I’ve been writing for a few weeks now (on and off, as my health permits) about nifty ways to figure out which agents would be most productive for you to add to your first-choice query list, which you might want to place farther down on the list, and which might just be a waste of an investment in stamps. As I argued last time, being the right agent for YOUR book requires more than merely being a person who represents authors for a living.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?
Being the best choice for you requires, at minimum, all that, having a delightful propensity for saying yes to you, AND being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs. Oh, and it really, really helps if this sterling soul not only thinks your book is marketable, but truly well written as well.
So it’s an excellent idea to find out, if at all possible, what the candidates for this enviable position like to read — or at any rate, what they like to read professionally. As I MAY have mentioned several dozen times earlier in this series, the single best indicator of an agent’s taste in representation at the moment is to find out what she’s been selling lately.
Some weary brainpans beginning to gyrate out there, aren’t they? “But Anne,” some of you who have been treading the querying for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides and tracking down the fine folks who represent my favorite authors. But frankly, I’m starting to run out of faves who write anything remotely like my work, and I don’t have unlimited reading time.”
In other words, what do you do AFTER you’ve gone through your ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents? What about taking a gander at agents who habitually represent books aimed at you as a READER? Who is representing the books that are being marketed to people like you these days?
Stop chortling — I’m quite serious about this. Successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership.
Come closer, and I’ll whisper a secret seldom heard in the hallowed halls of writers’ conferences and classes: the people who run it don’t always have all that complex an idea of who reads, or even writes, any given type of book. Particularly in a relatively new category. They tend to assume that for all intents and purposes, the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it went to high school together, or at any rate share substantial life experiences.
So believe it or not, it’s entirely possible that you are a precise fit for some agency’s already-formulated author profile, which might make them more willing to take a chance on you and your book.
Those of you who happen to have been female, under the age of 45, and trying to market an adult novel with a female protagonist to a US or UK agent or publisher during the brief-but-pervasive reign of chick lit have probably experienced this phenomenon in reverse, right? Back in the day, a woman born after the Johnson administration pitching a literary novel about a woman who lived in a damp cave in Antarctica could practically count upon being cross-examined about how she expected to market such a book to the readers of BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, as if it were actually impossible for the pre-menopausal set to pen anything for any other audience.
This phenomenon has subsided a bit, thank goodness, since chick lit seems to have had its heyday, but if you fall into that demographic, you might be able to interest a chick lit-heavy (I know; that seems like a contradiction in terms) agency in your non-chick lit novel. After all, they’re already set up to deal well with authors in your demographic, right?
How might you go about this? Well, for starters, I might suggest finding out if any of the staff writers or columnists at your favorite magazines have written books, and querying THEIR agents, on the grounds of similar worldview and target audience.
For example, if you are a Gen X or Gen Y woman who writes books aimed at college-educated women — which is pretty much synonymous with the literary fiction market, lest we forget — you might want to take a good, hard look at the last year’s worth of issues of BUST, which is aimed squarely at your demographic.
Naturally, it’s not the only publication intended for those eyes, but BUST has something very definite to offer a young female writer: n every issue, their book review pages tout work by writers affiliated with the magazine. By definition, those books are being marketed to the same demographic as the magazine.
I may be going out on a limb here, but I would imagine that every single one of the authors of those reviewed books is represented by a literary agent. And that can add up to a hefty handful of queries beginning, “Since you so ably represented Book X…”
The same technique could easily be applied to any book-reviewing periodical designed to appeal to any group of target readers, right? If you’re not certain which publications to choose (or which review books), trot on over to your local library and strike up a conversation with the lovely person in charge of the magazine section. Chances are, s/he will be able to tell you precisely who reads which magazine.
A word to the wise, from someone’s who’s spent a lot of hours blandishing assistance from a lot of librarians: you’ll get a better response to this question if you (a) are polite, (b) have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and (c) don’t approach the librarian either five minutes before closing or when the joint is jumping. And don’t forget to jot down this helpful person’s name for later thanks in acknowledgments.
Obviously, you could work similar wizardry with magazines that publish your kind of writing — it’s often worth searching to see if article-writers are agented. An author does not necessarily need to have a book out to prove a good lead for you — a lot of magazine writers are aspiring book writers, and many of them already have agents.
(Before you literary fiction writers out there get too excited, I should probably add: THE NEW YORKER very seldom publishes fiction by any writer who isn’t already pretty well-established, so these authors tend not to be represented by agents over-eager for new blood, if you catch my drift. Starting with a less prestigious magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)
The other big advantage to checking out periodicals is that they will give you insight into what is coming out NOW, not five years ago, in your book category. Also, someone else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — is essentially doing your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.
How so? Well, think about it: the average magazine receives review copies of hundreds of books every month; they obviously cannot review all of them, right? Someone is making a choice about what does and does not get reviewed in any given issue. Ostensibly, a magazine will pick a book for review for one of only three reasons: either the book is being marketed to the same target reader as the magazine (who will, we hope, be your reader, too, in time), the book was written by someone who writes for the magazine (who by definition is writing for your target market), or because the author is a crony of someone on staff. (I’m looking at YOU, BUST).
So essentially, in the process of selection, a review editor at a well-respected magazine geared toward your book’s target market is telling you what current books are being marketed best in your book’s area. Why turn up your nose at such well-informed advice — even if it does mean you occasionally end up querying the agent who represents the editor’s college roommate?
Has that gotten your brainstorming muscles warmed up a little? Next time, I shall delve a little more into how reviews can help you at the agent-finding stage. In the meantime, keep up the good work!