Expanding your query list, Part VIII: Surfing the sea of reviews

Before I launch into today’s installment, I feel the need to pause a moment and gloat: today, the Spanish government began to enforce a law that stipulates models must be over certain specified Body Mass Indexes. In plain English, they turned away about 30% of the models who showed up for work today, because they weighed too little, and I have been deriving real enjoyment from watching the size 0s and 2s on television prattle on sanctimoniously about how awful it is that 15-year-old models choose to starve themselves.

Because, as we all know, early adolescents set all the rules in any society. Where on EARTH did those women, the talking heads cry, get the idea that they needed to be skeletal in order to get work as models or actresses? And why in heaven’s name do young girls look up to models as standards of beauty? Clearly, something very strange indeed has been going on behind adult backs, to set up goals of comeliness so diametrically opposed to those embraced by those of us old enough to vote, edit fashion magazines, or cast movies.

I learned today, from one of those size 2 talking heads, that the average NYC model is 6 feet tall and weighs 117 pounds, apparently the twin sister of that 98-pound weakling who used to get sand kicked in his face by the muscle men in the old cartoons. The purpose of all that sand-kicking, of course, was to steal the willowy beauty of their day. And what did she look like? Allow me to quote from a 1949 book on women in the workforce: “Fashion models must be 5’6” to 5’10” (with heels) and wear a size 12 or 14. The model has to draw a fine line between going to enough parties to be seen regularly and getting enough sleep to appear always fresh and clear-eyed for work.”

Not to mention financing that speed habit. Somewhere up in that great pink boudoir in the sky, I sincerely hope Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, and Jayne Mansfield are having a good, hearty belly laugh at us all right now. And then eating vats upon vats of ice cream.

All right, I am descending from my soapbox now; back to business. In previous postings, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work or background resembles yours in some important respect. Today, I am going to discuss an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews.

“Wait just a model-starving second!” I hear those of you who have been paying attention to this series cry. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year ago? What about your passionate diatribe yesterday about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, you get a gold star for the day. Chant it with me now: from the time a book is purchased by a publisher to the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Sometimes longer. And publishing trends, like an aspiring model’s weight, can fluctuate wildly over a much shorter period of time: the same agents who were clamoring a year ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES are now telling writers that memoir simply doesn’t sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY two years ago are now insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, after everyone has calmed down after the Random House class action settlement with James Frey’s pre-scandal readers (payments underwritten, one suspects, by the hugely increased sales of the book AFTER the scandal broke), some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

However, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW pretty much requires subscribing to one of the rather expensive industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly. As a dispenser of free advice myself, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available to writers. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers. So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it.

The book review method is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. While print media book reviews almost never list the agent of a book in question (as opposed to industry advance reviews – see Part IV of this series — which occasionally do), reading the reviews will enable you to single out writers who are either writing for the same micro-niche you are or whose style is similar to yours. Then, once you have identified the writers whose representation you covet, you can use the methods I have already discussed to track down their agents.

The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well. As you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are NOT reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.) Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like LIBRARY JOURNAL, they simply do not have room to review them all.

They review perhaps a dozen per month, out of all those submissions. And to narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

Querying authors whose books get reviewed is good place to start looking for such an agent, obviously.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this series on agent-spotting, so we may move on to other pastures. But before I go, I have a question to toss out there, for future posts: have you been hearing industry terminology used at conferences, or seeing in writer-targeted publications, or even found me using here, that you would like to see defined with some precision?

If so, please send them to me via the COMMENTS function, below, so I know to include them in my upcoming glossary of industry-speak. Since I hope that this fall’s querying blitz is going to bring many of you into contact with agents and editors eager to help you promote your writing, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a crash course in the language they will be speaking.

Keep up the good work!

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