Book Marketing 101: playing hide and seek with agents

Oh, how I am looking forward to the day when I can be writing and editing in my office again! There’s nothing like a nice, ergonomically-correct computer set-up and full-spectrum lights for writing, and I’ve been missing both terribly.

Yes, I’m still bed- and couch-bound these days, for the most part. (The other parts consist of making tea and dragging myself to the doctor’s office.) The worst of it is that short of cutting off communication with the outside world altogether, I can’t avoid all of those annoying telemarketing calls with which home phones are continually plagued all day long.

It’s just like spam, but with a loud, persistent ringing sound attached. And if I refuse to answer, my caller ID informs me, they just call again later.

I’ve tried everything to stop them: I routinely ask to be taken off their lists (which they are required by law to do, but often don’t); I’m on the national do-not-call list (which, alas, does not apply to charitable organizations or political causes); I ask point-blank if the telemarketer is incarcerated (not uncommon, as prison labor is notoriously inexpensive). Yet still they come.

The other day, I got a real lulu, a bone fide prizewinner in the coveted rudeness category. First, the call began with a recorded message telling me to hold for the next available operator, as it I had called them. I can’t imagine anyone’s being so bored or lonely as to stay on the line for any reason other than mine: to order them to remove me from their call list. When a representative came on the line (with tell-tale sounds of other telemarketing voices in the background), I did just that.

And he refused, insisting that he was not a telemarketer at all, but instead offering a service. I explained, none too gently, that soliciting business over the phone was, in essence, telemarketing, and that I still wanted to be taken off the list. Ah, but there wasn’t a list, he told me triumphantly: he had my file.

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “And how does that affect the fact that I’ve already told you no twice?”

He could not explain the difference; neither could his manager. In the end, I had to threaten to call the Federal Trade Commission before they would agree to take me off their non-existent list. “Look,” I told the manager, “the fact that you call your telemarketers representatives and your call lists files does not change the facts of what you are doing. You’re soliciting customers via telephone, so you’re subject to the same rules as any other telemarketer.”

Apparently, this is what is known in the call center as giving attitude.

I’m sure that you’re wondering by now: is this anecdote merely the rambling of someone who has barely seen the outside of her house for seven weeks and counting, or does this actually have something to do with the topic at hand, finding agents to solicit?

Hold for our next representative, and you shall see.

For the past couple of weeks (in fits and starts), I have been going over the standard advice about how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. And, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the methods I have covered so far involve a heck of a lot of legwork for the writer: spending hours in bookstores, searching for acknowledgment pages that may or may not be there, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences, through writing groups, etc.

In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is out there; it’s just the writer’s responsibility to search for it. And in a world where even reputable journalists’ primary research methodology is the Internet search, this seems agonizingly slow.

But as anyone who has ever typed the words literary agency into a standard search engine, trolling for agents online is not necessarily any faster. Indeed, it is sometimes even slower, as like telemarketing calls, the results can be pretty indiscriminate. Even when one finds an agency’s website via a generic search, it often takes significant further research to figure out if they are reputable, have a good track record, and represent what you write.

A writer does need to be careful, after all: an attractive website does not necessarily credibility prove, and there are, unfortunately, scammers out there who pose as legitimate agents. For someone new to the game, it can be awfully hard to tell the difference.

Why? Well, the aspiring writer market is a large one; just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines there are designed for it. Because success is elusive and the process genuinely confusing even to many who have been at it for a while, a business that offers what appears to be a means around the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.

But the fact is, there just isn’t a short cut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can learn how to do it more professionally, but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.

Many of the businesses that profess to do just that are clever about it, though. Just as my caller used a name switch from telemarketer to call center to imply that his business was something it wasn’t, sometimes websites aimed at appealing to the desperation of the querying writer give judicious small tweaks to their sites to give the impression that they are offering representation, whereas they are actually offering something quite different.

Usually, it’s an editing service — at a price far, far higher than a reputable freelance editor would charge.

