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Blurbology 101: the chick with the chinchillas

March 31st, 2007

As I mentioned a few days ago, part of my goal in walking my readers through the agents and editors scheduled to attend this summer’s Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference is not only to provide information necessary to make an informed decision about whom to pick for pitching appointments, but also to introduce those of you new to the publishing game how to read a blurb. That way, this series is not only useful specifically for those of you planning on attending PNWA, but also as a learning experience to add yet another vital tool to your writers’ tool bag.

The industry definitely has its own language, so to outsiders, blurbs may appear to say something quite different than what they say to an insider. If you a very literal person (as writers tend to be), it helps to be aware of this. At the very least, being cognizant of the possibility of particular phrases meaning something other than what they appear to you to mean on first reading will substantially lessen the probability of your making the classic first-time conference attendee’s mistake: glancing at the brochure blurbs for a minute and a half, looking for key words associated with your genre, and ranking your preferences based upon that scrutiny alone.

To get the ball rolling, let’s look at the blurb posted on the PNWA site for the first agent on our alphabetical list, Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.:

“Ginger Clark has been a literary agent with Curtis Brown LTD since Fall 2005. She represents science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, paranormal chicklit, literary horror, and young adult and middle grade novels. Previously, she worked at Writers House for six years as an Assistant Literary Agent. Her first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant at Tor Books. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She is the Secretary of the Contracts Committee of the AAR. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and four pet chinchillas.”

For those of you whose editorial fingertips immediately started twitching, longing to correct the typos, fair warning: agent and editor blurbs very frequently feature writing gaffes that would prevent a submission from getting picked up. They will routinely capitalize things that have no business being capitalized in English, as Ms. Clark has done here; they will omit necessary punctuation; they will misspell words.

And no one, but no one in the industry will think the worse of that agent for it. Even if she goes so far as, say, misspelling a genre name. Go figure.

I am bringing this up for a reason: aspiring writers often draw inferences about an agent or editor’s literacy from such errors, but that is a mistake. Since poor writing skill display is fairly universal in these blurbs – and no one in the industry expects anything different – it doesn’t make sense to draw any inference at all other than the one most likely to be true: they wrote the blurbs in 8 minutes at the end of a 12-hour work day and sent them in without spell-checking.

Fortunately for the future of English prose, we writers know better than to do something like THAT, right?

So, typos aside, what can we learn from this blurb? Well, the fact that she mentions how recently she switched from her last job would automatically lead someone versed in blurbology to wonder if she has much experience in selling in the areas she lists; the fact that she transferred from an agency known to favor very literary writing, even in its genre clients, to one more committed to genre on the whole would indicate at least some shifts in interests – which would necessarily mean having to develop new contacts.

You see, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it’s not enough for a good agent to have a good book in hand that she wants to sell. She needs to be in a position to get that good book under the eyes of the right editor for it, and that can be difficult. The better-established an agent and agency is as sellers of your particular book category, the more likely it is that your book will be shown to an editor with a successful track record with such books – and the more likely the editor is to read it in a timely manner.

Thus, a writer new to the industry is usually better off seeking out either well-established individual agents with a long history of selling books like hers to editors (and thus has established her own contacts) or junior agents at well-known agencies where the AGENCY has a history in the genre. Or in literary fiction, as the case may be.

Ms. Clark, as her blurb tells us, is relatively new to her agency, which is quite well-established – so two thumbs up there. However, the fact of her recent transplantation would alert an experienced blurb-reader to budget a bit more time to do a background check on her than for someone more firmly ensconced at an agency.

Why? It’s no reflection upon her status as an agent; it’s pure logistics. It inherently takes longer to do research on an agent who has switched recently, because it requires looking up client lists, acquisition policies, sales, etc. for two agencies, rather than one. This is kind of a pain.

But it really is in your best interests to check for sales and clients in both venues. When an agent moves from one agency to another (which happens all the time), her clients won’t necessarily go with her, which can mean that in the first year or so after a move, she will appear in the industry databases to have twice as many clients as she actually has.

Why is this potentially important to you, you ask? Well, it means the list you find there might not actually be an accurate picture of what she is representing NOW.

