Anna Olswanger: An insider’s guide to finding representation and working with an agent

Since 1975, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market has been a must-have reference guide for emerging artists who want to establish a successful career in fine art, illustration, cartooning or graphic design. Beyond up-to-date contact and submission information for more than 1,100 art markets, AGDM includes informative articles and interviews with successful artists and art buyers. Read on for a 2011 AGDM interview with Anna Olswanger, a literary agent specializing in illustrated books. Also, be sure to check out ArtistsMarketOnline.com, the new online version of AGDM—you can try it for free with the 7-day risk-free trial.

Anna Olswanger literary agentWhen should I look for an art rep? Will a literary agent help me get my stories and illustrations published? How should I look for representation? These are just a few of the challenging questions that artists and illustrators may face as they attempt to develop their careers. Anna Olswanger is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in New York, where she specializes in illustrated work, both fiction and nonfiction, for young readers and adults. She has sold to Balzer & Bray, Bloomsbury, Boyds Mills Press, Marshall Cavendish, Chronicle, Dutton, Greenwillow, McElderry, and Random House Children’s Books, among other publishers. In addition to being a literary agent, Olswanger is the author of the children’s book Shlemiel Crooks, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and PJ Library Book. Having worked as both an agent and a creative, Olswanger is in a good position to address some of these pressing questions regarding representation.

What do agents do?
As a literary agent who works with author-illustrators, I first evaluate a potential client’s dummy. If the dummy impresses me, I work with the artist to develop it for submission. I suggest ways to make the art and text stronger-the text has to be as strong as the art, something that many artists find difficult. When the dummy is ready to go out (almost always as a PDF to send by email), I decide which editors to show it to. I then send it out, and when an offer comes, I negotiate the contract. After the artist signs the contract, I keep an eye open for possible sub rights sales. I am interested in building a client’s career beyond one book, so in some cases, I may even suggest other books for the client to create.

How did you decide to become an agent?
I had been an aspiring children’s book author since the early 1980s. I found that I enjoyed the submission process and thought I would also enjoy the other business aspects of publishing, such as editing and marketing. When I moved to the New York area, I enrolled in the Certificate in Book Publishing program at NYU. After I took the course, “How to Become a Literary Agent,” I knew that was the area of publishing I wanted to be a part of, so I interned for the instructor. At the end of that internship, I interned for Liza Dawson, and within a few weeks, she offered me a position in her agency.

What is the benefit for an author-illustrator of working with a literary agent?
Here are a few: Because editors know that agents only send out work they think is excellent, editors look at agented work faster. The agent knows who to send your work to, and when. An agent will negotiate your contract for you and make sure that the advance, royalties, and all the other clauses are in your best interest. And after you have signed the contract, your agent will keep an eye open for sub-rights sales.

When in their careers should author-illustrators seek an agent?
There’s no reason why you can’t start looking for an agent as soon as you think you have a viable dummy, but it’s not unusual for a first-time author to have difficulty landing an agent. When I look at my client list, I see that most of them were published before they came to me. That doesn’t mean I accepted them because they were already published (and in all cases, these were publications by smaller, regional publishers, not major New York publishers), but because they had perfected their craft before I took them on. They had been writing or illustrating for years.

The truth is, if you have just created your first dummy, you might not be able to find an agent. That won’t be because agents have policies about not accepting unpublished author-illustrators, but because you just need more time to educate yourself about the publishing business and to perfect your craft. The competition is intense and you are competing with authors and illustrators who have years of experience.

How should artists approach an agency?
Each agent has a different submission policy, so it’s best to check if the agent has a website with guidelines. In my case, I prefer an email query with a PDF attachment of the dummy.

What questions should an illustrator ask to find out if an agent is a good match for his needs?
Most potential clients have financial questions, like what percentage the agency takes on domestic sales, on foreign sales, and on sub rights (such as film and television) sales. (The industry standard is 15 percent of domestic sales and 20-25 percent of foreign and film sales.) You can ask how long the agency will hold your check after it receives payment from the publisher: A week? Three weeks? You can ask if the agency has a contract that requires a formal separation process. Then ask the questions that will help you decide whether you can work with the agent on a long-term basis-and you may not know that until you actually work on a manuscript together. Does the agent require revisions? If so, do you think the agent is helping you improve the manuscript or art? Does the agent submit to more than one editor, and if not, are you comfortable with what could be a long, slow process? How long will the agent continue to send out a manuscript that is not selling? Will the agent stop after three rejections? Ten? Twenty? Make sure you receive the answers you want to hear.

What should an artist look for in an agency?
You might want to see if at least the head of the agency belongs to the Association of Authors’ Representatives, which requires its agent members to adhere to a canon of ethics. You might want to check past sales in your genre. However, because new agents are always coming into the business, you can’t always judge an agent by past sales. A new agent without a track record might do a spectacular job of placing your work.

Should an agent work in New York City?
Many literary agents work outside of New York. Some are on the West Coast, or anywhere between. The agents outside New York will tell you that in this electronic age when most submissions are by email, an agent does not have to be in New York to be successful. All of my submissions are electronic, and, yet, I feel there is an advantage to my being in New York, which I consider the center of the publishing world. I can go to lunch with editors. I can attend publishing conferences. I can visit the classes of what I consider the best art schools in the country to meet aspiring children’s book illustrators. But for you as an illustrator, if you know that the agent represents quality clients, and regularly places his or her clients’ work, then you shouldn’t feel that the agent has to be in New York.

How will an artist know if his or her agent is doing a good job?
If the agent is showing your work to many editors, and good publishing houses, that may be all you can ask for.

How soon should the results of having an agent become evident?
There’s no objective answer. I have clients whose works has been rejected by every major house, and, then, a year later, an editor made an offer.

What advice do you have for artists who are just beginning or who are struggling to find an agent?
My advice is to continue to write and draw, go to classes, join a writers’ or illustrators’ group to get feedback, attend conferences, send your work out to smaller, independent presses, and keep submitting to agents, especially the newer ones who are looking to build their client lists. Eventually you will have the agent and career you want.

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