A good rule of thumb for weeding out the questionable: if an agency requests money from potential clients up front — usually called a reading or editing fee — it should set off warning bells. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Why should an up-front charge render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies, my dears, earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If a website tells you otherwise, it would behoove you to double-check its credentials.

How can you check? First, if the agency is located within the U.S., find out if it is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. The AAR takes the ethics of its members very seriously, bless ‘em, and it flatly forbids them to charge extraneous fees.

So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.

Another good place to check is the Preditors and Editors website, which allows you to look up both individual agents and agencies. P&E acts as a clearinghouse for complaints; if they learn that an agency has been charging fees, they will say so. Also — and this is useful — they code their listings by whether they have been able to verify if an agent or agency has actually sold any books.

The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good writers have been burned by fake agencies.

A third great resource is the Absolute Write water cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams.

This is not a complete list, of course, but it should get you started. (And please, those of you who have done your time in the agent-searching trenches: if you have other suggestions for sites useful in the searching process, share ‘em via the comments section, below.)

While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest it, two of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and Writers Digest’s perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents. Both come out every year — and since agents move around so much, it is a good idea to rely upon the current guide, rather than one from a couple of years ago.

Yes, buying them every year can be a mite spendy — but there’s no law saying that you and twelve of your writer friends can’t all chip in on a single copy, is there?

These guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents — which is to say, I have always found them more useful to get the nitty-gritty on agents already identified as appropriate for a particular book than as a first stop for agent-searching.

It certainly would be possible to use them as a first stop, however. Both list agents by specialty — a boon for anyone seeking basic information about whom to solicit — and both routinely ask agents to specify which book categories they are seeking, and which they would reject on sight. Personally, I prefer the Herman Guide — it is chattier and tends to ask more interesting questions — but usually, it covers a smaller range of agencies.

So why shouldn’t you just flip to the index, make a list of every agent who represents your kind of book, and send the same category-specific query to each without further research?

Well, frankly, you could; truth compels me to say that I do know many authors who landed their agents that way.

However, this kind of broad, one-size-fits-all solicitation tends not to be as successful, for precisely the same reason that telemarketing calls are so annoying to receive: they are geared for a generic audience, rather than the desires of a particular human being. (For some impassioned disquisition on why vague querying is unstrategic, please see the WHY GENERIC QUERIES DON’T WORK category at right.)

As you may be gathering, I’m a fan of gathering information from a number of sources — which the guide listings’ seeming completeness often discourages. Since the amount of information offered varies quite a bit from agency to agency (I’ll explain why in my next post, I promise), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.

However, that’s not really true. Most guide listings are pretty terse, focusing upon the agency’s preferences as a whole rather than those of the member agents.
Although admittedly, there are exceptions, it can be very difficult to glean enough information to personalize a query well.

The usual problem: when they list what authors an agency currently represents, they tend to stick to the best-known clients — in other words, generally not those who have sold a first book within the last year or two.

Yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for NOW in a NEW client.

Why is getting up-to-date info so important? Well, agents’ preferences change all the time; so does the book market. What they were looking for three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what they are seeking today. I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last year as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query next week.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

I have, of course, much more to say about using the standard guides, but for today, let me leave you with this: we all know how annoying it is to be solicited by a telemarketer or spammer who hasn’t the faintest idea of our personal likes and dislikes, right? That kind of mass marketing operates on the assumption that if it sprays widely enough, it will eventually hit someone who is actually interested it what its purveyor is selling.

It is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day — to be solicited in this manner by aspiring writers. Targeting makes more sense. Yes, it is time-consuming to do the legwork to find out about individual agents’ literary preferences, but ultimately, it’s more likely to be successful.

I know that it seems practically Victorian to say this in the age of instant web searching, but often, tracking down those preferences requires looking in more than one place. It requires, in fact, a bit of cross-checking, not only because preferences change and agents change agencies but — as I’m sure those of you who have been at it a while have are already aware — frequently, the information posted about an agency in one source does not match what is posted elsewhere.

The world is a complex place, my friends: more on using the guides and other resources to navigate it follows next time. In the meantime, wish me the best of luck in dodging telemarketers, and keep up the good work!

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