As at any job, the new hire tends to have substantially less say over policy than incumbents who have been there awhile. As a result, a freshly-hired agent may well have less latitude in stretching the boundaries of what the agency represents.

I have no idea whether this is true of Ms. Clark, but it would be a terrific question for someone to ask at an agents’ forum, wouldn’t it?

However, there is an upside: such an agent is often more open to new writers as a result of the move: again, thumbs up. Because she may have lost clients in transit (a writer’s contract is generally with the agency, not the individual agent), a recently-transplanted agent is often hungrier for new clients than someone who has been settled in one place for a long time.

Okay, what else can the blurb tell us, other than that she might be partial to a protagonist who regularly fondles chinchillas? (And no, I have no idea why these blurbs so often include information about what part of New York agents and editors have chosen for residence. It’s not as though they expect us to appear on their Brooklyn doorsteps bearing streusel and cider, after all.)

Some very good things are listed here: she holds an official position within the AAR. That’s the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the fine folks who police the agenting biz internally. The fact that she cares enough about keeping the biz ethical speaks very well of Ms. Clark’s general attitude about agenting – and I, for one, applaud her for her community spirit.

One other thing she has told us: because she used to work at Tor, she should have KILLER connections there. If you have any aspirations whatsoever to write SF or fantasy, this should set your little heart all a-flutter, and send her right up to the top of your preference list.

It should also send you scurrying to see what she’s sold to Tor recently, so see if those connections have been doing her clients much good.

As I’ve said before, however, the best proof of an agent’s interests is what she’s sold within the last few years. Let’s run barefoot through her recent sales, to see what they can tell us about her preferences – and so you can rush to the nearest big bookstore, pull some of her clients’ work off the shelves, and try to get a sense of what kind of writing she likes, if she represents your kind of book.

Because she has moved so recently, I am going to separate her sales under the aegis of Curtis Brown from those at Writers House, to make it easier to see how (or if) her client list has changed. (These are all the sales the well-respected Publishers Marketplace database lists; there may be more, do ask her.) Also, please note: wherever possible, I group sales under the same book category headings used in the blurb, to try to clarify what is specifically meant by each category. (Since Ms. Clark bandied about some non-standard terminology in this blurb, this should be especially helpful.)

Here’s what I could find of her sales since she’s been with Curtis Brown:

Science fiction/fantasy: Jeri Smith Ready’s BAD COMPANY, “about a cadre of vampire DJs and the con artist trying to save their ‘lives’” (Pocket, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Tim Pratt’s BLOOD ENGINES, “the first book in an urban fantasy series featuring a sharp-tongued sorceress, chronicling her confrontation with a crazed fellow sorcerer intent on destroying San Francisco” (Bantam Spectra, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Jon Armstrong’s debut novel, GREY, “set in a future where every single move of the rich and famous is reported by the media and plastic surgery is as common and easy as getting a haircut” (isn’t that already true? It was sold to Night Shade Books, 2006).

YA: Patricia Wrede’s fantasy trilogy FRONTIER MAGIC, “set in an alternative version of the 1800s American Frontier where a 13th child comes to realize she doesn’t have to turn out unlucky” (Scholastic, in a $$$ 3-book deal, 2007).

Fascinating, no? It’s possible that she didn’t post all of her sales since on the standard industry databases, of course, but it is interesting that while the sales listed there coincide with what she reports as her current tastes, not all of what she lists as her current tastes are represented here.

This could mean one of two things: either this is an old blurb, one that reflects outdated professional preferences (unlikely, because the move was so recent, but certainly possible), or she is looking to broaden her areas of focus. If it’s the latter, writers in those other areas should rejoice: she is probably actively looking to recruit in those genres.

