Expanding your query list, Part IV: spotting an agent in the wild

I bring you glad tidings for a second day in a row, my friends: one of our very own long-term readers, the ever-fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, just signed with agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management yesterday! She writes both adult and YA fiction and, to add to her many virtues, was one of the marvelous Pitch Palace volunteers at this summer’s PNWA conference.

So everyone join me, please, in great big foot-stomping hurrahs for Phoebe, and brilliant prognostications of her continued success!

I have a double reason to rejoice: DGLM is the agency that represents yours truly, so this is a win for two of my communities, as far as I’m concerned. I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport.

But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. I say, if you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together. Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from her NORTHANGER ABBEY — the novel, if you’ll recall, that her publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir I could mention — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:

“Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now. Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (because it’s not as though Random House originally saw it as a novel or anything) or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE (because the average 17-year-old is more than capable of dictating ethics to her publishers), this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last year.

So let’s commit to being mutually supportive — and keep that good news rolling in, everyone. Send in your triumphs, everybody, big and small, so we can celebrate them together. And thanks, Phoebe, for reminding us that it IS possible for the writer to win playing against the stacked deck of the publishing industry.

Okay, back to my topic of the week (which looks as though it will be the topic of next week, too) — and fasten your seatbelts, everybody, because it’s going to be a lengthy ride. Today, I am going to take you through how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. (For a discussion of why this is a good idea, see the earlier segments of this series.)

Isn’t it astonishing that this most basic information — who represented any given book — should be SO difficult to come by? There’s no good reason for it; since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record (not the specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players), gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park. But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to an industry database.

Yes, the standard agents’ guides do usually ask the agency to list a few of their best-known clients in the blurbs. Best-known is the operative phrase here: yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for in a NEW client. Agents’ preferences change all the time; I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last three years as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

Sometimes, you can learn who represents an author via a simple web search, but this, too, can be very time-consuming. A standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work, every article in which she is mentioned, and prompts to buy her book at Amazon AND B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website, which often does not include representation information, surprisingly enough. Wading through all of this information can be very frustrating, and does not always lead to what you need.

So what’s a querier to do?

If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all often post industry reviews, too. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are the advance press — Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly — reviews written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book. They appear considerably before the release date; it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be re-revised prior to release. Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

As I mentioned earlier in this series, writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)

In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.

Remember how I was ranting earlier in this series about how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…

It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group. With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. One less page per book saves publishers money.

And if no one else is willing to say it, I will: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — selling the book is the agent’s JOB, after all. While the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.

(Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are more or less mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me to write about something else. Go figure.)

Then, too, some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors NOT to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents. This is why, in case you were wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…”

This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Wondering why they would want to do this to nice people like us?

You know how I keep telling you that the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult? Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.

Well, as nearly as I can tell, this one IS specifically intended to make our lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents (or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents); blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I was telling you about a couple of days ago, because such actions are in self-defense.

They do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. Agents are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, “Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…”

All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even five or ten years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.

On Monday, I shall talk about how to spread your net wider — I’ve been struck by an inspiration upon which I simply must ruminate blogistically (hey, this is a new field; I’m entitled to make up new words to describe it) over the weekend. So tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “Expanding your query list, Part IV: spotting an agent in the wild”

  1. I lost my 70 year old furnace in April and have been writing letters explaining why I need help to get a new one, so creative writing has been limited, but with that problem solved I can rejoice with the news that I’ll be teaching high school students how to write historical essays through a History Channel grant. Using old court cases they’ll reserach and develop non-fiction stories for Historylink. Great fodder for historical novels too, my cup of tea. In my off time I’ll be taking your advise and get out an agent query or three.

  2. Good for you, Janet! That’s one of the true signs of a writer who is in it for the long haul: someone who thinks of the months to come in terms of when she will have time to write and promote her work! I am perennially astonished at how many writers I meet are MONUMENTALLY busy people — but then, it’s just the busy people who manage to get everything done, right?

    I wish I’d had your class in high school! That sounds marvelous. And “I lost my 70 year old furnace in April” is a GREAT first line for a novel!

  3. Turns out I have something more writerly to yak about. I woke up this morning to a congrats email. An essay I submitted to the Surrey Writer’s Conference Lit contest is shortlisted. Very cool.

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