As I mentioned a few days ago, part of my goal in walking my readers through the agents and editors scheduled to attend this summer’s Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference is not only to provide information necessary to make an informed decision about whom to pick for pitching appointments, but also to introduce those of you new to the publishing game how to read a blurb. That way, this series is not only useful specifically for those of you planning on attending PNWA, but also as a learning experience to add yet another vital tool to your writers’ tool bag.
The industry definitely has its own language, so to outsiders, blurbs may appear to say something quite different than what they say to an insider. If you a very literal person (as writers tend to be), it helps to be aware of this. At the very least, being cognizant of the possibility of particular phrases meaning something other than what they appear to you to mean on first reading will substantially lessen the probability of your making the classic first-time conference attendee’s mistake: glancing at the brochure blurbs for a minute and a half, looking for key words associated with your genre, and ranking your preferences based upon that scrutiny alone.
To get the ball rolling, let’s look at the blurb posted on the PNWA site for the first agent on our alphabetical list, Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.:
“Ginger Clark has been a literary agent with Curtis Brown LTD since Fall 2005. She represents science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, paranormal chicklit, literary horror, and young adult and middle grade novels. Previously, she worked at Writers House for six years as an Assistant Literary Agent. Her first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant at Tor Books. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She is the Secretary of the Contracts Committee of the AAR. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and four pet chinchillas.”
For those of you whose editorial fingertips immediately started twitching, longing to correct the typos, fair warning: agent and editor blurbs very frequently feature writing gaffes that would prevent a submission from getting picked up. They will routinely capitalize things that have no business being capitalized in English, as Ms. Clark has done here; they will omit necessary punctuation; they will misspell words.
And no one, but no one in the industry will think the worse of that agent for it. Even if she goes so far as, say, misspelling a genre name. Go figure.
I am bringing this up for a reason: aspiring writers often draw inferences about an agent or editor’s literacy from such errors, but that is a mistake. Since poor writing skill display is fairly universal in these blurbs — and no one in the industry expects anything different — it doesn’t make sense to draw any inference at all other than the one most likely to be true: they wrote the blurbs in 8 minutes at the end of a 12-hour work day and sent them in without spell-checking.
Fortunately for the future of English prose, we writers know better than to do something like THAT, right?
So, typos aside, what can we learn from this blurb? Well, the fact that she mentions how recently she switched from her last job would automatically lead someone versed in blurbology to wonder if she has much experience in selling in the areas she lists; the fact that she transferred from an agency known to favor very literary writing, even in its genre clients, to one more committed to genre on the whole would indicate at least some shifts in interests — which would necessarily mean having to develop new contacts.
You see, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it’s not enough for a good agent to have a good book in hand that she wants to sell. She needs to be in a position to get that good book under the eyes of the right editor for it, and that can be difficult. The better-established an agent and agency is as sellers of your particular book category, the more likely it is that your book will be shown to an editor with a successful track record with such books — and the more likely the editor is to read it in a timely manner.
Thus, a writer new to the industry is usually better off seeking out either well-established individual agents with a long history of selling books like hers to editors (and thus has established her own contacts) or junior agents at well-known agencies where the AGENCY has a history in the genre. Or in literary fiction, as the case may be.
Ms. Clark, as her blurb tells us, is relatively new to her agency, which is quite well-established — so two thumbs up there. However, the fact of her recent transplantation would alert an experienced blurb-reader to budget a bit more time to do a background check on her than for someone more firmly ensconced at an agency.
Why? It’s no reflection upon her status as an agent; it’s pure logistics. It inherently takes longer to do research on an agent who has switched recently, because it requires looking up client lists, acquisition policies, sales, etc. for two agencies, rather than one. This is kind of a pain.
But it really is in your best interests to check for sales and clients in both venues. When an agent moves from one agency to another (which happens all the time), her clients won’t necessarily go with her, which can mean that in the first year or so after a move, she will appear in the industry databases to have twice as many clients as she actually has.
