Querying the agents of others

Have you missed me? Did you think I had traipsed off to Frankfurt with the rest of the book world? (For those of you who don’t know, this week is the Frankfurt Book Fair, an event that drains the NYC publishing world of many of its decision-makers annually at the end of October. It’s only a week, but hey, if you’ve already hopped the pond, why not take a look around while you’re there?) No such luck, although my editor is probably donning lederhosen as I write this — and everything has come to the predictable grinding halt, book-wise. Not a whole lot going on this week at any of the big houses.

Out comes the broken record: since many, many agents attend the Frankfurt fair, expect their desks to be piled high with backlog for the next few weeks. Delays inevitably ensue.

No, I have spent the last couple of days in one of those scarifying continuing education classes that make you want to track down every GOOD teacher you ever had and give her a box of chocolates while you sob out your thanks. Heaven save us all from uninsipired teaching under flickering florescent lights.

Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find an agent. Not in the traditional sense of figuring out who is who in the agent guides, but in the strategic sense of targeting agents who represents writing like yours.

We’ve all heard the advice to query our favorite authors’ agents, but if those writers are well-known and/or award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. Chances are, too, that the agent representing a major author now is not the one who first took a flier on him as an unknown. Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. Or, like John Irving, he may have married his agent (Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency).

My point is, these authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than beginning-of-the-career raw talent. By all means, check an agent guide to see if your favorite bigwig author’s agent is even accepting new clients, but do be aware that Writers House sees a LOT of queries that begin, “Since you represent Ken Follettâ…” Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig necessarily spends quite a bit of time catering to the bigwig’s business. In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy.

Where the “Since you so ably represent Author X, I believe you will be interested in my work…” gambit will serve you well is with lesser-known writers. Many agents are nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books sell only a few thousand copies, but will be breaking into mainstream success any day now. Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as the reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or assistant) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy: it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do not like as entry cards, and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you do not know. Assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised. The more obscure the author, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love; he’s represented by Emma Parry of Fletcher & Parry), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison (Frances Golden Agency), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Nor should you imply, even indirectly, that the writer you are citing SENT you to her agent, unless it is true. Aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?” If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. (And in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent,” constitutes a recommendation.) If you do not, however, do not tempt fate.

The “Since you so ably represent Author X…” technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up David Sedaris’ agent (Don Congdon) with ultra-serious literary fiction, any more than I would send a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff) or hard-right political analysis to Michael Moore’s (Mort Janklow). However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients. (If you missed my lecture on why best friends, family members, and lovers are NOT the best givers of feedback, see my post of September 21; it can save you a lot of grief, in the long run.)

Do be careful, though, how you present yourself: it pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered. Avoid saying, “My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE,” or “A friend told me that I write just like Nora Roberts.” (Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally. Neither of them worked.) Nor will hedging your bets by vague statements like, “It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE” win you friends and influence agents. Such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress.

If you can legitimately say, “Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,” by all means say it. But make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful. (You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check.) But, hey, if you can justifiably say that Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel! I am morbidly honest, however, and so have kept that luscious little blurb to myself ever since.

Tomorrow, I shall go into how to track down who represents whom, as the standard advice on the subject is not particularly helpful. As you may have guessed from the ease with which I was able to add who represented whom in this post, there is a trick to it, like so many things in the publishing world.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Just so you know, I shall most likely be leaving this site within the next month, just as soon as I can get my website operational. My better-heeled writing buddies have been nagging me, and deservedly, for devoting this much time to a blog owned by others. Don’t worry — my blog will not disappear into the ether; it will merely move to where I, and not an organization, get credit for my writing. Details follow when I know them myself.

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