Members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators gathered on November 6 at the New School in New York City to learn strategies for landing the ideal literary agent to champion one’s work. The panelists were Molly O’Neill of Root Literary, Carrie Pestritto of the Prospect Agency, and Brooks Sherman of Janklow & Nesbit. Author and SCBWI Metro NY volunteer Adria Quiñones moderated the discussion, which featured insight on researching and querying agents, and other guidance for aspiring writers.

The agents began by introducing themselves and sharing their personal “craft tips.” O’Neill joined the newly launched Root Literary in 2017 from Waxman Leavell Literary Agency. Prior to her work as an agent, she was an editor at HarperCollins, where she acquired Veronica Roth’s Divergent series; she has also held positions in school and library marketing. O’Neill said of Root Literary, “We’ve harnessed the tools of a lot of other industries: the tech world, the startup world, and the film world.” When reading a submission, she explained, “I want a first page to make me wonder. Make me curious, and I will turn the page to find out what happens next.”

Sherman also moved to a new agency this year, in his case from the Bent Agency to Janklow & Nesbit. In his new role, his focus is “to help build [the agency’s] growing YA and children’s segment.” He represents everything from picture books to YA, with a select list of adult titles. A frequent problem he finds in children’s submissions is “emphasizing a message or a lesson over character.” Though Sherman represents contemporary, socially conscious works by authors such as Angie Thomas and Adam Silvera, he believes that “the best stories are ones where you come away understanding [the message] without it being overtly stated.”

Pestritto, who joined the Prospect Agency in 2011 from Writers House, advised authors, “Don’t overprotect your characters by giving them everything they need in their toolkit.” As an agent and a reader, she said, “My favorite part of kidlit is watching a character grow and change.” In addition to character-driven middle grade fiction that conveys a strong personal journey, Pestritto is drawn to narrative nonfiction for young readers.

The Grail Quest

Getting to the meat of the evening’s discussion, Quiñones polled the audience: “How many people here are hoping to get an agent?” When she noted the large affirmative response, she joked, “I think we have our core subject.” Quiñones asked the panelists to share tips for finding “the holy grail: an agent.” Sherman recommended registering for Publishers Marketplace as a way of sifting through information about agents and their current clients. He also encouraged emerging authors to read the acknowledgments section of recent books for a sense of who is representing who, and an understanding of an agent’s “particular taste and sensibility.”

O’Neill suggested signing up for PW’s e-newsletter, Children’s Bookshelf, to keep up-to-date on industry news and trends. She also described the value of researching an agent’s online presence. Sherman echoed her recommendation, saying social media offers a glimpse of an agent’s personality and interactions. He stated, “The goal isn’t to get an agent; it’s to get the right agent. You’re better off having no agent than the wrong one.” Pestritto advised making note of an agent’s desired projects and “Do Not Send” list; however, she encouraged writers to take chances when submitting manuscripts. “Do your research, but also throw a few wild cards out there and see what sticks.”

Next, the panelists discussed channeling research into the submission process. Quiñones asked how important the query letter is, and what agents are looking for in it. Although each agent shared different preferences for the content and form of the letter—such as whether or not to include a synopsis or bio—they agreed in their desire to get a feel for an author’s storytelling ability. When considering slush pile submissions, O’Neill asks herself, “Do I love this?” If the answer is yes, she follows up with the question, “Who is this for?” If she can’t identify the readership, and how to reach that readership, she views it as a sign the project may not be for her.

Pestritto spoke of the need for agents to have a long-term plan for a book. “Publishing is a very long process. If you don’t have a vision for a project, then you’re not the right agent for it,” she said. Earlier in his career, Sherman said he was open to signing books he may not have been especially excited about, but which he knew he could sell. Now, he stated, “If I don’t have a passion for a book, then I won’t be a good advocate for it.” Ultimately, the manuscript is the clincher. O’Neill said, “You can write the world’s best query letter, but I’m not going to be able to sell it.”

The traditional query letter is no longer the only way to get one’s manuscript in front of an agent. The panelists cited the increasing popularity of Twitter pitch contests such as #DVpit (for diverse books), #PitMad (a general pitch war, hosted quarterly), #PitDark (for horror), and other online channels for discovery. O’Neill said that she has found talent through Etsy, Instagram, blogs, and hashtags. She pursued artists when “it was clear they had the ability to create and sustain a compelling voice.” She also spoke of the advantage of signing “someone who has created an audience around a particular topic or fascination.”

Pestritto said she has picked up previously self-published authors and Wattpad writers. But while social media has expanded the outlets for promoting one’s work, she offered a reminder that, for writers who are less social media-savvy, there is still “good old-fashioned querying.” Sherman reiterated that a strong online platform is “more the icing on the cake than the cake itself.”

The Agent as Advocate

Perhaps more crucial than an agent’s search for the coveted breakout debut is building strong relationships with new authors. All three panelists explained that when considering submissions, they are thinking about the trajectory of a career, not just a single book. Pestritto told authors they need to be prepared to revise their work. “You have to be willing to do what it takes,” she said, “willing to perform plastic surgery on your babies.” She also warned against the tunnel vision that comes with focusing on a new book.

Sherman agreed, saying, “I’m looking for someone, ideally, who has a brilliant idea after the first brilliant idea. I sign people up for a career, not just one book.” He described the need for an author, with the guidance of an agent, to strike a balance between creativity and commerce. “A writer becoming an author is a writer becoming a small business owner. I and other agents will be important business and creative partners.” In addition to marketability, O’Neill believes, “A purity of intention is important—having sight of something more than your ego.” Writing for young people, she said, is “important work that can help shape a generation.”

Quiñones raised the issue of diverse representation in children’s publishing, asking how the panelists are working toward a more inclusive industry. Pestritto, who is Korean American, said, “It can sometimes feel like there’s only a certain amount of success for people of color in this industry, and that we’re competing against one another for it.” She hopes to counter that experience through her participation in a networking group dedicated to Asian literary agents.

Sherman said that promoting diversity is a large concern for him, both in the projects he represents and in Janklow & Nesbit’s recruiting practices. “What steps can we take to even the playing field— not just getting more diverse voice in terms of authors, but in terms of gatekeepers?” O’Neill explained that Root Literary is female-owned and consists entirely of female agents. “We think about diversity in the projects we take on,” she said. “Publishing moves slowly,” O’Neill said, but she is hopeful that agents can support change by committing to seek out talent in less conventional places.