Do I Need An Agent? (Or A Blog About the Life of a Submission, in Three Acts)

Is there a five-word sentence in the children’s book industry more capable of sparking a debate than “Do I need an agent”? (Maybe: “Is publishing dead or not?” It’s not dead, but I digress.)

In this post, you and I will go through the steps of a submission, from researching agencies to signing on the dotted line—while having a bit of a heart-to-heart along the way.

I also ask six well-respected agents to share their thoughts by answering three questions.

By the end of this post, you may finally have the answer to: “Do I need an agent?” 

WHAT’S AN AGENT?

For art directors, editors, and publishers, an agent is foremost a problem-solver. Need an author or illustrator? An agent delivers. Need manuscripts and art to stay on schedule? An agent delivers. A good agent is one who helps move a project forward. They step in when needed. They step out when not needed.

Agents are curators. Before we see illustration samples or book pitches, we know that the agent has worked hard to make sure their client’s best foot is forward. Like coaches, good agents get the best out of you.

For an author or illustrator, most of the benefits of having an agent are fairly obvious. They operate on your behalf, ever focused on your career. They open doors to opportunities. They lead the cheer for you. They help you skip that much-maligned slush pile. (Though slush piles get an undeservedly bad reputation. Again, I digress.)

Yes, you pay agents a fee, and that fee could be fairly substantial, depending on the agent. But agents help your creative growth in more ways than the obvious. And the value of that growth far exceeds the fees.

STEP 1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Let’s take a journey together. Let’s submit your work to an agent. 

When looking for an agent, it’s important to do your homework. What does that mean? You have to be a detective. Get the facts. Find out who’s working in the field. Start with illustrators you admire. Who reps them? Read industry magazines and blogs. When was the last time you checked out Publishers Weekly’s Rights Report? Listen to podcasts. Follow agents on social media. Read their interviews. If you can, meet them at conferences. Hear what they have to say. Visit their websites, where they explain who they are and what they want. 

One size does not fit all. Each agent, even within the same agency, has their own ideas of what defines good writing and good illustration. It’s important to identify who you think are good matches. Some agents are boutiques. Others are big box stores. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. Either way, look for agents who show an appreciation for your visual aesthetic. Familiarize yourself with their accomplishments. How active are they in the industry? And so on.

A word of warning: There is such a thing as a bad agent. There’s that one who doesn’t communicate. The one who allows ego to influence their decisions. The snob. The one who uses righteous indignation and insults as means to an end.

So how will you know the bad from the good? 

  1. Ask around. Maybe the hardest method, but people do talk . . .

  2. Follow your instincts. If you don’t get a good feeling from them in any correspondence, your gut is trying to tell you something.

  3. Experience. This is why it’s so important to make sure there’s a termination clause in your contract.

Rest assured, there are far, far fewer of these agents out there. But they are out there.

STEP 2: READ. SUBMISSION. GUIDELINES.

You did the homework. You’ve identified fifteen to twenty agents. Don’t send your work to all of them at once. Stagger it. Submit to five. Wait for a response. Repeat. 

Before you submit: Read their guidelines. Your submission to agents isn’t an Instagram post that’s totes gonna get likes. And it isn’t cute if you don’t follow the rules. To be taken seriously, read the (damn) guidelines. 

You should know, agents are not going to comment right away (if at all). Practice professional patience and persistence. If you don’t hear from them after a month or so, gently check in. If you still don’t hear from them, move on. 

Agents aren’t just sitting by the phone, hoping to get your submission. They are the busiest bees in the hive. They’re reading. They’re pitching. They’re meeting. They're signing. They're publicizing. They're Skyping. They’re traveling. They’re negotiating. They’re defending. And that’s just on Monday.

If they do get back to you, expect a rejection . . . HOLD IT! Let’s stop using that word “rejection.” Try for a moment to think of it as objective criticism. You didn’t receive a “rejection letter.” You received a “critique letter.” It sounds so much better, doesn’t it? It sounds less hurtful. Feeling hurt inflates our ego, which clouds self-awareness, which stunts creative improvement. 

