The Children’s Writing Workshop at Big Sur was focused primarily on small critique group sessions rather than large general sessions.  As a result, my notes are a smattering of tidbits heard and picked up throughout the weekend.  There are some golden nuggets in there, though, so I share them now with you.

Picture Books

  • “Picture books are the most difficult thing to write.”Andrea Brown.  I would love to tattoo this quote on my forehead so I’m prepared the next time someone asks me whether I’m going to start with picture books and then move into writing “real” books.
  • “I know you’ve all heard the market for picture books is tough, but picture books are our bread and butter, so please don’t stop writing picture books.” — Andrea Brown
  • “Picture books are an emotional medium.  They need to make us feel something.”Marla Frazee
  • Chronicle is a medium-size publisher, and picture books outnumber both MG and YA — Melissa Manlove
  • “Every word, every character in a picture book must count.” — Marla Frazee.  This came in response to one of my manuscripts where characters were introduced for one scene and never came back again.  Every character needs to move the story forward and be important to its outcome, especially when you have so little room to tell it.  If you are taking the time to introduce them, they must play a critical role.  Good examples are SOMEBODY LOVES YOU, MR. HATCH, BEAR SNORES ON, and STAND TALL, MOLLY LOU MELON
  • An agent deciding whether to represent a picture book author might ask to see 3-4 manuscripts because they want to make sure you have more than one book.  They are looking for career authors. — Jennifer Mattson.  Take away?  Once you start submitting, it’s good to have a couple of other polished pieces in your back pocket.
  • HOWEVER, do submit only one manuscript at a time – whichever one you feel is the strongest and best representation of your work.  — Mary Kole
  • Because PB manuscripts are sent with the query, the actual query letter is not as important.  Keep it short, simple and to the point.  Agents will read at least part of the manuscript even if the query isn’t great. — Mary Kole

Finding and Working with an Agent

Be deliberate in your selection process.  Do the research.  Submit to agents you feel would be a good fit for your work, and then ASK THEM QUESTIONS.

Good questions to ask:

  • How transparent is your submission process? Does the agent inform clients when and how many editors have received their manuscript? Do clients see the agents’ pitches?  Are clients consulted about whether to submit to multiple editors or on an exclusive basis?
  • What is your strategy for selling my book?
  • What is your editorial philosophy? How much revision will an agent ask for/expect before submitting your work to editors.  How hands-on is the process?
  • What is your communication philosophy/style? Does the agent prefer email or phone?  How soon can you expect answers to questions you may have?  Does the agent prefer regular communication at all times or only when you are out on submission?
  • What do you like about my book? Jennifer Laughran said she is amazed at how seldom that question gets asked.  It’s important, she said, because you might find out that an agent sees your book completely differently than you do.  That would be a good thing to know before signing a contract.
  • What are your favorite books?
  • Money questions. Including, what happens to your money if an agent moves to another agency, the agency closes, or God forbid, the agent dies?  Morbid, but it’s your money, so you need to know.
  • How are foreign, audio, digital, film and other rights handled?

Also, be prepared to demonstrate that you can accept editorial feedback.  Great revising is hugely important.  Mary Kole said she is looking for clients who “treat every BIC (Butt in Chair) session as a learning process.”  Even when it gets hard, don’t just stop working on a piece and move onto something else.  Take what you’ve learned or are learning and revise, revise, revise.

BUT, don’t be too quick to send revisions back to an agent who requests them.  They want to know that you’ve taken the time to consider and incorporate the feedback.  Make sure it’s your very best before sending it back.  As Laura Rennert said, “You will have ample time to impress later.”


Interestingly enough, especially for us bloggers, marketing was hardly a whisper at this conference.  I suppose it’s not surprising given its focus on the craft, but I left Big Sur finally believing that finding an agent really is, first and foremost, about the book.  Even when asked the direct question as to whether an online platform would make a difference between two potential clients, Kelly Sonnack replied, “The decision is always 100% based on the book.”

Which is not to say that willingness and ability to do marketing isn’t helpful.  It’s just not the deciding factor.  In fact, the agents warned that bad marketing is worse than no marketing at all.

  • Willingness = good
  • Ability = even better
  • Willy Nilly = worse than bad

A good agent will work with clients to accentuate their strengths with whatever the author feels comfortable doing marketing-wise.  It’s also a good idea to work closely with the publisher, since they are also marketing the book.  You want your own marketing efforts to be complementary to theirs – not duplicative or even worse, in conflict.

The usual comments of “do what you like to do and no more than that,” prevailed.  If you like Twitter or Facebook or both – great.  If you enjoy blogging, that’s great too.  But don’t put yourself out there on any of those platforms without a strong knowledge of how to use them effectively.  The worst thing you can do with social media is pop in once a month blasting everybody with sales pitches about your book and then disappear.  A “phantom presence,” where you’ve set up accounts but they lie dormant for months, can also leave people with a worse impression than no presence at all.

That’s all, folks!  Comments?  Questions?

Categories: Agents, Authors, Children's Books, Picture Books, Publishing, Social Media, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , ,



  1. Wow, so much great info here. I know many agents ask to see at least two PB manuscripts. Some.. such as Sean McCarthy prefer to see three. But my agent took me based on one super strong manuscript. She never asked to see any others until after it sold! (and then she sure was disappointed. Ha! But her attitude was.. if you can do it once, you can do it again!)

    • Corey, you make a good point. I’m sure every agent has his/her own preference regarding how much material they want to see before taking on a client. Having at least one that is the strongest it can be is essential. If you don’t have others ready, I guess it’s probably a good idea to be able to talk about ideas, what else you’re working on, and how you see your career going forward.

  2. Great information, Julie! It sounds like this was a great conference for you to attend at this point in your writing journey….too heavy for just a beginner but lots of valuable information for you.

    I always tend to think of picture books as a gateway drug…the first little taste most kids get of what reading can do for them. And if we’re lucky? It lasts a lifetime.

    • Sherri, you are so right! You can’t expect people to get to the point of reading novels if they haven’t started with picture books.

  3. This is an excellent post, Julie. Thankyou for sharing so generously!!

  4. Thanks Julie for being so generous and posting this. It’s just such great information. I’m hoping (well, I’ve applied) to attend the March Big Sur conference and am really looking forward to it after reading all these nuggets!

  5. Great post – ditto what Kat said – thanks for sharing with us 🙂

  6. What a wonderful resource for PB authors . . . on their way to becoming published. 🙂

  7. Excellent info here, Julie, as always. Thanks for taking the time to post all this for us!!

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