Dear Editor – I’m getting ready to query my book for the first time and am confused. Do I query an agent or a publisher?
—Jackson, Los Angeles
Dear Jackson – Congratulations on having finished a manuscript! To pursue traditional publication, a writer “queries” (sends a query letter to) a literary agent or a book publisher. At a publishing house, it may be the acquisitions editor’s job to find new talent so, sometimes, you will hear a writer saying they “queried an editor”—this is essentially the same as querying the publisher. Whether you choose to query an agent or publisher, check online submissions specifications to see whether they are accepting queries and, if they are, how to do so.
Agent: When a literary agent chooses to work with a writer, they offer the writer “representation” which means they’ll handle tasks such as advising a writer about their work, marketing that writer’s work to publishers, negotiating the writer’s contracts, and protecting the writer’s interests on various levels. Agents do not earn money until that manuscript does—they typically charge around 15% commission on domestic sales. Since agents are working without compensation until then, they are very selective as to whose work they take on. While a writer’s first inclination may be to keep as much money as possible (and who doesn’t want this?), not all publishing houses accept unagented queries.
Consider real estate agents and the roles they play—these are similar to that of a literary agent. Just as a homeowner can either sell their house on their own or through a real estate agent, a writer must decide if they want the help and expense of a literary agent. If they do, then they should query agents.
Book Publishers: Writers can submit directly to publishers of books for young readers, but, larger or established houses may be closed to submissions, allowing only manuscripts vetted by literary agents. An unagented writer may get a direct line to an otherwise closed-to-submissions publisher by participating in a webinar or going to a conference. Writer’s conferences allow writers to attend a variety of sessions or workshops, or sign up for professional critiques. Writers may be tempted to approach agents or publishing house representatives throughout the conference with a copy of their manuscript, but there are guidelines to follow. Though mingling opportunities are provided, remaining professional is key to fostering positive relationships.
Traditional publishing houses do not charge writers; they pay you. If you find companies that ask for payment before proceeding, bypass them unless you want to self-publish your book.
Resources: SCBWI’s The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children is updated annually and can be purchased electronically or in hard copy as can Writer’s Digest’s annual “market” books, such as Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s. Both publications include useful advice and listing of literary agents and publishing houses along with short blurbs on what they were seeking the last time that listing was updated.
Before querying, always check websites for the most current information. By familiarizing yourself with these types of guides, you can find indexes which help you narrow down your search by categorizing agents and publishers into what they accept, such as “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or specific subjects like “biography,” “concept,” “multicultural,” or “romance.”
There are many other resources including the Children’s Book Council (CBC), a nonprofit organization of the children’s book industry (www.cbcbooks.org) and Literary Market Place (LMP) which lists industry professionals (www.literarymarketplace.com). The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) requires its members meet an established list of professional standards and code of ethics (www.aaronline.org).
The takeaway: Do your homework. Ensure that where you’re querying (1) is open to submissions, and (2) accepts the kind of book you’ve written. Take time to check on the books that agent represents or what’s been published by that publishing house. Does your book seem to be a fit? Sometimes, it can be too good a fit if they have something very similar. Remember the partners you seek for publication will likely be with you for some time. If you have a book you love or one that’s a comp (comparable title to what you’ve written), look up the name of the publisher and agent. Become well-versed as to where your book fits into today’s marketplace.
Review contracts carefully and consider hiring a literary attorney who specializes in these matters.
Closely read submissions guidelines and submit accordingly because once you hit “send,” it’s gone. Often only one query per agency is allowed and, if that agent passes, it’s a pass for the whole agency.
The road to publication is often a slow one. Keep track of where you’ve queried and don’t let the rejections or lack of responses get you down. Write an excellent book, then persevere until you find the right match (in an agent or publisher) for you and for that particular manuscript.
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Answers by Christine Van Zandt, professional freelance editor and owner of Write for Success Editing Services, www.Write-for-Success.com