Posts Tagged ‘literary agents’

The Absolutely Most Important Agent’s Tip For Writers: First Impressions Count

May 17, 2013

Readers of Ask the Agent know  I’m suspicious of the seemingly endless stream of  publishing tips that you read in writers publications, blogs, and workshops. Given my skepticism about this kind of shorthand advice, my tips tend to be framed with a lot of ironic and self-deprecating humor.  And I also try to be realistic to the point of blunt. This blog is not for the faint of heart. Those seeking flittery feel-good inspiration will likely be uncomfortable here.

But there is one tip that is as indisputable and immutable as  a law of physics. That is: first impressions count. And your first paragraph will be the agent’s first (and possibly) last impression of your work. So it better be better than good.

When I  started working with fiction, I found that I usually could decide by the end of the first paragraph if a writer had talent. I was a little ashamed of this, so I asked around with other agents and editors. They agreed. This is not to say that I can tell by the end of the first paragraph whether a book is publishable. If the first paragraph makes me fall in love, I’ll keep reading until that first blush of romance disappears. It usually does at some point. Sometimes in the second paragraph. Sometimes on page 100.  Only rarely do I find myself reading the last line at 3 in the morning crying like a baby. But when that happens, it makes everything all worthwhile.

First impressions with an agent are no different than anything else in life. If you were going for an interview at Knopf, you probably wouldn’t show up wearing a NASCAR t-shirt and a John Deere hat. (Unless, you were looking for a job as an editor of a new imprint on ironic detachment.) If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative,  or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression. And chances are editors and agents aren’t going to afford you that much more time.

This may seem harsh and unforgiving, but here’s my advice. Make that first paragraph sparkling and brilliant. And after that, make the second paragraph sparkling and brilliant.

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Eleven Steps to Finding an Agent

March 18, 2013

 

I teach a class on finding and working with agents. A lot of prospective authors who attend the class are a little intimidated by the process and need to know the basics of agent research. So here are the steps you need to follow to find the right agent for your book.

1). Decide if you really want to work with an agent in the first place. I recommend you read my blog post on writers’ misconceptions of literary agents. Agents are going to charge a 15% commission on your income. Smaller publishers don’t require agented submissions. Some even refuse to work with agents. Large publishers will almost never accept unagented submissions. And even when an editor is interested in your project, she might insist that you find an agent before proceeding with her.

2) Make sure your project is ready to submit before seeking an agent. If your book is non-fiction, have a complete and polished book proposal and sample chapter. If fiction, the manuscript must be in final form. (Frequently publishers will insist on a finished manuscript for memoir as well.) If you are preparing a book proposal, do your homework on how to write a good one. Read some books about it, attend some classes, or get a freelance editor to work with you. Books are sold based on the proposal, and it has to answer the questions that the agents and publishers will be asking. Having a compelling idea isn’t good enough. Agents have to know that the idea works as a book, not just as a magazine article or a blog. Publishers need to know that they will make money on this book, not to make to fine point. To get a better idea of what agents are looking for, check out my blog post, Think Like an Editor.

3) Be careful about bad agents and scammers. Before preparing a prospective agent list, do a little research on things to watch out for. Check out the Writer Beware website. They have some very good advice on avoiding unscrupulous agents.

4) The next step is to start doing research on agents who are most likely to be appropriate for your specific genre and project. Remember that you can and must send multiple submissions. Almost all authors, from Joe Schmo to J. K. Rowling, have gotten lots of rejections from agents before finding the right one. I recommend that you make a list of 25 agents who would seem to be a good fit and proceed from there.

5) Begin by mining the data bases. I have a blog post about the resources you can use for finding agents. You might want to start with the list of members of the Association of Author Representatives. The AAR is the trade association of literary agents and has some strict requirements for membership including a code of ethics. For a larger list, I recommend Agentquery.com. In all of these lists you can limit your search only to agents who are working in your genre. Most of the agents will have brief statements that give you a more subjective feel for their sensibilities. You can also get links to the agents’ websites for further research. I went into some detail on a previous blog post about resources for writers.

