Expanding your query list, Part IX: More reviews, and some final words of advice

Yesterday, I discussed how to use book reviews in order to point you toward agents to query. If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Allow me to reiterate: just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

And unfortunately, what the agents say about themselves the standard agents’ guides is not always the best indicator of this. Both personal preferences and industry trends have been known to change with lightning speed, and those blurbs are changed at most once per year. It’s not uncommon for the listings to remain the same for a decade at a time. Nor, as we saw in my series last March and April on the agents and editors scheduled to attend the 2006 PNWA conference, are agents’ conference blurbs especially reliable. Those, too, are frequently reused for years on end.

All of this is admittedly frustrating, but believe me, the research is well worth your time. Sending only targeted queries can substantially reduce your rejection rate. At the risk of sounding broken-recordesque, this is especially true if you have been going the mass mailing route — most agents simply ignore “Dear Agent” letters, but they genuinely do pay attention to queries that pay them the compliment of noticing that they have sold books in the past.

As I have mentioned, oh, about 700 times before (see earlier broken record comment, above), it is VASTLY to your advantage to be able to open your query letter with a clear, book-specific reference to why you have selected that particular agent: “Since you so ably represented David Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, I believe that you will enjoy my book…”

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time.

But do it strategically. As I mentioned yesterday, finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write and that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel, but as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication. The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed. And start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. If you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book! Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair. Or — and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial — if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. For instance, I was reading a review of Stephanie Kallos’ John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. I noticed, for example, that since my favorite new literary novel, Layne Maheu’s amazing SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

One last comment on tracking down agents to query: if you absolutely, positively cannot find out who represents a particular living author after a reasonable amount of effort, let me know — I might be able to find out. I have connections for this sort of question. (This offer is not unlimited, of course: please don’t just send me your entire list. Blogging is a volunteer endeavor, after all.)

On Monday, I shall be talking about how agencies differ from one another. This does not mean I am leaving the subject of querying forever, though: if you have questions you would like answered, or agent-hunting stories you would like to share, feel free to chime in via the COMMENTS function, below.

One quick piece of business before I sign off for today: are many of you planning to attend the Surrey conference in October? Leave a comment, if so — if enough of you are, I’ll do the same sort of research run-down on the agents due to turn up there as I did for PNWA this summer, because a lot of my readers seemed to find that helpful. So write in, please!

And, of course, keep up the good work!

3 Replies to “Expanding your query list, Part IX: More reviews, and some final words of advice”

  1. I took the plunge. I’m going to the Surrey Conference on Saturday October 21. I want to hear Bernard Cornwell. Love his Shaarpe series and his other historical novels. If anyone else is going maybe car pool from Bellingham.

    This means, of course, I have to get the synopsis in order and my pitching line up to date. The synopsis is a mess but I’ve saved all your comments on that and will rewrite. How in the heck do tell a story for a synopsis that takes place in 1860 and 1880?


  2. Hey Anne –
    I discovered in my agent research that one of the agents on my wish list is a MAJOR heavy hitter, i.e. represents BIG authors like Scott Turow and Michael Cunningham. I’d put her on my list after seeing her name in the acknowledgements of a debut that got a lot of buzz and fab reviews, etc. Not to sell myself short, but should a newbie author consider these MAJOR MAJOR hitters a bit out of our league?

  3. Well, I wouldn’t recommend those new to the game query SOLELY heavy hitters, but why not? Think about how charming your opening paragraph to MMH already is: you’re not querying this agent because she represents Scott Turow — you’re querying because she made a success of Debut Author X!

    I guarantee the folks in her office will enjoy hearing THAT for change. And the fact that she’s represented a newbie recently means that she is open to the idea. I say go for it!

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