Why is this potentially important to you, you ask? Well, it means the list you find there might not actually be an accurate picture of what she is representing NOW.
As at any job, the new hire tends to have substantially less say over policy than incumbents who have been there awhile. As a result, a freshly-hired agent may well have less latitude in stretching the boundaries of what the agency represents.
I have no idea whether this is true of Ms. Clark, but it would be a terrific question for someone to ask at an agents’ forum, wouldn’t it?
However, there is an upside: such an agent is often more open to new writers as a result of the move: again, thumbs up. Because she may have lost clients in transit (a writer’s contract is generally with the agency, not the individual agent), a recently-transplanted agent is often hungrier for new clients than someone who has been settled in one place for a long time.
Okay, what else can the blurb tell us, other than that she might be partial to a protagonist who regularly fondles chinchillas? (And no, I have no idea why these blurbs so often include information about what part of New York agents and editors have chosen for residence. It’s not as though they expect us to appear on their Brooklyn doorsteps bearing streusel and cider, after all.)
Some very good things are listed here: she holds an official position within the AAR. That’s the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the fine folks who police the agenting biz internally. The fact that she cares enough about keeping the biz ethical speaks very well of Ms. Clark’s general attitude about agenting — and I, for one, applaud her for her community spirit.
One other thing she has told us: because she used to work at Tor, she should have KILLER connections there. If you have any aspirations whatsoever to write SF or fantasy, this should set your little heart all a-flutter, and send her right up to the top of your preference list.
It should also send you scurrying to see what she’s sold to Tor recently, so see if those connections have been doing her clients much good.
As I’ve said before, however, the best proof of an agent’s interests is what she’s sold within the last few years. Let’s run barefoot through her recent sales, to see what they can tell us about her preferences — and so you can rush to the nearest big bookstore, pull some of her clients’ work off the shelves, and try to get a sense of what kind of writing she likes, if she represents your kind of book.
Because she has moved so recently, I am going to separate her sales under the aegis of Curtis Brown from those at Writers House, to make it easier to see how (or if) her client list has changed. (These are all the sales the well-respected Publishers Marketplace database lists; there may be more, do ask her.) Also, please note: wherever possible, I group sales under the same book category headings used in the blurb, to try to clarify what is specifically meant by each category. (Since Ms. Clark bandied about some non-standard terminology in this blurb, this should be especially helpful.)
Here’s what I could find of her sales since she’s been with Curtis Brown:
Science fiction/fantasy: Jeri Smith Ready’s BAD COMPANY, “about a cadre of vampire DJs and the con artist trying to save their ‘lives'” (Pocket, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Tim Pratt’s BLOOD ENGINES, “the first book in an urban fantasy series featuring a sharp-tongued sorceress, chronicling her confrontation with a crazed fellow sorcerer intent on destroying San Francisco” (Bantam Spectra, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Jon Armstrong’s debut novel, GREY, “set in a future where every single move of the rich and famous is reported by the media and plastic surgery is as common and easy as getting a haircut” (isn’t that already true? It was sold to Night Shade Books, 2006).
YA: Patricia Wrede’s fantasy trilogy FRONTIER MAGIC, “set in an alternative version of the 1800s American Frontier where a 13th child comes to realize she doesn’t have to turn out unlucky” (Scholastic, in a $$$ 3-book deal, 2007).
Fascinating, no? It’s possible that she didn’t post all of her sales since on the standard industry databases, of course, but it is interesting that while the sales listed there coincide with what she reports as her current tastes, not all of what she lists as her current tastes are represented here.
This could mean one of two things: either this is an old blurb, one that reflects outdated professional preferences (unlikely, because the move was so recent, but certainly possible), or she is looking to broaden her areas of focus. If it’s the latter, writers in those other areas should rejoice: she is probably actively looking to recruit in those genres.
