How to find agents to query-palooza, part XII: pushing boldly forward…and let’s talk about this

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Before I wrap up this series on how to figure out which agents do and do not belong on your querying list, I have two quick questions to ask of you, campers: what clever means do you use to find agents who represent books like yours — and what’s the one thing you most wish someone had told you just before you sent out your first query?

If that second one sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve asked it of members of the Author! Author! community before — and received some very enlightening answers. I’m a big fan of mutual aid: let’s allow our individual experiences to help one another.

So please be generous with your reminiscences, folks. The Comments function below is hungry for ‘em.

Why end this series with questions, you ask? Because, really, the publishing world is changing so fast that rather than providing prescriptions for agent-finding, I feel as though I’ve been mostly writing about preliminary questions aspiring writers can ask themselves in order to prepare to examine an agent’s listing in one of the standard guides, page on an agent search site, conference brochure blurb, and/or agency’s website.

Why is know thyself (and thy book) an absolutely indispensable prerequisite to generating a recherché querying list? Because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the surest path to rejection is to query agents who do not (or do not still) represent books in your chosen category. No matter how beautifully-written your manuscript or proposal is, or how exquisitely crafted your query letter may be, it is a waste of your valuable time to approach agents who do not have both a current interest in and a solid track record selling books like yours.

Obviously — at least I hope it’s more obvious to you now than at the end of the summer — it’s going to be a whole lot easier to avoid wasting your time with non-starters if you know what it is you are trying to market: your book’s category, target audience, and why your book will appeal to those readers in a manner that no other book currently on the market will.

Yes, yes, it’s sounds like a tall order, but I sincerely hope you find it empowering, rather than depressing. Of all the many, many things about the path from finished manuscript to publication that are completely outside a writer’s control, you have absolute authority over this one aspect: you, and only you, can decide whom to query and how.

Besides, now you have the tools in your writer’s marketing kit to pull it off with aplomb. As may not have entirely escaped your notice in recent months, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of blog space to helping you do just that. In Querypalooza, we spoke at length about how to customize a query letter for each individual agent on that carefully-selected list you are now contemplating; late in that series, and in the Synopsispalooza and Authorbiopalooza series that followed, we discussed query and submission packets and the things you might be asked to tuck inside them.

So if you have made it all the way through this fall of ‘Paloozas, either reading them as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Devote some time this weekend to researching a few new agents to query. Five is a nice number. (Ten is better, but I know how busy you are this time of year.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and not unreasonably, “wouldn’t now be a rather un-sensible time to be sending out a flotilla of queries? Doesn’t the publishing industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — and then get overwhelmed with new queries just after New Year’s Day?? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US, and are we not clever to be able to convey parentheses in speech?)”

I have to admit, that’s quite the reasonable, well-argued objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put beefing up your query list on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument. Happy now?

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be combing book reviews for agent leads, much better than the dead of winter. There are always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall, including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books. Traditionally, the fall is when publishers release books they expect to be in the running for big awards, although that calendar, like the century-old practice of releasing first novels in the spring, when they will not have to compete as directly with all of those established potential award-winners, has been becoming more flexible recently.

But some parts of the calendar have not changed: you’re quite right that if you actually send out queries now, you’re likely not to hear back for a couple of months. Not just because of the many, many holiday functions between the beginning of Hanukah and New Year’s Eve, but due to the tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

They’d better get cracking on those query lists, hadn’t they?

Actually, most of needn’t: since the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks, January is when all of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break and in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. (Legally, agencies must provide clients with the previous year’s tax information on royalties by the end of January.) With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a mite testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent the agency screener’s life calms down considerably after the long Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: if you didn’t get your queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’re better off sitting out the Christmas vacation and New Year’s rush. Wait until Millicent will be happier to see you headed her way.

All that being said, even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push to generate a really solid query list now — or update your old one, if you haven’t done so within the last six months –rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your manuscript deserves to get published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul, but nothing extends the querying process like running out of steam. Or not picking oneself up after a rejection, dusting off that query list, and moving on to the next name on it.

Believe me, that’s a whole lot easier to do if you have a lengthy, well-researched, and up-to-date query list. It’s especially helpful if you are going to be trying to keep 5-10 queries out at any given time, beginning the end of January.

Yes, I do mean sending that many out at once at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion. Keep that momentum going.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can do in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

At the risk of repeating myself: it can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can. A relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone may well take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent. Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned.

Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

But if you’ve been following the fall of ‘Paloozas, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you? At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time to work on polishing your manuscript.

Oh, and to generate a truly top-notch query list, specialized for your particular book. Perhaps it’s not the best time to query, but you certainly can keep moving forward toward your goals in the interim.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. “But Anne,” those of you who are suffering from query fatigue wail, “I’m just so tired of querying. I hate being rejected, either via e-mail, that SASE I’m supposed to stuff in my mailed queries so I may pay the postage on my own rejection, or, most soul-sucking of all, by simply not hearing back at all on a query or submission. Can’t I just take a breather until, say, next March? Or June? Maybe by then, I will have gotten my second, third, or fifteenth wind.”

I feel for your plight, fatigued ones, but in my experience, it requires considerably more energy for an aspiring writer to re-start a stalled querying push than to keep putting energy in it consistently over a long period. So ’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to try to dissolve that most common of query-process stallers: the tendency to take the vagaries of this often attenuated process personally.

It doesn’t make sense to do so, you know.

And you should know, if you’ve been a regular part of our ongoing ‘Palooza party this autumn. I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Falling prey to despair is a genuine danger here: we’ve all, I’m sure, been hearing gloom-and-doom predictions of the death of the printed word over the last few years. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively sunshiny.

Of course, the printed word has been declared dead by naysayers with clockwork regularity since the mid-19th century. And, frankly, if the most recent batch of predictions had been correct, the last book in existence would have been bound a couple of years ago. Yet the sale of books seems to be marching on — weakened, perhaps, but still moving forward.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a news item from 2007.

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping: they are reduced to paper pulp).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, potentially good for brick-and-mortar bookstores, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer; the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

Now that online and electronic book sales make up such a hefty proportion of the book market, fewer and fewer books are ever occupying retail shelves at all. That, too, encourages smaller print runs, in order to reduce the number of books ultimately pulped. This, in theory, is the primary benefit of print-on-demand (POD) publishing: only the actual number of books needed are produced, thus reducing pulping.

It also, of course, reduces browsing. All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small.

See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? (Knowing that space is often rented can really change how one walks through a big chain bookstore, let me tell you.) Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business. This, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits.

How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore or online, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years before he won the National Book Award. (His latest, an excellent and intriguing collection of shorts entitled War Dances, is now out in paperback, should your Secret Santa be casting about for gift ideas.)

Let’s get back to that old news clipping about Hachette. Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I was darned worried when I first read this: having heard on the literary grapevine that other UK publishers were considering implementing similar policies, I fretted myself sick about all of those British writers whose work might have gone out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Hasn’t happened yet, however. Why, I just sent away for some backlist volumes last week. Only now, I order directly online from a U.K. distributor.

See? Change does not always equal demise.

But, of course, the overall trend toward shorter shelf times is genuinely worrisome, especially if one ponders the financial prospects of authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’re always telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now, while I’m plugging away at building my query list, as you have successfully guilted me into moving up on my to-do list?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when thinking about your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published. Indeed, many of the quite solid debut novelists of the last few years have not — which, naturally, affects their ability to promote their current books (now largely the author’s responsibility, especially online) and write their next ones.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market has not become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection than those with a more up-to-date view of how the business works.

Why are the former more likely to succumb to querying and submission fatigue? Unfortunately, no matter how much publishing does or doesn’t change, one constant is apparently immortal: that perniciously pervasive myth out there that the only reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That is simply not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts.

What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success. There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Keep that querying momentum going.

One more ‘Palooza is lurking in the wings between now and the solstice, the official end of autumn. Tune in tomorrow for its unveiling — and, now and always, keep up the good work!

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!

Identifying agents to query, part X: how much does size matter, really?

giant scissors, pencil

Well, that was an unexpected blogging hiatus, wasn’t it? I plead ambitiousness: in addition to prepping for this coming Saturday’s at the master class on querying at Words & Music conference in New Orleans, I have also been gearing up for the close textual analysis component of the third-place prizes in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest. Since giving feedback on the winning entries is so rightfully time-consuming — and something that I was not originally going to do alone — I’ve kept telling myself, “Oh, you need a few solid hours to devote to this — you can fit that in tomorrow.”

Then tomorrow came…and the day after…and before I knew it, a few days had gone by between posts. Sorry about that. I should have a few hours this evening to leap into that much-anticipated close textual analysis.

Just in case I get distracted again (what’s the probability?), I wanted to post again this morning on our ongoing topic, how to find agents for your query list. Because, let’s face it, even if you weren’t planning to drop by the Hotel Monteleone Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. for a crash course in querying, there’s nothing like talking about what kind of agent is right for your book to get one’s momentum going for that end-of-the-year querying push.

You were planning an end-of-the-year querying push, were you not? Or a beginning-of-next-year one? If not, why not?

Last time, I mentioned that, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for any particular book project, any more than signing with just any agent is a sure path to publication. While queriers, understandably, tend to focus on how picky agents are about what projects they take on, it’s worth giving some serious thought at the query list-generating stage to what kind of agency — and agent — is most likely to have the connections not only to sell your book well, but to walk you through the often difficult and perplexing publication process.

So while admittedly every agency — and indeed, every agent — is different, let’s spend this morning pondering some sweeping generalities about size, shall we?

I am certainly not the first to write on this topic, nor, I suspect, the last. Writers’ periodicals seem to have an especial fondness for the issue — so much so that I sometimes wonder if a visiting alien picking up a writers’ magazine would not automatically assume that every writer in America chooses representation based upon size alone.

