Book marketing 101: trolling for agent leads

Okay, so I overdid it a bit last week — and yes, unfortunately, in my current state of heath, three dictated posts was overdoing it — and backslid a bit. This week, I have promised doctor, chiropractor, kith and kin, dictation-taker, and a shaman I happen to know that I shall genuinely take it easy.

To that end, I have asked my kind dictation-taker to help me spend the week posting some former blogs on the subject of digging up agent prospects to query. He has very kindly promised to add in any new comments I might feel to add as he reads them to me before posting. My extraneous outbursts, he tells me, will be in italics.

So this will be an interesting experiment in just how strong my urge to comment is. (And that chorus of giggles you hear out there is my clients, who seldom see any white space at all after I’ve finished my marginalia.)

All right, let’s return to our topic, already in progress: just where does a writer find out who represents what, in order to target his queries effectively?

Earlier this week {actually, it was last week; off to a roaring start, aren’t we?}, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents.

{Actually, the MOST common advice agents give to writers is to go away and query someone else — this here is merely the most frequently-given advice about how to FIND an agent. But we digress.}

This can be a dandy way to find a good agent, one with a proven track record in representing a particular kind of book, but do be aware that if the writers whose agents you approach are well-known and/or award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. This is especially likely to be true if the books you are checking happen to have come out more than a year or two ago — or if the authors in question were not overnight successes whose first books shot to the top of the NYT bestseller lists.

Check the standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: chances are, too, that the agent representing a major author NOW is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown.

Why? Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. The exceptionally gifted memoirist Barbara Robinette Moss, for instance, traded up to Ms. Weil; I don’t know if that’s how essayist Sarah Vowell ended up there. But see my point?

Client-poaching, for lack of a nicer term for it, goes on more than most aspiring writers expect. As I believe I have mentioned fifty or sixty times before in this forum, not all agents enjoy an equal ability to sell a particular book. Some have better connections for that kind of book than others: some habitually lunch and cocktail party with editors at larger publishing houses, for instance; some went to college with more fine folks who ended up at imprints devoted to literary fiction than others; it may even be as simple as a particular agent’s having sat next to a particular editor at a writing conference’s rubber chicken dinner, but the fact is, different agents enjoy different levels of access to the people who would need to approve the acquisition of your book.

So after an author has a major success, or even a modest one, with his original agent (a hard-working soul who was willing to take a chance on a first-time author), it’s not all that unusual for him to start looking toward a better-established agency — or for a more prominent agent to begin eyeballing him.

Which sometimes leads to some rather amusing odd head jerkings in restaurants and bars adjacent to writers’ conferences: “What’s Author X doing having brunch with Agent R?” they will hiss, pretending to drop their napkins as a cover for turning around to look. “I nursed X through three novels!”

My point is, don’t automatically assume that the agent whom the author thanks in his acknowledgments is necessarily the one who got him his first break. If the book in question is very successful, or is the follow-up to a success, that name could as easily be Agent R as the guy who dropped his napkin surreptitiously to stare at their clandestine meal.

Checking an established author’s FIRST book’s acknowledgements is usually a better bet. Be aware, though, that a laudable willingness to take a chance on a hot new talent is not always how agents end up representing a particular author. Like John Irving, an author may have married his agent, Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.

Although let me know if you do, and I’ll send a wedding present.

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and want to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. (Crystal ball, why do you keep showing me the image of Alice Volpe of the Northwest Literary Agency, who represents JA Jance? Must be a transmission error.)

My point is, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent. Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors.

If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that Writers House, for instance, sees a LOT of queries that begin, “Since you represent Ken Follett,” and “Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book,”

You may not get any points for novelty, to put it mildly.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig author necessarily spends quite a bit of time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead, he won’t be offended: he talks about it at conferences.)

In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy.

Where the “Since you so ably represent Author X, I believe you will be interested in my work,”  gambit will serve you best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out. Many agents are nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books sell only a few thousand copies, but will be breaking into mainstream success any day now.

Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as THE reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or assistant) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

Good reason to go to public readings of first-time writers, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, “Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you.”

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however: do NOT imply, even indirectly, that the writer you are citing sent you to her agent UNLESS IT IS TRUE. Aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?”

Trust me, if the response is, “Who?” using the recommendation might actually carry a negative value. If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. If you do not, however, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

But yes, Virginia, in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent,” constitutes a recommendation, and you are entitled to use it accordingly. Since it is not unheard-of for a touring writer not to recall the names and/or book titles of every soul with whom she had a conversation on a 9-state tour or at a 450-attendee conference — I tremble to tell you this, but it’s true — you might want to play it safe by sending off a brief, polite thank-you note to the recommender BEFORE you query his agent. Just as a little reminder.

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do NOT like as calling cards, and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you do not know. Assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised.

The more obscure the author, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; the last I checked, he was represented by Emma Parry of Fletcher & Parry), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison (Frances Goldin Agency), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty IS the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Book marketing 101: trolling for agent leads”

  1. From the Weird Synchronicity Department:

    In the process of reading through past entries, I actually had the original post of 10/19/2005 up in my “catchup” window when I brought up this post in my “new” window… Cool…

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