Let’s take a look at what she sold at Writers House, for contrast. Bear in mind that since she was an assistant there, not all of the projects she worked upon may list her as primary agent, so the databases may have missed a few:

SF/fantasy: Assistant editor at Locus magazine and nominee for the John W. Campbell Award Tim Pratt’s THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF RANGERGIRL, “a dark fantasy about a young comic book artist whose characters start appearing in her real life — including the spirit of an old and powerful evil” (Bantam Spectra, 2004); Short story writer Eliot Fintushel’s debut novel BREAKFAST WITH THE ONES YOU LOVE, “incorporating elements of Jewish mysticism and gonzo science fiction, featuring the adventures of a young runaway and her new boyfriend as they — with the help of 10 elderly neighborhood men — attempt to bring about the re-opening of Eden” (Bantam Spectra, 2005);

YA: Elizabeth E. Wein’s THE MARK OF SOLOMON, “the fourth in her young adult King Arthur series set in medieval Ethiopia” (Viking Children’s, 2004); Alan Gratz’s debut novel SAMURAI SHORTSTOP, “about a boy in turn of the century Japan who incorporates bushido – the way of the warrior – into his baseball practices to prove to his father there is still room for samurai tradition in the new Japan” (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2004)

Middle grade: Candie Moonshower’s THE LEGEND OF ZOEY, “about a feisty, witty 13-year-old who travels back in time to encounter the biggest earthquake to ever hit Tennessee” (Delacorte Children’s, 2004)

Hmm. Not a lot of Tor, is there? But a whole lot of Bantam Spectra, which makes me wonder if some of her old Tor cronies moved over there. (Again, it might be a good question to ask.) In any case, Ms. Clark’s connections for SF/fantasy appear to be working for her beautifully; we should definitely be impressed by her penchant for brokering multi-book deals for her clientele.

On the down side, I haven’t been able to dig up any paranormal romance, paranormal chick lit, or horror sales at all. Again, she may have worked in these areas as an assistant, or sales may have slipped through the databases, but if I were planning to pitch one of these types of books, I would want to stand up and ask her at the agents’ forum what she has sold in these areas, or if these interests are new to her.

So I did a little more checking, and lo and behold, literary horror IS a new interest for her. (“Think Peter Straub/H.P. Lovecraft,” she says in one industry listing, “not splatterpunk.”).

Turns out, too, that she has only just started accepting e-mail queries (most agents still VASTLY prefer paper), but she will only respond to the ones she likes, she says. So if you query her electronically, don’t expect to see a rejection come flying back at you.

If all this has left you intrigued, I would suggest that you check out her guest blogger spot on Magical Musings. If you are interested in what her philosophies on agenting were when she was at Writers House, as a sort of compare-and-contrast exercise, I found a rather interesting interview with her, featuring a photo of her clutching something furry that I hope to God is one of her pet chinchillas.

Also, if you can’t make it to the PNWA conference, but want to fire some questions at her, she is scheduled for an Ask the Agent spot on Absolute Write on July 5th. (Thanks for the hot tip on that great site, Toddie.)

Whew – I wasn’t kidding when I said that doing the background research on these agents was time-consuming, was I? But isn’t it interesting how much information there is out there on an agent that isn’t covered in the blurb?

Again, I would encourage you not to take what I say here as Gospel: do your own research, and always, always take field trip to a bookstore to try to find work by clients of an agent you think you might like to represent you, to see if your writing style makes sense on her list. If nothing else, it will give you a great little icebreaker for when you bump into her in a hallway at PNWA and want to ask if she’ll hear your pitch: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I loved his/her/its last book.”

Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world whose stony heart won’t soften just a little bit after an opening line like that. Agents work hard, but behind the scenes: they aren’t recognized enough for their work.

More agent profiles follow, of course – although, with this length of write-up, I may skip a day between postings, to rest my weary wrists. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

11 Responses to “Blurbology 101: the chick with the chinchillas”

  1. comment number 1 by: misterkel

    RE: the London book fair, requesting appointment.
    that’s the link, though you probably need a password. It’s really just a box (like this) that says “Please type in the reason for requesting a meeting. This will be forwarded to the exhibitor.”

  2. comment number 2 by: Anne

    Oh, I see now what you are asking. Your use of the term hook (which applies specifically to the opening paragraph of a book) mislead me a little; you are talking about setting up a pitch appointment, not submitting pages in advance of such an appointment. (I think the term you meant here was Hollywood hook, which is a one-line grabber that summarizes a book project: \”Wagon Train in the stars,\” the HH for Star Trek, is the usual example.) The more specific information you can give in a question, the easier it is for me to answer.