It’s a big country, the alien might reason. They like everything big.

There are, of course, some reasons for this preference — and not just because it’s kind of cool when you mention your agency at writers’ conferences or industry parties and people say, “Oh!” as if they’ve just learned that you won the silver medal in pole-vaulting two Olympics ago. (Although admittedly, that’s gratifying.)

As the client of a large agency, a writer does enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon prevailing attitudes), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, in going with a major agency of good repute, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

Emphasis on connections. Read Publishers Weekly or Publishers Marketplace for even a couple of months — not a bad idea, by the way, if you intend to stick with this writing gig for the long haul — and you’re likely to notice the same agency names turning up again and again, coupled with particular publishing houses. Agencies do specialize, and obviously, it’s in a writer’s interest to be affiliated with one of the top agencies for her book category.

Even when an agency does not focus on a particular category to the exclusion of others, the agents within it often will — and that, too, sets a discernable pattern. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor who concurs an agent’s literary tastes to buy books from several of his or her clients.

Which makes a certain amount of empirical sense, right? There isn’t universal agreement across the industry about what constitutes good writing, even within a single book category. Individual tastes differ, and what one editor at Random House likes to see in a mainstream novel will not necessarily be what an editor at HarperCollins is seeking. If Editor Sam already knows from past acquisitions that she likes the kind of books that Agent Maureen enjoys, Sam is probably going to be more open to a pitch from Maureen than one from Agent Joe, who hasn’t sold her a book before.

Remind yourself of this dynamic, please, the next time you hear an agent say at a conference that a particular kind of book just can’t be sold anymore. What this usually means is that he would have trouble selling it to his already-established editorial connections.

How is a savvy querier to find out what connections any given agent has? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: research.

And I’m not just talking about plugging a book category into a search engine or Googling literary agency, either: I mean going through the standard agency guides, reading carefully through agency websites, checking the acknowledgements pages of first and second books by authors in your category. In order to track down who might be able to sell a book like yours right now, you will — wait for it — need to find out who has been selling books like yours recently.

At a big, well-established agency, this information is usually pretty easy to track down: my great big agency, for instance, simply lists its clients on its website (although the list is not always current). With a new agency, it can be harder to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established.

Don’t write off an agency just because it is new or small, however. As I mentioned last time, it’s not uncommon for a successful agent to break off and form her own agency, taking her connections — and often her clients as well — with her.

At the moment, there seem to be many more new agencies than usual; since the economic downturn, quite a few agents have been branching off on their own. (This is one reason why, in case you were wondering, I like the Publishers Marketplace database so much — you can look up agents by name, not just by agency, so you can see how their representation preferences change as they move around. An agent with a passion for SF might not be able to give free rein to it as the junior agent at an agency that specializes in mysteries, but might well have leapt into SF after a promotion or move elsewhere.)

That can be a good thing for a querying writer: often, new agencies are actively seeking out new clients. As are, typically, junior agents even at large agencies, so don’t overlook the young and the hungry.

The hungry can be excellent gambles — they are often more energetic in pursuing sales. Even if a relatively new agent does not appear to have a long solo track record, check her bio: a lot of junior agents were formerly assistants at large agencies. (Or even Millicents. Hey, everyone has to begin somewhere.)

An former assistant may well walk into her first solo gig with some pretty good connections already established. She may well be more open to first-time authors than her better-known counterparts. In fact, she may be counting on discovering the next Great American Novel in her inbox — and with good reason: lest we forget (because it’s not mentioned much at writers’ conferences, for some reason), how many of the big agents initially established themselves in the industry was by taking a chance on an unknown client who turned out to be a major author.

So f your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Which probably means you and your work will get more attention than with a similar achievement at a larger agency, where you would be just one of their in-house stars.

Even before that (and frequently after as well), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Intensive coaching through rewrites, for instance. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. Extensive free editing. (If you missed my earlier discussions of fee-charging agencies, or you are unfamiliar with how much freelance editing can cost, you might want to check out the relevant categories on the archive list at right before you discount the value of such an offer.)

This is more a matter of math than a matter of nice: an agent with 10 clients is going to have a lot more time to devote to these helpful services than an agent with 80. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Does it seem presumptuous to think about what an agent can offer you, rather than what you can offer an agent? To the kind of thoughtful querier who knows better than to send out rude letters that say things like, “This is the next bestseller!” it often does. (Begging for attention for a good long while can do that to you.)

But think about it: if you are a writer lucky enough to garner multiple representation offers — and let’s all keep our fingers crossed for that — do you really want to realize with a shock that you do not have any criteria for picking an agent other than the willingness to say yes to you?

Stop laughing; established authors don’t admit this much, but this is not an uncommon dilemma for good writers to face. It certainly happened to me. Some years back, I received simultaneous offers from three agents, each of whom was apparently a nice person AND I had researched enough to know that each had a dandy track record selling the kind of book I had been pitching them — and I was stunned to recognize that I was utterly unprepared to judge them on any other basis.

Fortunately, I had many agented friends eager to offer me advice. Mountains of it, in fact. But that’s a luxury not every writer has.

So believe me when I tell you: giving some advance thought to what you want from your future agent, over and above the willingness and ability to sell your book, is not a symptom of creeping megalomania. It’s a means of coming to understand the value of your work and how it might conceivably fit into the already-existing literary world.

It can also, to descend from the heady heights of hope for a moment, give you some solid clues about how to prioritize a lengthy potential query list. It would be prudent, for instance, to consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time.

Will you, for instance, go nuts with speculation if an editor has your manuscript — and you haven’t heard from your agent in a month? Many writers would, you know; I’ve heard justifications by authors of manuscripts that have been sitting on an agent’s desk for 4 or 5 months that positively rival the tales of the Brothers Grimm for invention.

The actual reason a writer hasn’t heard back tends not to be all that interesting, by comparison: typically, if you haven’t been told yea or nay, the submission has yet to be read. The paperweight was invented for a reason, you know: to keep bits of unread manuscripts from migrating all over agents’ and editors’ desks.

Once you have established where you fall on the update-need continuum, there are other questions to ask yourself. Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible? Would you prefer an agent who wants to micro-manage your book proposal, guiding you through its steps, or would you be happier with one who leaves more of the writing decisions to you?

How prone are you to ask questions or take concerns to your agent? When you do, would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions, or would you prefer telephone calls? (If you live outside the United States, this last question is even more essential: the farther away you reside, the less likely it is that you will ever meet your agent face-to-face, right? Many small agencies would not be able to afford unlimited international phone calls.)

The answers to all of these are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff (or did before the economic downturn), whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents were busier.

However, nowhere is the old adage tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few boutique agencies deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare.

There’s no mistaking these agencies — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. Often, they sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only one of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions.

So before you set your heart upon a big agency or a major agent, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This sounds like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, that high-recognition client is why aspiring writers covet their representation skills.

However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client. I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz; apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week a year with her in a mountain retreat — not skiing, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Nice perq of fame, isn’t it? Beulah, peel me a grape.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave copyeditor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s other clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the most fleeting attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143.

So who do you think ended up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant. Who was, to put it mildly, somewhat overworked — and ended up moving on to become a full agent at another agency within the next year or two. She’s so successful now that she is no longer accepting new clients.

Which raises an interesting question: if a writer is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s assistant, rather than the agent, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring?

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than enthusiasm about your project for an agent to sell your first book.

It’s going to take connections — the right connections for your project. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig. It’s in your interests to look beyond the generalities.

Again, chant it with me now, campers: there’s no such thing as an agency that’s perfect for every single conceivable book. This process is — or should be — about finding not just acceptance, but forming the best possible alliance with someone who is going to help you build a career as a writer.

Give some hard thought to how you want to be supported on that path, and make your querying choices accordingly. Keep up the good work!

Querylistpalooza, part IX: the face one presents to the world, or, whose proverbial mug of oolong is your book?

gold mask 2

A quick scheduling note before we launch into today’s festivities, campers: I shall be giving in-person feedback on aspiring writers’ query letters at the upcoming and always-scintillating Words & Music conference, November 17-21 in New Orleans. Do consider snatching up your latest query draft and meeting me there.

For those of you who don’t already have a draft already burning a hole in your desk drawer, I shall also be teaching a master class on how to write a query letter on Saturday, November 20th at 3:30 p.m. — and yes, you may drop in for the class, even if you can’t make (or afford) the entire conference. Or even several classes, at a very reasonable à la carte fee.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, the Words & Music conference is one of my favorites — and believe me, I go to a lot of writers’ conferences. Run by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, the conference is more ambitious than your usual craft-and-marketing fest. Yes, there is always abundant discussion of writing style and the ins and outs of publishing, along with opportunities to meet agents and editors, but there are also wonderfully arty discussions of literature, art, and music. To sweeten this writer-friendly experience even more, the conference is set the French Quarter, Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, home to some of the best food and jazz in the world.

In other words: I’ll be your excuse to go if you will be mine. It’ll be a hoot.

Speaking of querying and its many challenges, as I mentioned back in the heady days of Querypalooza, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because recent sales are the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely useful to ascertain before you query, if the information is publicly available — 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.

For that excellent reason, I have so far been approaching our discussion of agency guide listings and websites on the assumption that you 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!’”

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.)

My sympathetic regret didn’t really satisfy you murmurers, did it? “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 these agents have said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I simply take their word for it, querying them all without researching the last few years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, a Herculean endeavor that would take me until next March at the earliest?”

Whoa, take a deep breath there, Sparky. You’re going to need that extra oxygen for the long, difficult road ahead — and the often puzzling task of rank-ordering your query list so you know whom to query first.

