Yes, I am sticking my toe back into the blogging pool again today, but don’t worry: I’m dictating this immediately after an afternoon-long nap, whilst wrapped up to my nose in blankets, reclining on a couch, clutching a mug of herbal tea AND using a long-ago post as a crib. No low-tech effort has been spared, you see, to render this post as minimally energy-sapping as possible.
I’m anxious, you see, to get you out querying before the industry’s long winter’s snooze. This week marks the Frankfurt Book Fair, an annual literary extravaganza that leaves many high-powered agencies and publishing houses down a few bodies each fall, but from next week through Thanksgiving is prime querying time.
It’s a good time to send out a few additional queries even if you are already on the query-a-week plan — and especially if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this.
As my long-time readers are well aware, I’m of the keep-querying-until-the ink-is-actually-dry-on-the-contract school of thought. Think of keeping the query flow going as insurance: if, heaven forefend, something goes wrong with your top prospect, you will have possible alternates waiting in the wings. Or at the very least will be spared the effort of having to come up with a new prospect from scratch.
I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: contrary to pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, being sought-after by more than one agent is a GOOD thing — after all, nothing speeds up reading turn-around like the news that another agent has already made an offer.
I know it’s tempting to rest on your laurels while waiting to hear back on a partial or a full, but believe me, if — heaven forefend — the answer is no, you will be far, far, FAR happier if you have already begun to seek out pastures anew. The law of inertia tells us that a process already in motion tends to remain in motion; as anyone who has done serious time in the querying trenches can tell you, it takes quite a bit more energy to restart your querying engines again after they have gone cold than to keep plowing forward.
I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next. Repeat until you’re picked up.
But to keep that flow going, you’re going to need to generate a hefty list of prospects. Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find agents to query — not just any agents, but the kind of agents who represent writing like yours.
And by writing like yours, I don’t mean books along vaguely similar lines — I’m talking about books in the same marketing category.
Didn’t I tell you that those exercises earlier in the Book Marketing 101 series would come in handy later on? Those of you who have been reading all the way through should already have a fairly clear idea of which categories come closest to your work — and if you do not, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES category at right.
Why is nailing down your marketing category so important? Because it is the language agents and editors use to describe books. Until you know in which category (or categories; many overlap) your baby falls, you will have great difficulty not only understanding agents express their professional preferences at conferences, but also deciphering their wants as stated in agency guides and on their websites.
I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach. I’ve written about why at some length in this series, so I shall not repeat myself, except to say that if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach.
As a rule, they don’t like being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books. This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides. Go figure.
As I mentioned earlier in this Book Marketing 101 series, the single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them.
Later in this series, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected. Within the industry, respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.
This is probably old news to most of you, right? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before, right? Although perhaps not its corollary: don’t approach agents — at conferences, via e-mail, or through queries — unless they have a PROVEN track record of representing your type of writing successfully.
This is for your protection, as much as to increase your probability of querying success. Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre?
Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. You want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.
Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out agents to query. If you attended a conference this year, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were NOT able to pitch.
However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those who client lists do not include books like yours.
I’m dead serious about this. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection, after a “Dear Agent” salutation, is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent; like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.
Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked, or that the second agent from the left on the panel bears a startling resemblance to your beloved long-ago junior high school French teacher. Deciding whom to represent is a business decision, not a sentimental one — and it will save you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin if you approach selecting your querying list on the same basis.
So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book (and didn’t keep in touch with the person sitting next to you, scribbling like a fiend), check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds.
Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; at most agencies, this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.
If you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield half a dozen more agents to query. Where do you go after that?
This is a serious question, one that I have argued long and hard should be addressed explicitly in seminars at writing conferences. Far too many aspiring writers abandon their querying quests too soon after their first conferences, assuming — wrongly — that once they have exhausted the array of attending agents, they have plumbed the depth and breadth of the industry.
This is simply not true. The agents who show up at any given conference are just that — the agents who happened to show up for that particular conference, people with individual tastes and professional preferences. If you didn’t strike lucky with that group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have the same luck with another.
But obviously, conferences are expensive; few writers can afford to attend an unlimited number of them. So how else can you find out who is eager to represent what?
The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours.
Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.
However, especially if you write in a genre of NF, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous.
Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”
Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?
So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”
You bet your boots, baby.
So I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, “I already knew about querying agents I saw at conferences and checking acknowledgement pages. Aren’t there more creative ways to expand my query list?”
As a matter of fact, there are — but even as a dictator (dictatrix?), I have run out of steam for today. Hang in there, folks, and keep up the good work!