Let’s take a look at what she sold at Writers House, for contrast. Bear in mind that since she was an assistant there, not all of the projects she worked upon may list her as primary agent, so the databases may have missed a few:
SF/fantasy: Assistant editor at Locus magazine and nominee for the John W. Campbell Award Tim Pratt’s THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF RANGERGIRL, “a dark fantasy about a young comic book artist whose characters start appearing in her real life — including the spirit of an old and powerful evil” (Bantam Spectra, 2004); Short story writer Eliot Fintushel’s debut novel BREAKFAST WITH THE ONES YOU LOVE, “incorporating elements of Jewish mysticism and gonzo science fiction, featuring the adventures of a young runaway and her new boyfriend as they — with the help of 10 elderly neighborhood men — attempt to bring about the re-opening of Eden” (Bantam Spectra, 2005);
YA: Elizabeth E. Wein’s THE MARK OF SOLOMON, “the fourth in her young adult King Arthur series set in medieval Ethiopia” (Viking Children’s, 2004); Alan Gratz’s debut novel SAMURAI SHORTSTOP, “about a boy in turn of the century Japan who incorporates bushido – the way of the warrior – into his baseball practices to prove to his father there is still room for samurai tradition in the new Japan” (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2004)
Middle grade: Candie Moonshower’s THE LEGEND OF ZOEY, “about a feisty, witty 13-year-old who travels back in time to encounter the biggest earthquake to ever hit Tennessee” (Delacorte Children’s, 2004)
Hmm. Not a lot of Tor, is there? But a whole lot of Bantam Spectra, which makes me wonder if some of her old Tor cronies moved over there. (Again, it might be a good question to ask.) In any case, Ms. Clark’s connections for SF/fantasy appear to be working for her beautifully; we should definitely be impressed by her penchant for brokering multi-book deals for her clientele.
On the down side, I haven’t been able to dig up any paranormal romance, paranormal chick lit, or horror sales at all. Again, she may have worked in these areas as an assistant, or sales may have slipped through the databases, but if I were planning to pitch one of these types of books, I would want to stand up and ask her at the agents’ forum what she has sold in these areas, or if these interests are new to her.
So I did a little more checking, and lo and behold, literary horror IS a new interest for her. (“Think Peter Straub/H.P. Lovecraft,” she says in one industry listing, “not splatterpunk.”).
Turns out, too, that she has only just started accepting e-mail queries (most agents still VASTLY prefer paper), but she will only respond to the ones she likes, she says. So if you query her electronically, don’t expect to see a rejection come flying back at you.
If all this has left you intrigued, I would suggest that you check out her guest blogger spot on Magical Musings. If you are interested in what her philosophies on agenting were when she was at Writers House, as a sort of compare-and-contrast exercise, I found a rather interesting interview with her, featuring a photo of her clutching something furry that I hope to God is one of her pet chinchillas.
Also, if you can’t make it to the PNWA conference, but want to fire some questions at her, she is scheduled for an Ask the Agent spot on Absolute Write on July 5th. (Thanks for the hot tip on that great site, Toddie.)
Whew — I wasn’t kidding when I said that doing the background research on these agents was time-consuming, was I? But isn’t it interesting how much information there is out there on an agent that isn’t covered in the blurb?
Again, I would encourage you not to take what I say here as Gospel: do your own research, and always, always take field trip to a bookstore to try to find work by clients of an agent you think you might like to represent you, to see if your writing style makes sense on her list. If nothing else, it will give you a great little icebreaker for when you bump into her in a hallway at PNWA and want to ask if she’ll hear your pitch: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I loved his/her/its last book.”
Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world whose stony heart won’t soften just a little bit after an opening line like that. Agents work hard, but behind the scenes: they aren’t recognized enough for their work.
More agent profiles follow, of course — although, with this length of write-up, I may skip a day between postings, to rest my weary wrists. In the meantime, keep up the good work!