6) After you have developed a tentative list of agents, it’s time to move on to the agents’ websites. Almost all agents have websites and almost all agent websites have a similar structure. You are likely to find:

• a page describing the agent’s orientation including a fuller description of the types of books she is looking for. Sometimes this will give you a better feel for the agent than simply a list of genres she works with.
• background information about the agent. This might include her education, previous occupations, honors and awards, and personal interests. Sometimes you want to go with your feelings on this. Your relationship with your agent will be very personal.
• A list of books that the agent represents and/or recent book deals. It’s important for you to see if these books seem compatible with your project. An agent whose list is primarily cookbooks might not be the best agent to represent your political journalism. But you need to find out if that agent in moving into other areas that would be more appropriate for you.
• Submission guidelines. This is crucial. Every agent website will have a page on submission guidelines that will tell you: how much and what information they want in query letters, whether submissions should be electronic or paper, some specific requirements about book proposals, and how long you can expect to wait before hearing back.

If you want to delve deeper into the dark recesses of an agent’s mind and soul, some agents will have blogs that could be revealing and always provide useful tips for prospective authors. Check out my blog post on agent blogs.

7) Next compose your query letter. The number of articles, books, and podcasts on this subject is legion. Some of this stuff though is mystification and hype. Don’t let a query letter guru tell you that a good query letter will result in publication. It won’t. But it is important to present your query in a format that is familiar to an agent, that provides the specific information an agent is looking for, and in a style that is clear and intelligible. Always sound professional. Never indicate that you suffer delusions of omnipotence. (Avoid mentioning: Oprah; Eat, Pray, Love; or movie deals.) Don’t be dumb. (Don’t say you are offering a “literary fiction novel”. That’s redundant. And for God sake, don’t say you have written a “narrative non-fiction novel.”)

8)Most writers want to know how long they should expect to wait before hearing back from an agent and how they should go about nudging those agents who haven’t responded. Response times are all over the map. I generally read queries every day and respond within 4 or 5 days. Other agents may take weeks or even months. Usually agents will give an indication on their website how long they take to respond. And….a lot of agents aren’t going to respond at all. It’s rude, but that’s life. Don’t expect agents to give you incisive advice on how to rewrite your book. And don’t ask them to refer you to other agents. You need to do your own research. Agents get 10-100 queries a day. Rejections tend to be pro forma. I recommend that after a few weeks, start sending out more query letters. It’s ok to send a follow-up after a month or two though.

9)If an agent is interested in your project, be responsive. If your project is non-fiction, she will usually ask for a complete book proposal. If it’s fiction, an agent will usually ask for the first 10 pages. And those 10 pages had better be good. Most agents and editors can tell good writing by the end of the first paragraph. If the agent gets excited, she will ask for the complete manuscript.

10) If you are in the enviable position of having interest from multiple agents, you can and should do your due diligence. Ask for references from other authors the agents have represented. If an agent tells you she can get you a 6 figure deal, she’s probably lying. She doesn’t know. That’s a bad sign. Having a New York agent is no longer important. Having an agent from a big agency is less important than having a good agent who believes in you.

11). You will get rejected. You will probably get rejected by dozens of agents. Get used to it. Authors get rejected by agents; agents get rejected by publishers; publishers get rejected by book sellers; and booksellers get their books rejected by consumers. That’s show business.

DECONSTRUCTING PUBLISHER REJECTION LETTERS

August 31, 2009

In my line of work, I get a lot of rejection letters. I tell my authors that it is a little bit like my social life in high school. Rejection is painful to everyone.  Reading these letters  always feels like a stake in my heart. I can’t imagine how much it hurts the writers who have labored for two years on their life work only to have a capricious 2 line rejection.

 You read about these high profile deals in the newspaper: Sarah Palin (or Tina Fay), Dr. Phil, Stephen King. These deals are actually pretty simple affairs and mostly revolve around the concept of a lot of money changing hands. But the vast amount of publishing deals are something entirely different.

 Most of my projects are what is referred to in the trade as “midlist”.  The midlist books are the ones that aren’t lead titles. The midlist is most of the books that are getting published. The midlist appears to be what publishers are most shy about acquiring in bad economic times.

  Even though advances for the midlist are pretty modest (often less than $10,000),  publishers see these books as a risk. Like every other business in America, publishing is having a hard time. The lead titles seem to be holding pretty well, but the midlist is struggling. There are other factors involved in the decline of the midlist as well. Concentration of retail bookselling in the hands of chain stores and mass merchants, the cult of celebrity, a reading public that  has developed internet-inflicted ATD, irrational exuberance over all things media-driven.  All of this works against good books with smaller audiences.

  I try to send out a lot of submissions for any given project. As long as the title submitted seems appropriate to the mission of the publishing imprint and the taste of the particular editor, I like to give the publisher  a look-see.

