How to read those annoyingly vague little agent and editor blurbs

I briefly considered giving today’s post a subtler, more elegant title, but if there is any single characteristic that every agented writer who has ever attended a literary conference shares — other than the sheer fact of having signed subsequently with an agent, of course — it’s that we’re all HUGELY grateful not to be forced to try to decipher any more of those one-paragraph blurbs agents and editors provide for conference brochures. “Hallelujah,” we all say on a regular basis, kissing our fingertips skyward at Whomever, “I don’t have to read THOSE anymore.”

Well, actually, we don’t — the trials of the agented writer are too many, and of the published writer too odd, for us to look backward much. Sorry. But we should, as members of the larger writing community: coming out of an industry ostensibly devoted to promulgating clear, incisive prose that actually means what it says, those blurbs are often downright embarrassing.

And, still worse, unhelpful. Much of the time, they are poorly written, not particularly informative, and seem more devoted to making the agent or editor in question appear to be a nice guy and interesting person than giving the hapless writer staring at the brochure or website enough information about their professional interests — which, I hate to break it to them, is really the only level at which we writers want to be interacting with them, at the conference stage of the relationship — to be able to make a remotely informed decision about to whom we should pitch our work at the conference whose brochure they grace.

I defy you to try to say that last paragraph in a single breath. Louis Armstrong himself would turn blue halfway through. Such is the extent of my chagrin on the issue.

Why am I so exorcised, you ask? Simple: I have been glancing through the agents and editors scheduled to attend PNWA this year, and while their blurbs, as a collection of English prose, really are not any worse than those one might find in any writers’ conference brochure in any given year, I have to say, as Your Friend in the Biz, I’ve been shaking my head. I know some of the people blurbed there fairly well, and have met many of the others — but I’m not sure I would recognize any of them from their blurbs, if names and photos were not attached.

What’s wrong with ’em, you ask? Well, it can be quite hard to tell the players apart — and since the blurbs are ostensibly included in conference brochures and on websites for the SOLE purpose of attracting writers to want to pitch to these people, that seems inefficient, to say the least.

But seriously, as nearly as I can tell, there is no standard for an agent or editor blurb in a conference brochure: some agents choose to share a little, some share a lot. Many of them are quite vague, and others merely list the agents’ best-known clients. However, even that is getting rarer: these days, most just copy their bios first from their agencies’ or publishing houses’ websites, and representation information would be elsewhere on the website.

To add insult to injury, sometimes the same blurb is used for years on end — as are, in flagrant disregard of receding hairlines, photographs — so even if the blurbs do include information about books they have sold or acquired, it is often outdated. (Also frequently true of the standard agents’ guides, believe it or not.)

Why is this a problem? Well, when the titles included were sold quite some time ago, you can’t always be sure that the agent still represents that kind of work, or that the editor still acquires it.

Yeah, I know: bummer.

In their defense, however, the agents don’t list old sales in blurbs and agent guides to be misleading: they are trying to use titles that a prospective client might be able to find in a bookstore. Because the fact is, if an agent sold a book within the last year and a half, it almost certainly is not in bookstores yet for you to find.

I’m going to pause a moment here, to allow that information to sink into the brains of those of you brand-new to the publishing game. It’s true: unless a press is trying to coincide with a specific event (such as a presidential election) or capitalize on a major catastrophe (such as Hurricane Katrina), the MINIMUM time between a book’s sale and its release is generally a year.

Often, it’s longer. And you have only to talk to virtually any agented author to learn that the length of time between signing with an agent and the first sale is frequently as long or longer than production time AFTER the sale.

It’s okay; I’ll wait for you to recover from your swoon.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you, honest, but to clarify why an agent or editor might refer to older titles in his or her blurb. Realistically, the books you are seeing on the shelf today are much more representative of what any given agent or editor was interested in three or four years ago than today.

Unfortunately, you are pitching to the person the agent or editor is NOW.

A lot can happen in a person’s life in three years, and even more in the publishing industry. Three years ago, for instance, memoirs were not primarily regarded as potential lawsuit traps — thank you, James Frey — but as rich sources of highly reader-grabbing material. Ah, those were the days… although perhaps I have a more golden view of them, because my agent sold my memoir to a good publisher almost exactly two years ago.

How quickly things can change, eh?

My point is, while doing your homework about agents and editors is smart conference preparation, the blurbs may not be all that helpful to you. They’re a good place to start, of course, but finding out which writers they represent currently, as opposed to five years ago, can genuinely be hard work.

Agents often seem amazingly unaware of this, or even incredulous when writers point it out: naturally, they huff, their sales are a matter of public record; of course everyone knows about them. It’s a relatively small industry, after all, so everyone within it knows who represents whom, right?

But if you, like pretty much every aspiring writer who did not go to school with somebody important in the industry, don’t know the affiliations, how are you to find out? More to the point, how do you find out what the agent in question is selling NOW, rather than a couple of years ago?

Well, the most direct way of doing it would be to check industry publications to see not only who and what the agent represents, but also what books the agent has sold recently. As in this year and last, the stuff that isn’t on the shelves yet.

Before you swoon again at the prospect of digging up that kind of information, let me break the suspense: because I love you people, I am going to dig up this particular dirt on the agents and editors who are planning to attend this year’s PNWA conference. That way, you can make informed decisions.

To make this a learning experience, however, rather than just an information transfer, I am going to couch all this info within the context of an extended lesson on how to read those blasted blurbs productively.

You’re welcome.

Last year, I ended up devoting a month to this project; by the end of it, I never wanted to hear the word agent again. This year, I shall only be profiling those agents and editors who did NOT attend last year. (This compromise by popular demand; thank you, those of you who weighed in on the subject last month.) So if you find yourself startled to see an agent or editor missing, your best bet would be to check the newly-formed category at right, Agents/Editors Who Attend PNWA, to seek out last year’s only slightly outdated write-ups.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *