Assessing who should be on your query list-palooza, part VIII: learning to recognize a gift when it’s offered

torn bird of paradise

Wow, this has been a sad, strange week, campers. Prime evidence: I gave two — count ‘em, two — friends editorial feedback on their respective fathers’ obituaries, to run in local newspapers in different states. I suppose I am the person even I would call for trustworthy proofreading at a time like that, but still, I can’t help but feel that this has been no ordinary week.

I don’t know if you have ever written an obituary or eulogy, but it’s a strange, sad, marvelous process. Like the bird of paradise above, the result should be beautiful, but it will always appear to fall short of perfection. It requires real art to pull off well: few lives have a single coherent narrative, and most are so complex that the eulogizer must be extremely selective about what to include. Like any other synopsis, it can be written entirely in generalities, naturally, but the best are full of the telling details that could have come from no one else’s life but the dear departed.

I’m not bringing this up purely to depress everyone, I assure you. The necessity to summarize complex realities into a few pithy statements is actually quite germane to a matter we have been discussing at some length of late: how to glean information from agency guide listings and websites, to make sure that your query list includes only those agents genuinely and demonstrably interested in representing your type of book.

And half my readership does a double-take. “But Anne,” logic-huggers everywhere cry, “I don’t see the connection — and by the way, the flaws in that bird of paradise appear to have been externally-inflicted, not intrinsic to the flower itself. How is having to summarize an entire lifetime in a few short paragraphs remotely similar to agents having to boil down the possibly quite wide array of books they have represented, are currently representing, and hope to represent in future to just a few short sentences? Or have I just answered my own question?”

Why, yes, you have, logic-lovers — and good point about the flower. The difference lies in the perspective of the beholder. While no one expects an obituary or eulogy to give a complete picture of every nuance of the living person, aspiring writers frantically scanning agency guides and websites are often disappointed, or even frustrated, to find agents’ preferences expressed in only the most general of terms.

That’s unfortunate, because as I mentioned last time, agencies that give clear indications about what they do and do not want to see in a query or a submission are a boon to the savvy query list-generator: by being up front about what kinds of book projects stand a chance of success in the hands of their screener (our old pal Millicent, to be sure), these agencies save writers of other kinds of manuscripts buckets of time.

How, you ask? Conscientious followers of this series, chant it with me now: querying agents who do not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category is a waste of an agent-seeking writer’s time and energy.

It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, a waste of Millicent’s time and energy to screen a query for a manuscript her boss would not even consider. That’s why, in case any of you fine folks had been wondering, agencies that are not in the market for first-time authors are usually quite blunt in their guide listings about not being particularly open to submissions from new writers. This is actually kind of them: like the agent who stands up at a conference and says, “By the way, although my agency does represent romances, I don’t, so please don’t pitch them to me,” an outright statement of reluctance in an agency guide can save a writer the time, energy, and disappointment of a fruitless approach.

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers read such statements in guides and on agency websites, is it? Instead, they hear: you’re not important enough for us to consider or ha! We’ve just slammed a door in your face, newbie. Or even: if you were truly talented, oh previously unpublished one, we would already know who you were. Therefore, since we do not, you must not be a very good writer.

Okay, so that last interpretation is a trifle on the paranoid side. But after several straight hours surfing websites or flipping through guide pages, searching for agents who might conceivably be open to representing one’s groundbreaking SF/Western/Highland romance/cookbook, every indicator of lack of interest in one’s own type of book can start to feel like a personal micro-rejection, right?

Don’t believe that search fatigue affects overall querying patterns? Think again. Just as the alphabetically first-listed businesses under a category in the Yellow Pages tend to get called marginally more often, aspiring writers tend to query the agencies at the beginning of the alphabetical listings more frequently than those whose names begin with, say, L: in the face of so many similar-sounding listings, many queriers simply lose steam midway through the Cs. Because some begin at the end and work backwards through guides, the agencies at the end of the alphabet tend to see slightly more query traffic than those between M and T.

Seriously, it’s true, especially just after the first of the year: a hefty percentage of all of those New Year’s resolution-keepers (“This year, I’m going to start sending out a query each day until I land an agent!”) will pick up a standard agency guide, turn to the As, and work forward, or turn to the Zs and work backward. ?So you might want to avoid the A and B agencies, as well as the W-Zs, until well after the first of the year, to avoid being caught in the January rush.

Don’t worry: the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks. After Martin Luther King, Jr., day, you can feel free to approach those As and Zs; their Millicents will have worked their way through the piles of mail sufficiently to catch a glimpse of their desks again.

But I am digressing, amn’t I? “But Anne,” admirers of linear thought point out, “we were talking about how to read those listings, weren’t we? As fascinating as those last couple of paragraphs on alphabetical order were, shouldn’t we be getting back to the point?”

So we should, consecutive reasoners. Sometimes, the statements in the guides a trifle ambiguous, as if the agency wants to leave itself a bit of definitional wiggle room. Check out this slightly murky piece of guidance, either culled from the agency guide at my elbow or a figment of my extremely vivid imagination:

In approaching with a query, the most important things to me are your credits and your biographical background to the extent it’s relevant to your work. I (and most agents) will ignore the adjectives you may choose to describe your own work.

Now, many aspiring writers would instantly interpret this as don’t bother to query if you don’t already have a book out, but is that in fact what’s being said here? Let’s approach this like one of those nasty reading comprehension problems from the SATs. Is the agent in question actually expressing a preference for

(a) receiving queries from only the previously published (because of that reference to credits),

(b) receiving queries for nonfiction books only (because that first sentence seems to be talking about platform),

(c) receiving queries that are very terse and business-like, containing only minimal mention of the actual content of the book (because the agent who wrote it harbors an inexplicable animosity toward adjectives), or

(d) not trying to limit the scope of queries at all, but only meaning to give some well-intentioned general advice about the desirability of mentioning one’s credentials in a query letter.

How can a savvy querier tell which is the correct interpretation? Actually, she can’t — at least based upon the original quote alone. The fact is, it just isn’t possible to tell what’s meant without reading the rest of the listing — and even then, I would still recommend rushing right over to the agency’s website to double-check its submission guidelines.

Why go to the extra trouble? Well, going over a list of recent sales, the agent in question emerges as someone with a track record of representing science fiction and mystery extremely well. Would you have gleaned that from the statement above?

I’m guessing not. Leaving the thoughtful guide-peruser to wonder: what biographical background would be especially relevant to, say, a SF story set on Pluto? Need one actually have committed a murder to interest this agent in a mystery, or would it just be a nifty selling point?

Even just a basic web search can often turn up clarifying extras. If I told you that the agent responsible for our example also wrote an article recently for a SF fanzine, would your sense of how open he is to new writers increase? Might you even conclude that while this agent is primarily interested in science fiction, his agency is just beginning to expand its nonfiction list? And if so, mightn’t the comment about platform be aimed at nonfiction book proposers, rather than novelists?

A quick search of the last couple of years of this agency’s sales showed this to be precisely the case. (Sorry to disappoint all of you axe murderers out there who had gotten your hopes up.)

See why I think it’s a good idea to do some double-checking — and not to take every statement made in a blurb or listing at face value? Sometimes, industry-speak requires translation.

While we’re on the subject of nonfiction (and industry-speak), let’s take a look at another fairly common type of guide listing statement:

Nonfiction author and/or collaborator must be an authority in subject area and have a platform. Send a SASE if you want a response.

I must admit, I love the if you want a response part: if there is a querier out there who sends out missives WITHOUT wanting a response, I’ve never met him.

But is don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE the only message this agency is trying to send? Definitely not. The first sentence gives some indication of probable rejection criteria (hooray); the second sentence is most likely just giving general advice. Actually, it was probably intended as a bit more than kindly advice: from the phraseology, it’s probably safe to conclude that they simply toss out queries that arrive without a SASE, as many agencies do.

Which does, I suppose, boil down to don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE, now that you mention it. But if you had simply gone with your first knee-jerk reaction to that part, you would have missed the implication that this agency would welcome queries from legitimate experts on nonfiction subjects, wouldn’t you?

That’s not all an experienced eye could glean from this only apparently off-putting statement, however. I find the first sentence interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does: while it would not be wildly inappropriate to conclude that, like our first exemplar, this agency’s Millicents have been trained to reject any NF query that does not include a clear statement of relevant credentials, it is not saying that the agency is only interested in the previously published — not an uncommon restriction for NF agencies. It also, by specifically mentioning a collaborator, is indicating that it is open to queries from ghosts.

So if I were considering querying this agency, I would run, not walk, to my list of selling points. Why? To cull bullet points to cram into my query letter about why I (and/or my collaborator) is the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, and why my target audience will be fascinated to read it.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: There is no substitute for reading agency guide listings and websites IN THEIR ENTIRETY. All too often, would-be queriers mistakenly cross great potential agents off their query lists based upon impressions derived at a first glance — or even based on a perceived tone.

What kind of tone might engender this reaction, you ask? Perhaps an ambiguous beauty like the following:

We prefer that writers be previously published. However, we would take on an unpublished writer of outstanding talent.

That one made you a trifle hot under the collar, didn’t it? Go back and read it again, slowly. I put it to you, dear readers: is this agency open to queries from the previously unpublished or not?

