Ask an Agent - with Penny Holroyde from the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency

This month, Penny Holroyde from the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency has stepped in to answer our readers' questions and also has a few handy tips for those looking for an agent.

Thanks to Words and Pictures for asking me to guest post while Gemma and Molly enjoy well-earned breaks. I’m an agent with the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency. I’ve worked in publishing for 18 years in the UK and the US. I’m looking for authors and illustrators for children’s books for all ages. 

On my wish list currently are: an M R James for 10+, the junior novel that makes a child a lifelong reader – Gerald Durrell did it for me, a really funny series for 8-10s that makes the mundane funny, a historical novel (although it doesn’t have to be set in the past, I guess) where the protagonist has a very unusual job – assistant to Charles Darwin – something like that. I’m also looking for some narrative nonfiction – if you can do for children what Wendy Moore and Giles Milton do for adults, I’m really interested in seeing it. And I’m always looking for picture book texts. 

Are picture book authors who write in a variety of styles more appealing to you than those whose stories are all similar in approach and subject matter? 

With picture books, it’s more a case of establishing whether the author can bring a text that works. I’d love to find a picture book author who is as happy with rhyme as they are with prose, as good at funny and anarchic as they are at heart-rending tenderness. If I’m considering a picture book author, I tend to prefer to see more than one text to see whether the author is consistently good at storyline, rhythm and meter, and character. Too often, I see picture books that are too long – you should aim for 500-600 words - and, although the story needs to resonate with the lives of the audience, it doesn’t always have to be about bed time, separation, toys, going to school, etc., it just needs to be a really good story. 

Tip: read as many picture books out loud repeatedly to get a sense of how they work and to get a proper understanding of the 32-page construct. 

Should an author try to convey a sense of personality in a submission cover letter, or does a business-like letter work for you if the manuscript is strong enough? 

You should definitely try and convey some personality in a submission letter. It’s not a job application! The relationship between author and agent is intimate and long-lived so the agent while initially looking for striking writing would also like to work with someone with whom she can get along. It’s a simplistic example but I once got a sub letter from an author who said ‘my children have all left home now, thank God’ which just really made me laugh and conveyed personality writ large – in two words! 

Tip: read some of the agency’s clients’ work and tell the agent why you liked it. 

How would you feel if you loved a submission but the author told you that they were approaching two other agents at the same time? 

It’s our job to find great writing and jump on it, so, if we find something we love, but another agent has already beaten us to it, we’ve only ourselves to blame. 

Tip: always be transparent in your submission letter about whether yours is an exclusive (or not) submission. 

In recent years, there has been a trend of producing 'darker' and more 'edgy' content in YA literature. As such, do you feel those involved in the industry have a responsibility to ensure that these stories portray positive behaviour and messages to the young readers they are targeted for? 

I think the trend you might be referring to is the so-called crossover novel which in a way has allowed authors more freedom to include more ‘adult’ storylines. I think editors, publishers and agents take very seriously the responsibility to create age-appropriate and positively affirming content. I’ve had a few conversations with editors recently where we’ve expressed concern about the creeping misogyny in popular culture and are determined to address the balance. 

Tip: don’t let what you perceive to be current industry trends influence your writing too much.

I am about 25,000 words into a YA novel. I really want to submit it now to get feedback from an agent and to see whether I'm on the right track for the market, or would you advise me to finish it? 

The so-called domino effect has tripped up many an author. You really have no way of knowing how the beginning of your novel is going to look by the end. You are required to submit the first three chapters so don’t blow it by submitting prematurely. Also, an agent will want to see that you’ve got it in you to complete a full work. It’s also not really an agent’s job to provide feedback on early draft chapters. I will only feed back if I love the work and see it has promise. 

Tip: finish it. What are you going to do if an agent loves it and asks for the full manuscript?! 

An agent has requested my full manuscript. What should I expect now? 

The agent will probably establish with you who else is reading your work and should be able to give you a ballpark estimate for when you can expect to hear back from her. Bear in mind, when I ask for a full, I’m obviously interested, but I am going to read the novel carefully and slowly and edit as I go which could take some time! 

Tip: while your full manuscript is under consideration, don’t tinker with it! Move on to writing something else and step away from the refresh button. 

I have been submitting my work to publishers directly as well as agents and one of the publishers has said she would like to take my novel to acquisition. What does this really mean? 

Ah, acquisition. In the current climate this doesn’t always do what it says on the tin. It used to be the case that the editor could read something and acquire it. Job done. Now, the novel has to be read by an army of people who all have opinions and take weeks and weeks so express them! Don’t get me wrong, acquisition is a really promising sign but it doesn’t always result in that. 

Tip: let the publisher know that your work is on submission to agents. 

Gemma and Molly will be back next month with some more query critiques. If you have a question or a query you'd like critiqued, leave them in the comments below, or send them in to

Penny Holroyde has worked both in the UK at Walker Books and in the USA as rights director for Candlewick Press and served as secretary of the Association of Authors' Agents from 2007-2009.  To submit to Penny or find out more about the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency take a look at their websites - 


  1. Thanks Penny - I like the idea that an army of people could be reading my novel. Most helpful tips too.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to do this, Penny. Great to find out about your current wish-list and to read your tips on writing and submitting.

  3. This is fantastic advice Penny thank you especially as I was preparing to send my 600 word illustrated book that's not about bedtime or toys to you later today!

  4. All very interesting. I hope you find your MR James for 10+! I'd love to read it.

  5. Thank you very much Penny for covering Ask an Agent this month. Very interesting to get another perspective on the process but also really useful to read how agents agree on the big questions like why I need to finish before submitting - so so true! While the general idea for the end of my WiP has stayed the same during the writing, the specifics have changed a dozen or more times.

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