You weren’t planning on approaching all hundred of those agents simultaneously, were you — or doing it alphabetically? The record-keeping alone would be prohibitively time-consuming. You’re going to want to figure out which among those many, many possibilities are most likely to be interested in a book like yours.

And I don’t just mean figuring out whether any given agent on your list represents authors in your chosen book category — although, as we have discussed before, knowing into which category your book falls is a necessary first step to searching for appropriate agents. (If that comes as a hideous surprise to you, or if you aren’t sure which of the preexisting professional categories is the best fit for your book, you might want to take a gander at the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY posts on the archive list at right.) I mean finding out enough about individual agents to make an accurate guess about whether they tend to enjoy books like yours within the book category.

Think about it: if you write cozy mysteries, and Agent #12 on your alphabetical list has a track record primarily in police procedurals, he might not be the agent you should approach first. If Agent #37 sells nothing but cozy mysteries, she would be a better choice for a top slot on your list.

That’s the good news. Here’s the less-good part: simply generating a who-represents-this-book-category list on a search site or taking a peek at the index of one of the standard agency guides probably is not going to provide sufficient information to make this decision. Their listings just don’t provide enough information, typically.

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something all of you list-generators are going to like even less: that information may also not be up-to-date, or even accurate.

Yes, even down to which book categories any given agency habitually represents. It’s just a hard fact of agency-list generation that it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides against another source — the agency’s website, for instance, or an agent’s Publishers’ Marketplace page.

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. Or, as we saw last time, will would-be queriers perceive them to be open to first-time authors in that category.

How might an agent-seeking writer become confused by what at first glance may appear to be a perfectly straightforward list of desired book categories? One of the most common: being drawn to those agencies that appear 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 given member agent’s actual specialties are.

Or so some might surmise from the oft-seen guide entry this agency prefers not to share information on specific sales. Or rather vague assertions like we’re open to any good writing, we accept all genres except YA, or literary value considered first. One even occasionally hears such statements emerging — usually quite sincerely and with the genuine intention of helping aspiring writers — from the mouths of agents and editors at conferences. 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 and at worst bewildering.

What we have here is a vicious circle, right? The vast majority of queriers rely solely upon book category-only search results to generate their query lists, resulting in a high volume of queries that simply end up on the wrong desks. If an agency’s guide listing or website is not very specific about what it is seeking — or what it is seeking right now — that would tend to increase the percentage of queries it receives for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop. The inevitable result of both: queries rejected summarily and Millicents wringing their overworked hands, 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. Because of the incredibly high volume of queries, though, they send out form rejection letters, so queriers who have misdirected their missives never find out that was the problem — which in turn results in our Millie gnashing her teeth over still more queries for book categories her agency doesn’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off; this merry-go-round is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at vague guide listings dizzy, too.

I freely admit it: I have never understood why the difficulty of deciphering such statements is not a perpetual topic of impassioned discussion at writers’ conferences. (Unless I happen to be teaching at the one in question — had I mentioned that New Orleans is very nice at this time of year?) Oh, there are often classes on querying, but seldom on how to generate a query list. Indeed, if a conference attendee is bold enough to ask a panel of pros about it, she is 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, rather than given any practical guidance. The information, the implication runs, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Has this been your invariable experience, campers? I’m guessing not, if you have been at it a while: as we saw earlier in this series, there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers. Compounding the problem: a great deal of it is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

The look that tends to cross experienced queriers’ faces when talking about this phenomenon always reminds me of a line from ULYSSES: “Stephen, patently crosstempered, repeated and shoved aside his mug of coffee, or whatever you like to call it, none too politely, adding: we can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.”

Let’s not, for once: 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 listing out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent currently representing books in the English language would and would not like to see arrive in their offices on Monday morning, well, as Jane Austen would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

What is a savvy query list-generator to do, though, when faced with guide listings (and sometimes even agency websites) that seem to portray the agency in question represent books virtually every major book category? You’ve seen such listings, 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. Such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick a quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, their breadth often tempts queriers 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?

A good question, certainly. Querypalooza veterans, chant the answer with me now: because book categories are how the industry thinks of writing, 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.)

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 next time.)

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.

Do I hear more murmuring out there? “But Anne, the agents’ guide sitting on my desk at this very moment frequently lists a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency. Isn’t that the person to whom I should address my query, regardless of which agent at the place actually represents my kind of book?”

In a word: no. In several words: not without checking the agency’s website (if it has one) to see if they actually want you to do it that way. These days, most agencies don’t — and they frequently will say so in their submission guidelines. It’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents a specific kind of book, rather than the listed contact.

There’s no substitute for double-checking, though: if the guide listing is the only source available, then by all means, do as it says.

Okay, so that was quite a few words, but this is important. While some agencies are still set up with a single contact directing incoming queries into the right inbox, the rise of agency websites — and thus the comparative ease of conveying agency-specific querying preferences — has rendered that rare. So why do so many guide listings still list only a single contact? Well, I’m not positive, of course, but my guess would be that it’s simply that the form agencies are asked to fill out includes a space for it.

Oh, you laugh, but the last time you filled out a form, did you spontaneously offer more information than it asked you to provide? Or did you just work your way through, writing in answers every time there was a line?

Be glad of some of those lines, because they allow the guide to collect some very useful information. If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this 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 too is 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. That’s 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.

See the problem? Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book — and as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in this autumn of ‘Paloozas, 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 unheard-of 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?

It’s also completely understandable that industry trends often move faster than yearly guide release schedules. Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Just be aware that if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential at a particular moment, 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.

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. Every professional writer I know seems to have a story about an author who got caught in this trap. Many are the horror stories 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. 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. Perhaps even before you place an agent on your querying list.

None of this is to say, of course, that agencies that represent a dizzying array of book categories don’t exist. Many large agencies do. Also, if the lead agent of a smaller concern (whose name, as often as not, will also be the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big agency, taking her clients with her, she may well have a track record of selling across many, many book categories. 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.

In short, do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work, but 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. Keep up the good work!

Assessing who should be on your query list-palooza, part VIII: learning to recognize a gift when it’s offered

torn bird of paradise

Wow, this has been a sad, strange week, campers. Prime evidence: I gave two — count ‘em, two — friends editorial feedback on their respective fathers’ obituaries, to run in local newspapers in different states. I suppose I am the person even I would call for trustworthy proofreading at a time like that, but still, I can’t help but feel that this has been no ordinary week.

I don’t know if you have ever written an obituary or eulogy, but it’s a strange, sad, marvelous process. Like the bird of paradise above, the result should be beautiful, but it will always appear to fall short of perfection. It requires real art to pull off well: few lives have a single coherent narrative, and most are so complex that the eulogizer must be extremely selective about what to include. Like any other synopsis, it can be written entirely in generalities, naturally, but the best are full of the telling details that could have come from no one else’s life but the dear departed.

I’m not bringing this up purely to depress everyone, I assure you. The necessity to summarize complex realities into a few pithy statements is actually quite germane to a matter we have been discussing at some length of late: how to glean information from agency guide listings and websites, to make sure that your query list includes only those agents genuinely and demonstrably interested in representing your type of book.

And half my readership does a double-take. “But Anne,” logic-huggers everywhere cry, “I don’t see the connection — and by the way, the flaws in that bird of paradise appear to have been externally-inflicted, not intrinsic to the flower itself. How is having to summarize an entire lifetime in a few short paragraphs remotely similar to agents having to boil down the possibly quite wide array of books they have represented, are currently representing, and hope to represent in future to just a few short sentences? Or have I just answered my own question?”

Why, yes, you have, logic-lovers — and good point about the flower. The difference lies in the perspective of the beholder. While no one expects an obituary or eulogy to give a complete picture of every nuance of the living person, aspiring writers frantically scanning agency guides and websites are often disappointed, or even frustrated, to find agents’ preferences expressed in only the most general of terms.

That’s unfortunate, because as I mentioned last time, agencies that give clear indications about what they do and do not want to see in a query or a submission are a boon to the savvy query list-generator: by being up front about what kinds of book projects stand a chance of success in the hands of their screener (our old pal Millicent, to be sure), these agencies save writers of other kinds of manuscripts buckets of time.

How, you ask? Conscientious followers of this series, chant it with me now: querying agents who do not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category is a waste of an agent-seeking writer’s time and energy.

It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, a waste of Millicent’s time and energy to screen a query for a manuscript her boss would not even consider. That’s why, in case any of you fine folks had been wondering, agencies that are not in the market for first-time authors are usually quite blunt in their guide listings about not being particularly open to submissions from new writers. This is actually kind of them: like the agent who stands up at a conference and says, “By the way, although my agency does represent romances, I don’t, so please don’t pitch them to me,” an outright statement of reluctance in an agency guide can save a writer the time, energy, and disappointment of a fruitless approach.

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers read such statements in guides and on agency websites, is it? Instead, they hear: you’re not important enough for us to consider or ha! We’ve just slammed a door in your face, newbie. Or even: if you were truly talented, oh previously unpublished one, we would already know who you were. Therefore, since we do not, you must not be a very good writer.

Okay, so that last interpretation is a trifle on the paranoid side. But after several straight hours surfing websites or flipping through guide pages, searching for agents who might conceivably be open to representing one’s groundbreaking SF/Western/Highland romance/cookbook, every indicator of lack of interest in one’s own type of book can start to feel like a personal micro-rejection, right?

Don’t believe that search fatigue affects overall querying patterns? Think again. Just as the alphabetically first-listed businesses under a category in the Yellow Pages tend to get called marginally more often, aspiring writers tend to query the agencies at the beginning of the alphabetical listings more frequently than those whose names begin with, say, L: in the face of so many similar-sounding listings, many queriers simply lose steam midway through the Cs. Because some begin at the end and work backwards through guides, the agencies at the end of the alphabet tend to see slightly more query traffic than those between M and T.

