor either one on one for a critique or, in some cases, are simply in the audience for their presentation, the conference organizers have usually made arrangements for you to submit your work to them after the conference, following whatever submission guidelines they have set, and noting that you were present at the conference (thereby avoiding the slush pile and guaranteeing a slightly faster response time). This type of editor submission is acceptable to agents, providing you are only talking one or two editors, but full disclosure is important. Agents need to know where it has been submitted. If you have not sent it anywhere, say so in your cover letter.
Agents also attend conferences and permit attendees to submit to them afterward. However, it is rare to get picked up at a conference, and there doesn't seem to be any strong advantage to having met the agent or had a critique with them--other than good advice, of course. So if you do attend conferences (like SCBWI--Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) then do so because you will learn vast amounts about the industry expectations and good writing, not because Prince Charming might invite you to dance!
Agents don't really apply in the case of the non-fiction children's writer. Here, the hustle is different. Either send a pitch/prospectus directly to a relevant Press and/or send your resume to education presses that accept WFH (work for hire) applicants.
In my case, I sent my resume to around 40 presses. About a quarter or more of them emailed or wrote to say they liked my credentials and found me qualified to write for them. They kept my resume on file. Although this may yet provide some writing work, and for some it might do so very quickly, I found personally that networking has paid better dividends thus far.
A colleague in my writing group had an overflow of work from her editor and suggested to both of us that I might be a good fit. I sent my resume and magazine work clips, and got a contract two days later, and have my first book in this genre--for a high school market--due at the end of January. Needless to say, I'm extremely happy at this turn of events, and hope that this work will produce more work, particularly as the editor in question works for a book packager and thus works to connect press needs with writers. In other words, the editor represents many presses.
When I expressed my gratitude to my lovely writing colleague, she told me to pay it forward. She got her first break this way as well, and said that she suspects connections work best in this industry. And so I will.
So, my counsel in summary is: write. Learn the hustle of submitting, tracking, researching markets, and contacting agents and editors. Attend conferences that help you meet people. But the people you really want to meet are your colleagues, because they're the network that can help you most!
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