As I have been arguing throughout this Book Marketing 101 series, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because that’s the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely good to ascertain, if you can, before you query — but also because it’s a dandy indication that the agent has some pretty good connections with editors who happen to like to acquire that type of book.
Thus, I have so far been approaching the guide listings, blurbs, etc., on the assumption that a writer will want to narrow down your first-round query list to just a handful of near-perfect matches. To that end, I’ve been encouraging you to track down as much specific sales information as possible on the agents you’re considering.
That strategy, I suspect, will not be everyone’s proverbial mug of oolong.
“Wait just a minute,” I have heard some of among you murmuring, and who could blame you? “What you’ve been suggesting is a heck of a lot of work. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the industry yet for a list of sales to make me cry, ‘Yes! This is the agent for me!’ I’m willing to do some legwork, but for heaven’s sake, querying eats into my writing time, and the agency guide before me lists a hundred agencies that accept books in my category! Since they’ve said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I take their word for it and query them all without researching the last five years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, which would take me until next March at the earliest?”
Oh, how I wish there were a quick and easy way to avoid the sometimes-lengthy research process! Honestly, if I knew of one, I would share it with you toute suite. (I would also bottle it and make a million dollars, but that’s another story.)
Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something controversial: it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides, in my experience — yes, even down to book categories.
Why? Well — are you still clutching those chapeaux? — not every agency that lists itself as representing (or even actively seeking) a particular book category will be equally receptive to queries for that kind of book. To my eye, one of the most common ways in which listings and blurbs confuse agent-seeking writers is by appearing to be open to virtually any kind of book — or at least to so many categories that it’s extremely difficult to tell WITHOUT substantial further research what any member agent’s actual specialties are.
Let me hasten to add that my views on this subject are not the prevailing opinion, as nearly as I can tell; it’s not one you’re likely to hear at your garden-variety writers’ conference (unless, of course, I happen to be teaching there). There, you are far more likely to be told — with a certain impatience of tone — that the only reason that a query might end up in the wrong hands is if its writer did not do his or her homework. The information, it is implied, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.
Personally, I don’t believe that this is entirely true; as I’ve shown in my last few posts (and in last year’s AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND PNWA series, categorized at right, where I took on real-world examples), there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers — and a great deal of that is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.
I did not, after all, invent the oft-seen guide entry This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales.
There are plenty of quite authoritative sources out there, however, who will tell you (as they certainly told me, with some asperity) that no good can come of writers’ pointing out that some of the emperors out there are slightly underdressed, to say the least. And in a sense, they’re quite right: marching up to the nearest agent or standing up at a writers’ conference and demanding to know why a particular blurb or guide listing is confusing probably isn’t the best means of endearing yourself as a potential client.
But as James Joyce wrote, “We cannot change the country; let us change the subject.”
In other words, we writers can’t control how agencies choose to present their preferences; we can, however, learn to be better interpreters of those preferences by recognizing that there are some informational gaps out there. We can teach ourselves the norms of querying, what tends to work, what tends not to work, and thereby save ourselves a whole lot of chagrin.
So there. I never said it wasn’t going to be a lot of work. And if I’m wrong, and every blurb out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent would and would like to see, well, as Aunt Jane would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.
I’m not just talking about blurbs that say vague things like, We’re open to any good writing, We accept all genres except YA, or Literary value considered first — although I think a pretty good case could be made that, to a writer seeking to figure out who might conceivably represent say, a Western romance, such statements are at best marginally useful. I am also talking about those listings where the agency professes to represent virtually every major book category.
You’ve seen ‘em, haven’t you? They tend to look a little something like this:
Represents: nonfiction books, novels, short story collections, novellas. No picture books or poetry.
Considers these fiction areas: action/adventure, contemporary issues, detective/police/crime, erotica, ethnic, experimental, family saga, fantasy, feminist, gay/lesbian, glitz, graphic novels, historical, horror, humor, literary, mainstream, military, multicultural, mystery, regional, religious/inspirational, romance, romantica, science fiction, spiritual, sports, supernatural, suspense, thriller, westerns, women’s fiction, YA.
Considers these nonfiction areas: agriculture, Americana, animals, anthropology/archeology, art/architecture/design, autobiography…
And that’s just the As.
Since I have already sung the praises of further research to determine who is representing what lately, let’s set aside for the moment the sometimes knotty problem of figuring out, over the course of a couple of dozen different listed genres, which is the agency’s specialty. Let’s also, and for the same reason, table discussion of the difficulties of determining which member agent would be the best to query for any given category listed without doing an internet search to see who has been to what conference lately — and if so, did they state any preferences in their blurbs? (Although while we’re at it, let’s all shout hallelujah for agencies kind enough to state who represents which category outright in a guide listing, saving writers everywhere a whole lot of time.)
Even apart from all that, I think such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick one quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, I think their breadth often tempts writers into thinking that they do not need to specify a book category when they query.
After all, the logic runs, if the agency says it represents all three of the closest marketing categories, why take the trouble to figure out into which the book fits?
Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because categories are how the industry thinks of books, that’s why. Agents and their Millicents tend to reject queries that do not specify a book category out of hand.