Seriously, it’s true, especially just after the first of the year: a hefty percentage of all of those New Year’s resolution-keepers (“This year, I’m going to start sending out a query each day until I land an agent!”) will pick up a standard agency guide, turn to the As, and work forward, or turn to the Zs and work backward. ?So you might want to avoid the A and B agencies, as well as the W-Zs, until well after the first of the year, to avoid being caught in the January rush.

Don’t worry: the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks. After Martin Luther King, Jr., day, you can feel free to approach those As and Zs; their Millicents will have worked their way through the piles of mail sufficiently to catch a glimpse of their desks again.

But I am digressing, amn’t I? “But Anne,” admirers of linear thought point out, “we were talking about how to read those listings, weren’t we? As fascinating as those last couple of paragraphs on alphabetical order were, shouldn’t we be getting back to the point?”

So we should, consecutive reasoners. Sometimes, the statements in the guides a trifle ambiguous, as if the agency wants to leave itself a bit of definitional wiggle room. Check out this slightly murky piece of guidance, either culled from the agency guide at my elbow or a figment of my extremely vivid imagination:

In approaching with a query, the most important things to me are your credits and your biographical background to the extent it’s relevant to your work. I (and most agents) will ignore the adjectives you may choose to describe your own work.

Now, many aspiring writers would instantly interpret this as don’t bother to query if you don’t already have a book out, but is that in fact what’s being said here? Let’s approach this like one of those nasty reading comprehension problems from the SATs. Is the agent in question actually expressing a preference for

(a) receiving queries from only the previously published (because of that reference to credits),

(b) receiving queries for nonfiction books only (because that first sentence seems to be talking about platform),

(c) receiving queries that are very terse and business-like, containing only minimal mention of the actual content of the book (because the agent who wrote it harbors an inexplicable animosity toward adjectives), or

(d) not trying to limit the scope of queries at all, but only meaning to give some well-intentioned general advice about the desirability of mentioning one’s credentials in a query letter.

How can a savvy querier tell which is the correct interpretation? Actually, she can’t — at least based upon the original quote alone. The fact is, it just isn’t possible to tell what’s meant without reading the rest of the listing — and even then, I would still recommend rushing right over to the agency’s website to double-check its submission guidelines.

Why go to the extra trouble? Well, going over a list of recent sales, the agent in question emerges as someone with a track record of representing science fiction and mystery extremely well. Would you have gleaned that from the statement above?

I’m guessing not. Leaving the thoughtful guide-peruser to wonder: what biographical background would be especially relevant to, say, a SF story set on Pluto? Need one actually have committed a murder to interest this agent in a mystery, or would it just be a nifty selling point?

Even just a basic web search can often turn up clarifying extras. If I told you that the agent responsible for our example also wrote an article recently for a SF fanzine, would your sense of how open he is to new writers increase? Might you even conclude that while this agent is primarily interested in science fiction, his agency is just beginning to expand its nonfiction list? And if so, mightn’t the comment about platform be aimed at nonfiction book proposers, rather than novelists?

A quick search of the last couple of years of this agency’s sales showed this to be precisely the case. (Sorry to disappoint all of you axe murderers out there who had gotten your hopes up.)

See why I think it’s a good idea to do some double-checking — and not to take every statement made in a blurb or listing at face value? Sometimes, industry-speak requires translation.

While we’re on the subject of nonfiction (and industry-speak), let’s take a look at another fairly common type of guide listing statement:

Nonfiction author and/or collaborator must be an authority in subject area and have a platform. Send a SASE if you want a response.

I must admit, I love the if you want a response part: if there is a querier out there who sends out missives WITHOUT wanting a response, I’ve never met him.

But is don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE the only message this agency is trying to send? Definitely not. The first sentence gives some indication of probable rejection criteria (hooray); the second sentence is most likely just giving general advice. Actually, it was probably intended as a bit more than kindly advice: from the phraseology, it’s probably safe to conclude that they simply toss out queries that arrive without a SASE, as many agencies do.

Which does, I suppose, boil down to don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE, now that you mention it. But if you had simply gone with your first knee-jerk reaction to that part, you would have missed the implication that this agency would welcome queries from legitimate experts on nonfiction subjects, wouldn’t you?

That’s not all an experienced eye could glean from this only apparently off-putting statement, however. I find the first sentence interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does: while it would not be wildly inappropriate to conclude that, like our first exemplar, this agency’s Millicents have been trained to reject any NF query that does not include a clear statement of relevant credentials, it is not saying that the agency is only interested in the previously published — not an uncommon restriction for NF agencies. It also, by specifically mentioning a collaborator, is indicating that it is open to queries from ghosts.

So if I were considering querying this agency, I would run, not walk, to my list of selling points. Why? To cull bullet points to cram into my query letter about why I (and/or my collaborator) is the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, and why my target audience will be fascinated to read it.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: There is no substitute for reading agency guide listings and websites IN THEIR ENTIRETY. All too often, would-be queriers mistakenly cross great potential agents off their query lists based upon impressions derived at a first glance — or even based on a perceived tone.

What kind of tone might engender this reaction, you ask? Perhaps an ambiguous beauty like the following:

We prefer that writers be previously published. However, we would take on an unpublished writer of outstanding talent.

That one made you a trifle hot under the collar, didn’t it? Go back and read it again, slowly. I put it to you, dear readers: is this agency open to queries from the previously unpublished or not?

To my eye, the answer is both. They probably would not reject a query outright for not including the credentials paragraph so strongly urged by the agent in our previous example — but a query from a previously unpublished writer would really, really have to wow ‘em to be considered. Or, to put it more crudely, they probably don’t want to rule out the possibility of the author of the next DA VINCI CODE’s not querying them because they said in their listing that they only represented previously published writers.

Remember, a listing, website, or conference blurb is not necessarily the obituary for an agency, depicting with impeccable accuracy its sales achievements to date, but unable to give any hint about the future. Usually, it also reflects what they hope to represent as well. Sometimes, as here, the actual content of that hope is left ambiguous.

And you thought I’d abandoned my obituary analogy. I’m more tenacious than that.

So is it worth a previously unpublished writer’s time to query an agency that seems to be hedging its bets like this? Possibly — provided that the agency has a solidly impressive track record in selling book’s in the writer’s chosen category and that it has sold a first book within the last couple of years.

Why that last caveat? As I have mentioned before, sometimes agency listings are rerun unchanged year after year. Websites are not always up-to-date reflectors of recent sales, either, and many, many agencies will list only their best-known clients. The expressed openness to writers of extraordinary talent expressed in a guide listing, then, might not be a current enthusiasm. Or even a recent one.

How can a savvy writer tell? Fly straight to its sales record. This need not be time-consuming: instead of concentrating on its client list in its entirety, focus on debut novel sales. (Most of the industry databases will include this information.) Or if you write nonfiction, first books in general.

If you don’t see any, you might want to rely more heavily on their assertion that they prefer the previously published and save yourself a stamp. Again, they have done you a favor.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s take a look at one more listing statement — or, better yet, let’s compare these three:

We care about writers and books, not just money, but we care about the industry as well. We will not represent anyone who might hurt our clients or our reputation. We expect our writers to work hard and to be patient. Do not send a rude query; it will get you nowhere. If we ask to see your book, don’t wait around to send it or ask a bunch of irrelevant questions about movie writes and so forth…If you can’t write a synopsis, don’t bother to query us. The industry is based upon the synopsis; sometimes it is all the editor ever sees. Be professional and follow our guidelines when submitting. And don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet about editors and publishers — it isn’t always true.

Present your book or project effectively in your query. Don’t include links to a webpage rather than use a traditional query, but take the time to prepare a thorough but brief synopsis of the material. Make the effort to prepare a thoughtful analysis of comparison titles. Why is your work different, yet would appeal to the same readers?

We are not interested in receiving poorly written submissions from authors with grandiose attitudes; don’t compare yourself to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Blackmail never works — don’t tell us that you’ll only send your manuscript to us if we can guarantee you will be published. Please always send a SASE or else we won’t be able to contact you. Write stories that make sense; research everything down to the bone. Most importantly, be proud of your work; no self-deprecation.

Okay, what’s wrong with these three excerpts from guide listings?

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, absolutely nothing; they’re stuffed to the brim with thoughtful, practical advice about how to avoid these agents’ respective pet peeves. Well done, blurb writers, who may or may not exist outside my head!

To more cynical eyes, these responses might perhaps indicate questionnaire-answerers with a fair amount of time on their hands — the first lines of the first do carry a mission-statement aura about them. If I had to guess, though, I would say that pretty much all of these admonitions refer to individual queries they have received recently, rather than to general trends.

Faced with this sort of broad-reaching statement, a cynical querier might verify the size and longevity of the agency. Very small agencies — say, under 25 clients — will frequently have more specific blurbs, and for a very good reason: they can accept fewer clients per year than an agency that represents a couple of hundred clients. So probabilistically, they tend to be slightly worse bets than the larger concerns.

But it is awfully nice of them to tell writers up front what will trigger an automatic rejection, no? Make no mistake, that is what they are doing here — and indeed, what any agent who chooses to give specific querying advice almost certainly intends.

Trust me, no one likes to see her advice neglected. It’s in your interest to follow it to the letter, if not in all your queries, than at least in queries aimed toward the advice-giver’s agency.

In short, it is very much in a writer’s interest to read blurbs and listings very, very carefully — and in their entirety. Weigh all of the information you are being offered, even if it seems ambiguous or downright opaque: if an agent took the time to write more than the bare minimum, he’s probably trying to tell you something.

