Agentfindingpalooza, part III: ta da! Thank you, thank you; really, you’re too kind.

Annex - Curtis, Tony (Houdini)_02

Well, had you noticed yet, campers? Author! Author! has undergone a bit of cosmetic surgery. Go on, take a look around and see if you can spot the difference.

Hint: if you’ve been archive-trolling, you probably will. Based upon many, many readers’ complaints that my ever-burgeoning archive category list was just a trifle on the intimidating side, I bit the proverbial bullet yesterday and broke it down into sections. Overall, it’s still in alphabetical order, but if an intrepid reader were, say, to be on the look-out for posts on craft, s/he could simply peruse the categories gathered under the CRAFT AND PLENTY OF IT heading, rather than scrolling through the entire archive list, sniffing out categories that might conceivably be craft-related. The same goes for querying, synopsis-writing, formatting, and many of the other topics we like to cover early and often in this forum.

Do let me know if you find it easier to use, archive-spelunkers. I suspect you will, but you are honestly the best judges. I can already tell that it’s going to be a trifle more cumbersome from my side of the blog, but I’m not going to be the one searching frantically at 4 a.m. for a post on how to put together the contest entry that has to go into the mail at 9 a.m., am I? (For the benefit of those whose blood pressure shot skyward at the very thought: you’ll find the information you need under the CONTESTS AND HOW TO ENTER THEM SUCCESSFULLY heading. See, wasn’t that easier?)

Speaking of trolling for information, over the last couple of days, we’ve been chatting about means of coming up with a list of agents to query — other than simply opening the Herman Guide at random, hammering your finger down on a page, and sending a letter to the one grazed by your fingernail, that is. Easy as such a method might be — and surprisingly common prior to the advent of agent-search websites — it’s not particularly likely to yield the result you want: the name, contact information, and

Yesterday, I was discussing querying the agents who represent writers you like to read. Perhaps it goes without saying — I hope so, as I do not seem to recall having said it — but skip querying the agents of your favorite authors who work in genres other than your own. Chant it with me now, ‘Palooza-followers: a query to an agent who does not represent your kind of work is not worth the investment in postage, much less your energy.

By sticking to favorite authors within your own book category, you will minimize the chances of generating a self-rejecting query. Let’s face it, Millicent the agency screener would lose her job if she routinely went to her boss with letters in her hand, whining piteously, “I know that you don’t actually represent this type of book, but I liked this query so much that I thought just this once, we could make an exception…”

Not going to happen. Yet you would not believe how many queries she sees that seem to expect her to do just that — or so we must surmise from the sheer volume of letters sent every year to agents whose websites and/or agency guide listings clearly state that they do not represent books in the categories the queries are pushing.

The I am writing you because you so ably represent Author X… technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up cyberpunk author William Gibson’s agent (who was, the last time I checked, Martha Millard) with hard-core literary fiction, any more than I would tell you to send Michael Moore’s agent (Mort Janklow) a book of hard-right political analysis or a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff).

Unless, that is, I had it on rock-solid authority that right now, these fine agents were actively looking to represent any of these kinds of books.

However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients, right? And mentioning, if at all possible, specific ways in which your work resembles, say, Ms. Prose’s well-respected HUNTERS AND GATHERERS, rather than falling back on that dreaded query letter bugbear, Hey, someone of whom you have never heard says I write just like your client, Francine Prose, so I was hoping you would be interested in my novel…

Please tell me that I don’t have to tell you Querypalooza veterans what’s wrong with that. Or that by contrast, Since you so successfully represent Francine Prose… doesn’t sound like a brilliant way to open a query letter should your work in fact be demonstrably akin to the illustrious Ms. Prose’s.

Need I repeat here that there are significant perils attached to drawing parallels to books that you have not read? Never, ever, EVER succumb to the temptation of comparing your manuscript to a book with which you are unfamiliar — especially to the unknown book’s agent, who may well have been the person who purged the book of typos and semicolons. The chances of such an analogy backfiring are simply too high.