 When you read about the big deals, the word “auction” usually comes up. But with most midlist books, you might find only one publisher who really falls in love with the book. – Or no publisher. So you can see why there are a lot of rejection letters in my inbox.

 My authors all want to see the rejection letters. We talk about them a lot. Authors seem to think that there is some hidden wisdom in the letters that can be uncovered through hermeneutical exercises.   I tell them that frequently there is very little to be learned. Sometimes these letters are simply polite ways of saying: “we aren’t interested”.

 I’m going to give you some examples of rejection letters I have received (I will protect the privacy of the author and the editor). And in true, post-modern fashion,  I will  try to explain the hidden meanings through exegesis of the text.

 Fiction submission: “Thanks for sending us _______. This is a beautiful and stirring look into the lives of people who are living in a time and place surrounded by tragedy. [The characters] are both very well-wrought and intriguing. That said, the pace was a bit too slow for me….. As you know, selling fiction is difficult these days, and I think a book as well-thought out as this one needs to move at a swift pace, in order to keep American readers interested. I’m sorry.”

 Analysis: Publishers are nothing, if not polite. And they always like to be as complimentary as possible. But when the phrase “that said” comes up, we know the ax is going to fall. In order to determine if a letter  is meaningful, one must look for something personal and unusual. Letters that begin with “This is beautiful and stirring”… [followed by] “that said” [followed by ] a rejection are usually of a garden variety. There is not much to be learned here except that fiction is difficult  these days and publishers really want fast moving stories. We already know that.

  Narrative Non-fiction submission: “Thank you for sending me the proposal for ______ She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a _______ in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ….”

Analysis: “I didn’t fall in love with this” happens a lot in this business. There is always some truth to this. In art,  de gustibus non disputandum est (I’m sorry. There is no accounting for taste). Even though publishing has become a highly rational business focused on the bottom line, at the end of the day the decision to acquire a book is ultimately based on a highly subjective and emotional response. And that  is how it should be, and I suppose this is some cause for optimism.

Memoir: “I took a look at this early this morning. What a story. Her commitment and passion are beyond admirable. It’s also a piece of history incredibly important to our generation, little known to people in their twenties and even thirties. But I feel memoired-out….”

Analyis: “Memoired-out”. I’ll say! I go to writers conferences. A lot of people are writing personal memoirs. Publishers are very cynical about them. They call them “ME –moirs” or “misery memoirs”  or the like. I tell my clients that memoirs are ok if the writer is looking outside themselves. I ask them to think about who is the audience for the  book. That is what the publisher is going to ask me. Most people think that their life is interesting. And, in fact, everybody’s life is interesting. But one must ask who will spend $25 and several weeks reading about it?  (BTW, I found a publisher for this particular memoir.)

Humor: “I don’t find it as funny as you do, and I don’t see much of an audience for this.”

 Analysis: Well, what is certain is that this rejection letter isn’t  trying to be too polite. It is blunt but honest, even if there is little that the author can learn from this. What I learn is that humor is especially subjective. What I see as one of the funniest books ever written may leave another person cold. Before I submitted this, I looked at every humor deal that had been made in the last 2 years. There is a data base where one can do this. Virtually every humor title was from a successful web site. Successful web site usually means more than 100,000 hits a day. If it’s less than this, chances of getting a publisher diminish.

 Humor: “Sorry.  I just don’t get this one.  I’ll pass, but thanks for thinking of me.”

 Analysis: Same as above but even blunter and more honest.

 Current Events: “Andy, I’m passing.  It’s so funny and smart and relevant but also, and obviously you’ve already found people who disagree with me, it felt like a lead article for New York Times Sunday magazine.  That’s no mean feat in and of itself, but I just worry it won’t have a big enough book audience. ”

Analysis:  The message in this is that this is an article, not a book. That is a big cause for rejection these days. As big as: “I just didn’t fall in love with it”. I have started telling this to my authors. That they really need to understand this concept. Some concepts for books  are probably better expressed in a 5-10,000 word article than in a 50,000 word book.

 Dating Memoir: “Many thanks for sending me this funny and candid proposal–I did enjoy myself, and I admire [the author’s]  verve and headlong sense of humor. She does have a great platform…. (I also want to acknowledge my own subjectivity here, ….I am about to give birth for the first time–my focus is just in a very different place than the territory this book covers, and I’m afraid I am rather self-absorbed at the moment!)”

