How to Approach a Literary Agent and Interpret Submission Guidelines

This answers a question that both Haylee and Siski asked a while ago, about how to approach a literary agent when you’ve got several projects kicking around your desk, and what to make of submission guidelines. Lots and lots of writers have multiple projects that they’ve completed. This is even more true for picture book writers, who may have 20 or more manuscripts. If this is the case for you, read on.

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Wondering how to approach a literary agent and what goes into the envelope? The submission guidelines are a great place to start.

How to Approach a Literary Agent When You Have a Lot of Ideas

The problem is, if they are beginning writers, those 20 manuscripts likely have some of the same issues. If I look at a manuscript that someone has queried me with and it lacks a strong character, for example, or a strong plot, or the voice is wrong, or there’s a lack of active language, or there’s no scene setting, seeing that the author has 19 more, hot off the press and ready to go, isn’t going to be a draw for me. Plus, if a writer is sending me that much, they’re not following submission guidelines. If they were all written around the same time, or even before the one I’m looking at currently, they’re likely suffering from the same issues as the first manuscript. (Querying multiple projects is quite a problematic way of how to approach a literary agent to begin with. Learn why.)

Every time you sit down to write, you are getting better. You’re learning. Sometimes it takes writing an entire novel-length manuscript to teach you a valuable lesson about your own craft. And sometimes, that lesson won’t get published. Sometimes, in fact, it takes five manuscripts, ten manuscripts, twenty, for you to feel your way around the novel form. The same is true for picture books. In fact, it’s even more true. Picture books are deceptively simple and it is awfully hard to make a great one. Lots of people think otherwise, and happily churn out an entire slew of drafts. I think it’s more reasonable to see your early work and your early, prolific output as more of an exercise rather than a finished product. As such, I don’t want to see all of your exercises in my inbox. Per my submission guidelines, I want to see your single stronger project at first any way. Some practice is better left for your eyes only.

Submission Guidelines for Prolific Writers

If you get the itch to query and you’ve got multiple projects, query  with your absolutely strongest one. I read thousands and thousands and thousands of queries and manuscripts. I can tell where an author is from looking at their work. Not every project — especially not the ones you wrote when you were still beginning and figuring things out — will sell. Show me only your strongest work. If I’m considering taking you on, I’ll be asking about your future projects and what else you have in mind, since those will more likely be even better. I will very rarely say, “Hey, do you have any problematic drawer novels I can sell?” unless you are a 12 out of 10 genius. Wondering how to approach a literary agent? With your best work, period.

Agents really dislike it, actually, when people send a stable of their work on first contact. I wish that was featured in more submission guidelines. Pick the best one. If I want to see more, I’ll ask. This is especially pertinent to picture book authors. If I like the project they query with, I always want to make sure they have at least two more that I love before I take them on.

Bonus Tip: If you query an agent and get rejected, wait at least 6 months before querying them — of anyone — with a different project. Some submission guidelines even say that. Per my thinking above, the new thing you send me is most likely going to have the same issues that I noticed when I just rejected your first project. If you send out a project and it garners lots of rejections and little personalized or positive feedback, the cure isn’t jumping back into querying with a different project. The smarter thing to do would be to go back to the drawing board for a while and work on craft.

If you have a lot of projects on your plate, let me help you zero in on the ones with the most potential, especially you picture book writers. I guide writers through bigger picture questions all the time as a book editor.

WooHoo!

I’m a little late posting this but that doesn’t mean I’m any less excited. I’m so thrilled for my author/illustrator client, Lindsay Ward, and her first author/illustrator project, PELLY AND MR. HARRISON VISIT THE MOON. It’s going to be a really fun story… and gorgeous art, of course! You can visit her website here: Lindsay’s Bake Shop. I can’t wait until 2011. My first projects will be coming out then and it’ll be so fantastic to finally hold a client’s book in my hands and see them in stores!

pelly

When You Get an Offer

This is the situation every querying writer is looking forward to: getting an offer of representation from an agent. Awesome. Now what? Well, I want to write several posts on this issue, but here’s the first thing you need to do… let other agents know.

Don’t let every agent you queried know — let only the agents who have responded with a partial request, a full request, or any other kind of encouraging sign, and have not given you their decision yet. The only exception is with a picture book submission, where you’ve queried with a full manuscript. Since you sent the full manuscript, contact all the agents you queried. Write them the following email and put “OFFER RECEIVED” in the subject line:

Dear Mary,

I know you’re still reading BOOK TITLE but I wanted to let you know that I’ve received an offer of representation. I’d like to see if you’re also interested in the project. Please get back to me by X day and let me know. I look forward to hearing from you!

Author

Give the agent a week to respond. Within the day, you should hear back from agents. They’ll either say, “Yes, I’m still reading and will get back to you within the week” or, “You know, I should probably step aside at this point.” Then you wait for the agents who still want to consider to either bow out or toss their hats into the ring. But yes, let them know immediately. It’s not being pushy. Someone already sees the value in your work, so you can call attention to yourself in this situation.

I hope all of you get to experience this and have one of the most exciting weeks of your career so far!

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since manuscript length really is on writers’ minds. I almost hesitate to get into the children’s book length discussion publicly because it can be controversial. But, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

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That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

Here’s the question:

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript length is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? How long should a children’s book be? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, at any given time, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

When Manuscript Length Is an Issue

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your children’s book length is anything over 100k, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your darlings,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscript Length

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Children’s Book Length

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted manuscript length word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some ballpark and maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 100 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 400 words max
  • Picture Book — 600 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picture Book — 3,000 words max, but closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words
  • Early Reader — 1,500 words is the max
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level, usually starting at 4,000 words and 15,000 words max
  • Young Middle Grade or MG — 15,000 to 25,000 words
  • Middle Grade or MG — 45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
  • Upper Middle Grade — 65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.
  • New Adult — 65,000 to 85,000 words

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience.  If a manuscript length goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. The categories below middle grade are chapter book and early reader, and you can read about them in a different article. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

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!

Rhyming Picture Books: A Rhyme With Reason

There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.