Still no suggestions for a fun-yet-appropriate name for this series, campers? Really? I’m on the verge of giving up entirely and just christening the darned thing Herbert. That would be a pity, not only because it’s not a particularly evocative name (unless, of course, one is writing about the Great Depression), but because this series has a lot of character.
Or characters, potentially: for those of you tuning in late, I have devoted the last week to 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. As those of you paying close attention have 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 exist, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences and through writing groups, the works.
In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is indeed out there to find; it’s simply the would-be querier’s responsibility to search for it. Admittedly, 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 the results of a generalized search 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 it is reputable, has a good track record, and represents 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 occasionally be hard to tell the gold from, well, the other stuff in the pan.
Why might a scammer lick his unscrupulous chops at the prospect of taking advantage of eager-but-underinformed writers seeking agents? Catering to those treading the early steps on the path to publication is big business. The aspiring writer market is immense: just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines are aimed at 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 to bypass all or part of the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.
Like it or not, though, there just isn’t a shortcut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can certainly learn how to go about it more professionally — thus the autumn of ‘Paloozas — but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.
So let the writer beware. At the risk of perpetuating a cliché, if a publishing-oriented website offers aspiring writers a break that seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Many of the businesses that profess to give aspiring writers a leg up are clever about it, though, so do proceed with caution. 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 legitimate 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 fee — it should set off warning bells in your pretty little head. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.) Ditto if the agency demands that potential clients pay for a professional evaluation, either performed in-house or via a specific editing service, before it will consider you as a client. Or even implies that paying for a specific set of editing services will increase your chances of their taking you on as a client.
Why should an agency that charges to read your work render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If an agency’s 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 their clients extraneous fees. A fee-charging agent — including one who accepts kickbacks from an editing service — cannot be a member of the AAR.
So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.
The United States is not the only country in the English-speaking world whose reputable agents have banded together, I am delighted to report. In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents. In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association. As far as I am aware, Canada does not have an agents’ association (if anyone north of the border knows otherwise, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agents.
Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work, so don’t be shy about availing yourself of their resources..
Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.
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.
Well might that implication make you gulp. The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good aspiring writers have been burned by fake agencies.
You also might want to stop by the Absolute Write Water Cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed (and thus searchable) for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.
If the mere idea of having to do a background check on the agent who has just asked to see your first 50 pages makes you feel like fainting, there is an easier way to limit your query list to the reputable. Both of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and that perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents limit their listings to the legit. 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?
While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest buying a — gasp! — book in order to conduct research, these guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents. Which is to say: most of the queriers I know find 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: it is 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 later), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.
However, that’s often not true. Most guide listings are pretty terse by design, 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.
Or, to put it in terms that might affect you more directly: 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 a particular agent was hot to represent three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what s/he is seeking today. What the agent has sold within the last year is 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?
Oh, I can feel some of you preparing to throw up your hands in despair. You’re contemplating reverting to non-personalized queries, aren’t you, in order to save yourself some research time? On the off chance that I have not yet talked each and every one of you out of simply conducting a generalized search of every agent in the country who represents your book category and sending the same query to all of ‘em, I beg you now to consider: 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.
As applied to queries, that strategy is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day. 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 one finds about a particular agency will vary, depending upon where you happen to be looking.
Yes, you read that last part correctly: often, the information published or posted about an agency in one source does not match what is available elsewhere. It’s not all that unusual for, say, an agent’s preferences on the agency’s website to differ from what is listed in the 2011 guide you just bought, or for the blurb in a conference brochure to contradict what has been printed in the guide’s last eight editions.
Was that massive gust of wind I just heard a sigh of relief from everyone who thought this perverse variability was just his imagination?
Heavens, no. Heck, it’s not particularly unheard-of for an agent speaking at a conference to say she absolutely does not want to be pitched a genre of book that her agency’s listing — or even website — says it is actively seeking to represent.
Faced with such discrepancies, the frustrated aspiring writer can only shake a fist at the heavens and cry, “What gives?”
Actually, there are some pretty good reasons that this happens — and no, Virginia, none of them have to do with loathing literature and taking active steps to trip up the nice folks who produce it. Perfectly nice agents at perfectly wonderful agencies sometimes have outdated blurbs. But most writers only find out about what is outdated after they’ve been rejected — and sometimes, not even then.