Look, even I’ve received “critique letters.” Several of them. It’s all right. In each case, they pointed out issues in my work that I knew were there but refused to recognize. These letters are just steps on the path. Keep walking. 

WHY DO YOU WANT AN AGENT, ANYWAY? 

Okay! Your work has been submitted! While we’re waiting on the agent’s response, can I ask you why you want an agent? 

“I want an agent to help me . . . get work . . .” Stop right there. It isn’t as automatic as you think. Let me give you examples from two of your colleagues:

True Story #1:

“I signed with an agent thinking that they would get me work right away. When I signed, it was very exciting. They told me they were going to focus on getting me into the industry I love: children’s books. I sent them some dummies, some promotional pieces. But I didn’t get the level of attention I was expecting. After about a year, and no work, I asked to break our agreement. They agreed almost immediately. I went back to the drawing board.”

True Story #2:

“I signed with an agent, thinking that they would get me consistent work. I thought if I signed with an agent, I could just focus on making art.”

Me: “How many jobs did they get for you over the past year?”

Them: “One.”

Unfortunately, misconceptions and assumptions related to the job description of an agent are rife in the illustration community. They’re not your servants. They’re not your parents. Once you sign with an agent, you don’t just sit back and wait for the jobs to roll in. You still need to hustle. In a way, you still need to be your own agent.

I’ve heard illustrators say they want an agent so they don’t have to deal with marketing and contracts and the non-drawing-and-painting aspects of illustration. They say they’re “not good at that stuff.” You still need to be good at that stuff—or at least have an informed understanding of it. Your agent can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting.

DING! I see you have an email from an agent. They want to represent you?! WAIT! Before you sign, let’s talk some more.

STEP 3: BEFORE YOU SIGN

If an agent is interested in representing you, under no circumstances should you simply say, “Great! Where do I sign?” Read their agreement. Take time with it. If you can, find a contract professional to read it. Ask questions. Look at the length of the agreement. Can you terminate the contract if things go south? Look at what they’ll do for you versus what you’ll have to do for yourself. Most things are negotiable. Not everything—but most.

Look, I get it, man. It feels good to say, “I have an agent.” It’s legitimizing. It feels like you’ve made it. Your friends will congratulate you. Your parents, who aren’t quite sure what you do, certainly know what agents do—and that will make them happy. But the absolute wrong thing to do is blindly sign an agreement.

The second-worst thing to do is to rest on your laurels. You still need to work hard, improve your craft, increase your self-awareness. Signing with an agent is just one step on an endless staircase.

Okay! You’re about to sign with an agent. Congratulations! Now, let me tell you why you don’t need one.

FOR SALE BY OWNER

Can you do it without an agent? Sure you can. It all depends on who you are, and what you want. Agents help a career in ways beyond even my understanding. But they’re not the only key to the door. 

What percentage of art directors go to agents first to find illustrators? I don’t know. It’s not 100 percent, I can tell you that. It may not even be 50 percent. Today, the tools that art directors use to find illustrators are too numerous to list. Postcards, social media, industry events, bespoke product platforms, blogs, galleries, magazines, and store visits are all tools in a rapidly growing toolbox. Agencies are still in there, but the box is getting more crowded all the time. 

I hear the comparison that the agent-client relationship is like a marriage. No, it’s not. I mean, you’re not their only client. You don’t have their undivided attention. Not really. The coach-player analogy is much more accurate. They’re the coach. You’re the player—one of many players on his or her team. This is both a positive and a negative: As a coach, they help your career. But, as an individual player, you aren’t the only one they need to help.

Someone asked me once, “Do you only hire artists who have agents?” Not in the slightest. The answer might be a little different for our editorial colleagues with writers. And I can think of one or two art directors who look down their nose at the unrepresented. For me (and I suspect the majority of art directors), it makes no difference whatsoever. Insofar as the quality of your work is good, I don’t care if you have an agent or not. 