That’s also often true of obituaries and eulogies, come to think of it: a rushed, careless, or simply overwhelmed eulogizer might well fall back on generalizations and platitudes. It’s the telling details, though, that give the reader or hearer a sense of the actual person being described.

When individual preferences pop up in agency guide listings or in submission guidelines, cherish them. Appreciate them for the useful signposts that they are, and be glad that someone at that agency was kind enough to give aspiring writers some guidance. Because, really, is it in anybody’s interest for a query to end up on the wrong agent’s desk?

Oh, yes, I have more to say on the subject. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

Cobbling together a query list-palooza, part VI: eureka! Oh, wait, maybe I haven’t found it

old miner panning for gold

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!

Query lists and the fine folks who appear on them-palooza, part VII: perhaps not what you were expecting, but…

attacked-by-squid II

Okay, okay, so that’s not a particularly snappy title, but since we are nearing the end of this ‘Palooza on how to find agents to query (nope, already used that one), we should probably be expecting my title inventiveness to be wilting a trifle. Frankly, I’m eager to get back to some issues of craft…although, of course, given my very practical focus, I shall probably discuss them within the context of common manuscript failings that make agency screeners’ hair stand on end.

Which wouldn’t have been a bad image to use on Halloween, come to think of it: our old pal Millicent in a fright wig, permanently scarred by the haunting memory of submissions past. Have sympathy for her, campers; yes, she’s responsible for a heck of a lot of rejections, but hers is a very difficult job.

Unless, of course, aspiring writers are kind enough to make her life easy by sending her queries for books in categories nobody at her agency represents — or no longer represents. Then, her job’s a piece of proverbial cake.

Not entirely coincidentally, I waxed long, if not eloquent, in my last post on the desirability of bolstering the information one might find in a standard agents’ guide, a conference blurb, or even an agency’s website with a little further research. Today, I’m going to talk about where to seek out that additional info.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a savvy querier like you has been conscientiously haunting the library for the past month, shaking the Dewey Decimal System vigorously until a dandy list of authors of books like yours dropped out of it. Because you are market-aware, you have naturally limited your search to books that have come out within the last five years; because you are hip to booth just how tight the literary market is right now and how much more difficult it can be for an agent to sell a first-time author’s work than an established one’s, you have been focusing your efforts on first and second books, on the very sensible theory that the agents who represented them might be more likely to take a chance on a fresh new voice than others. You’ve already tracked down the agents thanked in these books’ acknowledgments.

Now, savvy querier, you’re all set to track down who represented the books ungraced by acknowledgement pages. Having embarked upon that laudable endeavor, one question is ringing in your mind like the Liberty Bell: why on earth is this most basic information so difficult to come by?

I wish I could tell you that there is some esoteric reason for that, having perhaps to do with national security or fear of offending the muses by breaking a millennium-old code of silence. In principle, since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record — not the financial specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players — gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park.

But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to a publishing industry database. While there are a few websites that offer searches by author represented, they are often also for-pay sites, and if the complaints one hears ringing through the bars that are never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America are accurate, the data on them is not always up-to-date; authors switch agencies almost as often as agents do.

Is that giant collective gasp of indignation that just rocked the ether an indication that neither of those last couple of revelations was what a writer seeking an agent wants to hear?

I hate to be the one to break it to you gentle souls, but landing an agent is not like tag: a writer doesn’t necessarily get to connect with It once, then drop out of the game. There are plenty of reasons an already-agented writer might find herself treading the wearisome querying road for a second time. An author might decide to write a book outside her agent’s interests, for instance, or the agent’s may decide he no longer wants to represent the kind of book a client writes. When an agent moves from one agency to another, his clients may or may not go with him. A mammoth, literature-deploring squid might attack Manhattan, reaching through the windows of major agencies and wrapping its grasping tentacles around any unlucky soul wandering the hallways.

Okay, so that last bit was to see if you were paying attention. Squid attacks on agencies are exceedingly rare.

My point is — you hadn’t thought I’d forgotten it, had you? — just as it would be foolish for an author looking to change agencies to revert to her query list from five or six years earlier, when she had last been in the market for representation, it would be counterproductive for an aspiring writer looking for a first agent to work off information that’s, well, a trifle on the elderly side. Or to assume that what was true a year and a half ago, when he first put together his querying list, is necessarily still true now.

Conditions change, even without the intervention of super-sized marine cephalopods.

So how might one update a query list — or add to it? The web is an invaluable tool: sometimes, you can learn who represents an author quite quickly, via a simple web search. However, as I’m sure some of you know from frustrating experience, this method can be very time-consuming, and it won’t always yield the results you want.

Why? Well, a standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work. As well as every article in which she is mentioned, prompts to buy her book at Amazon and B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website. (Which, before you get your hopes up, may or may not tell you who represents her. Surprisingly often, established authors’ websites don’t.) Wading through all of that information can be a long slog, and does not always lead to what you need.

That doesn’t mean, however, that none of what turns up will help you. If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Or just go directly to one of the standard advance review sites: Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book, not readers who might conceivably buy it from retailers. They appear considerably before the release date; long enough, in fact, that it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be revised prior to release. (Or, more commonly, re-re-re-revised.) Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all routinely post industry reviews, too, and it’s always worth checking to see if Publishers Weekly did an article on the deal. If you really wanted to take a month to get a feel for who was who in your genre, you could sit down and read the last year’s worth of advance reviews. (If you do, and you write SF/fantasy, stick with Kirkus. Trust me on this one.)

But honestly, who has the time to read all of that and write?

You were thinking that already, weren’t you? I can hear chairs shifting out there; skepticism is in the air. “Anne, Anne, Anne,” I hear some of you restless-but-observant types muttering, “you’ve been telling me for over five years that agents and editors are massively busy people who may well become impatient during the course of a two-minute pitch. Do you seriously expect me to believe that if they wanted to find out who represented a particular book, they would go shuffling though 50 websites?”

Okay, you’ve got me there: they wouldn’t. They would consult one of the standard industry databases. The catch: those databases are by subscription.

Translation: it’s gonna cost you something over and above your time.

Usually, you ostensibly join a sort of club, and one of the perqs of membership is database access. Almost invariably, you buy membership in specified time increments (often a month), rather than per-use, so if you are up for gorging yourself on agent info, you could conceivably lock yourself in a room with your computer for a week or two and generate a list of a couple of hundred names, along with the specifics of who has sold what lately, then cancel your membership.

You might be a little sick to your stomach afterward, having learned so much about what is and isn’t selling at the moment, but at least you would have a very up-to-date list.

Personally, I prefer the Publishers Marketplace database; it’s not terrifically expensive, and agents often use it themselves. It has a very straightforward function called WHO REPRESENTS, very easy to use. Feed in your favorite authors’ names, and presto! you have instant access to who sold their most recent projects. This, as those of you who have been trying to ferret out such information already know, can save you literally months of research time.

You can also track individual agents, to see whom they represent and what they have sold in the last few years. If you sign up for the for-pay Publishers Lunch e-mailings (which isn’t a bad idea, as such a high percentage of US-based publishing folks read it and/or Publishers Weekly; it’s a great way to gain a basic idea of how the biz works and how swiftly publishing fads change), you will gain access to this database.

PM charges month-to-month, so if you are strapped for cash, you could easily generate a list of authors, join for a month, search to your little heart’s content, then cancel. (But you didn’t hear it from me.) Or you could corral a few of your writer friends to go in on an ongoing subscription with you, with the understanding that you’ll share the data.

Even then, you might find it a little spendy, so I hasten to add: as savvy reader Nadine pointed out, PM’s website does allow non-members to search at least part of its database; if you’re looking for who represented a book sold within the last few years, this is a good quick option. I notice, however, that such searches do not yield specific deal information — which renders it considerably more difficult to check what, for instance, an agent has sold in the last 6 months.

Personally, I kind of like being able to look up everything that’s sold in my genre within the last month, but as we all know, my tastes a trifle odd. But why might access to such a database make a difference to the usefulness of your querying list?

Several reasons, actually. First, if you want to query every agent who has sold a book like yours in the last year, obviously, a search engine that would enable you to pull up the sales in your chosen book category over that period of time would save you quite a bit of time. Second — and this one should sound a trifle familiar to those of you who have been ‘Paloozaing of late — it’s always a nice touch to be able to mention an agent’s most recent sale of a book like yours in a query letter: Congratulations on your recent sale of Author McWriterly’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. As my writing is similar, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Third — and this one should ring a few bells, too — because both the market and agency personnel are changing so fast these day, information about who is selling books in your category right now, as opposed to a year or two ago, when the books hitting the shelves now were being acquired by editors, might enable you to fine-tune your querying list.

Please pick your jaws off the floor, writers brand-new to the publishing process. Especially if you are writing fiction, it’s imperative to be aware that from an agent’s perspective, what is selling in bookstores right now is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what she can sell to a publishing house right now. Since there is typically at least a year between a publisher’s acquiring a book and its release, trolling the New Releases shelf will tell you what interested editors a while ago — not today, or even yesterday.

See why a query list-generator might want to garner up-to-the-minute sales information?

Before you dismiss the idea of spending money on professional database access, do sit down and figure out how much your time is worth. Why? Well, the practically-free method of acquiring the same information that I am about to suggest is so time-consuming that shelling out for a subscription service may start to look downright reasonable.

If you do have the time to invest, there is a free way to find out who represented any book, if it was published within the United States. As I mentioned above, the sale of a book is a matter of public record, and as such, publishers must provide information about who represented the author to anyone who asks.

