Very practical advice, Part II

Hello, readers –

For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, I’m in the midst of doing a series on how to read agents’ blurbs in conference brochures, as well as giving you some idea what you can turn up on agents through standard industry background research. I’m hoping that this will save you some time (and give you easier access to some of this information) as you are carefully considering your rankings for your agent appointments at this summer’s PNWA conference. The wonderful volunteers at the PNWA honestly do screen potential agents very carefully before inviting them; I just thought those of you new to querying could use some help telling them apart.

Again, some standard disclaimers: I am listing the agents scheduled to attend this summer’s conference in alphabetical order here, not ranking them. I am not going to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on any individual agent; my dual intent here is to teach you how to read a blurb and to give you enough background, wherever possible, so you can weigh your options. (My agency is not represented this year, alas, so I have no stake in pushing one or another.) I have gathered this information from the standard industry databases, and so cannot be sure that it is all 100% up-to-date. So if you find out that I’ve conveyed some misinformation here, please let me know, so I can pass the correct information on to my readers.

Okay, next on the alphabetical Loretta Barrett of Loretta Barrett Books. Here is her official blurb, lifted from the PNWA website:

”Loretta A. Barrett (Agent) is a literary agent and president of Loretta Barrett Books, Inc. in New York. She founded the agency in 1990. Prior to that she was Editor-in-Chief of Anchor Books and Vice President and Executive Editor at Doubleday. She is a member of AAR, and has representation in every major foreign market, East and West.

”Ms. Barrett’s nonfiction interests cover a wide range of topics. These include psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography and memoir. She represents the New York Times bestseller Symptoms of Withdrawal, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford; the New York Times bestseller Mother Angelica, by Raymond Arroyo, the national bestseller The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil, and Stressed-Out Girls, by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Other notable clients include George Weigel, Ann Douglas, Wayne Muller and Stephen Levine.

”Her fiction preferences are largely mainstream and contemporary. She is particularly drawn to women’s fiction and thrillers. Her current fiction list includes the New York Times bestseller Cold Truth, by Mariah Stewart, and national bestseller The Lake of Dead Languages, by Carol Goodman. In addition, she represents noteworthy novelists such as Gary Birken, MD, Laura Van Wormer, M.J. Rose and Dora Levy Mossanen. For a complete list of clients, as well as submissions guidelines, please visit .”

What can we learn from this blurb? First of all, when an agent gives her website in her blurb, VISIT IT BEFORE YOU SELECT HER AS ONE OF YOUR TOP CHOICES. I would bet a nickel that there is information there, particularly in the submissions guidelines, that will prove useful to you in both your decision-making process and in prepping for your meeting at the conference.

(Fear not; as the conference draws closer, I shall be giving you tips on how to pitch your work more impressively in these meetings – and in hallways. They are very different venues, and require different approaches!)

Second, judging from this blurb, I would suspect that Ms. Barrett is pretty sympathetic to writers: she has gone to the trouble of including enough information here that an aspiring writer could glean a sense not just of the genres she likes, but of the kind of WRITING. If you will be listing her as a top choice, it will be well worth your while to spend a few moments in the big bookstore nearest to you, reading a few pages from the works of the authors she lists.

Why? I’m guessing that you’re going to see some stylistic patterns amongst her clients. And if you can walk up to an agent and say, “My writing style is very similar to that of your client, X,” the agent’s eyes will generally light up.

See, I’m trying to make the conference a better experience for the agents, too. I’m just generally hospitable.

She has also, I notice from checking her recent sales, provided in this blurb quite a nice mix of very recent sales and ones made longer ago, to give a better impression of her interests as they stand now. No book on this list, as nearly as I can tell, was sold more than 5 years ago, and she has sold books by some of these clients within the last few months. Nice of her; it saves you some trouble in your research.

