Let me start by saying that I don't currently (June, 2009) have a book agent. But I was an agented, working screenwriter for years. I'll leave it to you to decide whether I know anything!
Here's some of what I think I know...
Finding a children's book agent isn't easy! Tons of children's book writers are hoping to get agented and published. Many of them imagine the business is easy - "Look, there are only 500 words in this picture book!" - and you're competing with them for an agent's attention. Ergo...
You're going to have to find a way to set yourself apart.
Start with a mindset of respect for agents - children's book agents in particular - and what they do. They are not sitting around waiting for your manuscript to show up! They're busy, busy, busy, and professional, and they expect you to be too. They work on commission, so they use their time in the way most likely to make them money. Never waste an agent's time!
If you send an agent a manuscript that doesn't reflect the work they tend to represent, they'll assume you didn't do your homework. (Which you probably didn't.) You might have just ruined your chance of being represented by any of the children's book agents at their agency!
So you need to do your research. And not just research on what kind of work each agent represents, but research on your own writing. You need to know what niche or sub-genre it falls in, and if it doesn't fall in neatly, you might need a re-write!
You need to make sure your work represents you well. And the same with your cover or query letter.
You do know the difference between query letters and cover letters, don't you? A query letter asks an agent if he/she would be willing to read your manuscript. A cover letter accompanies your manuscript.
You also need to know how agents want to be contacted. Many still act as if the internet hasn't happened yet. They want a snail mail query, then - if they're interested - a hard copy submission. Some of these agencies are still so pre-internet that they don't even have websites!
But if they do, you NEED to visit. Often the most up-to-date information on what an agent is looking for appears there. Does this book agency accept simultaneous submissions? Do they want your manuscript formatted in an unusual way? Is the children's book agent you're interested in accepting new clients?
Reasearch what other authors an agent represents. This might come in handy in a query letter in case your work bears some resemblance. And remember: your prospective agent is (at least currently) more famous in the field than you!
Think of being familiar with who's who in the children's book business as a prerequisite for being allowed to play in their sandbox! Don't just walk in acting like you deserve to be made a star.
Agents generally make 15% of what you make. (By the way, if you write picture books, it's good to know why a prospective children's picture book agent will likely view you as only half a client!)
Resources for finding the right children's book agent
Let's start with two essential hard-copy resources, both of which are reviewed on this site:
Neither resource focuses entirely on children's book literary agents, but they both cover the subject and they're both more valuable than online resources! (If you decide to invest, get the most recent edition you can afford. The market changes rapidly.)
Agents for children's books online
There is solid info available online if a site does a good job of updating.
It's a nifty resource for finding agents who represent the kind of work you write. The Advanced Search function will let you look for children's book agents in particular.
Preditors and Editors can keep you from making a very bad mistake. This is the site to go to in order to find out if the agent you're eyeing (or who is eyeing you) might be a scammer!
The Bewares and Background Checks section of the Absolute Write forums is another place to check for similar warnings.
If you need convincing that finding an agent is a real business, check out QueryTracker. Wow. Another Writer's Digest top site (2 years running), there's a searchable agent database and you can track the status of all your queries. (It IS important to track queries.)
QueryTracker has a free service, and also a premium one. It appears to me that there's real value in the free service. It'll be up to you whether premium is worth the upgrade.
You'll also find some excellent articles on children's book agents at The Purple Crayon. Author Harold Underdown is the author of the aforementioned Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. He shares a fraction of what he knows (but he knows a lot!) on the site.
Do I need an agent?
An agent is not a must. Many children's book authors break in by querying publishers directly. (Especially picture book authors who aren't illustrators.)
In fact, many authors become agented by first landing a publisher. If you want to set yourself apart with an agent, be the prospective client who shows up at the door with a contract that needs negotiating! (This is the rare instance, by the way, that justifies querying children's book literary agents by phone.)
More on kid book publishing.
Best Children's Books home.
Table of Contents
Work on your writing
Trying to get published