When the average aspiring writer reads information about an agency or a particular agent in printed form — in an agents’ guide, in a conference brochure, on a website — s/he tends to expect, not unreasonably, that what is there is 100% accurate. Certainly, it would not be impossible to derive that impression from all of those marketing experts who shoo writers toward those guides, agents who give speeches at conferences urging writers to do their homework before querying, or even the guides themselves.
But the sad fact is, not all of the information out there is either reliable or up-to-date. Or even consistent across sources.
Which, to be fair, is true of pretty much anything one might desire to seek out via the Internet: we are all aware, I sincerely hope, that not everything posted online is true. Part of the charm of the web is that it is not refereed; its very accessibility encourages disagreement. As reasonable, logical people, we expect to need to use our wits to weigh relative credibility.
To coin a phrase, consider the source — and read carefully. If the pancake recipe you have just found calls for you to add four rats’ tails, seven jellybeans, and fourteen agate marbles, you’re probably not going to want to follow it.
For most web searches, the mere application of common sense is sufficient, because the stakes aren’t very high. But if you send a query to an agent who is no longer with a particular agency — and some of ‘em move around quite a bit — that is going to harm you. Ditto if you send the first 5 pages of your chick lit masterpiece to an agent who no longer represents chick lit and has decided that screening writing samples is an inefficient use of her Millicent’s time.
Oh, you can insist until you’re blue in the fact that the guide in your hand insists that chick lit is that agent’s primary focus. You can jab your finger at the guide page that says every query should be accompanied by a 5-page writing sample. But you’re going to be wasting your time. Standards change — and if the agent in question has updated her website to reflect them, she will expect you to be aware of that change even if the most recent agents’ guidebook says otherwise.
In the virtual classroom, I just saw 37 hands shoot up into the air. “But Anne,” I hear some of you pleading with trembling lips, “the standard agency guides are updated every year, presumably for this very reason. Can’t I rely upon them?”
Good point, disembodied voices. Yes, this year’s guide should technically be up-to-the-minute, but one does occasionally find discrepancies between, say, an agency’s guide listing and its Publishers’ Marketplace page. For one very simple reason: guide listings and blurbs tend not to be updated very often.
Certainly not as often as minds and the writing market change. And before you yield to the temptation of resenting the guides for not coming out more often, let me hasten to add: it isn’t really their fault. Much as a website is only as current as its last update, the standard guides rely upon the participating agencies’ willingness to answer questionnaires every year.
Think about that for a moment. Agents tend to be busy, busy people. (Just ask ‘em.) And responding to those questionnaires is generally a volunteer activity.
So would it be surprising if they were often done in an extreme rush? Or if, to save a little time, many just submitted the same replies, year after year?
Uh-huh. Ditto with conference blurbs. And how often do any of us update our bios on our business websites?
Much of the time, admittedly, little is lost by recycling the old blurb. When the information that’s changed since the last questionnaire or website overhaul is not market-related, like an update of recent sales or the news that a member agent has just completed her MFA, I don’t think even the most detail-oriented researching writer would quibble.
But when agents move or change specialties, it’s a different story. That has real consequences for queriers, who honestly do need to find an accurate reflection of what a particular agent is looking to pick up now, not two years ago.
Hands up, everyone who has ever queried an agency listed as seeking a particular category, only to receive a form rejection letter stating categorically that they will not even consider that type of book. Or if you have shown up at a writers’ conference, all excited to pitch to that agent whose blurb sounded just perfect for your book, only to be crushed when he announces from the podium that if he hears another query for a book in your category, he’ll begin screaming uncontrollably. Or if — and this is surprisingly common — you took the time to check both an agency guide, the agency’s website, and the agent’s latest interview, and the submission guidelines you gleaned from the three were not only contradictory, but mutually hostile.
A lesser aspiring writer might take umbrage, of course — but you’re too savvy for that, aren’t you? You’re fully aware that fretting about the many, many parts of the querying and submission process outside the writer’s control is a waste of your valuable energies. Philosophical soul that you are, you merely murmur to yourself, “Someone has not been updating his or her agency guide listing,” and proceed on your merry way.
If it makes you feel any better, I can assure you that lack of accurate information leads to frustration on both ends of the querying exchange. For every writer left scratching his head over a seemingly inexplicable categorical rejection, there’s a Millicent out there muttering, “Why on earth do people keep sending us queries for a genre we haven’t represented for the last five years?”
