Why I can’t recommend you to an agent

Sometimes I get emails from people who are just starting out in the publishing process. I understand the frustration that comes when from seeing that practically every publisher requires agented submissions. If you aren’t sure where to start, it can be daunting to try to find information on publishing through Google (Writer Beware covered this a while back, and they’ve got some good points—there are a lot of self-publishing and disreputable agents that show up at the top of such searches).

But the solution is not to approach a publishing house or a specific editor to ask (or even sometimes demand), “If you won’t read my manuscript, then recommend me to an agent so I can get you to read my manuscript!” I can’t even do this for relatives/friends/relatives of friends without knowing their writing really well (and even if I know their writing well and think it’s good enough to be published—a rarity—I would generally be more likely to recommend someone’s writing to a fellow editor, rather than an agent).

I don’t feel qualified in helping writers find agents, and in fact feel that it’s a conflict of interest to make such recommendations. Agents recommend writers to editors. An agent is a writer’s advocate in contractual negotiations. The publisher shouldn’t interfere with that relationship. (For a different kind of hypothetical example, even if I were to feel that a writer’s agent might not be doing a very good job, it’s not my place to suggest that the writer find a new agent; the very nature of my position as a representative of a publisher makes my opinion biased, even if writers would say the same thing about the agent.)

Also, it’s important to remember that most editors/companies who have limited their submissions to agented-only have a good reason for the requirement: usually they need a way to limit the quantity of their submissions while ensuring the quality. This means that they’re pretty busy people, and it’s kind of absurd to expect them to give personal attention to every single request for information. It just can’t be done, and allow them to do the work that makes the company money as well. While it may only take “a few minutes” of their time, multiply that by a thousand or ten thousand, and the noise crowds out the work getting done.

We understand, though, that getting published is a frustrating, sometimes opaque process for those who haven’t discovered the rich resources of the internet—or who have googled “publishing” and been hit by completely unreputable results. Finding information on getting published on the internet can be really hard if you don’t have a single place to start. This is why editors and agents who blog do what we do—to provide a source of general information and conversation about the industry that can usually answer most questions, especially the basics of the submission process.

If you do find a single place to start—for example, if someone you know says, “Check out the website of this editor I know!”—it can be tempting to hope that this connection will subvert the frustrating hunt for information. However, if you hunt a little deeper (well, really, if you made it to my website, you should have come to my blog first, rather than to the page that shows my email), you’ll find that the blog—and even more, the whole blogosphere/Twitterverse—provides a wealth of information that can set you on your path without having to rely on an email from an overworked editor for a reference she feels that ethically, she can’t give.

So let’s discuss some of the first places you should be looking, if you’ve gotten this far, for information on how to get published in the children’s and young adult market, which should spiderweb out to a number of different resources through links and references in blog posts and Twitter feeds.

First place to start for children’s and YA writers: the SCBWI main page. That page should lead you to links for your local SCBWI, which should lead you to information on local meetings, writing groups, conferences, and other events–including conferences at which agents and editors are in attendance. Join a writing group, join the local listserv, and start absorbing all the riches of reliable information your fellow writers have to share.

The next place to go is just as important as the first: Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon. This is such a complete resource that I often just recommend these two sites (SCBWI and this one) for people just starting out looking for information on getting published in children’s and YA books. Harold wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, has been an editor for years (several years at Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge, and now a freelancer), and has been maintaining the Purple Crayon for many years, at which you can find information on topics from the basics through the entire publishing process and on to figuring out agents.

A new essential resource I’ve started adding to the list is Agent Query. The site seems to be down at the moment, but I got through at a back door—but the database, which is its most useful feature, doesn’t seem to be working. Keep checking back on it, because it is a great resource for writers starting out on the agent-querying process, with information on writing a query, how to avoid scammers, and a full search of agent listings by genre and several other considerations.

Also note that plenty of blogging authors discuss how to find an agent (and when the appropriate time is in your writing life to find an agent). Google the authors who your work would fit in with most, and start listening to what they say about their writing process, about how they got started in their career, about how they found an agent—you’ll find a lot of good information there, and links to resources that will be much more useful than a quick Google search. Mentors are definitely out there.

Keep an eye out on Preditors and Editors, as well.

If you’re looking for an agent, you should be reading the blogs and Twitter feeds of at least a few of the many agents out there offering advice. Here is a list, in no particular order:

There are SO many more that I’m definitely forgetting, but it’s getting late (I started to write this last night and fell asleep in the next paragraph, actually), and you should be able to follow the conversations on these blogs and feeds to get a sense of who else is out there to follow. Between all of them, writers new to the publishing end of things can get a great education, and all for free.

Who am I missing on the agent list? Please include links to Twitter feeds for agents who don’t have blogs. (I’m linking blogs for people who have them, Twitter feeds for those that don’t have blogs. Those who have blogs might also have a Twitter feed, but truth is, it’s 1 am and I’m hieing myself to bed, and I’ll worry about that tomorrow.) I’ll add the links to the list tomorrow as time permits (which I have, but it’s still incomplete). Also remember that Twitter has become a really great source of information on publishing from a number of publishing folks who don’t have as much time to blog, but who can participate in more scattered conversations throughout the day. For a full list of all the publishing people on Twitter, check out … I can’t find the link of the page that has them all listed. Hopefully someone will know what I’m talking about and give me the link, because I have to run out the door right now and run some errands.