Sean McCarthy, founder and sole agent for Sean McCarthy Literary Agency, gave a presentation at Austin’s SCBWI conference. He said that the author has much more work to do than just “write a book.”

I think a lot of this should be done once you have a solid idea (more than a title or a seed like “girl runs away and DISASTER,” maybe after you’ve filled out the 3 Act structure from Pixar’s Storytelling in a Box) and BEFORE you start working full bore on your project,

Determine what are viable projects. Yes, the idea you have may be amazing, BUT it may also have been done thirty times recently. Look to see what has been published about your topic recently (1-2 years, 3-4 at most) in your field and level. If it’s a picture book, look for picture books on the same or similar topics.

While finding a lot of publications can be a problem, so can not finding any. If no one has published on the topic, it might not be unique, but instead could be irrelevant.

Read the market conditions. Look at what is being published. Are young adult novels (YA) becoming longer or getting published less frequently? That’s important to know if you are a YA author.

Hone your query letter. Don’t just send a letter. Make sure that it catches attention and that every word is as carefully crafted as any of your books. Discuss the books in terms of the market.

Help the work stand out. If they take you on, this agent wants to sell your book. They won’t make money if they don’t do that. However, your job is to make sure that the agent’s job is easier. First, by making sure you have a viable project based on the market conditions. One way to do this is make sure that your work isn’t the same as everyone else’s, except that you wrote it. What is the distinguishing feature or aspect of your book that makes it different from the dozen similar stories published recently?

Decipher rejections. If you receive anything other than a form letter, you may have significant information on why your work didn’t make it. Most often, though, you will, at best, receive a form letter. When an editor says “It’s not right for us” that may mean that another house would take it as is OR it may mean that the work needs significant revision or is not a viable project for publication any time soon.