After having spent the last couple of weeks giving you advice on how to track down agents OUTSIDE the standard agency guides, I think it’s only fair for me to spend a post or two talking a bit about the information you can glean from within them. Most guides will give you the same basic information: the agency’s name, address, contact person, member agents, book categories represented, whether they are currently accepting new clients, and preferred method of query.
In short, referring to any of the standard guides will help an aspiring writer avoid the single most common querying mistake, a Dear Agent letter. Almost any guide will give you a specific person to whom to address your query, so do it.
If you have been researching the subject a little, you may have noticed that the standard print guides, such as JEFF HERMAN’S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS (where on earth did he come up with such a startlingly original title?) and Writers Digest Book’s GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (ditto), do not always tell the reader much more than the very basic online guides, such as Preditors and Editors.
Even within an individual guide, listings can vary quite a bit: in the Herman Guide, the questions tend to be geared toward likes and dislikes, in the manner of centerfolds gone by (turn-ons: polite, well-written query letters; turn-offs, synopses rife with misspellings), but in the Writers Digest guide, the agents can say pretty much whatever they want. Or not, as the mood strikes them.
And that, dear friends, is the reason one agency will have a 2-page write-up in a guide while another equally prestigious one will have a scant paragraph. The major book guides rely almost exclusively upon what the agents themselves tell them about themselves on yearly questionnaires, so do be aware that the information you find there, over and above the basic facts of where the agency is located and what they’ve sold, is not always entirely objective.
Some things that writers of my acquaintance have found over the years that these listings may not always be totally objective about: how eager they are to receive queries; how much they enjoy helping new writers build their careers; how quickly they respond to queries; how quickly they respond to submissions; how much they like good writers and good writing (hint: they almost all say that they adore both). It’s not even all that uncommon for a writer to rely upon the specialties listed in these guides, send off a query, and receive in response a huffy form letter, saying the agency hasn’t handled that sort of material in YEARS.
Why should this be the case? Well, the questionnaires the guides send out are fairly long; why not just re-use the responses from last year? (The Herman guide seems to alter the questions slightly from year to year, to make this trick harder; I suspect that this is the reason that fewer agencies are listed there.) Publishing fads change FAST, so the agency hot for chick lit last year may well automatically reject every chick lit query this year. If this happens, don’t waste your energy repining: such a rejection has nothing to do with you or your book. Just cross the agency off your list and move on to the next.
You can – and should – rely upon what the agency listings say they absolutely DON’T want, however. Generally speaking, agencies err on the side of listing too many genres in their guide blurbs, rather than too few, so if they say they aren’t interested in something, they tend to mean it. As in: sending in a query for a type of book that they’ve ever indicated anywhere that they don’t like (even, annoyingly, if an agent has merely stated it in an interview) is a sure way to generate one of those huffy rejection forms.
Don’t say you didn’t hear it here first.
Why would an agency over-list its desired type of books? For the same reason that agents walk into conferences and spout ridiculously broad statements like, “I’m interested in any well-written fiction.” They’re afraid that they’re going to miss out on the next DA VINCI CODE. The smaller the agency, the more likely they are to mis-list; a wide net, they seem to believe, will catch better fish. But really, their agents have personal preferences, just like agents at great big agencies.
Just so you know, no matter what these agency blurbs say, no one represents everything — in fact, they shouldn’t. It would be flatly impossible to have the connections to represent every stripe of book. This is yet another reason it’s an excellent idea to check what an agent or agency has sold recently BEFORE you query: an agent may be as eager as you are to sell your book to a great publisher, but in order to get an editor to read a book, an agent has to be able to catch her attention. It’s simply a fact that it’s SUBSTANTIALLY easier for an agent who has already sold your type of book before to sell your book.
Think of it like eating in a fancy restaurant, where your agent wants to place the order (your book) with a busy wait staff (the editors). Eventually, every diner will probably get service, but some water glasses get refilled faster than others’, don’t they? The staff will take care of their regulars. And if the guy on Table 8 is well-known to be a big tipper, you can bet that half the waiters are going to magically appear by his side the moment he arches an eyebrow.
Obviously, an important agent has an easier time booking lunch dates (no metaphor this time: food, drinks, and/or coffee seems to be integral to the deal-making process) to talk about her clients’ books than someone just starting out. Perhaps less obviously, a junior agent at a big, important agency (like, I am happy to report, the one that represents yours truly, so I know whereat I speak) is often able to use the agency’s wide web of connections in order to get her clients’ work under the right editorial eyes, in a way that sometimes a better-established agent at a smaller agency cannot.
Again, it’s a good idea to check both what the agent and her agency have sold of late.
However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon how the agency feels about keeping its clients informed), and more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.
With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established (see earlier comment about the desirability of checking such things). Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.
Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my opinion). How much of a difference does it REALLY make, on a practical level? Well, you know how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?
My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders. Ooh, the power. The pageantry!
Yes, I am very lucky — contrary to what writers conference gurus and get-your-work-published books tell you, luck plays AT LEAST as great a role as talent in determining who gets signed by whom; people who tell you that the only possible reason a writer would have a hard time finding the right agent is lack of talent are either misinformed or misleading — and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour.
Since I already had several irons on the fire, I was not about to be a dog in the manger. I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that my book had won a major award and, her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into our conversation, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”
As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got my work a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: entering contests can shave years off the agent-seeking process!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent makes the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate.
However, I have to be honest with you, if you write for one of the smaller niche markets, signing with an agent in THAT league may well leave you feeling like a shiny new toy a week after Christmas: the agent may love your book, but between the million-dollar projects and yours, which do you think is the most likely to be set aside for a rainy day? At a smaller agency, or with a less prestigious agent, your work may actually see the light of day faster.
Have I totally confused you, with so many pros and cons? It’s not my intention, I promise – I just want to help you decide how to target your queries to get the outcome you want. Since there are so many agents out there, both listed in the standard guides and not, I could easily spend every day in the year profiling a different one, without ever having time to discuss anything else of interest to writers. So if I can drop a set of sweeping generalities upon you from time to time, to help you navigate amongst the many, many querying choices, I like to do it.
Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit more about how big agency/small agency differences play out for the authors they represent. In the meantime, keep up the good work!