Since this is the season for sending out your work to agents from the PNWA conference (or, indeed, other summer writing conferences), some of you may find yourself puzzled at the differential between the agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to your pitch and the rather tepid communications submissions, even accepted ones, tend to generate. It’s not uncommon for I speak to many authors every week to tell me, tears in their eyes, “But she loved my idea at the conference!”
Others may still be smarting from quick conference brush-offs, ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book,” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment,” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)
Still others of you may have spent the time since the conference perfecting your submissions, preparing to send them out. If you have been wading through the standard agents’ guides, your head may well be spinning at how different your dream agent’s pitch at the conference was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.
You may, in short, be wondering right about now what to believe of what you heard at the conference.
Honestly, most agents and editors who attend conferences are good at heart. They truly do want to help new authors. However, not all of them are necessarily there to discover the next Great American Novel: in fact, it’s rare for an agent to pick up more than a single author from any given conference — even a great one like PNWA — or for an editor at a major house to pick up anyone at all. (That, incidentally, is why the PNWA routinely asks the agents who speak at the conference to state clearly in their presentations whether they represent anyone locally: it gives aspiring writers an opportunity to see how open they are to conference discoveries.)
There are agents who pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. There is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. (The ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.)
The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.
You may have noticed that this ambiguity of intention occasionally gets reflected in the blurbs in agents; guides. How many of us have read that a particular agent is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, including our own, only to be crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work?
I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the rather tumultuous end of our association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.
Why would an agent advertise that she is looking for genres she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope. An agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike. A broad advertiser is a gambler.
Yes, Virginia, that’s very, very annoying for the writers who believed his pitch.
So how does the new writer know what to believe? I wish I could give you a sure-fire way to tell, but frankly, I don’t know of one.
However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences and in agents’ guides. I suppose they are not lies, per se, so much as polite exit lines from conversations, but from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.
Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak — and I suspect some of the translations may surprise you. Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score.
Top Ten Lies Agents and Editors Tell Hopeful Authors
10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with what is selling at the moment. Do not press me for my reasons.
9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: I only represent previously published authors. Since it is now possible for an author to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)
8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something just like the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.
OR: You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?
7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”
Translation: We spent less than a minute reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid summer intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really busy.
OR: If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.
6. “The length doesn’t matter, if the quality is good.”
Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 450 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.
OR I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.
5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.
OR: We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is.
OR: We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.
4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”
Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.
3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)
2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: This is a definitional issue. If it is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.
OR: We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.
1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”
Translation: But not with my agency.
OR: Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.
There are two sentiments, however, that always mean exactly what they say: “I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and “I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.” These, you can trust.
Hope this helps. If you have other industry double-speak that should be added to this list, send ’em in, complete with definitions. I’ll post the best ones.
Hey, let’s make this a contest, so the winners can use it on their writing resumes: the First Annual Definitional Frenzy Award, judged by yours truly. Winners shall earn undying glory and another place to establish their web presences.
And please, don’t let all of this silliness depress you. There are good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help you sell your work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.
Keep up the good work!