    To get back to your question: yes, if I am reading this correctly, your first notion (book pitch — genre) makes more sense than typing in a hook.

    According to the directions (at least the part I saw), what you type in as your reason is going to be seen by an administrator, not the person with whom you are requesting the appointment. Since it doesn\’t make sense to pitch to an administrator instead of an agent or editor, it would not be appropriate to put a pitch in this space.

    However, that is just my take from reading the information available ont he website. As is true pretty much everywhere on the net, if you have questions about a particular site, the proper place to ask those questions is the administrator of THAT site.

    I hope this helps. Please remember, everybody, that I don\’t follow every conference out there: I have had an agent for years, so I don\’t go to conferences, except to teach. So I do not generally hang out on their registration sites, and thus may not be the best source on them.

    As always, I love to answer questions — hey, my comment screener gets so much spam that I practically jump for joy when I see a legitimate comment rather than a misguided attempt to sell Viagra or car insurance. For future reference, though, it\’s much easier for other people to follow a conversation following a question if you post each part as a comment on the SAME post. I doubt anyone else who has a similar question will think to look on two consecutive posts\’ worth of comments — so after giving you a couple of days to find this, I shall move all of these comments to the same post, so others can find it.

  3. comment number 3 by: Anonymous Insider

    Wow, you really made some mistakes here. Both agencies are quite big, and each have agents working in numerous genres. In addition, Ginger Clark has a very good reputation and track record in the science fiction and fantasy world. Also, both agencies give their agents significant latitude in terms of what types of material they represent.

    There is an implication in the above that Curtis Brown doesn’t have literary leanings, which is completely inaccurate. It’s one of the oldest agencies in the business and has represented Ayn Rand, WH Auden, Jim Collins, Frances Mayes, Sinclair Lewis, Ogden Nash, Po Bronson, Matt Ridley, Alvin Toffler, etc. I have no doubts that their clients have won more “major” literary awards than almost any other agency out there.

    Writers House certainly does handle many great literary authors, but they also have a strong presence with YA, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, self-help, etc.

    Don’t believe me about any of this? Speak to your agent for confirmation, or call anyone in the industry with at least a bit of experience/publishing knowledge. If you did speak to someone already before posting this, I suggest you never use them again as a source since they have no idea what they’re talking about. Or perhaps you should do now what really should have been your first step – contact Ginger and other agents and editors directly with your questions.

    I think the problem here that people might have had is that you didn’t do your due diligence and made erroneous assumptions. I’m sure other agents and editors are likely scared by what inaccuracies you might present with their bios after seeing Ginger’s. Obviously your blog is popular, and publishing is a small community, so a bad word here and there can actually negatively affect a person’s career. Yes – you do have that power, and as a result you really should be more diligent about what you say.

    Oh, and no, I don’t work at Curtis Brown or Writers House, and I don’t know Ginger Clark personally. I’m simply an industry insider who prefers to remain anonymous. I have no idea if Ginger has heard about or read your comments, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised considering the insular nature of the business.

    I think PNWA was simply asking you to be a little more careful. Considering a negative comment could damage a person’s career, I think this is a fair request. Also, considering that you could be damaging your own career (you never know, you might need a new editor or agent down the road) I’d think you’d want to be more careful.

    Now, my guess is you’ve gotten to the end of this comment and are wondering whether to publish it. I’d ask that you strongly consider doing so because your blog is read by so many people, and they too could be considering posting incomplete and/or inaccurate information about agents and editors on their blogs.

  4. comment number 4 by: Anne

    Dear Anonymous Insider:

    I never for an instant considered not posting your comment while reading it– when you are more familiar with my blog, you will see that I am always glad to post alternate opinions, provided that they are relevant to the topic at hand. Thank you for sharing your opinion, and I\’m sorry if my post angered you.

    In an effort to be absolutely fair before I replied to your lengthy comment, I actually did read my post again from beginning to end, with a copy of your comments by my side, looking for things that I should delete or change — and actually, I did make a couple of very minor changes here and there, not to facts, but to remove the possibility of some of the implications you seem to have read into my well-meant post.

