Ask an Agent - with Gemma Cooper and Molly Ker Hawn, from the Bent Agency

Are you looking for a query critique from those in the know? Or do you have a question you've always wanted to ask an agent? Each month, agents Gemma Cooper and Molly Ker Hawn from The Bent Agency will be offering just that.

This month they answer some more questions sent to us by our readers.

Would you take on a book that has already been published as an ebook?

Yes, I’m happy to look at self-published projects, but I’d want to know why the author chose to self-publish. Sometimes I see authors self-pubbing out of impatience with the traditional publishing process, and I’m wary of working with someone who expects instant results. On another note, I think it’s worth pointing out that publishers don’t consider a self-published e-book to be a huge success unless its sales are really, really strong.

I would consider something if I could see that a traditional publisher would be interested and the book would benefit. So I would look at it pretty much like any other query – unless the sales were incredibly high, and then I would take more notice. If you’re going to submit self-published work to agents, it’s best to have sales figures in the query letter so we can see how well the book is doing. Like Molly, I’d like to know your reasons for self-publishing the book in the first instance.

What would you say is the approximate maximum word count for middle grade humour now? Obviously it depends on the book, but at what length would you start to feel uncomfortable?

I hate to say it, but it really does depend on the book! If I had to put a figure on, I suppose I would start to get uncomfortable over 65,000 words for humour, but if it had a fantasy element or sci-fi alongside the humour then there is room for a higher word count. Also, if the writing is amazing and the book has fantastic pace, then I might not even look at the word count while reading.

I don’t worry too much about this – a book should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. I think the idea that “children’s books are getting shorter” is a real generalisation. There’s definitely a vogue for Wimpy Kid-style illustrated humour, but there are plenty of longer funny MG books out there as well. Whenever the subject of word count comes up, I direct people to agent Jennifer Laughran’s excellent blog post on the subject. It’s the most comprehensive look at word counts that I’ve seen.


I heard something recently about someone's MS being criticised because their chapters were all of different lengths. This surprised me as I thought varying chapter length was sometimes really effective for mixing up the pace. Is what I heard bunkum, or should I be aiming for even chapters?

This is a good question. I find for younger illustrated fiction (7+/chapter books) it usually works well to have chapters that are of similar lengths, ending on a cliffhanger or a note of uncertainty. I am biased, but my client Mo O’Hara, author of My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish, is really good at this, and that means her books have great pace. However, this isn’t a ‘rule’ and length can often depend on the voice and any stylistic elements of the book. For example, if it’s a third-person POV book that hops between the protagonist and the villain, it may be that the villain has shorter, choppier chapters because that’s how his voice works best. Like all parts of a book, you can play with chapter titles, lengths and layout to fit the story. One of my favourite young fiction books as a kid and actually one that still holds up now is The Great Smile Robbery by Roger McGough. He uses varying chapter lengths to add another layer and extra humour to the book. For example, there is a chapter where the main character is arrested, and the title is ‘Alone’ and it has just one line and one illustration on the page. But the very next chapter has the villains plotting and is six pages long.

For older fiction, again, I think it depends on the book. I feel like this kind of discussion can distract from the important questions: is the pacing of this book compelling? Does the structure fit the voice? For nearly every so-called rule of writing children’s fiction, there are so many exceptions that it’s a bit disingenuous to call them exceptions.

I am preparing to complete my first children's picture book and would like to know whether my cover email to publishers should include any sample images or even a pdf of the 20 page book itself? Or should I introduce myself and ask if it's okay to send the book along for consideration separately?

Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions, so I’m assuming that you’re only referring to publishers whose submission guidelines specifically say that they do. Right?

Usually publishers who accept unsolicited submissions have a separate section about how to submit picture books and images. Always send low-res images, as these are less likely to be caught in a spam folder. If it isn’t clear on the website whether they want to see sample images (and most are, so check carefully), then I would suggest you don’t and just let them know that images are available – perhaps putting a link to any websites with your illustrations on them.

Do you like to know if an author receives requests for full manuscripts from other agents or are you only interested in offers of representation?

It’s nice to know if another agent’s requested a full, but it’s not really my business. What’s important is being told when the author’s had an offer of representation.

Agreed. I don’t need to know if an author has had other full requests, but I definitely want to know when an author has been offered representation so I can have the chance to read the project and maybe offer myself.

It’s incredibly frustrating to have a manuscript withdrawn from consideration because the author’s accepted an offer elsewhere. That’s happened to me when I was just about to finish reading a project. If you’re not interested in receiving an offer of rep from a particular agent, then don’t submit your work to them! I don’t want to waste my time reading a project that isn’t actually available.

What would you want to discuss with a prospective client before taking them on? Any deal breakers?

I try to meet prospective clients (in person or Skype) before offering representation. To me, meeting face to face is important to establish a relationship as I want to like my authors on a personal level as well as loving their writing. Hopefully, we will be going on a very long and exciting journey and I’ll get to look after their careers for years to come – so we need to be able to relate.

Because I represent a lot of American authors, I don’t have the luxury of meeting them in person before I offer rep. That happens more in the UK, where half the country can get to London and back home in a day. Most American authors don’t get to meet agents in person before they accept an offer of rep, but we do speak by phone at length.

Some questions we ask are: Where would you like your career to be in five years? What do you do for work? How comfortable are you with social media (totally not a dealbreaker if the answer is ‘not at all’ – the agency has a very comprehensive social media handbook for our clients who aren’t experienced with social media, and we’re always happy to handhold through Twitter and Facebook tutorials.) How do you feel about any suggested editorial changes? What books do you like to read? When do you write and how quickly could you revise? What other books are you working on?

We also describe how we work with clients, how the agency operates, and the agency’s terms. Lots of authors are curious about how we handle foreign rights and subrights, especially film/TV. We both give prospective clients the opportunity to speak to current clients – having the point of view of another author can be very reassuring. There aren’t many dealbreakers, but if an author isn’t willing to revise her project at all – whether with me or with an editor – then I would certainly hesitate to offer rep.

Even if you don’t agree with our editorial suggestions, you have to be open to making some changes to your work, because an editor will be wanting that also. A dealbreaker for me is if someone is abrasive and I could see they would be hard to work with and hard work for an editor.

If you are ready to start submitting to agents, but would like some feedback on your query from Gemma and Molly, then email your query to Submissions will be posted anonymously. Alternatively, if you have a question you would like to put to our agents, email us at the above address, or post them in the comments below. Molly and Gemma will be returning next month with Query Do's and Don't's.

Gemma Cooper and  Molly Ker Hawn represent authors of books for children and young adults. For more information about Gemma and Molly see The Bent Agency website and blog. 


  1. Interesting and informative post as ever

  2. Thanks Gemma and Molly! No sarcastic comments this week, I promise :-)

  3. 65,000 word humour book. That's a lot of farting.


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