Third, she mentions that she’s a member of AAR, which saves you the effort of looking it up. Why should you care? Well, AAR members agree to adhere to certain professional standards in dealing with writers – most notably, members cannot charge reading fees. (They can, however, charge editing fees. For a list of other membership restrictions, see most of the standard agent guides.) Also, AAR members are not supposed to do nasty things like sell lists of authors who query them to editing services or writers’ publications, nor are they allowed to make working with a particular editing service a precondition of their reading your work.

The idea here is that an AAR member agency will make the bulk of its income through commissions on sales of its authors’ writing, rather than by charging eager aspiring writers for the opportunity to have an agency screener read a chapter of the book. In the long run, this is for your benefit: if an agency cannot sell your work, being signed with it will not help you much.

Not every non fee-charging agent is a member of AAR, of course, so you should not necessarily write off any agent who is not. (Especially if you write screenplays: many, many screenplay agents are not AAR members.) Some agencies choose not to become members because they are set up as management agencies, which means that they reserve the right to bundle their clients into package deals (novelist + screenwriter + director, for instance).

Being an AAR member does not guarantee that an agent is a decent human being (although it helps), but it does guarantee that if something goes terribly wrong down the line, you will have a court of appeal. For instance, AAR specifies that its members can charge only reasonable fees for photocopying, so if you signed with an agent, and then found you were being charged $2.00/page, you could pick up the phone, and AAR would straighten it out for you.

Ms. Barrett has also been kind in defining her interests with precision: in fiction, mainstream, contemporary, women’s, and thrillers (translation: novels with wide market appeal); in NF, psychology, science and technology, religion, spirituality, current events, biography, and memoir. If you have even the vaguest doubt about the category into which your book falls (and, no, Virginia, “it’s sort of a cross between thriller and literary” isn’t going to fly here; we’re talking where your book would be shelved in a bookstore), check out my blogs for February 13-16. And if you have any doubt about whether your work is mainstream enough for Ms. Barrett, check out her website and her authors’ work for comparison.

A quick aside about pitching NF at a conference: there are usually fewer NF writers at a literary conference, which does make one stand out a bit. However, the first thing that ANY agent will ask a writer pitching NF is, “What is your platform?” In other words, what background do you have that makes you a credible author for this book?

(And P.S., you need to be able to state your platform for a memoir, too. Yes, it’s your life, but memoirs are generally about something else, too. Why are you the best person to write on that secondary topic? And why is your life so compelling that it needed to be turned into a memoir?)

I bring this up in the context of Ms. Barrett’s blurb, because I notice that many of the areas she lists are ones that generally require professional platforms: people who write psychology, science, or technology books tend to have Ph.D.s after their names, for instance; religion and spirituality books tend to be written by those with extensive experience with their subjects, and current events books are generally written by journalists. Not that this should discourage you from pitching these kinds of books here – just be very, very well prepared to answer the platform question before you walk into the meeting.

If you are planning to be pitching fiction, do be aware that Ms. Barrett represents many heavy hitters in the industry, and thus may be rather difficult to impress. (One reason I think so: I noticed only one fiction sale in the last three years specifically identified as a debut novel, anthropology professor Lila Shaara’s debut literary thriller “about a former model turned college professor whose scarily obsessed students create a website of doctored photos from her previous career, and soon the danger they pose to her and her two young sons becomes shockingly real.” However, this Feb. 2005 sale was part of an apparently terrific two-book deal to a major publisher.)

I think it’s safe to assume, then, that she may not be as hungry as a less well-established agent. (Hungry is an industry term: it means to be very, very eager to sell books; typically, the better-heeled agents are less hungry than those newer to the game.) So if you’re going to pitch to Ms. Barrett, I would suggest taking the time before the conference to make your book sound as appetizing as possible. Plan to walk into your meeting with her very, very prepared to make your book sound like the best novel since, well, ever.

More agent blurb deciphering follows in the days to come, but before I end today, let me add what I’ve heard on the writers’ grapevine: I have heard from many who have pitched to her (as I have not) that she is a good person to ask for recommendations for OTHER agents who might be interested in a particular book. That, too, is a good thing to know before you walk into a pitch meeting.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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