Finding a Literary Agent When You Write For Multiple Audiences

Reader Jenn has asked a great question about finding a literary agent. It’s one I get asked a lot and one I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about yet. Read on:

How would you advise authors to select an agent if they know they’d like to write for two different audiences? Since my current WIP and many other concepts on my “to write” docket are MG and YA focused, I can really see the benefit of finding a literary agent who focuses on those markets. But does that focus mean that those agents won’t represent anything their clients write for an adult demographic? Do those writers then have two agents, one for each market?

finding a literary agent
When finding a literary agent, be upfront if you intend to write for multiple audiences.

This is a rather advanced question, but writers seem to love it, so here’s an answer that will, I hope, satisfy your curiosity. I haven’t been in this situation yet, but this is what I’ve observed at Andrea Brown and at other agencies.

Multiple Audiences and the Literary Agent Search: Considerations

Only Query Agents Who Represent Multiple Audiences

One idea is nipping this situation in the bud during the querying stage of your literary agent search. In other words, query those agents who you know represent all the genres you want to write, for all the audiences that excite you (picture books, middle grade, young adult, adult, non-fiction, whatever). This is why  AgentQuery.com. is a great tool for finding a literary agent. In the Advanced Search, you can tick off all your areas of interest, and the database will return only those agents who represent everything you want.

There are plenty of agents and agencies who are generalists, meaning they represent all genres and cater to all audiences. Sure, you may be shutting yourself out of some options (those who represent children’s books only, like my colleagues and me, say), but if you want to avoid potential headache down the road, you can be extra careful in terms of sending query letters to agents.

But not all writers know where their careers will take them at the beginning. A writer could be convinced that they only want to write picture books. So they think they’re being totally reasonable and they go with a picture book agent. Then they wake up in the middle of the night with an adult book idea, and they have a conundrum on their hands. What happens then?

Ask Your Current Agent To Branch Out

There are two options. The first one is that the agent will try and sell the adult project, too. Will this work? Maybe. If the agent has adult experience or if they have colleagues with adult experience, they could nurture some connections and get your manuscript to the right people. Will every client have this kind of service from their agent? Maybe. It depends on how much your agent knows about the new market, and how well they can judge the merits of your work. Some clients will be able to get their agent out on a limb. Others will not. Several of my colleagues have clients whose adult work they’ve sold, but that has been on a case by case basis, and it doesn’t happen often. For me, I know it would take an absolutely amazing project to coax me into the adult sphere. I’ll have the connections and will be able to mine colleagues for information, but it’s not my natural habitat. Ask me in a few years, when I’ve done it myself.

The leap from picture book to, say, young adult, as long as it’s under the umbrella of children’s books in general, is easier than the leap that an agent takes when going from children’s books to adult. When going between children’s markets, agents tend to be more flexible for their clients. But, again, on a case by case basis. There are those who say, “I don’t care, I’ll represent anything you write,” and those who say, “I don’t know, I really do like to stick with my specialties.”

Getting a Second Agent

Which brings me to the second option: finding a literary agent to represent what your current one will not. Let’s keep using the children’s project vs. adult project example. This second option can work out swimmingly, but it can also get messy. What if no adult agent wants your project? What if you sign with an adult agent, but they start getting interested in your children’s work, too, and want to represent your whole portfolio? How will the two agents share you?

We agents love our clients, or we wouldn’t be working with them. When we’re forced to split with another agent, the following conflicts can evolve: what if my client likes the other agent better? When will the client write something I can sell? What if my client keeps writing only adult books? What happens if the idea started out as a children’s book under our editorial guidance, but grew into an adult book, and now the adult agent gets to sell it? Things have the potential to become territorial quickly. (For more on this topic, see my post on having more than one literary agent.)

There are lots of times when the second option has worked out well. One agent has no interest in adult, the other has no interest in children’s, they tip their hats at each other and go about their business. The first option works, too. You and your agent will venture into a new arena and, ideally, learn something and sell some books.

Finding a Literary Agent: Consider Your Options Carefully

As I said before, you don’t know where your career will lead you. If you’re dead convinced that you want to work in many different areas, I wager you’ll still be surprised at some point, but you’re free to pursue a literary agent search that will be able to serve all of your needs. If you happen upon a drastically different project down the line, cross that bridge when you come to it. Check in with your agent, gauge your relationship, and consider your options. Now you know what they are.

Since this is one of those “one day” concerns, I’d just say to query a carefully chosen list of agents with your absolute strongest project. Let them know of your other interests, if they exist, and go from there. If you approach the search with careful consideration. finding a literary agent will be a smoother process.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

15 Replies to “Finding a Literary Agent When You Write For Multiple Audiences”

  1. This is something I’ve also wondered about. Though for me, I was more concerned about genre than, say, Adult versus YA. Great post and great answers, thank you!

  2. Jenn Jones says:

    Thank you, Mary! My fiance added another suggestion to the list: “Just change all your adult ideas into YA ideas.” As it’s surprisingly easy to do so, I might just go for that one! I like the idea of working with an agent who is passionate about her specialization. Maybe it’s beneficial to be an author who is equally passionate about it.

