Welcome back to my series of revisited posts, complete with present-day commentary. I was hoping to be up to writing new posts from scratch again by now, but alas, the mono gods have decreed otherwise.
I’m excited about today’s post, which is a composite of a couple of posts I wrote last year. It addresses a couple of perplexing problems commonly encountered by aspiring writers who comb acknowledgment pages, looking for agents to query. It may seem a bit odd that I would spend this many posts on how to deal with those pesky thank-yous, but so much of the advice given about how to do this is vague, predicated on the (false) assumption that every book will HAVE an acknowledgements page — and that a good writer should only need a short list of querying prospects.
As anyone who has queried within the last five years knows, these assumptions are somewhat outdated. It’s harder now than it used to be for even a great book to find its best agent. For the next couple of days, I’m going to talk about how and why.
I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly at conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport. But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?
To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. I say, if you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together.
Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from her NORTHANGER ABBEY — the novel, if you’ll recall, that her publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir of my authorship I could mention — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:
“Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”
Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologizer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now.
Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (because it’s not as though Random House originally saw it as a novel or anything) or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE (because the average 17-year-old is more than capable of dictating ethics to her publishers), this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last couple of years.
So I say let’s commit to being mutually supportive. Send in your triumphs, everybody, big and small, so we can celebrate them together.
I bring this up advisedly, as today, I am going to talk about ways in which published writers are NOT always very nice to their less-recognized brethren and sistren: helping them get agents. And not just by saying know when a fellow writer asks, very nicely, for an introduction to one’s agent.
As I mentioned earlier in this series, writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)
In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.
Remember how I was ranting earlier in this series about how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…
It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and as nearly as I can tell, it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group.
With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. For one very simple reason: one less page per book saves publishers money.
As the fine folks who work on the business end of the business are so fond of saying, paper and ink are expensive.
And that, in case you’ve been wondering, is why so few books have dedications anymore — or have stuck them someplace the average reader would not know to look for them, such as the copyright page.
Obviously, this means that it’s harder now than in days of yore to pick up agent recommendations from acknowledgment pages: it’s pretty difficult to search what isn’t there. Even more unfortunately for searching purposes, first book authors, whose agents have demonstrated, and recently, their openness to new talent, are the least likely to be granted the ability to thank the people we would like for them to thank.
And for some reason, few authors include acknowledgment pages on their websites — although it’s definitely worth doing a quick web search to check. Occasionally, a well-disposed author, kindly thinking of the aspiring, will just say who represents her. Heck, sometimes they will even include a link.
Like the one in the upper right-hand corner of this page, say.
Changes in paper usage and website problems aside, though, I think that most advisors of acknowledgment-trawling overlook one salient fact: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — or, more to the point from an aspiring writer’s POV, especially open to new ideas.
That tepid mention in the back of the book, then, may not actually constitute a recommendation, per se. It’s simply expected.
Think about it: while the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.
Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me throughout the writing process that they thought I should concentrate on a different topic entirely. Go figure.
So why do we occasionally see acknowledgments that apparently bear no mention of the author’s agent? Request, often. Some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors NOT to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents.
This species of request is why, in case you were wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…”
This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Wondering why they would want to do this to nice people like us?
You know how I keep telling you that the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult? Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.
Well, as nearly as I can tell, this one IS specifically intended to make our lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents (or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents); blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I was telling you about a couple of days ago, because such actions are generally adopted in self-defense.
Seriously. Stop laughing.
Agents do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. Agents are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, “Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…”
See why it’s so helpful to be able to drop in a specific compliment about Author X’s book?
There’s another reason to be a bit wary of relying too exclusively upon acknowledgment-searching — or to query an agent found that way without also checking out the agency’s website (if it has one; even in this day and age, surprisingly many don’t) AND one of the standard agency guides to make sure that the agent in question is, indeed, open to work similar to the one you found in a bookstore. A very simple reason: many published writers are represented by agents who do not accept queries from previously unpublished writers.
And that’s not something the acknowledgments page is at all likely to tell you.
I hear this one from agent-hunters all the time, actually, although from their POVs, it tends to be a lost-and-found problem.” “My favorite writer thanks her agent profusely,” they tell me, “but I can’t find which agency it is!”
I hate to be the one to break it to these eager souls, but if an agent is not listed in one of the standard agency guides or on Preditors and Editors, it’s usually because
(a) she has stopped being an agent, due to retirement, promotion, death, becoming an editor, or intraoffice politics (the turnover at some agencies is pretty rapid),
(b) she’s between agencies (see a),
(c) she’s not back from maternity leave, and other agents within the agency are handling her client list, or
(c) she’s no longer looking for new clients, and thus did not bother to send the questionnaire back to the guidebook.
In other words, an aspiring writer may not be able to find her because she is not looking to be found by aspiring writers. Check one of the standard guides, ask around at the Absolute Write water cooler, or check with the Association of Authors’ Representatives, but if you hit a blank wall, assume that the agent is not looking for new clients and move on.
(A) is particularly likely, by the way, if the author who thanked the agent so profusely was originally published more than ten years ago or works at a boutique agency, the kind that caters to a very few, very successful group of clients, often in a particular niche market. While such agents do occasionally have openings on their client lists, it is rare, rendering the probability of getting past their screeners rather low.
Call me wacky, but if you’re going to be expending time that you could be devoting writing on expanding your query list, I would rather see you concentrate first on agents who are actively looking for new writers.
All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even five or ten years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.
Fortunately for us all, there are other sources for finding out who represents whom, and rest assured, I shall move on to them in future posts. In the meantime, keep up the good work!