Building a query list-palooza, part XI: what to do when your list starts to thin out

kite competition

Why, no, the photograph above doesn’t have a whole lot to do with our topic du jour, now that you mention it. But come on, admit it: it cheered you up just a little bit, didn’t it?

Good; we’ve got a heavy topic for today. I’m taking a small breather from polishing off the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest to return to the topic we were discussing with such vim before Thanksgiving: 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, to put it indelicately, a waste of an investment in stamps to query with your particular book.

As I argued the last time we broached the subject, it behooves a savvy querier to recognize that agents specialize; it honestly is in your — and your book’s — best interest to employ more specific criteria than, “Oh, I’d settle for anyone who represents authors for a living.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Seriously, being an agent and having a delightful propensity for saying yes constitutes the beginning and end of most aspiring writers’ representation wish lists. Allow me to suggest a few other criteria: being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs, as demonstrated by a successful track record selling books similar to yours. 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 for a querier 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 road for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides, searching the web, 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. Help!”

I feel your pain, weary query veterans, and it’s an excellent question: how does one go about generating future querying prospects after one has already gone through one’s ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents?

Here’s a radical notion: how 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; successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership. Who knows the norms, conventions and expectations of the category better, after all? It’s also far from uncommon for authors and readers in a particular adult subcategory to share certain demographic characteristics: gender, for instance, or general age group.

Oh, you weren’t aware that literary fiction is written primarily by college-educated writers for college-educated readers?

Don’t be afraid to get specific here. While the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it wouldn’t necessarily have gone to high school together, they often do share substantial life experiences — or, in the case of YA, have in the past. A funky Gen Xer with relationship woes, a Baby Boomer who took care of ailing parents, a survivor of life-threatening illness or someone who just lost a loved one to same: all of these have subcategories of fiction aimed at them.

So I ask you again: who is writing for readers like you these days — and who is selling those books?

As those of you who happened 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? A few years back, a female writer born during or after the Johnson administration pitching even high literary fiction about a mute woman who lived alone for 25 years 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 fiction for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided to a very great extent, thank goodness, since the passage of chick lit’s heyday, but actually, it still could be turned in your favor: 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 and readers in your demographic, right?

How might you go about finding agents who represent people like you? Here’s an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

Don’t tell me magazines are a dying art form; they still exist now, and you should be checking the mastheads and editorial pages of your favorites. (Preferably after purchasing them, if you are able. They rely on their readerships, too.) If any of their staff writers or columnists has written a book, take a serious look at her agent, 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 aforementioned 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: in 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 — which are, alas, getting rarer all the time — 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 periodicals 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

(a) you are polite,

(b) you have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and

(c) you 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, either: 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 short story-publishing magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals with book review section is that — brace yourselves — that they will give you insight into what is coming out now in your book category. Since so many books come out in any given year (yes, even in this economy), it can be very helpful to have somebody else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — essentially do your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

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.

Oh, you thought those college-educated editors did not have roommates who aspired to write books?

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?

I hear faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention. “Excuse me, Anne?” I heard you saying. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are, you clever person — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game: with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

That’s one reason, in case you’d been curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those aforementioned requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists, which necessarily reflect what an agent was able to sell to an editor quite some time ago. And that’s potentially problematic for writers trying to find agents to query, because professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed.

Those of you who attend writers’ conferences regularly know what happens when trends begin or end overnight, right? The about-faces can be pretty darned abrupt. Some of the same agents who were roundly declaring historical fiction dead as the proverbial doornail before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time were actively soliciting it from the conference podium after. On the flip side, some of the same agents who once clamored for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, generic queries don’t work, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold in the U.S., and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of the market. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways all autumn, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what now requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Weekly (which runs book reviews, people) or Publishers Marketplace.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. (Like, say, Publishers Lunch.)
Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although the book review method only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, it is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. Reading book reviews will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are not reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, some print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, other reviewers have dropped this policy — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit this autumn, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, literally every agented writer I know learned not to query agents who are not demonstrably interested in their kind of writing — or their kind of writer — at that very moment.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to taking a chance on another first book. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit redundant to keep on informing the world yet again that Toni Morrison can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for representation pastures new, If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t that the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of The New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

Don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough — how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be, after all? — the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at discovering those.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire your prose flair.

Or –- and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial –- if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Sometimes, the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, admittedly, rendering them less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre.

For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond mortal comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Next time, I’ll be wrapping up this series — then, I devoutly hope, the Great First Pages contest. As the year fades, I like to tie up loose ends.

We wouldn’t want those kites to go flying off into the ether, would we? Keep up the good work!

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