A major plus of not having an agent is the money saved. If you need contractual help, you can find an attorney who would only charge a one-time fee. If you have questions, you can build your own network of colleagues who may have the answers. With the amount of information available to us through articles, workshops, podcasts, and the like, it takes just a bit of elbow grease to figure things out. I’m reminded of my father-in-law, who spends three hours fixing a leak instead of calling a plumber who could do it in one. It’s not easy to do it yourself, but it is possible.

The irony is that by doing it yourself, by finding some amount of success on your own, you become more attractive to . . . you guessed it: agents.

THREE QUESTIONS 

An agent said to me, “If you think having an agent doesn’t give you a distinct advantage, you’re crazy.” It depends on the agent and the artist, but I tend to agree with her. The greatest advantage (good) agents provide is knowledge. Think about it: They meet with the editors and art directors at many publishing houses—always learning what they want and don’t want; always given inside looks into publishing plans, present and future; always gaining further insight into who loosens or tightens the purse strings. They understand the nuances of contracts—foreign rights, royalty escalation clauses, merchandising (how much would you charge for ringtones?), etc.

Let’s tap into that knowledge. I’ve asked agents James Burns, Kirsten Hall, Jennifer Linnan, Alexandra Penfold, Linda Pratt, and Erica Rand Silverman three simple questions. Here are their answers:

James Burns, Senior Agent, Bright Group US
Twitter: @BrightBurns

What do you look for in a submission? 
When looking for the first time at an artist’s portfolio, I like to see a cross section of their work. The main reasoning behind this stems from the fact that what an artist feels is their strongest work is not necessarily what the agent would agree is best for the market. Regardless, I like to seek out three main strengths any time I review a portfolio: storytelling ability, consistency, and confidence. 

What is one misconception about agents?
An age-old misconception originates from a simple question—how can we give equal quality, time, and support to more than one artist? 

It is my belief that it comes from the onboarding process. When an artist joins Bright—and here I can only speak about Bright—an artist’s dreams and ambition must be aligned with those of the agency. This enables us to put a plan in place before the first portfolio sheet is made. An agent will intuit which clients are going to respond well to the artist’s work, and this becomes the first port of call for an illustration agent when initially pitching, sharing, and presenting the portfolio to commissioning clients. The agent then dedicates energy and resources to get that first commission. Once that commission has been accepted, the ball is then in motion. 

Why do I (acting as an author or illustrator) need an agent?
The answer to this is clear to me: because it plays to strengths. The cycle of creating successful titles is like putting on a play—everyone must work to the best of their abilities. Authors pen manuscripts, artists are creators, agents have insight and continued relationships, editors and art directors have the vision.

Any agent worth their weight is in a position of privilege given that we see a bird’s-eye view of the industry, have a fantastic understanding of the publishing houses (in particular what the editors and art directors are looking for), and a deep understanding of imprint lists—which may not be obvious from looking online or at backlist titles. When an agent is pitching or submitting the work, it is my belief that the success rate is so much higher. It is a precise and qualified process, rather than an independent, possibly unpublished artist spread betting their work across editors and art directors who they do not know apart from an impression of them through social media. 

Agents have their finger on the pulse and understand the rhythm of publishing. We’re able to spot trends before they enter the marketplace, and this knowledge becomes invaluable in ensuring that your portfolio is as current and fresh as possible. The overwhelming advantage in having this knowledge is proven when we come to share new work; it cuts through the noise and competition. 

Kirsten Hall, Founder, Catbird Agency 
Twitter: @HallWaysKirsten

What do you look for in a submission?
I like two kinds of submissions. 1) Those that reflect soulfulness and deep consideration. I like to feel as if someone is sharing with me, not just shopping to me. It’s an honor to see a piece of a creator’s heart inside a proposal’s DNA. And I’m stirred by pitches that elicit feelings of sympathy or empathy. 2) Those that somehow present the world differently. A coin is flipped on its head. I’m reading from an unconventional point of view. Or familiar content has been made unrecognizable. I like being asked to see or think about the world divergently. Queries about books that don’t conform, but rather provoke, excite me.