So how do you get ‘em to cough up the information? Pick a book, call the publisher (there is often a phone number listed on the copyright page, to facilitate further book sales; if not, try the publisher’s website), and ask to speak to the publicity department. When you reach a human being (have a magazine handy; it can take awhile), ask who the agent of record was for the book.

You may encounter a certain amount of incredulity at your old-fashioned approach, but do not let that deter you. They are obligated to give you the information, and often, they’re rather charmed to hear that someone liked one of their books so much that he was willing to go to such significant effort to find out who represented it.

See why I thought you might find it a tad on the time-consuming side? Don’t worry; I still have a few time-saving tricks up my sleeve.

I sense a bit of disgruntlement out there. “Yeah, right, Anne: people at publishing houses are going to be happy to hear from readers. Pull the other one. I’ve always heard that under no circumstances should an aspiring writer ever call a publishing house or an agency. And why would they be nice to an aspiring writer, anyway?”

Well, for starters, that advice about never calling? It’s intended to prevent this conversation, and this conversation alone: “Hello, agency/publishing house? I have a book that’s a natural for Oprah, and…hello? Hello?”

A writer familiar enough with the ropes to be querying is probably not going to make that mistake. A dedication to playing by the rules is why, I suspect, that a weary What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being? cynicism tends to pop from the mouths of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.

It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — which entail, basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s writing is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.

No wonder the giant squid has it in for them, if so. But happily for writers everywhere, this just isn’t the case.

There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener. For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked Millicents, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.

Stop laughing, jaded queriers. It’s true.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that plenty of pros apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to the gloomy rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.

So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression? An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, for your own sake, do not fall into the trap of taking it personally.

In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the industry norm. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. In fact, sending out rejections at all is one of the more polite responses; as I am sure many of you are already aware, many agencies have a stated policy that they will not respond at all if the answer is no.

It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but non-responses, like boilerplate rejections, are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer. Like so many other puzzling aspects of the submission process, these phenomena can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time.

Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1500 queries per week. While reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.

See why I don’t think you should take it personally? Or even necessarily as an indication of the quality of your writing?

Do I hear still more disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few hoarse voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”

I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it at conferences, so aspiring writers come by this impression legitimately. However, it is an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner.

Although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized. Stuffing form-letter rejections into SASEs is just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.

To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 350 query letters that arrived in the morning’s mail and/or e-mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 350 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow. Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?

This is precisely what she does, of course. Dear Agent letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected barely read, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the QUERYPALOOZA! category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE and moves on to the next query.

And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? If Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?

Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. Don’t believe me? Do the math: 350 queries x 2 minutes/query = 700 minutes.

11.6 hours. In other words, longer than a standard work day.

If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not universal, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster. One of the reasons that some agencies prefer e-queries is, after all, the greater ease of rejection. She is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate: all she has to do is copy-and-paste it into a return e-mail. Unless she simply hits DELETE.

The fact that e-mailed rejections are usually phrased identically to paper form-letter rejections often comes as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?

We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer. Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same only-apparently-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.

To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it. There’s some strong writing here, but I just don’t think I can sell this in the current competitive market.

Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. I would argue, though, that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.

Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No, is there?

Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak, feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to Take it away — everything about this book concept is loathsome!

At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes. Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.

I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” a few quiet voices point out, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why in Sam Hill are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”

Because, sharp-minded questioners, in preparing these blog posts, I have been reading through quite a few listings, websites, and conference blurbs. In short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. Over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.

I don’t think this tendency to leap to the most cynical conclusion is in an aspiring writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, though, what they are actually saying is just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries.

A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay. Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer assumes, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.

Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow: Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.

While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. To my eye, what that last admonition was actually saying was not do not approach us, but please send queries by mail only, and if you send unrequested pages with it, we won’t read them.

Not particularly hostile to new talent, is it?

Read such statements very, very carefully — believe it or not, agencies post them to help you. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, right? Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can help the savvy querier avoid annoying Millicent.

Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button. Why wouldn’t a reasonable writer want to know practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail?

I consider specificity a very good sign in an agency guide listing or website’s submission guidelines; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I shout, “Wow, this agency has given the process some creative thought. Vive la difference!

But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?

Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?

Actually, there’s a pretty good reason for that: expressing such preferences is usually an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.

So yes, a lot of queriers do approach unprofessionally, but let’s face it, those are probably not the ones who are likely to take the time to read the agency’s guidelines, anyway. In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.

But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.) This is way the terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, implying a focus upon the avalanche of queries an agency receives, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.

So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”

That may sound like denial, but actually, it is a sane and rational response to what is being said in most agency listings and submission guidelines. Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes, but the last querier who annoyed the agent in question. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.

“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” some of you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”

Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.

That means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would you have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to need to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.

Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is in the listings.

Again, that’s useful information for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.

Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings, believe it or not. Steer clear of literature-loathing squid, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Query list-buildingpalooza, part V: say, have you heard the one about…

chatting couple at Lourdes 2

I open today’s post my favorite way: with an announcement of good news about a member of the Author! Author! community. Congratulations to Jay Kristoff, who has just signed a representation contract with Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Kudos, Jay!

And another heaping helping of kudos to Jay for having not only thoughtfully documented his frankly pretty exciting querying and submission process on his blog, but also being generous enough to have posted his query letter there. It’s always helpful, I think, for aspiring writers to see what is working right now.

It can be done, folks: keep pressing forward. Keep that good news rolling in!

Speaking of writers being generous to those treading the early steps on the long and winding road to publication — how’s that for a graceful segue, eh? — in my last post, I suggested a surprisingly underused method for figuring out which ones might be open to your work: the straightforward expedient of going to author readings in your book category and asking the speaker who represents her. Later in the same posts, however, I may have dashed some hopes out there by pointing out several ways in which aspiring writers frequently bungle such approaches, in the hope of helping you avoid them.

How do I know about these faux pas? Because agents, editors, and established authors just love to trade stories about outrageous approaches, that’s how. Trust me, you don’t want to become famous that way.

Unfortunately, open-handed friendliness to aspiring writers is rare; in approaching most agencies, as well as most presses and even literary competitions, it helps to be aware that, to put it mildly, an overwhelming desire to smooth the path of the aspiring is most emphatically not the norm. There are just too many aspiring writers for too few representation, publication, and winner spots for each new aspirant to be greeted with open arms, personalized responses, and a big box of chocolates.

It’s nothing personal: Millicent the agency screener merely sees thousands of queries and dozens of submissions every month. It’s her job to narrow down the competitive field as quickly as possible. For the same reason, contest judges look for reasons to knock entries out of the running for top honors, and editors want to be wowed by the end of line 2.

It is in the aspiring writer’s best interest, then, to assume that any professional reader will be uncharitably nit-picky. I would assume that those of you who have been querying, submitting, and/or entering contests for a while — and certainly those who have been following the ‘Paloozas this autumn — are already aware of that. You may not, however, have embraced the course of action dictated by these harsh conditions.

Do consider embracing it, and hard, if you have any intention of approaching the agented — or, indeed, anyone affiliated with the publishing industry — for assistance: if you are a writer asking for individual attention and assistance, it behooves you to make it as easy as humanly possible for people to help you — and to make that relative ease apparent from your very first interaction with them.

Does that seem self-evident? In theory, perhaps, but it’s not often put into practice. As we saw in our recent spate of negative examples, from the established authors’ perspectives, the writers requesting help often seem to be working overtime to make it difficult to help them — and to demand as a right what is actually a gigantic favor. There’s a reason that every pro has three or four horror stories about rude aspiring writers: there’s never any shortage of ambitious souls who take one look at the patient, consistent, well-informed effort required to land an agent, assume that route is for suckers, and try to bypass the usual methods of approaching agents.

“But you have to help me!” these uncourteous souls insist after they have cornered established authors, agency employees, and/or editorial assistants at cocktail parties. “Agent X would be great for me, and I want to get published more than anything else in the world!”

That, my friends, is not the best way to get someone to help you. Minimizing the effort required to do you a good turn is.

There’s another reason that the hyper-pushy approach seldom works: every aspiring writer worth his salt wants to get published more than anything else in the world. The situation is hardly unique.

So why should someone in a position to provide an introduction to an agent pick one particular aspiring writer to assist, rather than any of the tens of thousands of others who would just love to jump the queue? Three reasons, typically, and simple ones: because that writer asked, because she did it politely — and because she had taken solid, practical steps render it as simple as possible for her designated helper to give her a leg up.

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — at how seldom hello, stranger, would you help me get my work in front of your agent’s eyes? requests meet even one of those criteria, much less all three. Here are a couple of ways that writers often fumble the approach without realizing it.

Misguided approach 1: Pablo covets established author Pauline’s agent, Percy, so her has gone about seeking a referral in a sensible, respectful manner: he read her work first, was able to give her a charming, well thought-out compliment on her latest book, and established a cordial relationship before asking for any favors at all. Eventually, Pauline asks to read some of Pablo’s work. It’s very good, so enthused, she sends him an e-mail saying that she is willing to recommend him to Percy.

Success, right? Not so fast.

“That’s marvelous,” Pablo writes back immediately. “Send Percy the manuscript I gave you, and let me know what he says.”

He is astonished never to hear from Pauline again. Nor, to his shock, does he ever hear from Percy at all. “How rude,” he mutters. “If Percy didn’t like the manuscript, he could at least have made the effort to tell me so.

Did you catch Pablo’s tactical error — and his misinterpretation of subsequent events? No? Okay, let’s consider: does Pablo have any legitimate reason to believe Percy even saw his manuscript, much less rejected it? If the answer is no on both counts, Pauline is the one who did not follow through here, not Percy. That’s an important distinction, since Pablo could conceivably still query Percy independently if he has not already rejected the manuscript, right?