    After a careful perusal, while I agree that you have every right to draw your own conclusions from what I say here, I think terming my profile inaccurate is, even by the standards you list here, a bit of a stretch. You may not consider it complete, but as some of the things you complain of my not saying occupy paragraphs and paragraphs in the profile, you must forgive me if I do not consider them major objections.

    From what you say here, I think you may be misunderstanding the goals of these profiles: I am not profiling agencies as a whole, but the available information on particular agents to whom my readers may find themselves pitching. It is a complete waste of everyone\’s time for a writer to pitch to an agent who does not represent her type of book. Again, regular readers of my blog have heard me discuss this many times, and I do not think anyone in the industry would dispute it as a general principle.

    If I am understanding you correctly, what you believe \”anyone in the industry with at least a bit of experience/publishing knowledge\” would have advised me to post would have been the generic material available on the Curtis Brown, Ltd. and Writers House websites: nothing more, nothing less. (And incidentally, I had already posted the link to the Curtis Brown, Ltd. website in the post, to encourage readers to go take a look at what they had to say for themselves.)

    However, writers attending conferences are NOT pitching to an entire agency, but a particular agent, and particular agents have particular preferences, as their sales records plainly show. This seems to be the case with Ms. Clark, according to all the information I found within a four-hour search on the standard industry databases, the standard agency guides, and an extensive article search.

    If I have missed sales, I am sorry, of course, but as I have said clearly in EVERY profile I have ever done, no database is infallible — even the well-respected Publishers Marketplace, who confirmed each and every sale I have ever mentioned here — and I think if you read all the way to the end of the post, you will find that I have said as much here. In fact, I ASKED readers to do their own additional research, so I am afraid I do not understand how this profile could have mislead anybody.

    And please, anyone who is reading this: do not take my word for any of this. Search the industry databases yourself. I was only trying to save you some time.

    Nor do I believe I implied that at any point in this profile that Ms. Clark was anything but a well-respected agent. In fact, I was very complimentary about both Ms. Clark and both the agencies she with which she has been affiliated. I do not believe that I said anything at all about the respective sizes of the agencies, so again, I fear I do not understand your concern.

    I would take issue, however, with the notion that the simple assertion that an agent is well-respected and works for a big, well-respected agency is sufficient information for a writer trying to choose between 19 agents with similar blurbs to make a well-informed choice. (Readers, would you like to weigh in on that?) I am sorry if you read that belief as implying some ill-will toward any particular agent, but to my mind, that is just an empiraical fact.

    To speak to the only other specific point you raise, I never said that Curtis Brown, Ltd. was not literary — although, for the record, I am relatively certain that most of the authors you cited here are no longer living, and thus are not particularly indicative of what the agency is representing now. I merely said that Writers House tends to represent writers whose PROSE is more literary in style — but thank you for raising the possibility of misreading; I have made it clearer.

    That is my opinion, based upon quite a bit of reading and past discussions with writers represented by both agencies. If I offended anyone by expressing an opinion on the subject, I am sorry — but as I have said over and over again on this blog, anyone is perfectly free to disagree with me about any of this. I neither ask for nor weild the power you have chosen to attribute to me.

    And you and I will have to agree to disagree, I am afraid. Even if I conceded every single factual point you took the time to make here — and, again, I do appreciate it, although I dispute your readings — I still do not see how my post was either incomplete or inaccurate, except insofar as it did not profile the agencies as a whole.

    Which I do not think would serve my readers best, as, again, one does not pitch to an entire agency, but an individual agent.

    Frankly, I find it puzzling that anyone would object to my compiling an array of already-published facts into a single, easy-to-consult resource for my readers — that none of these profiles are a complete birth-to-now biography, I readily concede, but I have been very clear about just how incomplete any profile necessarily is. As I have stated REPEATEDLY, I am just trying to relay hard-to-find facts to writers who may have a hard time finding out what any particular agent represents — and who do not have the monetary resources to subscribe to the industry databases.

    As to your suggestion that I contact the agents and interview them all, I am afraid you are seriously over-estimating both my resources and my clout.

