Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September Theme: State of the Industry (Alan Gratz)

I began writing and submitting novels for middle grade and young adult readers more than ten years ago now, and the industry is very different today than it was just a decade ago. One of the changes I've noticed is the rise of the kidlit agents.

There have long been agents who focus specifically on children's books, but there seem to be far more of them today than there were ten years ago. I think that's a result of the growing commercialization of kid lit. During the current economic recession, the one area of book sales that continues to grow is kids' books. I'm no economist, and I'm sure the explanation behind the numbers is more complex than I'm about to suggest, but the easy anecdotal answer is Harry Potter. When fans of the series lined up in droves for midnight sales in 2000, the industry sat up and took note: kids' books could be big business.

I began submitting before Harry Potter hit it big. I tried agents and editors at the same time, but I had trouble getting any agent to give me serious consideration. My queries almost always came back as photocopied form letter rejections--or worse, photocopied form letters explaining that The Writers Market had inaccurately listed them as interested in children's books when they really weren't. Editors, meanwhile, often sent back what I call "good rejection letters." They were nos, but they often said things like, "This book isn't right for us, but we like your writing. Let us see your next book." Encouraged by these responses and discouraged by the reactions of agents, I stopped submitting to agents altogether.

I sold my first book, Samurai Shortstop, out of the slush pile, and got an advance commensurate with my un-agented status: $8,000. That number pales in comparison to some of the agented advances being announced today. Granted, mine was a historical novel about baseball in turn-of-the-century Japan, not a paranormal romance primed for the bestseller list. But the truth is, having an agent for your first sale means you'll start at a much higher first advance, and every advance after that (assuming you can keep selling books) will build off that higher starting point.

And now it's easier than ever to get a kidlit agent. I'm not saying it's easy period, just easier. There are more and more kidlit agents hanging out their shingles every day. Agents who love children's books and are actively looking for new clients. You meet them all the time at SCBWI conferences. And they're getting big advances for their new clients' books, big advances which mean big promotional pushes from publishers when the books come out.

Ever since Samurai debuted, aspiring writers have asked me for advice on how and where to submit manuscripts. My advice for many years was always the same: submit to editors, not agents. Editors were more likely to say yes, and even if they say no, they might give you valuable feedback or keep the door open for you to submit again. But as the industry changes, my answer to that question is changing. Now, I think I would advise someone with a strong, marketable manuscript to look for one of these young, hungry agents first. The chances are better than ever he or she will say yes.


  1. And the more editors get laid off, the more young, hungry agents there are--and since they're former editors, these new kids tend to see the business from an insider's perspective.

  2. It's good to know how your advice has changed...especially since I'm in the process of taking it! Earlier this year, I made the tough decision to put an editor requesting to read my manuscript on hold while I sought an agent. Scary choice, and one I hope was wise!

    As a side note, a second easy answer as to why kids' books are still doing well in this enconomy is softie parents. After all, if you had to Grinch your own Christmas, or your child's, what would you choose?

  3. Love this post. Great insight into the mg market.

  4. I, too, started out submitting directly to editors, and sold my first book from the slush...Though I have a master's degree, I consider those years in the slush pile, talking directly with editors, to be my true education.

  5. Thanks for the insight and advice...the market really is changing and it's good to hear all your perspective.