The Purple Crayon has updated and expanded its information on children's/YA literary agents, which got me thinking about the subject.
As a threshold issue, too many writers submit to agents/editors before their work is at a level of craft that would merit a close reading/revision request. I did this myself, and I understand that it can be difficult to evaluate one's own status. But critique groups, writing coaches and teachers, as well as simply being well read can offer a feel for the prevailing standards.
This early emphasis on submissions concerns me for a few reasons: (1) the beginning writers are spending time and energy on submissions that could be focused on improving their writing; (2) they're "using up" so many submissions opportunities for a particular work that they may be prematurely limiting their options (as well as those available to a future agent); (3) there seems to be an underappreciation of enjoying one's apprenticeship in the craft.
I'm in favor of writers not only successfully publishing, but, if at all possible, making a living off their writing. However, writing is about process, not product. Publishing comes with its own pressures and responsibilities, which, again, compete with the process. Better to take your time and debut strong than just sell a book to prove you can.
[Note that I'm not talking at skilled writers who've committed themselves over the years to reading and writing with an emphasis on craft. I understand that many great writers struggle for that first contract. When I speak of "early emphasis," I'm referring to true beginners.]
For those ready to submit to an agent, as Harold Underdown of The Purple Crayon notes in Finding and Choosing Literary Agents, the best venues for research include writer's groups. He also mentions meeting agents at conferences. Building on this, I'd suggest prospective clients make every effort to talk to current and former clients about the agent and his/her style, reputation, etc.
It's not the kind of thing, though, that you can walk into a SCBWI meeting and just start chatting up. Candid information is often shared between folks with more of a relationship. An established author is going to shy away from a stranger who pounces her in the bathroom or rushes her after a speech with a request to "give me your agent's name;" "read my manuscript and send it to your agent;" or, say, "let me use your name with your agent in my cover letter."
Harold also rightly notes in his newly updated Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Primer that the "big six" New York publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Putnam, and Disney/Hyperion) only consider manuscripts from published authors or agents. I'd guess that, though the lists are smaller, in targeting other nationally competitive literary trade houses like Candlewick, FSG, Henry Holt, Little Brown, Roaring Brook, and so forth, an agent would be equally useful. However, in addition to published authors and agents, attendees at writing conferences (especially SCBWI conferences) are frequently invited by editor-speakers to submit to them, usually for a limited period of time afterward. This is sometimes called a "get-out-of-the-slush" card. That said, my Dutton editor mentioned at a recent Austin SCBWI conference that he'd spoken to thousands of writers at such conferences and the resulting sales were statistically insignificant.
Yet I wouldn't automatically count out those ultra-competitive houses. In my circle of colleagues, a first sale to HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Candlewick, etc., is not uncommon (though writers typically secure an agent first). This isn't to suggest that there aren't additional specialty or regionally-based houses that one shouldn't consider. For certain books, they may be the hands-down best bet. But do look at the quality of the books publishered and market strength of the list because the house's reputation will effect yours and the odds of your book succeeding.
As for what an agent does, I'd add to Harold's overview that the sale of secondary (paper, audio, foreign, film, textbook, etc.) rights is likely best left in the hands of an agent. They're in a position to seek out such deals, and they'll take a substantially less significant percentage than a publisher would. Secondary rights sales can, financially speaking, add up and facilitate more readers connecting with your stories.
In addition, I tend to think of agents in two categories: editorial or thumbs-up, thumbs-down. Some highly respected agents do work with their clients on the texts themselves, and their clients greatly appreciate the help. This is especially true for those living in locales remote from a writing community who're perhaps lacking in good critiquers prior to sending off. Those considering an editorial agent, though, should consider that agent's strength in this area (or lack thereof). Other agents simply decide to send the manuscript or not and proceed accordingly. My agent is the latter kind. I prefer to wait for the editor's comments.
Again, as Harold emphasizes, research matters. If such qualities are important to the prospective client, he or she should make an effort to ask about them.
Harold Underdown is a children's book editor and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, Second Edition (Alpha, 2004). Check out some materials from the second edition, and read an interview with Harold.
Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Primer by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. See also Finding and Choosing Literary Agents, also by Harold. The Purple Crayon is a highly recommended resource site for those writing or illustrating for children and young adults.
Children's & YA Writers' Reading List: Links: Agents from my website. Includes links to official agent websites, interviews, and related overview resources. See also recent interviews with U.S. agents Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary and Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Agency as well as Italian agents Costanza Fabbri and Gabriella Ambrosioni of Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna 2006.
"Do I Need An Agent, and How Will I Know If I Do?" from Cynsations; thoughts inspired by a chat by the same title with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.