How to read those annoyingly vague little agent and editor blurbs, part II

Today, I shall begin my analysis of the list of agents and editors scheduled to attend this summer’s PNWA conference. If you are not planning on attending, do not despair of finding this series useful: there is nothing to prevent you from querying the agents I profile here separately from the contest, and reading these posts will help teach you how to interpret what agents do and do not say about themselves in their blurbs.

It will be a learning experience, I promise.

Before I get down to specifics, a little general advice: generally speaking, a web search should NOT be your only means of gleaning information about an agent or editor; this is equally true whether you are thinking about pitching to such an individual at a conference or sending him a query. The ever-expanding web gives people the illusion that all available information can be had online, but it’s just not true.

For one thing, there is no organization out there empowered to make sure that everything posted online is true. (And if you doubt this, please read through the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right: there are plenty of web-based scams aimed at writers.) Also, the relative ease of online searches can give the false impression that the highest-ranked hits on the list are the best — an unwise way to select an agent.

Take everything you find with a grain of salt, and always, ALWAYS double-check the information you find online against one of the well-respected standard agency guides. The best-known are the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and the Hermann Guide, and while they are both a trifle expensive, if you have a short list of agents whose tastes you want to verify, writers have been known to walk into a major bookstore, take a guide off the shelf, consult it, then return it to the shelf.

If anything about how an agency presents itself seems even remotely fishy — if, for instance, they offer you representation before they have read your entire book or book proposal — run, don’t walk, to the Association of Authors’ Representatives website or Preditors and Editors to make sure that they are on the up-and-up. If an agent doesn’t have a $ next to his or her name on P&E, indicating verified book sales, you should definitely start doing some checking before you submit ANY of your work.

I’m serious about this. An unethical agent can cost you a great deal of money and time; don’t fall into the extremely common trap of offering your work to the first agent who turns up on a web search.

Or the first one who mentions your type of book in a conference brochure, for that matter. (Don’t laugh; plenty of conference attendees pick their appointment preferences this way. Agents and editors with last names falling earlier in the alphabet are routinely requested more often than those falling later.) Choosing to whom you wish to pitch is a serious decision, requiring serious strategic thought.

It’s really in your best interest, you know. Think about it: you are contemplating entering a lifetime relationship with an agent or editor, ideally — your chances of success are significantly higher if you find out a bit about their tastes and professional preferences before you pitch or query.

Do be aware, too, that the blurbs listed on websites and in conference brochures are often written in publishing-speak: they need to be read carefully and with a glossary at hand. Sometimes, too, writers misread the specialties listed in the blurb, rushing to read through all of them before making ranking decisions, or do not know that a particular agent does not want to see certain kinds of work at all.

Yes, it seems a little nasty when an agent says he won’t even consider certain genres, but once you’ve been at it awhile, you’ll come to recognize that those who are upfront about their dislikes are giving you a gift: you know not to waste your time, or theirs, if you write work they do not like.

At the risk of sounding jaded (and who wouldn’t, after a decade of attending writers’ conferences all over the country?), it’s been my experience that in reading these blurbs, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that these people SELL things for a LIVING. A very come-hither pitch does not necessarily equate to actual approachability. Sometimes, an agent who sounds warm and friendly on paper turns out in real life to be… well, let’s be charitable, shall we, and say unwelcoming?

Or, as those of you who followed the faux pas series already know, very enthusiastic during the pitch meeting without actually intending to pick up any new clients at the conference at all.

Sometimes, the opposite is true, where a hostile-sounding blurb conceals a warm and wonderful agent. And often, it’s hard to tell whether an agent sounds eager to find new talent because she genuinely is, or because that’s her standard line, or because she’s brand-new to the publishing world and hungry for sales.

For all of these reasons, it can be quite a jolt when you get to the conference, appointment card in hand, and hear your assigned agent speak at the agents’ forum: you catch yourself thinking, if only I knew all this a few months ago, when I made my agent choices. So you scramble around, trying to switch your appointment with others’.

The best way to avoid this situation, of course, is to do advance research on the agents who will be attending.

It also makes possible a very graceful opening line for your meeting: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I just love his/her work!”

Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world who doesn’t like to hear that.

A word to the wise, though: if you use that opener, you had better be familiar with any book you mention. Because a significant proportion of the time, the agent so accosted will want to talk about it. Go figure.

Oh, dear, I seem to have spent so much time on general advice on selection that I need to put off launching into the specifics until tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “How to read those annoyingly vague little agent and editor blurbs, part II”

  1. Hey, Anne –

    Another one of my FAVORITE go-to places when I am looking for information on an agent is the Absolute Write water cooler. One of their amazing members indexed ALL the comments that had come in on various agents. There is also information there about publishers and avoiding scams, etc.

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