    I provide this blog as a free service to aspiring writers, as a contribution to the greater writing community. My readers\’ response to my profile posts, along with my decade-long experience as an editor, writing teacher, and writer have lead me to believe — perhaps erroneously — that they are hungry for information. I do the best that I can, but I have never claimed to be infallible.

    In fact, as you will see if you peruse other comments on this site, I have bent over backwards to encourage people NOT to take my word as Gospel, under any circumstances — as in fact I said in this very post. I have said many, many times that there are a great many views out there, and mine is only the one based upon my experience.

    As, ultimately, anyone\’s is.

    If you suspect that my research is lacking — please, I urge you, do research of your own. Better yet, do all the research you consider necessary and appropriate and share it with others who do not have the benefit of your insider experience. Do it under your own name, too, so readers can give your insider status the weight it deserves.

    If you do, please let me know, and I shall be delighted to post a link to it here. Or, if you feel strongly enough about this to want to go through all of my profiles from last year, I would encourage you to post any corrections you feel are needed as comments on those posts. That way, they will be read by the most people.

    But I would suggest — again, only as my opinion — that coming to my site as a first-time reader and reading only one post would not give you (or anybody) a very clear impression of my diligence, my integrity, or even of my opinions. So please stick around — I am most eager to hear your feedback on craft issues.

  5. comment number 5 by: Strunk White

    If one is going to be a snot about punctuation in an agent’s blurb, then one must necessarily have impeccable punctuation skills herself. Remember, dear Dr. Mimi, that the first word after a colon in a sentence must be capitalized, a mistake you’ve made numerous times. People who live in snot houses should not throw boogers.

  6. comment number 6 by: Dave McChesney

    I just read comments 3 & 4,which prompted me to re-read the original post. In doing so, I again come to the conclusion that what is presented is informed opinion and a starting point for us blog readers to do our own research.
    I did not find anything negative at all about the agent or either of the agencies that she is (has worked) working for.
    I find in this particular post, as I do in many of your posts, Anne, a certain amount of humor. Could it be that some readers, especially those predisposed to be critical do not “get it?”
    Certainly, the profiles you did last year, and even the one you have done this year, have been benefical to me, and no doubt countless others, as we attempt to make informed choices about which agents we would like to pitch to.

  7. comment number 7 by: Anne

    I suppose it’s yet another object lesson in what I have said so often: you can control what goes into your writing, but you cannot control what people take away from it. It’s probably good for me — and everyone — to be reminded of that from time to time.

  8. comment number 8 by: Anne

    Dear Strunk White: thanks for pointing that out, and your version would undoubtedly be correct according to AP style. Not being a journalist, I do not write in AP style, but the style preferred for manuscripts. Less confusing, I find, given the subject matter of the blog.

    What is the justification for not capitalizing the post-colon word, you ask? Technically, as my well-worn copy of Strunk & White from my Harvard days tells me, a colon does not end a sentence. Therefore, the first word to follow it should not be capitalized.

    Your version is certainly the more common, though — and for what it is worth, the grammar programmers at Microscoft would agree with you. Part of the time, that is: their grammar-checker accepts both ways, I have noticed. But then, the checker in my version of Word frequently suggests the use of the wrong version of there, their, and the they are contraction. It just goes to show that it is always worth double-checking.

    (My last name is spelled Mini, incidentally, not Mimi. Probably just a typo.)

  9. comment number 9 by: Joy

    As a Chicago Manual gal, I have to disagree with commenter Strunk White. Per section 6.64 of the 15th edition, a word following a colon is only capitalized if it is a proper name or it begins a series of two or more sentences.

    One of the fundamental laws of the Internet is that any spelling/grammar flame will itself contain an error. Happens to me all the time. :-) It’s the universe’s way of having fun with us.

  10. comment number 10 by: Elizabeth Wein

    [dodging the mud–whew!] just to add a random fact that your readers can take or leave. I was one of Ginger’s clients at Writers House and I chose to follow her to Curtis Brown. Ginger continues to act on my behalf regarding books she sold for me through Writers House, though she no longer has any financial connection with them, nor any legal obligation to do this.

  11. comment number 11 by: Anne

    That is high praise, indeed! I’m glad to hear it — and thank you, Elizabeth, for taking the time to share that.

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