How high, you ask? Well, ask a writer I know who, while querying a novel filled with scenes of people ripping into rare steaks, succulent veal, etc., happened to spot a copy of Ruth L. Ozeki’s MY YEAR OF MEATS in a bookstore. Without reading anything but the acknowledgments page, the querier shot off a letter full of meat-loving details to Ms. Ozeki’s agent, Molly Friedrich of the Friedrich Agency.

Unfortunately, MY YEAR OF MEATS is an exposé of abuses in the meat-production industry so vivid that it is considered in some circles an excellent argument for vegetarianism. But those of you who write novels steeped in dramatic irony probably saw that one coming, didn’t you?

Just don’t do it. If you’re not interested enough in an agent to read at least one book by one of her clients…well, since this is a teen-friendly site, I’m not going to reproduce the language folks in the industry use to talk about aspiring writers like that. I’ve never met an agent yet who wasn’t pleased to meet someone who admired his clients’ writing.

If you are legitimately familiar with the work in question, it’s not at all a bad idea to devote some query space to pointing out specific ways in which your book is similar to the one you cite. Do be aware, though, that from most agents’ points of view, the mere fact of sharing narrative choices alone (such as multiple first-person narrators or present-tense narration, to name two of the most popular) does not necessarily constitute enough of a similarity to inspire automatic professional interest.

But if a particular agent has represented a whole lot of books about horses, for instance, and your book is fairly bursting with ‘em, I see no reason to make his screener guess that’s why you picked him to query. Far be it from me to say neigh.

If you are going to be specific, stick to comparisons of important plot, character, or narrative worldview similarities between your book and another. Hedging your bets by vague statements like, It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE! will not win you friends and influence agents.

Why not? Well, in this instance, it begs the question, said by whom? And just because a book happened to be a bestseller doesn’t necessarily mean that every agent in the world will think it was the bee’s knees — although if you happen to be querying the agent who sold that bestseller, it’s probably a pretty safe bet to assume that she, at least, thought it had some literary merit.

In general, though, such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress. Take, for instance, the oft-used assertion this book is a natural for Oprah! Once Millicent has seen a claim like this more than thrice in a single week — and I assure you, if she’s a screener at a major agency, she’s been seeing it at least three times a day since she landed the gig — it loses its efficacy on her.

If, indeed, it ever would have worked. Our Millie is a pretty sharp cookie.

Why? Well, think about it: just how many times per day do you suppose the average chick lit agent was seeing My book is the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY! in the first paragraphs of query letters when it was a bestseller? Do you really want your query letter to sound like a quarter of the ones already in the rejection pile?

Of course not. You need to make your work sound unique, not merely marketable.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “the similarities I have in mind lie in the writing, not the subject matter. Shouldn’t I point that out, in case Millicent by some strange mischance fails to notice how much my query sounds like the voice of the agency’s most famous client?”

Well, yes and no; it depends upon how you go about it. Generally speaking, opening a query with something like Everyone says I write just like David Guterson will not play as well as Since you represented SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, you may be interested in my novel…

This is true, incidentally, even if one of the people who told you that you wrote just like David Guterson was David Guterson’s mother. (A lovely woman, incidentally; on one memorable occasion, she held me captive in the frozen food section of our local Trader Joe’s until I promised to rush out and buy a copy of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST that very day. That’s the kind of mother every writer should have.)

It pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered. And aspiring writers, unfortunately, quote non-famous opinions of their work all the time — which, over time, comes to have precisely the same effect on Millicent as the Oprah assertion.

So you really should avoid saying, My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE or A friend told me that I write just like Audrey Niffenegger. (Represented by Joe Regal of Regal Literary, I’m told.)

Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally, presented to me for feedback on why they were not garnering enthusiastic responses. Both of the queriers subsequently revised their letter to omit these phrases, and are now happily represented, I am delighted to report.

