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Getting an Offer and THEN an Agent

Elizabeth asked this great question yesterday and I wanted to tackle it for everyone:

I am unpublished and unagented, but I have a picture book manuscript under serious consideration at a great publishing house. If I am offered a contract, can I (without annoying the publisher) try to find an agent before accepting the contract? Would this take too much time from the publisher’s point of view? Would agents be likely to take me on at this stage? I have heard that many agents are not interested in picture book authors. Is it better to try to find a literary contract lawyer and pursue an agent after I have a published book under my belt? Such a raft of questions! I am obviously in a stew.

Most of the advice I can give Elizabeth will apply to all creators who have received an offer for their work and want to find an agent, so read on. First of all, congratulations! Even though there’s no firm offer yet, you’re in a good place. I’d advise you to take the time — once you receive a firm offer — to find an agent. IMPORTANT: Tell the editor “Thank you so much for your offer. Before I get back to you, I’m going to try and partner with a literary agent.” They’ll be fine with this, it happens all the time. But make sure you don’t agree to the terms of the offer just yet (I know that can be hard and anxiety-making. Don’t worry, they won’t withdraw it.) When you query, put something like this in your subject line: “Picture book Query — OFFER RECEIVED.” Believe me, you’ll catch a few eyes because it’s good news for both you and the prospective agent.

Since you have an offer on the table, the agent search won’t take too long. Agents tend to read things that have offers quickly, and picture books are easy to evaluate fast. I’d say that, if getting an agent is your eventual goal and you’re sure you’ll have one sooner or later, do it now while you can seem more attractive to them and rope them in from the first contract, not after it. There’s really not much reason not to.

Now, the agents I know are still taking picture books on but it’s tougher to attract an agent with a picture book than with a fiction manuscript, that’s true. Make sure you query people who deal in picture books or have in the past. When I’m evaluating a picture book author, I always ask them what else they have. Before I take one on, I like to know that this author has other manuscripts. I’d be less interested to take an author on who only has one or two picture book ideas in them. I want someone who has potential for a long and lucrative career, of course.

As for the deal itself, I do want to tell you that a) if you get an agent before you sign your contract, they will take 15% of the money you’ll earn and b) there will be a very limited number of things they’ll actually be able to do for you with this contract. Especially if you’ve already accepted, verbally or in writing, the offer. They might not be able to get you a better advance, but they probably will be able to negotiate better terms for you, like rights, options, royalties, etc than you would’ve gotten on your own. So you will lose some money in the short term but will most likely fare better in the long run with this particular book when you bring an agent aboard.

All that said, an offer in hand isn’t a magic bullet. The agent will still have to love you and your work enough to be your long-term advocate, for this deal and for those in the future. I wouldn’t take someone on automatically just because they have an offer. Overall, a good situation to be in. I’m obvious in favor of writers getting agents, but I’m also very much in favor of this particular scenario, since this is exactly how I got my first picture book author/illustrator client, who I love!

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  1. Elizabeth’s avatar

    Thank you so much! I feel a bit more calm and prepared now…well, as calm and prepared as one can when one is hoping to receive “The Big Call!”

    Elizabeth

  2. Von Allan’s avatar

    Hi there,

    I recently attended a SCBWI Agents’ Day conference here in Ottawa, Ontario that was attended by Mark McVeigh from The McVeigh Agency and Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh and Otis. This question actually came up in the post-talk Q&A and Necarsulmer IV pointed out a cautionary note. Because a writer is contacted an agent with an offer already in place, some more unscrupulous agents may decide to simply take the 15% regardless of their feelings about the author and/or the work in question. The problem, of course, is that it’s harder for an unagented author to tell what the agent is really thinking with this type of situation. If I’m remembering this correctly, he actually seemed to have quite a few misgivings about this situation as a result.

    As always, authors should do their due diligence as best they can. Making sure that the prospective agent is a member of the AAR (http://www.aaronline.org/) would seem to be even more important in this case.

  3. Buffy Andrews’s avatar

    Great post. I wondered about this, too. I am in a similar situation. And I think you make a great point that the agent will still have to love the writer and their work enough to be a long-term advocate. Hopefully, this would be just the beginning of a great relationship with a promising journey ahead for both agent and writer. As an editor, I know how important it is to have someone who believes in you and wants to help you do the best work of your life. And that goes far beyond book one. Again, thanks for the post. Awesomeness, Buffy

  4. Robyn Campbell’s avatar

    What a great post. I have dreamed about this scenario. :) I want to get an agent first (I write MG and picture books) because like you say, even though there are some agents representing picture books, they would rather have a novel to rep.

    It is just so hard to query agents for picture books. I want to get an agent for my book first and then ask them to place my picture books.

    Thanks for this great info, because it is something I wondered about. My crit partner and I have talked about it at our meetings.

  5. Clover Autrey’s avatar

    I’ve wondered about this myself, though either an agent or publisher expressing interest is totally awesome.

  6. beth’s avatar

    This is definitely good info to know. After attending a conference, I attracting the attention of an acquiring agent at Random House. It didn’t work out in the end–this was a few years ago, and I honestly just wasn’t knowledgeable enough–but I remember having those exact same questions and fears at the time. Of course, now I wish that was a problem I had! :)

  7. Mary’s avatar

    Thanks all for the comments! And Robyn, there’s still a possibility that you’ll find someone who reps picturebooks, it happens, but yes, you’re right, a novel is a meatier way to attract an agent. If you want to write across multiple kidlit markets, from picturebook to MG or YA, and you have a novel, try and cast that line out into the agentsphere and then maybe share the picturebook if the agent asks what else you have in mind for your career.

  8. jtuttle’s avatar

    Thanks for the really clear and concise information about how one goes about dealing with this kind of situation. I would love to be in the position of this author. Good luck to the author!

  9. MM’s avatar

    In this scenario, would it be considered inappropriate, after acquiring an agent, for that agent to pitch the project to other publishers in search of a better offer? Is there a ticking clock on the initial publisher’s offer?

    Also, what of the situation in which an author has queried publishers directly, received all rejections, and then acquires an agent? I’ve heard agents warn against direct querying of publishers, saying that in the case of all rejections, now the agent’s hands are rather tied and it’s much more difficult to find a publisher.

    Thanks!

  10. Mary’s avatar

    MM — Great questions. I made the answer into a post that’ll go up in January, after Revision-o-Rama. If you need the answer right away, email me. Thanks!

  11. Michelle Cusolito’s avatar

    I’m glad you posted this on FB today. I missed it the first time around.

    This is helpful advice. Thank you.

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