Expanding your agent list

Hello, writers!

My apologies for a terse posting today: for reasons I cannot in retrospect fathom, I spent the last two days sitting outside, overseeing a garage sale. (For readers outside the Pacific Northwest, let me fill you in on why my local compatriots are greeting this announcement with guffaws: in an area where it rains often, but seldom very hard, yesterday was a cat-soaking exception.) The result, predictably, is that today I am coughing like Camille. Since my creativity apparently resides somewhere in the vicinity of my sinuses, I must implore you to pardon my being comparatively brief today.

On Friday, I talked about how to track down the names of individual agents, once you had picked out a list of books and/or authors you would like to emulate. Today, I am going to give you tips on how to expand that list into one long enough to launch into a season-long campaign to nab yourself an agent.

The autumn is a great time to go agent-shopping. Not only are there always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves, but by doing it now, you’ll get a jump on the literally tens of thousands of aspiring authors who suddenly decide that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month. Since the average New Year’s resolution lasts about three and a half weeks, January is when all of those resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks. With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a might testy around then. The moral of the story: get your queries out before January. Beat the post-Christmas rush.

Once you have gone through your ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents, where do you go next? What about checking out agents who represent authors in your demographic? For years, I made a practice of reading every first literary novel written by an American woman under 40 and published by a major publishing house. (It wasn’t hard; there were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7.) It is an excellent idea to form some idea of what agents and editors expect people in your demographic to write — just so you know, there are an awful lot of agents and editors out there who will automatically assume that ANYTHING humorous written by a young American or British woman is chick lit.

FIRST book is the operative term here: many agents prefer to work only with previously-published authors, and your chances are higher if you already know a particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. (On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.) It is considered courteous to say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent, of course, so it’s a good idea to read the book first, but if you are in a hurry, you can’t go too wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…”

Now, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to buy and read all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. The world will be a better place for writers if we support one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often. However, books are expensive, and I know that some of you will be in too much of a hurry, so here are a few tips on how to expand your list without buying out Borders.

First, don’t wait until a book is actually published before querying its agent. Start reading the trade journals, or subscribe to Publishers Lunch. Publishers’ Weekly lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well. (Many times, they will give a general indication of the advance offered as well, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth.) If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section. Once you have the agent’s name, it is an easy matter to look up the agency in one of the agent guides.

Since this is a situation where you could not possibly (unless you are a member of the author’s writers’ group) have read the book before querying, you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT. A good all-purpose opening: “Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you are interested in (type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…”

By querying the agent before the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any successful book. Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold right now. Not just what’s hot, but what is being sold with mid-list expectations.

Why is it a good idea for a writer to keep up-to-date on publishing trends? Because on average, it takes over a year for a book to hit the shelves after the contract is signed; in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of old contracts. What you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not an infallible guide to what is selling NOW. Trust me on this one: agents live in the now, and you will be better off if you can address them on that level.

My cough is overpowering me, so I shall now retire to my boudoir to languish. Tomorrow’s posting will deal with the valuable agent information you can glean from book reviews.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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