 Analysis: Now how can you feel bad about an editor as honest as this, even though it’s just another  rejection. When I read this, I wanted to give her a big hug and send her a teddy bear.  She’s having a baby! She isn’t interested in issues around finding the right man. Editors are like everyone else.  Sometimes they reject a book because they got up on the wrong side of the bed.

  History Book: “Andy: thanks for sending this to me.  She’s a great writer and it’s a terrific story but my fear is that this happened so long ago, I’m just not sure how you make 1989 of interest to people in 2010 or 2011, especially by a woman who’s not a household name, so I’m going to pass.”

Analysis: This rejection letter is extremely annoying. After all, the book is about a war and an important moment in history. The editor seems to be saying that she would be more amenable in an historical subject more current. But then, it isn’t history. And the current war in Iraq has been so over published, that there is simply no new way to slice it and dice it. But I was not able to get this book published. 20 other publishers said the same thing. They felt that there was not a sufficient audience for a subject  that took place 20 years ago. In this case, the message was loud, clear and unambiguous.

 Narrative Non-fiction.” I like the chapter and the idea of the book but to be honest, I’m not sure from the proposed chapters what makes this a book with a narrative arc of some kind rather than just a collection of essays.”

Analysis. The key concept here is “narrative arc”. This is a big reason for rejections. Alan Rinzler wrote about this on this blog several weeks ago. A good narrative non-fiction book must read like a novel. It needs a beginning a middle and an end. It needs an Act 1, Act 2, Act3. Just like a good play or a movie. That is “narrative arc”.

 Narrative Non-fiction. “Apologies for getting back to you so very late about this (I thought I had responded but can’t find the email).  I thought the writing was excellent and the subject intriguing, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced we’d reach a large audience with this project, so alas it’s not for me. ”

Analysis: There is the “A” word again: “audience”. Publishers keep asking me this and so I keep asking my clients. Who’s the audience? Who is going to read this? Authors really need to think pretty hard about this. And take some time to make a compelling case in the book proposal. Because if you can’t make a compelling case, chances are that there isn’t an audience.

 Non- Fiction Proposal. ” I didn’t receive it. We’ll check my spam filter for it, and we’ll let you know if we find it there.”

 Analysis: You would think that these big corporations have sophisticated logistics that make things work better, but clearly they don’t.

 Proposal: “Acquisitions are still on hold over here, so I’ll have to pass.”

 Analysis. This is pretty distressing. But publishing is suffering from the same economic problems as the rest of us. And there are some fine publishers who are having difficulties. [The publisher above closed its doors for the last time this year].

  Humor.”I’m sorry to be slow getting back to you about this. I found the illustrations and the story to be very clever and charming. But, it’s such a tough publishing climate right now and I worry that without authors who have a more visible platform, it would be a challenge for us to get the word out about this.”

 Analysis:  Platform, platform, platform. That is the word you keep hearing about from publishers. What is it? It means that the burden of promoting this book is going to fall on the author. And you better have fame, money or access for promoting your book, or the publisher won’t be interested. Sometimes, but not always, prestige will suffice for platform. As in having an endowed chair in a department at Harvard. Publishers love Harvard. I don’t know why. I have gotten books published by authors without platform. But not having one creates huge hurdles.

 Fiction: “Thank you for sending me ___________  [The characters] are engaging and likable, and this thoughtful examination of their relationship feels incredibly honest and revealing. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ”

Fiction (letter from the same editor as above):“Thank you for sending me ____________This is an incredibly heart wrenching, moving perspective on________, and her brutal honesty is truly brave. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. I found it difficult to get entirely swept up by the characters, and without a stronger connection I’m afraid this didn’t capture my attention throughout.”

Fiction (letter from the same editor as above): “Thank you for sending me the proposal for_____________. She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a ____________in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. As compelling as her experiences are, I never quite got to the point where I was really driven to turn pages, and so this didn’t entirely capture my attention throughout.”

Analysis: The 3 rejection letters above were all sent to me at different times by the same editor. Obviously  there is some serious cutting and pasting going on here. I’m tempted to make some snarky comment. But really, these letters tell us a lot about the life of an acquisitions editor. They get twenty proposals a week. Fiction editors probably acquire less than 1% of the proposals they receive. So it is not reasonable to expect a huge amount of nuanced analysis in a rejection letter. There really isn’t much to learn from these letters, except that the book was not for them.

And here is my favorite letter of all time from an editor

” Yes, I just got out of the meeting this minute, and the book was approved. Yay!”

 That’s  what makes it all worthwhile.