Here to kick off the 2011 series of How I Got My Agent for picture book writers is none other than Tara Lazar, the generous founder of PiBoIdMo (or Picture Book Idea Month for the uninitiated).  Tara started PiBoIdMo as alternative to NaNoWriMo for picture book writers, and the event has grown exponentially each year.  I participated myself in 2010 and came up with some ideas that I can’t wait to work on.  Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, which will be published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in 2013, was an idea Tara got during her first PiBoIdMo (It works people!).  Thanks for coming by, Tara.  I’m so thrilled to have you.

“Thanks to you too, Julie.  I’m glad to be here.”

How long had you been writing picture books before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?

I didn’t decide it was time to look for an agent! My friend Corey Rosen Schwartz did!

I met Corey about three years ago, when I first began to write picture books. She has long been a champion of my work. She encouraged me to query agents with THE MONSTORE–she was convinced it would sell. She was right!

What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I had been researching agents for years, keeping tabs on those I thought would be a good match for my style of writing. There are so many agent interviews available online, as well as the agents themselves! They keep blogs, writing about what they are (and aren’t) looking for. I encourage other writers to follow agents on Twitter, read their blogs, and read interviews. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents and Casey McCormick’s blogs are excellent resources for agent information.

It’s a tough market for picture books in general these days.  Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books? 

My connection with my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, was like kismet. My friend Corey had won a critique with author Jean Reidy and didn’t have a current manuscript to send, so she sent mine! Jean then tweeted that she loved my manuscript, and Joan, who is friends with Jean (they are both represented by Erin Murphy), asked what she was reading. So Jean and Corey gave me a referral to Joan. While Joan was hooked with my picture books, she also loved the first chapter of my middle-grade novel. So I can’t say that I’m focused solely on picture books, but Joan did comment that she had been looking for a picture book author to represent.

I also had a nice connection with Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown. Although Kelly did not offer representation, she was very interested in THE MONSTORE. And kismet struck again when her client James Burks was chosen to illustrate it.

I think it’s essential for picture book authors to have several manuscripts ready-to-go before querying agents. One book is not going to result in representation. It’s just too tough a market.

I have heard the same thing from several agents – be ready to share more than one manuscript. Thanks for bringing that up!

The dreaded questions: How many queries?  How many rejections?

I did not query agents until THE MONSTORE. And then it was just Ammi-Joan and four other agents.

I was very cautious with submitting to editors, too. I was waiting until I was good enough. I felt that submitting too early was a mistake. I didn’t want to use up my chances with particular editors by sending them an early manuscript and then not being able to send it again once I had revised successfully. I had submitted about 15 times with 15 rejections, a few personal.

How did you know your agent was “the one?”

While we clicked immediately on the telephone, I don’t think you truly know your agent is “the one” until you begin working with them. And working with Joan is a joy. I feel lucky to have her. She is very encouraging and she helps me to refine manuscripts. She loves nearly everything I produce, which I think is rare. If there’s a manuscript she’s not certain will sell, I know she’s right and I move onto something else.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

When I have a new idea, I ask Joan about it first. Should I write it? It’s great to have her feedback before I waste my time on a sub-par concept. I send her first drafts to ask if I’m going in the right direction and if it’s worth revising, or if I should try a different angle. This kind of early feedback is something I always wanted from an agent. Although picture books are short, they don’t take a short time to write. The process with Joan ensures that I’m not working on something that has no potential.

Sounds like bliss…

We sometimes hear that picture book writers don’t really need an agent.  What do you think the advantages are of having an agent?

I think I just answered that question! In addition, I don’t want to take time away from my writing to focus on sales. When I was submitting directly to editors, I spent weeks researching which ones would be a good fit. Then I spent weeks writing cover letters. I researched similar titles, the editor’s other books, and the publisher’s lists. It was a long process. And I couldn’t seem to change gears easily from the creative side to the business side and back again. When I was submitting, that’s all I was doing. Having Joan means I can spend more time on writing.

You are the host of the popular Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) event in November.  One of your own PiBoIdMo ideas became the book that is now being published.  Do you think the PiBoIdMo process made a big difference in helping you get that “winning” idea?

Truth be told, I get ideas almost every day. But PiBoIdMo did get me in the habit of writing down those ideas, of seeking out the magic around us every day. One of my favorite quotes is from Roald Dahl: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

The daily process of writing down ideas builds and becomes a habit. I think to be creative, you have to hone your creative sensibilities. You have to be creative every day. PiBoIdMo encourages the artist in us to be productive.

What’s up next/what are you working on now?

I am digging back into my middle grade novel. I just completed a new picture book manuscript that Joan loves, and I’m doing some revision on it. (I should note that Corey loves it, too. LOL!)

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?

Be patient. Give yourself time to improve your craft. (I like Neil Gaiman’s story about THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. He came up with the concept years ago, but put it away until he was a better writer.) Take at least two years to write seriously before submitting. Join a critique group. A good one will honestly tell you if you’re ready to seek representation. Don’t query too early. Once an agent rejects a project, you can’t send it to them again (unless they specifically request a revision, which is rare). If you’ve been submitting the same manuscript with no interest, write something else. Move on. When you do query, be sure to have other projects ready to send. If an agent is interested, they will ask to see more work.

I have to say I love the advice of taking two years to write seriously before submitting.  I wish somebody had told me that when I was starting!  I could have avoided submitting projects that weren’t ready.

Last, but certainly not least: Johnny Depp or Ryan Reynolds?

Umm, Edward Norton. I think he’s one of the most talented actors working today. And I think he’s handsome, with a boyish charm.

Okay we agree to disagree. :-)  Seriously though, thanks to Tara for this fabulous interview!  I hope you guys get as much out of it as I did.

If you are a picture book writer with an agent or an agent with picture book writer clients and would like to be featured in this series, please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo (dot) com.

Categories: Agents, Authors, Children's Books, How I Got My Agent, PiBoIdMo, Picture Books, Publishing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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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.”

Marketing

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: , , , , , , , , ,

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