You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know—Questions to Ask a Potential Agent

Yippee, you have an offer of representation, or an agent has asked to speak with you by phone. Yay, you! I know you’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, and you are ready to tattoo a giant YES across your forehead in time for that confetti-filled Zoom meeting. But don’t act too quickly. Tattoos are permanent, and an agent’s attachment to your book is permanent, too. Take a deep breath and have a plan. The truth is, we don’t know what we don’t know, so let’s start with a simple reminder: an agent has to believe in you as a career writer of marketable books, but once you have their attention, you need to decide if this is someone you’re willing to be married to for the life of your book(s). That means you are interviewing each other during the call. You absolutely want to have a rapport with an agent, but don’t let a sparkly personality distract you from professionalism. Go into the phone call as if it’s casual Friday—relaxed but still taking care of business.

If multiple agents have your manuscript, let them all know immediately when you have an offer of representation, and ask for a response to your submission by X date (maybe a week for a picture book or a bit longer for a long-form project.) After your conversation with the offering agent, tell her/him that you would like a week to consider. It’s standard procedure, so don’t feel awkward about this.

What do you ask an agent during an introductory phone call?

Much will depend on what you already know from their website, published interviews, etc. Below is a lengthy list of possible questions. Don’t try to ask every single question on this list, but don’t be afraid to ask any of them. Print out this post and highlight the questions that most interest you.


General Agent Process

Do you think my manuscript is ready for submission now or in need of revisions?

Do you already have specific publishers/editors in mind?

Do you generally communicate with your authors about potential editors before you submit?

How many editors do you typically submit to during each round of submission?

How often do you check submission status with editors?

How would you keep me updated about any submission status?

Agenting Experience

How many years of agenting experience do you have?

How many clients do you currently represent? How many clients would be a full list?

Are you an editorial agent? (Some agents prefer not to give editorial feedback, so it’s good for you to know upfront.)

Do you read your own submissions or do you employ first readers to cull through your submissions?

Are you a member of AAR, Association of Author Representatives? (Not being a member isn’t a deal killer if the agent is experienced and/or is mentored by a well-established agency)

Do you report sales to Publishers Weekly/Marketplace? (Not a deal killer at all. It’s just exciting when your sales are announced in these publications.)

What kind of promotional efforts do you do for your clients? Website, outreach, etc.?

How many sales have you had in the past 12 months? What genres or formats?

What type of books are you most drawn to? (Remember, you are gauging your overall bookish compatibility. Remember the agent represents your career, not just a single book.)

What type of books are you NOT drawn to? Are there genres you do not represent?

How do you balance each client’s projects?  Do you prioritize certain clients in any way? (This is a loaded question about whether some clients get more attention than others.)

In what ways do you stay connected with editors and publishers to understand their wants/needs? (Regular lunches or meetings, for example)

How do you prefer to communicate with clients? Email or phone? How often?

How quickly do you respond to your client’s emails or phone calls?

If a client submits a project to you that you choose not to represent, are you opposed to the client submitting directly to editors?

Are you also a writer? If so, how do you juggle those responsibilities and time demands with your agenting responsibilities?

Agency Agreement & Accounting Procedures:

Do you require a signed agent/author agreement?

Are you interested in representing this one project or all my projects? (Ideally, agents represent all of your books moving forward.)

What is your termination clause? (If you ever want to “divorce” your agent.)

What is your standard commission on domestic and foreign sales?

Who handles subsidiary rights for your agency? (Film, foreign, audio, etc) for your agency?

Do you field all gross advances and royalties through your agency, deducting the agency commission, or do you request that publishers send net amounts directly to authors?

What questions do you wish authors would ask more often? (Seriously, don’t miss this question!)

Alrighty, friends, that’s quite enough questions to get you thinking. Be informed. Be prepared. Be relaxed. Be objective. Don’t say yes until you know the agent is the right representative for your work.

Oh, and forget the tattoo and confetti.




SPECIAL EVENT! 3-Author Lincoln-Inspired Virtual Author Visit.

Register here

This one-of-a-kind webinar will focus on lesser-known facts about Abraham Lincoln. — From his life as a child on a Kentucky farm, rescuing animals and being rescued by one himself — to the lessons he learned after a rascally mistake landed him in a duel as a budding lawyer — and his presidential days as a man rooted deeply in his agricultural past—young readers will see the evolution of Lincoln’s character.

