Tonight I attended a chat with Sean McCarthy, assistant agent with the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. Sean talked to aspiring authors about the children’s book market and how to find the right agent for your work.

It’s late and I’m tired, but you all know my obsession with taking notes! Here are just a few of the major points Mr. McCarthy touched upon during this informative session:

What’s the ideal picture book length?
Sean suggested that 500-word manuscripts tend to be a bit slim. They’re seeing the most success with stories above 500 but under 800. The 900 to 1000-word length is a difficult sell right now and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

How many PB manuscripts should a new author have before querying?
His agency prefers to see at least two completed PB manuscripts. The ideal number would be five viable manuscripts. Sean said the market is difficult and there are so many variables for new authors–editor preferences vary and timing is another crucial element that’s out of an author’s hands. The one thing you can control is how many projects you have ready to go—so the more, the better. (Jack be nimble!) In other words, if you only have one completed PB manuscript, keep writing. Don’t submit yet. Sean urged “prolific-ness” as an ideal author quality.

What’s a hot niche in children’s publishing?
Sean thinks that middle grade is wide-open, with fewer and fewer boundaries, making this area particularly exciting. Sci-fi and dystopian books are a blossoming market, and he’d personally like to see more boy-friendly middle grade novels and hybrid prose/graphic projects. There’s room for mixing genres in middle grade. The biggest development in picture books is the character-driven movement. He wants to see clever and funny stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end, wherein the central conflict is resolved by the main character.

What’s cooling off?
YA has been hot for the past several years, so with the exception of Stephenie Meyer, he sees this area slowing down, since the industry tends to be cyclical.

Is it better for YA novelists to query with a series or just one book?
Mr. McCarthy said that series are tricky for a first-time author. Nine times out of ten, the 1st book in a trilogy will be the most successful. A series is not necessarily more attractive than a stand-alone novel.

Should new authors secure magazine credits before querying an agent?
Only if they are applicable to the genre you’re writing for. Publishing a literary adult short story won’t be helpful if you’re writing a juvenile novel. But he does like to see that you have been actively writing and publishing recently, even if it’s in small places.

Should new authors wait until they have an offer in hand before querying an agent?
While an offer is great and it can grab an agent’s attention, it can unfortunately lead to a “knocked up” scenario, where the author-agent relationship is borne out of convenience and necessity, not because it’s a great match. So he tends to be wary of these situations.

How is the economy affecting the children’s book market?
In the short term, it will be more difficult to place projects, since there are fewer editors. But the good news is that for the most part, children’s books have been one of the few bright spots for many publishers. He definitely thinks things will improve, although the time frame for that is uncertain–6 weeks, 6 months or 6 years…?

One last thought: Mr. McCarthy mentioned that the #1 method of obtaining new clients is by referral–either by meeting someone at a conference or by receiving a recommendation from a current client.

Writing may seem like a solitary occupation, spending hours on your own with a pen or keyboard, but like any other business, making contacts is vital to your success.

So get out there! Attend conferences. Meet editors, agents and other writers. It’s a small world…and, to borrow a phrase from the NY Lottery…”you’ve got to be in it to win it!”