What is one misconception about agents?
I can only speak for agents in the children’s book industry, but I’m continually heartened and humbled by the camaraderie between kidlit agents. Many of us are friends. We’re a tight-knit community! We share with one another, we lean on each other. I love my fellow kidlit agents, and I honestly believe we root for each other and celebrate each other’s successes. It might seem strange in another industry to see such interagency fellowship, but it feels right for those who’ve made a career in making books for kids. Our hearts are very much in the right place.

Why do I (acting as an author or illustrator) need an agent?
Agents wear many important hats. We’re allies, strategists, friends, supervisors, listeners, managers, organizers, brainstorming partners. We have invaluable industry insights and connections. But we’re also different from one another; we shine in different ways. All I can say is find the right agent for you, and you won’t regret it.

Jennifer Linnan, Founder, Linnan Literary Management
Twitter: @jenlinnan

What do you look for in a submission?
Illustrators contact me at all different points in their careers, and for different reasons—some are interested in getting more freelance illustration work, some have a children’s book, comic series, or graphic novel they’d like to pitch, and some are simply looking for advice or assistance with their current clients (which could be as disparate as an indie musician and a behemoth advertising agency). The one thing I look for across the board in a submission is a clean, professional-looking portfolio site! A thoughtful, personalized query letter does a lot, and obviously if I connect with an art sample or a pitch, it’s a win, but even then my decision ultimately hinges on what that person’s web presence looks like. When I offer representation, ideally I’d like to be in it for the long haul—which means I want to really know who I’m signing up to work with: Do they have other work that’s equally enticing? Is it consistent? Even a Twitter or Instagram account can satisfy these questions, but if I look someone up and find nothing, it leaves me looking for more, and often, looking elsewhere.

What is one misconception about agents?
That we’re glamorous, haughty gatekeepers! I mean, maybe some of us are glamorous, but that aside, of the agents I know (myself included) this couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s already much greater access to the publishing house in the illustration world (versus for writers, who often are barred by company policy from submitting their work directly). Part of my job is to break down any remaining barriers, not to guard them—to make introductions, to get more eyes on clients’ work. I’m the person throwing up the grappling hook, not the one pouring down hot oil.

Why do I (acting as an author or illustrator) need an agent?
As mentioned, making a career for oneself in the illustration world can be 100 percent DIY, and many people are great at being self-advocates, negotiating, managing the finances and paperwork, and/or marketing themselves as a commodity/business. Not everyone excels at all of these, or enjoys it! I always advise illustrators who are just starting out to identify what they can and/or want to do, and outsource the rest. If tabling at a convention and pitching your work to passersby feels like your worst nightmare, bring your most outgoing friend. If you find that other aspects of managing your career are getting in the way of actually creating, an agent can help shoulder the burden.

All that being said, my bottom-line, if-you’re-on-the-fence answer is much more straightforward: CONTRACTS. Having someone on your side who can not only advocate for better terms (and knows what the industry standards are) but also navigate all the legalese with you is key, especially if you’re not well-versed. There are a ton of resources out there that can help you DIY here, too, but it’s often the omissions in a contract that people don’t see. A good contract should cover not only the essential points of the job/deal but also the worst-case scenarios: What if your client doesn’t pay? What if you can’t deliver the work on time? What if you want to get your rights back? Good agents know which parts of the contract are flexible (and which shouldn’t be).