Because, Millie, there’s an apparently credible source somewhere out there saying otherwise. Had I mentioned that there was not a Consistency Fairy policing the web?
“Okay,” I hear some of you saying wearily, “being too busy to update from year to year or conference to conference makes sense for the guide listings and agent blurbs that are stuffed to the brim with useful, specific information about precisely what they would like to see. But flipping through the guide in front of me, I notice that most of these listings are really, really minimal, just basic data like mailing address and what percentage of their clients are previously unpublished authors, but others include extensive discussion of what they look for in submissions, or even little essays on how they deal with clients. Why are the listings so uneven?”
My, you’re asking great questions today, disembodied voices. You’re absolutely right, of course: the level of detail listings varies wildly, ranging from generic advice about querying (No unsolicited manuscripts, Query first, Query with SASE, etc.) to expressions of preferences for particular types of books. This inconsistency of information carries over to websites, too, I notice: some are chock-full of genuinely useful information about individual agents’ preferences — and some are, well, not. Partially, I think, the variation comes from a certain amount of disagreement about the purpose of a listing or blurb — or so I surmise from the fact that they differ in style, tone, and content as much as individual agents’ platform speeches at conferences.
You’ve seen this for yourself, right? Some listings appear to be trying to narrow down what is being sent to them by giving bread-and-butter accounts of what they do and don’t want to represent; others try to recommend their services by mentioning well-known authors on their client lists. Still others, bless ‘em, attempt to bolster the hopes of struggling writers by giving general advice. Sometimes, though, these laudable attempts to be encouraging result a certain well-meaning vagueness.
Come on, admit it: not all of it is of immediate practical use. We love good writing, while a charming sentiment, actually does not tell a writer much about what kind of book an agent might conceivably like to read, does it? There is good writing in every genre.
“Okay,” I hear you say. “I understand that, but is there a way I can use these differences to my advantage? Since, obviously, it would take far less time to scrawl that those few lines on a questionnaire than to write a lengthy description of one’s every pet peeve and preference, should I assume that the writers of the just-the-facts blurbs are not as interested in attracting new clients? In other words, is a longer blurb an invariable sign of a hungry agent?”
I would caution against reading too much into which route an agency has chosen for its listings. There are plenty of excellent agents out there who routinely submit terse blurbs, as well as ones who rhapsodize about adoring writers while habitually dropping books after submitting them to only a small handful of editors.
As I mentioned above, these are busy, busy people — and busy people have been known occasionally to fill out forms rather quickly. Especially those who are not, after all, writers by avocation, given to expressing themselves with ravishing sensibility on the printed page at the drop of the proverbial hat. An ability to write lyrically isn’t necessary to be a first-rate agent.
An ability to sell books, however, is. Specifically, for your purposes, books like yours. What you can — and should — take away from how they have chosen to present themselves in print is a list of questions for further research.
Stop groaning — I’m talking about legitimately important stuff here.
If an agency says it represents books in your category, what similar books have they sold lately? Which agent sold them, so you know to whom to address your query letter? How tightly does this agency define categories — do they, for instance, have a good track record of selling the occasional book that stretches its genre? If they list sales from five or ten years ago (not unusual, even on agency websites), have they sold similar books recently? If they list recent sales, which were by first-time authors? If you have an idea for a future book in another book category, does the agency have a solid track record in representing that kind of book, too?
Further information on any of these points would help you write a better query letter, right? Yet a lot of the standard sources, as you may have noticed, are light on this kind of detail.
By all means, check the guides and the websites: the information found there can be very useful to figuring out which agents would make the most sense to approach. Besides, you absolutely must follow any submission guidelines an agency has gone to the trouble to post. But I would seriously advise widening your research to more than one source before you fire off that query to someone who said — last year? Eight years ago? — that he was eager to represent your kind of book.
I know, I know: after a few rounds of queries, it can start to get mighty tempting to regard any agent willing to say yes to your book as equally desirable, but you honestly will be better off with an agent who already has the connections to place your manuscript under the right eyes. The more you know about an agent’s sales record and preferences, the more specifically you can personalize the query letter.
Next time, I shall talk about other means of tracking down that information. Keep panning for gold, everybody, and keep up the good work!