I LOVE the spirit of today’s “How I Got My Agent” author. No wonder she’s had such success. I think we’ve all felt, one way or another, that authors and opportunities are passing us by and we’ll never “get there.” It’s stories like these that make you remember there is room for everyone, and you WILL get there if you don’t give up. Please welcome, Jess Townes!
How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
I’ve been a life-long writer. I used to write sequels or new endings to my favorite books when I was a child, before I knew there was a term for that! There have been very few seasons of my life when I wasn’t writing, at least privately, but I started focusing on the craft of writing for children about two years ago. I waited eighteen months before submitting any of my writing to agents or editors. It took that long before I felt I had a body of submission-ready picture book work that was somewhat representative of my voice and style.
I knew I wanted to seek an agent on the path to publication, not only because so many houses are closed to unsolicited submissions, but also because I value the industry knowledge an agent brings to the table. I invest a lot of time in learning the craft, reading in the genre and the creative process, but am still very much learning the ropes of the publication side of the industry. I’ve been fortunate to have some strong critique partners and fellow writers guide me in this process, but I still felt my career would be better served if guided by a literary agent.
What kind of research did you do before submitting?
Goodness. So much! Thanks to the internet, and great new sites every day like Manuscript Wish List, it is not that difficult to identify agents that are interested in representing picture books. I also write middle grade, so I kept that in mind when considering agents. I knew I wanted an agent that was interested in representing my career, and one that is at least moderately editorial in nature. Most importantly, I looked for key words that indicated my work might resonate with an agent, like “funny, sweet, heart and humor, quirky” and made a short list of those agents.
Next I read interviews with the agents, researched their current clients, and tried to gain an understanding of what kinds of projects they represented.
The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
In total, I submitted to nine agents. My agent was actually the first agent I ever submitted to, but it wasn’t my original submission that sparked her interest. More on that later. I received four requests for additional manuscripts, two requests for revisions and resubmissions and two offers. I received five written rejections during the process, and one agent stepped aside after I had received the offer, and two I never heard back from. I had to pull out my notecards to answer that!
Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?
I didn’t find this difficult at the time, but I do see a trend in the industry away from representing authors that only write picture book manuscripts and/or don’t also illustrate. There are still agents that take on picture book author-only clients, you just have to do your research!
Who is your new agent? Tell us about getting the news.
My agent is Stephanie Fretwell-Hill from Red Fox Literary! As I stated above, the first query I sent was to my agent, when I read that she was closing earlier than she had hoped to submissions last May. I was working on a goal of being submission-ready by the end of the year, but Stephanie was at the top of my list of agents I was interested in querying and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity. While my query was still in her inbox, I had an opportunity to participate in a critique through my SCBWI region with her, so I sent a different manuscript in June. She sent back a largely positive critique and requested that I submit the revision to her if I would like. I did, and she liked that as well and asked to see additional work. I sent her several more manuscripts, and then we scheduled a phone call, where she made an offer of representation. I was elated, and got off the phone feeling really excited about working with her, but since I still had work out with other agents, I did follow up with them all, as well as talk to several of Stephanie’s clients by phone before officially accepting her offer.
How did you know your agent was “the one”?
Stephanie is incredibly knowledgeable about the publishing industry as well as warm and personable. Her taste in books is similar to mine, which I think it is important since what we read tends to inform what we write, and she places a high value on the heart of a story, even in a funny picture book. I’m always looking to balance humor and heart in my work, so this is important to me. I also found that working through a revision with her helped me understand her editorial approach, and allowed her to see how I applied her feedback. If you are going to be working with an editorial agent, I’d recommend working through a revision together to see if your approaches work well together, on both ends.
If 12 x 12 helped you in any way during your agent search/development of craft, can you tell us how? (P.S. It is TOTALLY okay if the answer is no. I am not trying to “lead” you 🙂 )
I can’t underestimate how much 12 x 12 helped me in both my agent search and my craft development. Prior to joining 12 x 12, I did not really share my writing for children with anyone but my husband (and even then, only occasionally). I had reached a point where I needed feedback on my work in order to grow, and 12 x 12 helped me find strong critique partners who push my work to the next level. Also, the Critique Ninjas on the forum are such great teachers, the webinars are super informative and the community in general is beyond welcoming. I joined 12 x 12 for accountability (and that accountability piece worked for me better than I expected) but I found so much more, and will be forever grateful.
Has your writing process changed at all since signing with an agent?
In terms of my creative process, not really, but in terms of prioritizing projects, yes, a little. I still set aside daily time for writing, but if I’m working on a revision for my agent, or readying something for submission, I will prioritize that over new work if time is limited. It’s been really wonderful to have an extra sounding board for ideas, and Stephanie has been great about helping me decide which idea to pursue next.
What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
Take your time. If you are involved in an online community like 12 x 12 or another group of writers, it can start to feel like you are falling behind as other writers sign with agents, or agents close to submissions. But it’s not true. There will always be agents seeking new clients, and there will always be readers seeking new books. Take your time, study the craft, READ a ton of recently published picture books, and write. Keep writing until you have a collection of picture book manuscripts that represent the kind of work you want to put out in the world, manuscripts that showcase your voice and your heart.
Do you think your platform (blog, social media) helped you find your agent?
I should ask her! I don’t think so, at least it wasn’t something we talked about before I signed with her.
Tell us something that is on your “bucket list.” Something you’ve dreamed of doing all your life but have yet to accomplish (besides publishing a book, which is inevitable at this point 🙂 )
I’ve never written a bucket list! But when something tugs at my heart long enough, I tend to listen and go for it, for better or for worse. I love to travel, and have visited 42 states and 9 countries at current count. I’d love to see all fifty states.
What’s up next/what are you working on now?
Right now I’m revising a picture book for submission this month, I’m in the early stages of research for a non-fiction picture book idea that is near to my heart, and I’m about halfway through the first draft of a middle grade novel. I’m always working on something!
Not a 12 x 12 member? We’d love to have you join us! Registration opens in January for our new year where we’ll challenge you to write 12 picture book drafts in 12 months. Plus, you’ll get the support and encouragement of a writers group like no other! Click here to join our notification list!Categories: 12 x 12, Agents, Children's Books, How I Got My Agent, Picture Books, Queries · Tags: Jess Townes, Jessica Townes, Red Fox Literary, Stephanie Fretwell-Hill