So it is in Pablo’s best interest not to waste his energy resenting Percy. Instead, he should ask himself: did I do anything that might have made Pauline change her mind about helping me?

Glad you asked, Pablo: you certainly did. You violated the golden rule of assistance-seeking: you made it apparent that it would be difficult to help you.

How so? Pablo assumed that because Pauline was willing to help him at all, she would automatically be eager to put in a great deal of leg work on his behalf, too. Suddenly finding herself expected to perform a massive favor when she had merely offered to do a smallish one, Pauline froze and backed off.

This kind of authorial freeze happens all the time — a pity, since it is easily preventable with a bit of forethought. And just a bit of expectation-modification.

What scared Pauline off was Pablo’s sudden revelation that he expected more assistance than she was in fact willing to give — and far more than she had actually offered. That must have seemed strange to her, because what she was willing to do was potentially so helpful: give him a personal recommendation to her agent, something few previously unpublished writers ever garner. So In her mind, her contribution to his querying success would consist of allowing Pablo’s to open his query letter to Percy with Your client Pauline has read my manuscript and recommended that I contact you about it…

That’s it. It may not sound like an immense favor, but as it would place Pablo’s work in a different pile than every other query that came into Percy’s agency, it could potentially have made an enormous difference to Pablo’s querying success. In fact, until fairly recently, such a query would have resulted in what is known as a courtesy read, regardless of whether the work in question was likely to interest Percy or not. Since the economy tightened, however, agents are not granting courtesy reads to their clients’ friends as often as in days of yore — yet another reason, if you still require one, to be as polite as possible in approaching an author for a recommendation. An author whose agent habitually refuses courtesy reads is placed in quite a pickle by such requests.

Pablo didn’t think about any of that: all he heard was that she was willing to help him. In his mind, she had just volunteered to take all of the effort and chagrin of submission off his shoulders.

That was a completely unrealistic expectation. If she felt very enthusiastic indeed, she might conceivably have called or e-mailed Percy, to let him know that Pablo’s work was coming, but that would be the absolute limit to what an established writer like Pauline would do for a new acquaintance. She could potentially offer to do more down the line, but realistically, Pablo should have accepted this much with gratitude and, taking the initiative to promote his own work, followed through himself.

Instead — and herein lay his biggest mistake — he not only appalled her by ratcheting up his expectations, but insulted her by telling her so. In brushing aside her actual offer in a way that inadvertently came across as dismissive, he pushed 100% of the follow-up responsibility onto Pauline, essentially expecting her to be his unpaid agent, pitching his work to her agent.

Think about it from Pauline’s point of view: why on earth would she do this? Even if Pablo is a brilliant writer, the utmost personal benefit she could possibly derive from the transaction is the glow of having done a good deed and Pablo’s gratitude. Perhaps she could look forward to a line on a future acknowledgement page. But if Pablo begins the process by appearing ungrateful, why should she lift single well-manicured finger to help him at all, much less put her own credibility with her agent on the line to promote his work?

Yet we can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Pablo, can we? He botched an opportunity for which many another aspiring writer would gladly have given his pinkie toes. From am aspiring writer’s point of view, he really made only one small slip, and that inadvertent.

So what should he have done instead? His response to Pauline’s offer should have been all about her, not him: “That’s fabulous, Pauline; thank you so much. How would you like me to proceed?”

While we could debate from now until Doomsday whether the punishment fit the crime here, the overall message is clear: when you want someone to do you a favor, your best strategy is to minimize, not maximize, the amount of effort your patron will need to invest to assist you. Don’t simply assume it’s understood — ask questions about how you can make it less trouble to help you.

I’m not talking about tossing off a 5-page demand that the pro explain the entire process to you; I’m merely suggesting that you ask a question or two to clarify precisely what your potential helper is willing to do — and what you would need to do in order to support her efforts. When in doubt, you can always fall back on the most basic, most welcome question of all: “What can I do to make helping me easier for you?”

That’s a bit counter-intuitive, I know: ostensibly, this process is about others helping you, not you helping others. But trust me on this one: the simpler you make it to assist you, the more likely you are to receive assistance.

Adopting that attitude toward helping hands will, I promise you, make you more welcome in virtually any industry gathering, both now and in years to come. Why? Because it will make you a better addition to the professional writers’ community.

I can feel some of you timid souls trembling from here. “But Anne,” you wail, searching the area around your feet frantically for any toes upon which you might have accidentally tread, “I’m terrified that I’ll do something wrong, since I’m going to be walking into a situation where I don’t know anybody concerned very well. Is it to much to ask that my friend in high places would tell me what to do? I mean, seriously, isn’t this all Pauline’s fault for not being clearer with Pablo up front?”

Those are loaded questions, timid tremblers: from the aspiring writer’s side of the equation, it’s understandable that you might want guidance. But yes, it is too much to ask that a busy relative stranger — or even an actual friend who has already landed an agent — would drop whatever she typically does with her time (like, say, writing) in order to devote energy to promoting your career. You would be flabbergasted if the bigwig said, “Okay, I’ll help you, but only if you agree to spend five hours this week standing in a bookstore, hawking my latest release,” wouldn’t you?

So if Pauline neglected to send Pablo a bullet-pointed list of directions, it’s understandable, is it not? Ditto if she was unwilling to instigate an argument by e-mailing someone who has already imposed upon her to explain that he should impose upon her a little less.

She might also have heard a horror story or two from a fellow author about the dangers of being nice enough to cater to the sometimes quite unreasonable expectations of those looking to break into the biz. Take, for instance, the difficulties her friend Tremaine ran into when he was trying to help a friend of Pauline’s — a debacle for which Pauline most likely still apologizing, years later.

Misguided approach 2: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking: her college roommate Pauline, an aspiring writer who had not yet found an agent, had taken a seminar with him at a writers’ conference. Pauline raved about his trenchant insights so much that when Tanya had her first novel ready to query, soliciting his advice seemed only natural.

She shot off a polite e-mail to him, explaining that she was a friend of Pauline’s. Would he have some time to give her the benefit of his years of experience, please?

Because Tanya seemed to be nice and was complimentary about his books, Tremaine was happy to answer a few of her questions via e-mail; it amused him to think that someone who had taken a half-day seminar with him five years ago would remember what he’d said enough to recommend him to a friend. After the first couple of exchanges, however, he began deliberately slowing his responses to Tanya’s questions, because she started to e-mail him every day. Each time, her messages got longer — and more personal.

Tremaine recognized the pattern: this has happened before. Clearly, Tanya had begun thinking of their exchanges as a burgeoning friendship, rather than what it actually was, an author being nice to a reader.

One sunny Tuesday, Tremaine spotted yet another e-mail from Tanya in his inbox. Sighing, he left it to answer another day. On Friday, he opened it, and was startled to find a cheerful note from Tanya, telling him she has already sent a query to his agent, Trevor, using Tremaine’s name as a reference. Would Tremaine mind following up with Trevor as soon as possible, to confirm the recommendation and try to speed up the process?

Cursing, he vows never to be nice to a fan again. But what on earth is he going to tell Trevor?

I want to discuss this sorry tale of mismatched expectations on two levels: first, by figuring out what Tanya did wrong, and second, by examining just how much trouble her acting upon her misconceptions has created for her mentor. Not to mention the poor friend whose name she used to get to the mentor in the first place.

I would hope that her central faux pas is apparent to all of you, but just in case, let me be absolutely clear: it is always the aspiring writer’s responsibility to ask the more established one for permission to use his name in advance, not tell him about it afterward. And while it is possible that Tanya did ask, but Tremaine overlooked her question due to the sheer volume of her e-mails, it is never legitimate to assume that silence equals consent.

A good rule of thumb in any context, actually.

Compared to that egregious boundary-busting, Tanya’s other sins pale in comparison. She rushed Tremaine into a friendship, interpreting his being nice enough to answer a few questions as an invitation to increased intimacy — and did it in such a way that he probably will cringe the next time he hears Pauline’s name. People seldom talk about this, but the flip side of networking is that being the connection between a polite person and a rude one makes the connector look bad, invariably. Since Tanya knew that Pauline was also an aspiring writer, she owed it to her friend to be on her best possible behavior when approaching Tremaine.

What happened to Tremaine happens to famous writers all the time, incidentally: unfortunately, there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have mistaken momentary professional kindness to a fan for the beginning of a lifetime friendship. And friends help one another, right?

Again, let’s phrase it as an axiom: before you use a recommender’s name, make absolutely sure that you have the recommender’s permission to do so. Yu may make an honest mistake, but because some unscrupulous folks have used this leg-up technique on purpose, the knee-jerk assumption on the agent’s end is almost certainly going to be that there was no misunderstanding at all. Just misappropriation.

It’s just not worth the risk.

A graceful way to confirm: if you are meeting in person, ask the recommender to write the agent’s name on a handy piece of paper for you. Then ask, “And it’s really okay for me to say that you sent me?” If said in a pleased, wondering tone, this will be perceived as a compliment — “Wow — YOU’re willing to recommend me?” — rather than doubting the author’s word.

Via e-mail, it’s even easier: if the language of the offer has been at all ambiguous, e-mail the recommender, saying that you are going to contact the agent. But make sure, unlike Tanya, you do it BEFORE you, well, contact the agent in question.

The overarching moral: it is always better to ask a follow-up question or two than to assume that someone intends to help you more than his words have stated specifically. If the recommender is indeed offering to help, the question is merely considerate; if not, it’s far better you know about it before you act, right?

Regardless of the outcome, remember to express gratitude for the help you did get. And don’t treat the granting of one favor as permission to ask for more — or, as Tanya did, to escalate the imposition.