Authors Shari Swanson (HONEY, THE DOG WHO SAVED ABE LINCOLN), Donna Janell Bowman (ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS), and Peggy Thomas (LINCOLN CLEARS A PATH), will bring Abraham Lincoln to life as a complex, compassionate, and passionately curious man with stories you may have never heard before.

The Virtual Author Visit will last one hour and will allow each author to discuss her book and how it reflects Lincoln’s character. We will explore the research and writing behind each story and offer engaging writing lessons to inspire creativity and connect to curriculum goals. The visit will conclude with time for Q and A.

The webinar is suitable for school-age children, Lincoln fans, teachers, and writers. A pdf of the writing lessons will be available with registration.

 Can’t make the Feb. 12 live webinar? No problem. A recording will be available to registrants until February 28, 2021. 

 NOTE: Each registration works on ONE device only for the live event. Shared links will not work. Each classroom attending the event will need to register separately. Teachers should contact their IT specialists to determine remote learner access to the live event. Otherwise, virtual students can watch the recorded session from home (with registered teacher’s access code) through the month of February.

The Path to a Traditionally Published Picture Book – Simplified

I’ve noticed a surprising number of comments in writing forums from people who don’t know the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing. In self-publishing, the author controls every step of the process (including quality) and foots the bill for everything.

In traditional publishing, the author writes and submits a manuscript that a publisher feels they can make a profit from. The author pays for nothing except certain marketing efforts. The publisher’s editor secures an illustrator and works with the author to make the book as good as it can be. This overly-simplified infographic reveals the process.

Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children’s Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing

I’m honored to have contributed to the anthology, edited by Melissa Stewart, titled Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep. The essays are jam-packed with insights and inspiration.


Some of today’s most celebrated nonfiction writers for children share how their writing processes reflect their passions, personalities, beliefs, and experiences in the world. Editor Melissa Stewart offers a wide range of tips, tools, teaching strategies, and activity ideas to help students learn to craft rich, unique prose.


Fall 2020 Picture Book Biography Class

I’ve taught two online picture book biography classes this summer. My students were so pleased with the masters-level content, their recommendations led to quite a few inquiries about my next offering. So, I’ve scheduled a fall class, beginning October 18th—perfect timing for getting a manuscript ready for a 2021 submission. I hope you’ll join me. Click here to read recent testimonials.

Class description:

A well-crafted picture book biography looks simple, doesn’t it? In reality, an author must research like a scholar and then distill and shape facts as a storyteller—all to capture the spirit of the subject on the page for young readers. It’s a worthwhile challenge. In this six-week online masters-level class, we will peek inside approximately 75 mentor texts to cover a wide range of craft topics. Between classes, you will be challenged with helpful resources and writing exercises designed to help you find your story’s sparkle. And because publication is the goal, the business side of writing will be covered, too. See below for a list of topics.

Why study with me? My own writing and publishing journey began with a years-long apprenticeship of self-study, followed by the publication of both expository nonfiction and award-wining narrative picture book biographies, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low Books)Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (Peachtree), and King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree). More titles will be announced soon. All of those books were acquired before I pursued an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), during which I focused my critical thesis on creative approaches to picture book biographies and the often-fuzzy nonfiction line. You see, I adore the challenges and artistry of writing picture book biographies, and I am eager to share what I know with other writers.

This course is appropriate for all experience levels but especially meaningful for intermediate writers who have a picture book biography subject in mind.

Some topics to be covered include:

  • Nonfiction vs. fiction
  • Narrative vs. expository
  • How to analyze mentor texts
  • Finding your connection to your character
  • Marketable ideas
  • Choosing a tight angle/focus
  • Point of view and psychic distance
  • Theme (the heart of your story)
  • Character arc
  • Narrative arc
  • Voice
  • Structure (there are so many great options!)
  • Beginnings & Endings
  • Research & organization
  • Backmatter
  • Revision & Submissions
  • The publishing and income process

Class recordings will be available to registered students for two weeks after each session

BONUS #1 — A guest author will join us for a Q&A session, offering you an additional industry perspective
(previous guests include Barb Rosenstock, Laurie Walmark, Deborah Hopkinson, Lesa Cline-Ransome)

BONUS #2— To facilitate ongoing conversations and to create a community of like-minded colleagues, class attendees will be invited to a private Facebook group.

BONUS #3 — At the end of the 6-week class, you will have the opportunity to purchase a deeply discounted developmental p.b. bio. critique from me for $125.
OR you can join one of my small-group online manuscript critique groups (often referred to as workshopping–max of 5 writers) for $150, which includes a developmental critique from me, feedback from four of your peers, and a group Zoom meeting to brainstorm each manuscript.