Updated on May 17, 2016
Once upon a way-back-when, I declared that I would make sure this blog gave writer/illustrators the information that is less common in the publishing blogosphere. That is, information tailored to writer/illustrators—not just picture book folks, either.
During that same way-back-when, I graduated from graduate school alongside eighteen other illustrators. Flawless, all of them.
Some of these friends of mine have precisely the same ambition to become an author/illustrator as I do. For two years they toiled to prepare themselves. Then they (we) left school and realized we hadn’t been explicitly told what to do next.
As I’ve mentioned many posts ago, I first ventured into learning about that next step while I was still in undergrad. I had time and other things to do, so I could take the journey very slowly. I also didn’t have a finished manuscript. One of the lucky things was that my children’s book illustration teacher told me I should join SCBWI. I did, and from there I began to branch out into discovering how one might become published. (Researching stuff online had been my thing since I was at least twelve.)
So, I am now going to talk about the steps. I am directing this information to writer/illustrators of all stripes (I am less knowledgeable about the comics industry, but many things still apply). I will also do my best to address people who are illustrators only. Writers, you’ve got your resources!
The first question to ask is: agent or no agent?
What’s an agent? To make it brief: An agent shops your work around to interested parties (editors, art directors, etc.). Agents are the middleman. Agents know the industry, know the editors who are acquiring books and what those editors like, know the contacts, know the trends, know the expectations. They are the negotiators of things like rights (international, audio books, film/tv, etc.), payment (an agent only gets paid if you do!), and all the other business ephemera that many of us creative types would rather not play with.
Not everyone wants an agent or needs an agent. If you’re established via some other means, you may have more luck approaching a publisher directly and having a nice, symbiotic relationship with an editor. Or, very rarely, they might find you.
Of course, publishing houses are not often open for unsolicited materials (that is, materials not requested, or unagented/unrepresented). Occasionally, some houses do open up for submissions, but these instances are rare.
Do a search for publishing houses/imprints and their submission guidelines, and search for who is open for unsolicited materials.
For the illustrator who does not write, there are many literary agencies who represent illustrators in addition to authors. There are also artists representatives/agents who only represent artists.
Artist agencies I am less familiar with, as writing is equally important to me and I knew I wanted a literary agent who also reps illustrators. However, artist reps can get you book illustration jobs just as well. They can also guide you through editorial work and book covers. Many illustrators who favor editorial work choose reps, not literary agents.
But you’re here because you want to be involved with books (not just the covers), so that’s where I’m focused!
How do you get a literary agent?
Querying. Googling querying a literary agent will open up the whole, wide world of THE TRENCHES to you.
A query is how you pitch your work. These days it’s predominantly done through email. Sometimes you still have to use actual post, however. Always check the agency’s guidelines. Always.
If you are an illustrator, agencies will have specific steps for how they want to see your portfolio. Very rarely are you going to be sending in a physical portfolio. Never send originals. Just don’t. No one wants to be responsible for them. And unlike sending promo postcards to editors/art directors, which is standard, literary agents usually want to see a whole body of work and don’t want to receive extra mail. So spruce up your website.
If you’re a writer/illustrator, you need a finished manuscript. And make sure that finished manuscript does not have finished illustrations, because that step will be dictated by editors and art directors down the line. However, the agency will want to see your portfolio. Same rules as above. No originals. Probably no mailers. Probably no physical portfolio.
Picture book dummies should not be overly finished. I’m told by various editors that two or three refined spreads is okay, but going beyond that gets awkward.
Usually the entire picture book manuscript is included in the query email. This is not the case for longer stories. So, I repeat: always check the agency’s guidelines.
But whether you’re doing a picture book or a novel, you need a snappy pitch that makes the agent want to read or see more. There are a billion resources for how to write the perfect query (just google that). You will discover that sometimes this is the most agonizing part of the whole process—until submissions to editors, that is. Writing a query makes a lot of people, uh, angry. Depressed. Hopeless. It’s normal.
How quickly can I get an agent?
Uhhhh. Not very. I mean, on average it is a very time-consuming, unsettling process. Many people post their query stats on personal blogs, so I suggest scouring the internet with that phrase in your search bar.
You will see some people go through ten or more manuscripts and hundreds of queries over many years. You will see some people get seven offers in a week on their first book. The entire range exists. I don’t even think you could average it out into any meaningful percentages.
Go to a bookstore. Look at all the titles. While not all of them are agented, assume that at least half are. That’s a lot of books by a lot of different people. There is always hope.
Agents sometimes say they receive hundreds or thousands of emails a week. These are (presumably…) different people. Now multiply that 52 times. There are a lot of people clamoring to be published, and while there are also a lot of reputable literary agents, they are still vastly outnumbered. You have to sparkle in that slush pile, and then you have to query the right people who happen to be interested enough to get fully invested in what you’re writing. It’s a lot of luck. It’s a lot of work.
But here’s the thing: the fact that you are here googling for query tips probably means you’re already in the top percentile (see: Slush Pile Hell). And you can (usually always) requery with new work if a current project isn’t clicking. You can even return to old manuscripts after you’ve become agented.
Publishing is a waiting game. You wait to get an agent. You wait to get an offer. You wait to get the book on the shelves. And sometimes one of these portions is much longer than the others. There is zero guarantee of selling that novel that landed you with an agent in the first place. I know quite a few people who have been on submission with different books for years without a deal.
Granted, if you’re that unsuccessful over time you might want to consider changing agents.
(Of course, the fact that there are fewer author/illustrators or illustrators pitching themselves to agents is a good thing for you. It’s still wildly unpredictable and a time-consuming wait, but the odds are already better. Ish.)
I’m listing a handful of important resources that everyone should have when they’re setting out on this journey.
- Query Tracker
- Literary Rambles
- Query Shark
- Pub Rants
- Absolute Write Forums
- Writer Beware
- Preditors & Editors
- Publishers Marketplace
- Publishers Weekly
- Writers Digest
- Decide if you want a literary agent, artist rep, or to try and go directly to editors and art directors.
- If you are an illustrator, make sure your online portfolio is up to snuff, because that’s predominantly how a literary agent or rep will look at your work. But remember to check the guidelines of every agency, because they’re all different.
- Editors and ADs accept postcard promo almost across the board, but if you’re pitching a book, you will need to find out who is actually open for unsolicited (that is, unagented or unrepresented) submissions. Sometimes publishing houses open up for unsolicited manuscripts once or twice a year. Some never do. (More reasons why I went with an agent—they pretty much always have an in.)
- If you are an author/illustrator, you must have a finished manuscript at the time of querying an agent. Then you must write a query letter and send it to your chosen agents, usually via email. Make sure you follow the guidelines for how to submit your art, as well, and link to your portfolio in your biography and/or signature. Agents often shy away from email attachments. Some even flag links, so avoid making that portfolio link active if possible.
- You must not give up. It’s a long road.
This won’t be my only post on the process of publishing for author/illustrators. This is just a general outline (well, maybe not an outline) of the steps to take when you’re first deciding what to do with yourself.
There are tons of caveats and things that I haven’t even addressed. Things like the warning signs of bad agents/agencies, or when you know you’re even ready to query, or what happens when you get full requests or even offers…
But that’s for other entries.