When I attended the 44th SCBWI Summer Conference back in 2015, I had no idea just how much I would learn. I tried to distil some of these learnings in a first post entitled: 7 tips for writing picture books. In this post, I focus on 7 tips when submitting your work to editors and agents.
(SCBWI stands for Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. If you are a picture book writer or illustrator and never heard of them, do look them up!)
The following 7 tips stem straight from the horses’ mouth, i.e. editors, agents, as well as seasoned authors attending the SCBWI conference.
So, let’s gets started!
My top 7 tips when submitting to editors and agents:
Lessons from the 44th SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles (2015)
Tip # 1. Research your agents and editors well before submitting.
I somehow hoped there was a secret industry code that all agents and editors shared when it came to submissions, queries, illustrator’s notes, etc. There wasn’t!
Every editor and agent was different. One had no issues with illustrator’s notes if used sparingly. Another one hated them with a passion. One looked for stories which tackled issues children were facing. Another one looked for commercial themes and escapism. And so, the only way to know editors’ and agents’ likes and dislikes, is research, research, and more research.
Attending conferences and webinars gives you an excellent insight into their preferences. As do their Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, websites, and so on.
Tip # 2. Don’t submit to an agent or editor before you have at least 3-4 finalised picture book manuscripts.
This one was an eye opener for me! I was under the impression that if I could at least bring one picture book to a satisfactory completion, I could start querying. Boy, was I wrong!
Every single agent and editor said that if they liked your submission, they will ask you to show them more of your work. Why? Because editors and agents are interested in your long-term potential, rather than a one-time wonder. Hence the importance to have a strong body of work ready to be shown.
This tip also implies that you gotta keep writing new stories. Don’t just revise!
Authors gave the following advice:
- Don’t edit as you write. Finish your draft first before you start revising. If you get stuck somewhere, make a comment or a side note to come back to it, but keep writing!
- Once you finish the first draft, set it aside for a while. Then, pick it up again and start editing.
- After a few rounds of edits, set it aside once more. Write a second book. Then set that one aside, and go back to your first book to finalise.
- Remember that revision is not an extension of your story. Don’t be shy to delete, re-write, or re-invent completely.
I realise today that none of my manuscripts are ever truly “final”. But with time, I’ve started sensing when a manuscript felt “done for now”, ready to see the world; and when I just needed to let it sit for a while longer – like a good wine – so I can re-discover it with fresh perspectives.
When an agent or editor rejects, they reject the story, not you!
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Tip # 3. When an agent or editor rejects, they reject the story, not you!
Some of the reasons why agents or editors may reject a story:
- There are too many issues with the plot and they are not sure how best to fix it.
- They don’t feel they have the right advice or vision for you to help you sell your work.
- The proposed manuscript does not fit with their existing list.
The vast majority of my rejections fell into category 2 & 3, which is not a bad place to be I guess. It still does not sell my books, though! 🙂
I have learned over the years not to take the lack of feedback or rejection letters personally. This is a business, and if agents or editors don’t think they can sell your work, they will pass.
Tip # 4. Small presses are awesome.
- They work much more quickly. A picture book can happen in a year versus three years at a big press.
- They are willing to take more risks.
- The relationship with the staff involved in your book is much more intimate and collaborative. For e.g., you may actually have a say in who the illustrator is.
- They are happy to receive both agented and un-agented submissions.
Having said that, they are also more likely to go belly up or be acquired by a “big publishing fish”. So, in my experience, you really need to research them well. Some of these small presses are amazing, like the two highlighted above. Others have some doggy practices. So do your research! Writer beware or Preditors & Editors can be good places to start.
Tip # 5. Agented or Un-agented? That is the question!
Opinions during the conference were varied. My take was that having an agent can be an advantage:
- They are your door to editors who only accept agented submissions.
- They have an established relationship with many editors.
- They often help you edit/polish your work before submitting to an editor.
- They will ensure you get the best “deal” possible. And they will fight to make sure you, the author, hold as many rights as possible.
If you do choose an agent, it’s critical you understand what kind of agent they are. Do they focus on the sale of the book, or are they also editorial agents? Are they mainly project managers or are they also a bit of a therapist and hand-holder? It’s a bit like marriage: aim for a great fit!
It’s also quite common to change agents. So unlike marriage (hopefully), you are not expected to stay together for life.
My experience is that it’s quite hard to find an agent as a debut author. So often times, you may end up querying editors yourself, and once you’ve received an offer, then you start shopping for an agent to help you seal the deal.
Having said, there are as many opinions on the value of an agent as there are authors, so I would love to hear how you’ve experienced that process so far.
You don’t need a social media presence to succeed
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Tip # 6. You don’t need a social media presence to succeed, but you do need a website!
This was one of Barry Goldblatt’s key teachings, owner of Barry Goldblatt agency (and a fabulous personality by the way!). His advice: Have a social media presence if you know how to do it and you enjoy it. But it’s not a must for every author.
A must is to have an updated website.
I did try having a twitter account for a while, as this is where you can read about an agent’s or editor’s list, and can take part in all kinds of #Submissions. Having said that, none of these brought fruition for me. In one of those Twitter hashtag “parties”, I did get contacted by a small press and offered a somewhat doggy contract, which I respectfully declined. Right now, I am on none of these social platforms. I found the whole “keeping up” stressful and overwhelming, so I closed my account. And I don’t regret it.
So, if you enjoy social media and are on some of these platforms anyway, go for it! If not, don’t fret…. Do what comes naturally to you.
Tip # 7. You are not unpublished, but “pre-published”.
This was, Executive Director of SCBWI, Lin Oliver’s gold nugget and I loved it!
Today, I wholeheartedly embrace my author status, whether published or not. And I wholeheartedly embrace my pre-published status, because I know that one day I will be. 🙂
And if you are a published author and someone asks you: “Would I have heard of you”. Meg Wolitzer, Adult and Middle Grade novelist, recommends you to say: “In a more just world!”.
“Children are the best readers and they deserve the best books” – Mac Barnett
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
What has been your own experience querying and submitting your work to editors & agents? I’d love to hear what tips or insights you’ve gained through your own experience. So do share in a comment below.
If you enjoyed these 7 tips for submitting to editors and agents, you may also enjoy my first post on 7 tips when writing picture books.
- Book: Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2020 – a yearly publication to find literary agencies and publishers in the children’s book market
- Website: Writer beware – a very helpful site whose mission is to “track, expose and raise awareness of questionable, illicit and/or nonstandard practices” in the publishing world
- Website: Preditors & Editors – similar mission to Writer beware. Their website is down at the moment, but you can visit their Facebook page
- Website: Publishers Weekly – Children’s Bookshelf – a helpful resource on “world children books news”
- Website: Picture Book Planet – a helpful compilation of resources for children’s book writers and illustrators
- My first post on 7 tips for writing picture books