  3. Thank you for this post! And thank you for the question. It would probably be pretty hard for me to branch out of YA but, like you say, you never know where your career is going to lead you! 🙂

  4. Great post. There’s also the fact you might find yourself liking a particular genre less, if you get really into another one. That’s what’s happened to me. Despite having success in the adult non-fiction market, and none in children’s fiction, I find myself working on kids’ stories every minute I can. Writing the adult stuff just doesn’t give me a buzz, even though I know it’s easier to sell. My (adult) agent noticed and needed to know if I was still committed to the adult stuff. I’m still not entirely sure… It helps if you are!

  5. Mary, this is a post I have been waiting all my writing life for.

    Thanks for the insight. I guess even though it means you’ll be querying a narrower range of people, it’s better to start with the best-fit agents.

    I have a similar question to Kelly York – even my PBs run the gamut from funny/quirky to quiet and serious, and my novels are paranormals (so far), and my chapter books are quirky urban fantasy. I kep finding agents who love quirky PBs but say that they hate the quieter serious ones, or some such. It’s hard to know where to go.

  6. Thank you for posting and answering this question. As a writer who has yet to break into the published world, but who has done a lot of research, this is the trickiest part of it all – who can I go to and where should I look if I write in any and all genres. Many thanks for your advice!

  7. Thank you for answering this question. I have an online presence for pbs, but I started out years ago writing an MG novel, then a few chapters of a YA novel. I think it important not to label yourself early in case you do broaden your scope.

  8. This laid a good foundation for considering the issue. Thanks.

  9. And let me add my thanks! It’s good to get some reassurance that you don’t HAVE to know ahead of time exactly where your career will take you. Since none of us (that I know of) are prognosticators, this can be good advice for every writer out there.

    Rachel Heston Davis

  10. Great post. I write both adult romance and YA, and was hoping that when the time came to work with an agent, I wouldn’t have to choose one genre exclusively. Your posts are very down to earth, and help to dispel the fear of agents that many unsigned writers have. Once again, thank you for the insight.

  11. Maureen St. Charles says:

    Thanks for the great post!

    My dilemma stems from the contrast of YA (and possibly Middle Grades) versus “very adult”.

    To explain, I am (was? I’m currently on leave to write) an 8th Grade teacher, and have always worked with YA/adult fic, but encountered a very unusual opportunity to write a book for/with a male adult film star. It began as a ghostwriting job, and turned into a piece in BOTH our voices, as we thought the “teacher/pornstar” contrast would be interesting, and that the “average Joe/Jane” would relate to seeing his world through my eyes. Maureen St. Charles is a pen name, and we’d always planned that the performer would do all the “promotional stuff”, so I just presumed that I would write all other works under my own name and move on. We had an agent for the manuscript, and he was fine with me searching for other representation for any YA works that would eventually be completed, as he didn’t rep YA.

    But we parted ways with that agent after a year, and (as I climb the query hill again – SO MUCH TRICKIER after a book has already had representation, even if it was barely shopped, agents see it as “tarnished goods”)–I am trying to take into consideration the projects that I have been working on since that journey began – and both are YA fic!

    You can see the issue – I’m not just looking for someone who reps YA and adult, I’m looking for someone who reps “risky” (“risque”?) enough material that they will touch something to do with a taboo industry, and might consider future manus for kids and teens! Or someone who reps books for the younger set that is not afraid of the backlash that could come about as a result of a more “taboo” book being on their roster. (And I know that agents also have to keep everyone at their agency in mind when they consider this). I also have concerns that agents might later not want to touch my work for kids/teens if my only other published work out there happens to be with a pornstar! (I very carefully kept that first manu quiet in order to protect my teaching career, and am not sure if I will return to teaching just yet, but I KNOW the stigma attached to the industry, and though I don’t judge the people who work within it, it would be very frustrating to see one book take away my chances at writing where I think my love truly lies (with the audience I know best – kids and teens).

    As of late, I have been mulling over shelving that “adult” project, and just focusing on my new works, but also feel I owe it to my partner in that book (the performer) to keep trying. I also feel that its publication might lead me towards other ghostwriting opportunities – an avenue I’d like to explore.

    Yet I can’t help but wonder if that manu could simply do me more harm than good. That if I was lucky enough to get a YA/MG work out there, and the pornstar book came out either before or after (with pen names easily dissolved/seen through as they often are), would parents/teachers/librarians simply be unable to see past the fact that all I did was write a book for an adult performer, not share their lifestyle, and then be able to buy a YA book I’d written? I know that as a teacher I was expected to be a role model, and I think the same would be said of someone writing for a youth market. I likely would have lost my job had it come to light that I’d written that book, and wonder if it could lose me a publishing deal as well (or cause a relationship with a pub house or agent to sour if that book hit shelves later…)

    So…thoughts from anyone who may have read this far?
    **The pornstar himself doesn’t really get how the lit biz works (in his industry, deals – and movies! – are made in A DAY), and because of the time that has passed, he literally “gave up”on any idea of the project making it to shelves long ago, so if I did shelve it, he’d just roll his eyes and keep on doing his own thing. But I put a LOT of time into writing it, querying (and now re-querying!), and just don’t know…

    That being said, I’ve heard it said a million times, “sometimes you just have to let go of a manuscript and move on”.


  12. Thank you so much for your perspective on this topic, Mary. I have wondered, as many other writers here have, about this exact situation. Your thoughts have been reassuring and helpful.

  13. This is great Mary, thanks! I’m late commenting, so I don’t know if you’ll see this, but for authors who already write for two audiences, would you recommend mentioning this in the query letter, or waiting until talks with the agent get more serious before bringing it up?

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