Quoth Joyce: “The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Hey, I had to double-check the earlier quote, anyway; I did a little quote-shopping.)
If it makes you feel any better, the problems caused by such all-inclusive lists are not just on the writer’s end. Uninformative guide listings, minimally communicative conference guide blurbs, and agency websites that, to put it mildly, do not give a clear indication of what kind of books would make their little hearts sing must, logically, tend to INCREASE the percentage of queries they receive for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop, not discourage them.
Think about it: if the agency doesn’t make its likes and dislikes clear in its guide blurbs or on its website, most potential submitters will be relying upon guesswork in addressing their queries. Which, logically, is going to lead to a whole lot of queries landing on the wrong desks and being rejected summarily — and to Millicents across the industry wringing their overworked hands with increasing frequency, troubling the ceiling with their bootless cries about why oh why are these people sending queries for books that the agency doesn’t even represent. So they send out form rejection letters, so no one learns anything from the process, and lo and behold, they keep receiving queries for book categories they don’t want.
Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off. This vicious circle is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at agency websites and vague guide listings dizzy, too.
Even though it is honestly is in their own best interest to be specific, there are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons an agency might say it is actively seeking a list of categories that looks less like an agent’s specialties than the entire stock of your local Borders.
For example, they might have the editorial connections to place all of those different types of books successfully. This kind of reach is certainly not out of the question for a large, well-established agency, but a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for every writer and/or every book. (Don’t worry; I’m going to talk how and why tomorrow.)
Fortunately, the standard agency guides routinely print how many clients any listed agency represents, so you need not necessarily track down their entire client list. If it is good-sized — 300 clients, for instance, handled by six or seven agents with different specialties — your task is clear: do a bit of further research to figure out which of those probably well-connected agents has been selling books in your category lately.
(I feel another zany personal opinion coming on: although guide listings typically list a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency, I’ve found that it’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents YOUR kind of book, rather than the listed contact.)
If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this information, too, is routinely listed in agency guides, and with good reason. Selling books to publishers is hard work; agencies go in and out of business all the time.
Before they have established a reputation and connections within particular book categories, new agencies — and new agents — sometimes spread a pretty wide net for new clients. In such cases, the list of categories they are seeking can turn into a wish list, rather than a true reflection of what they have sold in the past.
Let me repeat that, because it’s important: a list of categories is not necessarily proof positive that an agency has actually sold books in each of them within the last couple of years — or even within living memory. It can also be a list of what the agency WANTS to sell over the next couple of years — a definitional haziness not limited to small agencies, certainly, but common to them.
Which means, in practice, if a particular book category is hot right now, or industry buzz says it will be the next big thing, it’s going to turn up on the lists of quite a few agencies that have not yet sold that type of book — and thus in the index of this year’s agency guide.
Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book, right? And as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in the last year, agents specialize. So do editors. If you write women’s fiction, even a brilliant agent whose sole previous focus are in self-help will probably have a harder time selling your book than someone who sells women’s fiction day in, day out.
An agent who has managed to sell a particular category of book in the past is not only going to have a better idea of who is buying that type of book these days — she’s infinitely more likely to be able to call up the right editor and say, “Listen, you know that fantasy I sold you six months ago? I have one you’re going to like even better.”
Or if she’s not more likely to say it, she’s more likely to be believed when she does.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? But when editors start saying things like, “You know what I’m really looking for right now? A book from Hot Category X,” it’s not all that uncommon for an agent without a track record in Hot Category X to think, “Hmm, I wish I had one of those handy right now.” Completely understandable, right?
Unfortunately, from the perspective of a Hot Category X writer new to the business, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between an enthusiastic neophyte and a seasoned veteran of Hot Category X sales. Both, you see, are likely to say, “Oh, I know PRECISELY the editor for that.”
This is not, unfortunately, just a matter of my opinion. Ask almost anyone who’s been in the biz for the last decade or so, and you will probably hear a horror story about a great chick lit, historical romance, and/or memoir writer who was hotly pursued by an agent who later turned out to have few (or even no) editorial connections in that direction — and who, having unsuccessfully shopped the book around to 4 of the wrong editors, dropped it like a searing stone. Everyone seems to know someone to whom it has happened.
Yet another reason that it’s an excellent idea to double-check actual sales before you commit to a representation contract. Or indeed, before you query.
If the lead agent (whose name, as often as not, is the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big concern, taking her clients with her, she may well have clients across many, many genres. Connections definitely carry over — and since the agent will probably want to advertise that fact, check the listing, website, or conference blurb for a mention of where she worked last.
Then check out THAT agency, to see what they sell early and often.
Do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Much of the time, inappropriately-listed categories aren’t the result of anyone’ being mean or misrepresenting themselves. Industry trends often move faster than guides are released, after all.
Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Obviously, if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential, and not because they love that kind of book, and it stops selling — or selling easily — they’re going to tell their Millicents to look askance at queries for it.
Yes, it’s a whole lot of work; as our old pal Joyce wrote about something entirely different, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” He was talking mechanics, of course, but I doubt you’d find a querier who has been at it for a while who wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree to add Trying to sell to the front of the statement.
This may be a minority opinion, but this process is genuinely hard, even for the best writers. I have faith that you can do it, though. Keep up the good work.