Of course, if you can legitimately say, Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, by all means, say it. But as always, make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or at least well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful.

Yes, you heard me correctly: unfortunately, one really does need to say that last part. You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check. (Fie! Fie!)

But, hey, if you can justifiably say that the late great Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his former agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use. In the first paragraph of your query, ideally.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel, especially as by that time, Professor Bellow was no longer among the living! But obviously, I couldn’t legitimately that luscious little blurb out of context.

I know, I know. Sometimes honesty looks an awful lot like stupidity. But at least I am 100% certain that I will never be caught in a self-promoting exaggeration at an industry meeting, where it could cost me serious credibility points. Leave the puffing up of your work to your publisher’s marketing department; at the querying stage, let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Remember, the reference to the agent’s already-established client is intended not so much as a name-dropping power play, meant to stun with importance, than as a bow to the agent’s past professional successes and a preliminary answer to the obvious question in any query-reader’s mind: “Why is THIS author targeting THIS agency with THIS book?”

Chant it with me now, Querypalooza veterans: if any reasonably intelligent English-conversant reader could read more than half of your query letter without knowing the answer to that question, the query is almost certainly going to be rejected. Kind of surprising that most querying classes and guidebooks don’t point it out more often, isn’t it?

Wait — have some of you had your hands in the air since yesterday? By all means, go ahead. “But Anne,” some of you point out, rubbing your numb arms vigorously, “I want to get back to that time-worn suggestion that we should all be scouring acknowledgment pages, looking for agents to query. So much of the advice I’ve ever seen 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. Well, I’ve been querying for several years now, and frankly, most new releases (at least those by first-time novelists) don’t contain acknowledgement pages. At the risk of seeming pitiful, HELP!”

You’re quite right, arm-rubbers: 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, and many a publisher cuts a few pennies out of the cost of printing a book by removing such niceties as half a page devoted to thanking one’s agent, one’s mother, and the members of one’s critique group.

Which, frankly, is a trifle irksome to those of us who rather enjoy the communal aspect of literary success. Yet 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. If you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em, I say), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together.

Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from NORTHANGER ABBEY — a novel, by the way, that Aunt Jane’s publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir of my own authorship — 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 or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE, this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last five years.

I bring up the question of mutual aid advisedly, as no discussion about how to track down agents to query would be complete with out some reference to a way in which published writers are not always very nice to their less-recognized brethren and sistren: helping them land agents. And not just by saying no when a fellow writer asks, very nicely, for an introduction to one’s agent.

As my sore-armed questioners pointed out above , 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, in earlier ‘Paloozas, I was bemoaning 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.

Yet for some reason I am unable to fathom, relative 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 point of view, especially open to new manuscript 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 absolutely 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 any of you had been 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. Let’s try to put that unpleasant fact in perspective: as I keep telling you, 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.

Refusing to allow one’s clients to thank one, however, is undoubtedly intended to make aspiring writers’ 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 mentioned yesterday, 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. They 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? It’s the calling-card of legitimacy.

There’s another reason to be a bit wary of relying too exclusively upon acknowledgment-searching — at least enough so 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, still open to representing books 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. “See here — my favorite author thanks her agent profusely,” query list-generators tell me tearfully. “But I can’t seem to figure out how to contact that agent!”

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 yet back from (or is just about to depart for) maternity leave, rehab, and/or a retreat to write that novel she’s felt for 20 years she has rattling around inside her, and other agents within the agency are handling her client list, or

(d) she’s no longer looking for new clients, and thus did not bother to send the questionnaire back to the guide’s editors.

To put it bluntly, if an agent is impossible for an aspiring writer to find, it may well be 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, small agencies by definition take on few writers, 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 to add to your query list, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even seven or eight 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 over the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy the new archive list, read a good book every now and again, and keep up the good work!

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