To my eye, the answer is both. They probably would not reject a query outright for not including the credentials paragraph so strongly urged by the agent in our previous example — but a query from a previously unpublished writer would really, really have to wow ‘em to be considered. Or, to put it more crudely, they probably don’t want to rule out the possibility of the author of the next DA VINCI CODE’s not querying them because they said in their listing that they only represented previously published writers.

Remember, a listing, website, or conference blurb is not necessarily the obituary for an agency, depicting with impeccable accuracy its sales achievements to date, but unable to give any hint about the future. Usually, it also reflects what they hope to represent as well. Sometimes, as here, the actual content of that hope is left ambiguous.

And you thought I’d abandoned my obituary analogy. I’m more tenacious than that.

So is it worth a previously unpublished writer’s time to query an agency that seems to be hedging its bets like this? Possibly — provided that the agency has a solidly impressive track record in selling book’s in the writer’s chosen category and that it has sold a first book within the last couple of years.

Why that last caveat? As I have mentioned before, sometimes agency listings are rerun unchanged year after year. Websites are not always up-to-date reflectors of recent sales, either, and many, many agencies will list only their best-known clients. The expressed openness to writers of extraordinary talent expressed in a guide listing, then, might not be a current enthusiasm. Or even a recent one.

How can a savvy writer tell? Fly straight to its sales record. This need not be time-consuming: instead of concentrating on its client list in its entirety, focus on debut novel sales. (Most of the industry databases will include this information.) Or if you write nonfiction, first books in general.

If you don’t see any, you might want to rely more heavily on their assertion that they prefer the previously published and save yourself a stamp. Again, they have done you a favor.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s take a look at one more listing statement — or, better yet, let’s compare these three:

We care about writers and books, not just money, but we care about the industry as well. We will not represent anyone who might hurt our clients or our reputation. We expect our writers to work hard and to be patient. Do not send a rude query; it will get you nowhere. If we ask to see your book, don’t wait around to send it or ask a bunch of irrelevant questions about movie writes and so forth…If you can’t write a synopsis, don’t bother to query us. The industry is based upon the synopsis; sometimes it is all the editor ever sees. Be professional and follow our guidelines when submitting. And don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet about editors and publishers — it isn’t always true.

Present your book or project effectively in your query. Don’t include links to a webpage rather than use a traditional query, but take the time to prepare a thorough but brief synopsis of the material. Make the effort to prepare a thoughtful analysis of comparison titles. Why is your work different, yet would appeal to the same readers?

We are not interested in receiving poorly written submissions from authors with grandiose attitudes; don’t compare yourself to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Blackmail never works — don’t tell us that you’ll only send your manuscript to us if we can guarantee you will be published. Please always send a SASE or else we won’t be able to contact you. Write stories that make sense; research everything down to the bone. Most importantly, be proud of your work; no self-deprecation.

Okay, what’s wrong with these three excerpts from guide listings?

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, absolutely nothing; they’re stuffed to the brim with thoughtful, practical advice about how to avoid these agents’ respective pet peeves. Well done, blurb writers, who may or may not exist outside my head!

To more cynical eyes, these responses might perhaps indicate questionnaire-answerers with a fair amount of time on their hands — the first lines of the first do carry a mission-statement aura about them. If I had to guess, though, I would say that pretty much all of these admonitions refer to individual queries they have received recently, rather than to general trends.

Faced with this sort of broad-reaching statement, a cynical querier might verify the size and longevity of the agency. Very small agencies — say, under 25 clients — will frequently have more specific blurbs, and for a very good reason: they can accept fewer clients per year than an agency that represents a couple of hundred clients. So probabilistically, they tend to be slightly worse bets than the larger concerns.

But it is awfully nice of them to tell writers up front what will trigger an automatic rejection, no? Make no mistake, that is what they are doing here — and indeed, what any agent who chooses to give specific querying advice almost certainly intends.

Trust me, no one likes to see her advice neglected. It’s in your interest to follow it to the letter, if not in all your queries, than at least in queries aimed toward the advice-giver’s agency.

In short, it is very much in a writer’s interest to read blurbs and listings very, very carefully — and in their entirety. Weigh all of the information you are being offered, even if it seems ambiguous or downright opaque: if an agent took the time to write more than the bare minimum, he’s probably trying to tell you something.

That’s also often true of obituaries and eulogies, come to think of it: a rushed, careless, or simply overwhelmed eulogizer might well fall back on generalizations and platitudes. It’s the telling details, though, that give the reader or hearer a sense of the actual person being described.

When individual preferences pop up in agency guide listings or in submission guidelines, cherish them. Appreciate them for the useful signposts that they are, and be glad that someone at that agency was kind enough to give aspiring writers some guidance. Because, really, is it in anybody’s interest for a query to end up on the wrong agent’s desk?

Oh, yes, I have more to say on the subject. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

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