Alexandra Penfold, Agent, Upstart Crow Literary
Twitter: @agentpenfold

What do you look for in a submission?
The very best in art and literature reveals something real and true about ourselves, and children’s books are no exception. When I’m looking at a submission, I want something that makes me feel and makes me think, and most of all, makes me want to read it again. I still remember the first time I read Jessixa Bagley’s dummy submission. It was after the 2013 SCBWI NY conference. She had been in my session and introduced herself at the end and mentioned that she was sending me her dummy. The story was called Drift, and it was about a little beaver named Buckley who lives with his mama and makes these beautiful and intricate boats to send off to sea to his absent father. I read it and I cried. And I read it again and I cried again. And sometime between crying, I offered Jessixa representation. Since it was published as Boats for Papa by Neal Porter Books in 2015, I have read it and cried again and again and again. The story taps into important truths about love and loss and life. To me it is the gold standard for a picture book that makes the reader feel.

What is one misconception about agents? 
I think authors and illustrators sometimes forget that agents, too, face disappointment. Maybe it’s the book that we haven’t placed yet, but still so strongly believe has a place in the world. Maybe it’s the prospective client that we missed out on. But the truth is everyone in publishing faces rejection at some point. Agents are people, too. We don’t take any pleasure in having to pass on your work or give you difficult news. We’re not trying to make your road to publication harder. Sometimes your work just isn’t a fit for our skill set or interests.

Why do I (acting as an author or illustrator need an agent? 
Different authors and illustrators have different needs, which is why finding your perfect agent match is so important. My approach with each client is different based on what they particularly need. I can tell you why I need an agent. I’ve been in publishing for over a decade. I’ve worked as a publicist, as an editor, and now as an agent and author. I appreciate having a trusted ear, an ally, and an advocate for my work and career. I choose to work with an agent because I value that relationship and I know it’s helped me to create my best work.

Linda Pratt, Founder, Wernick & Pratt Agency
Twitter: @wernickpratt

What do you look for in a submission?
What I look for in a submission is first a professional introductory letter. Once a book is sold, authors and illustrators will be presenting themselves to publishers, booksellers, librarians, and others as a professional. It’s important to get a sense that a potential client will take that approach. Then I look for a voice, either in the words of an author or the art of an illustrator.

What is one misconception about agents?
One misconception about agents is that we are interchangeable. All agents should share the ability to reasonably negotiate contracts. However, there are differences in our tastes and our particular areas of proficiency, e.g., editorial, genre, licensing, promotion, etc.

Why do I (acting as an author or illustrator) need an agent? 
Authors and illustrators need an agent because the publisher’s interests/needs and their interests/needs aren’t always the same, and you need an advocate to represent you. Agents have a broader knowledge due to their experience, and it allows the creative lines between authors and illustrators and their editors/houses to be cleaner.

Erica Rand Silverman, Literary Agent, Stimola Literary Studio, Inc.
Twitter: @ericarsilverman

What do you look for in a submission?
I look to have an emotional response and for the work to be something different than is already represented on my list. I look for author-illustrators. I want to work with an artist whose goal it is to write and illustrate their own books.

What is one misconception about agents?
You wouldn’t believe how many conference attendees come up to me to say thank you for being warm and approachable, as if this isn’t the norm. Here is a little secret: most of the children’s agents I know are incredibly warm, and kind and fun. There is just an overwhelming amount of people looking to connect with agents, and it can be challenging for some to give out that warmth all the time.

Why do I (acting as an author or illustrator) need an agent?
An agent is a matchmaker, negotiator, mediator, lifter-upper, creative confidant, and industry insider all rolled into one. Even if you get the book deal on your own, a complicated contract is sure to follow, and hopefully an ongoing business relationship has only just begun. Ideally, you handle the creative end, and your agent handles the business end. While you’re working creatively, your agent is out there sharing your work and lining up the next best project.

The Bottom Line

I have an agent. It’s Alexandra Penfold. I decided to reach out to agents only after significant reflection (and a little bit of courage-building).

Do I need an agent? Yes. Do you? What do you think?


I’d like to thank James Burns, Kirsten Hall, Jennifer Linnan, Alexandra Penfold, Linda Pratt, Erica Rand Silverman, and Laura Stiers for their time, generosity, and invaluable contributions to this article.

Feel free to share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.