Honesty: policy, or just a good idea?

Yesterday, I discussed two ways of finding agents to query other than through direct meetings at writers’ conferences (which is still one of the best — and, unfortunately, most expensive — ways to connect with an agent): soliciting agents who spoke at conferences you attended with whom you did NOT speak, and tracking down those who represent your favorite authors. I have a few more words of advice about the latter method yet to dispense, but first, allow me to revisit the former briefly.

It has come to my attention that some wily writers out there habitually surf the web, tracking down major writing conferences, and sending “I so enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and I hope you will be interested in my work…” queries to the agents listed as having spoken there. These unscrupulous souls do this for conferences they have never attended, and yet they write “Conference X attendee” in big red letters on the outside of their submission envelopes. Oh, the shame of it all…

And why do these clever-but-underhand writers do this? Because they have been around the industry long enough to know that (a) by a couple of weeks after a large conference, the average agent might not remember be able to pick everyone who pitched to her out of a police line-up, much less remember who was or was not in the audience during her how-to-wow-me speech, (b) even at a small conference, many writers are too shy to approach an agent directly, so chances are, the agent will not have met everyone there, and (c) at a big agency, a reasonably well-established agent will have a screener going through her queries for her, anyway.

Therefore (these cads reason) the chances of being caught in the lie about attending are next to nil, and since the benefits of being able to claim conference attendance can be fairly significant — as I mentioned yesterday, conference-going queriers’ letters usually end up in the closer scrutiny pile — they have no scruples, apparently, about dressing themselves in borrowed clothes. Why not, these abandoned types reason: at worst, being caught means the query and/or eventual submission’s being rejected, that’s all.

Fie, fie.

Actually, there are a couple of ways in which such bold souls DO get caught, and since I am here to preach practicality, rather than morality, I feel honor-bound to point them out. First, agent rosters for conferences are NOTORIOUSLY malleable; agency screeners love to tell tales of the query letters they’ve received that extolled the pleasures of meeting an agent who was never in the time zone of the mentioned conference. Second, since agents routinely talk about their specific book needs of the moment at conferences, what they say there is often substantially different than what they told the fine folks who put together the standard agents’ guides a year before. (Even if their preferences are wildly different, though, the unprincipled conference-claiming writer will only come across as working from an outdated guidebook. Still, fie.)

Brace yourself for #3, because it represents some pretty hardened criminality. Some dodgy writers are not satisfied with imposing upon a screener with an untrue statement in a query letter: sometimes, they will send the first 50 pages of their manuscripts to an agent who attended a conference, along with a disingenuous letter thanking the agent profusely for requesting the materials at a conference so jam-packed with writers that the agent might well have been pitched to dozens of times in its hallways.

Fie, fie, FIE!!! I find this one particularly offensive, since I know at least three successfully published authors who got their agents this way. But that doesn’t make it right, my friends; it only makes it common.

You’re better than that. I know you are.

Okay, I’m finished tutting; now that we’re all sadder but wiser about the ways in which this wicked, wicked world works, back to how to solicit other writers’ agents.

Yesterday, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents. This can be a dandy way to find a good agent, but do be aware that if the writers whose agents you approach are well-known and/or award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. Check the standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: chances are, too, that the agent representing a major author NOW is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown.

Why? 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, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.) It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and want to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. (Crystal ball, why do you keep showing me the image of Alice Volpe of the Northwest Literary Agency, who represents JA Jance? Must be a transmission error.)

My point is, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent. Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors. If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that Writers House , for instance, sees a LOT of queries that begin, “Since you represent Ken Follett…” and “Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book…”

You may not get any points for novelty.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig necessarily spends quite a bit of time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead; I seriously doubt he’ll be offended: he talks about it at conferences.) 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 best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out. 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.”

Good reason to go to public readings of first-time writers, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, “Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you…”

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however: do NOT 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, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do NOT like as calling 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, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; he’s represented by Emma Parry of Fletcher & Parry), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison ( Frances Goldin Agency; also represents Barbara Kingsolver, I notice), 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.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty IS the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

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