Over and above the ethics of the situation, Tanya’s put Tremaine in a tough situation here, hasn’t she? On one level, she has used his name without his permission, and he would be well within his rights to pick up the phone and tell Trevor so, killing her submission’s chances.

On the other hand, doing so would make him look bad in the eyes of his agent: if he confesses to having been used, the next time Tremaine actually does want to recommend an aspiring writer, he will have to pass the manuscript along to Trevor personally, to avoid the possibility of another misappropriation of his name.

Which, as we have seen in Pauline’s struggles with Pablo will be a whole lot of work. Enough so that both Tanya and Pablo may reasonably expect to be the subjects of Tremaine and Pauline’s cocktail party horror stories for years to come.

Yet another very good strategic reason that you will want to bend over backwards to be easy to help: the publishing world is, as some of you may have already noticed, an arena where a poor reputation gets one talked about far more than a good one. You really, really do not want to be the subject of the hilarious story an established writer — or, still worse, an agent — is telling as a cautionary take at writers’ conferences this season.

But that does not mean you should be shaking in your boots, terrified that you will inadvertently say the wrong thing. The truly good stories tend not to be about aspiring writers who breach minor points of etiquette without knowing it, but those who come up with real whoppers.

Like the person who told a certain male agent of my acquaintance during a pitch meeting that he couldn’t possibly understand women’s fiction well enough to represent it. When he tried to tell her that he does, in fact, sell women’s fiction all the time, she implied that he was lying. She gave every evidence of being astonished when he said, “Then maybe you should not be pitching to me.”

Now that’s a good cocktail party story.

Seriously, when an author recommends a writer to her agent, she isn’t merely recommending the writing, but the person as well. As with any recommendation, the recommendee’s poor behavior tends to reflect poorly upon the recommender. And even if it didn’t, no one wants to be the client of whom the agent says at parties, “Oh, you would not believe what the writer she sent me did!”

Building a reputation for being easy to work with — the standard euphemism for being cooperative, following directions well, not prone to gratuitous temper tantrums, and knowing a bit about how the industry works going into a relationship with an agent or editor — carries legitimate value in agencies and publishing houses. Cultivate it. You really do want your agent to be able to say with a clear conscience, “Oh, she’s a peach. You’ll love working with her.”

I look forward to hearing that about you at a cocktail party, in fact. Keep up the good work!

Trolling for agent leads-palooza, part IV: a little assistance in angling for the big fish

puffer fish and friend

No, your bugged-out eyes are not deceiving you: I did in fact manage to work two — count ‘em, two — puns on the ubiquitous landing an agent trope into that capacious title, thank you very much. I can keep coming up with new names for this series until the proverbial cows come home, people, but until I hear some suggestions from my audience, the puns are just going to keep getting worse.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (And yes, I did take the disturbing photo of the floating fish myself.)

All week, we have been talking about how to generate a nice, substantial, and — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — appropriate list of agents to query. Because it’s a waste of your valuable time to write (not to mention Millicent the agency screener’s to read) letters to agents who do not regularly represent books in your category, the unfortunately common would-be querier’s strategy of simply opening one of the standard agency guides, casting a quick glance that the index, and sending essentially the same letter to every agent who seems remotely feasible is not in your best interest. While it can take some serious effort to come up with an intelligently targeted list, containing only agents with a proven track record of recent sales of books like yours (ideally, first books like yours), in the long run, selective querying is far more likely to yield requests to see manuscript pages than a scattershot approach.

And why is that, campers? Pull out your hymnals and sing out: agents specialize. So does a savvy querier.

To that end, we concentrated last time upon the sometimes difficult task of tracking down who represents whom, so that you may query agents who represent books similar to yours. I recognize, though, that to the more impatient among you — an aspiring writer impatient to see his work in print? Alert the media! — the level of background research I suggested yesterday might well have seemed a bit arduous. So today, I thought I would make a slight detour to a cut-to-the-chase agent-finding strategy long favored by the bold: walking up to a published writer (or a pre-published but agented one) and simply blurting out, “Excuse me, writer-whom-I-envy, but do you mind if I ask who represents you?”

You’d be surprised how often the answer is something along the lines of, “Why, no, not at all. My agent is Dealmaker McWheelerdealerson at Rainmaker Literary.” Writers tend to be nice people; they’re often very happy to give a spot of advice and encouragement to someone new to the game.

Given how very useful responses to this question can be for aspiring writers, it’s kind of astonishing how infrequently one hears it at author readings. Perhaps aspiring writers are shy; perhaps, too, they don’t go to as many book readings — especially by first-time authors — as they should.

Oh, you know a better place to run into a kind soul who demonstrably already has an agent? Or one more eager to talk to a potential reader? At an under-attended reading, a respectful aspiring writer might end up chatting with that new author for hours.

Yet even when aspiring writers are clever, resourceful, and community-supportive enough to find out when authors of books in their chosen categories are going to be signing and committed enough to show up, they are often afraid to come right out and ask the crucial question. They don’t want to bore other reading attendees. If you should happen to be laboring under this belief, allow this veteran of thousands of author readings to set your mind at rest: these days, “Who represents you, and how did you land your agent?” almost always elicits a response that’s interesting enough to entertain the non-writers in the audience, too.

Especially if you ask anyone who has landed an agent within the last seven or eight years, when the trolling has been quite a bit more difficult than in days of yore. I’ve seldom met a new author who isn’t positively relieved to launch into a diatribe about the 147 agents she approached before she heard those happy words every aspiring writer longs to hear: why, yes, I’d be delighted to represent your writing.

While you have your hymnals out, let’s sing another ditty: contrary to popular belief, good manuscripts do not always get snapped up right away. In the current ultra-competitive literary market, a savvy writer should expect to send out many, many queries before finding the right agent for her work.

So trot on out there and start asking some questions of the recently-published. If you live in or near a big city with some good bookstores, chances are very good that there are readings going on somewhere in town practically every day of the week. Again, don’t be afraid to ask some questions at your local bookstore or library: trust me, if you walk into the best bookstore in town, saunter up to the register or information desk, and ask for a calendar of readings, the staff will be OVERJOYED to direct you to one. Or put you on a mailing list.

Here in Seattle, we’re pretty lucky: not only do we have several very good independent bookstores that regularly host readings and signings, but we also have The Stranger, a free newspaper that routinely lists all of the author readings for any given week, along with brief summaries of their books. Heck, it’s even the rare newspaper that still — gasp! — reviews books. (Possibly because the editorial director, Dan Savage, won the PEN West award for a memoir a few years back.)

When you’re agent-hunting, it’s usually more worth you while to go to readings by first-time authors than people whose names have graced the bestseller lists for quite some time. Often, new authors are downright grateful to anyone who shows up, and doubly so to anyone who asks an interesting question. And if they are not grateful enough to their agents just after their first books come out to want to talk about them, they probably never will be.

As a fringe benefit, new authors will often blandish their local writer friends — publishers’ publicity departments generally ask authors for lists of cities where they have lots of friends, and set up readings accordingly — into attending their readings, just so someone shows up. Sometimes, these helpful friends are willing to tell you who their agents are, and what they represent.

Seriously, it’s always worth inquiring, especially if the reading author is new to the publishing biz. To be blunt about it, you’re far more likely to garner an actual referral from a first- or second-time author than a better-established one, especially if you listen politely, laugh at the jokes in the reading, and hang out to talk afterward.

Why do the established tend to be more stand-offish about it, you ask? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not usually because they’re snooty. Just experienced.

Let’s face it, the etiquette in this situation can be a little murky from both sides of the podium — after all, authors at public readings need to regard anyone who approaches them at a reading as a potential book buyer, and thus may come across as friendlier than they intend. And because the road to recognition is so very long and winding, many aspiring writers seek to speed things up a trifle by enlisting the help of the already established on their behalf by not only asking for information about who represents them, but by requesting (or, in some unfortunate cases, demanding) to be allowed to open their query letters with the eye-catching statement, Your client, Madeitaftertwentyyears Paidherdues, recommended that I contact you about my book…

Half of you just started salivating, didn’t you? Before you get too slobbery, I hasten to add: experienced authors tend to make this sort of recommendation fairly rarely.

To illustrate just why an author might become rather jaded to this species of request over time, allow me to introduce you to who a few hypothetical souls who gamely walked up to published authors and asked for their help — badly. Like everything else, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way.

The right way to ask an author for information about his agent, should you care to know it, involves treating him with precisely the same respect you would enjoy were you in his shoes. Approach politely, say something nice about his writing before you ask anything, and don’t be pushy. When you do come out with the big question, phrase it as the greatest of favors — which, incidentally, a referral to one’s agent undoubtedly is.

No need to be craven — anything beginning, “I’m sure you get this question all the time, Your Wonderfulness, but would you mind terribly if I asked…” is probably a bit over the top — but do indicate that you are aware that the author might not want to grant this request to a total stranger. Then, too, asking for advice usually works better than a direct request: something along the lines of, “My novel is rather similar to yours, and I was thinking of querying your agent. May I ask for some suggestions about the best way to approach her?” is often more successful than, “Hey, can I tell your agent that you sent me?”

That’s the right way. Journey with me now to the land of hypotheticals, to explore the wrong way. Or, more accurately, several wrong ways.

Author-approaching scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market, will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, installs herself in the front row, and bides her time, awaiting her moment. During question time, she stands up and asks point-blank who represents him, couching the question within a request for permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him after his talk is over. Any other questions?

Isabelle waits patiently until all those who have bought books have presented them to Ignatz for signing, then repeats her question. “I haven’t read your book,” she tells him, “but from the reviews, our writing has a lot in common.”

Ignatz, professional to the toes of his well-polished boots, casts only a fleeting glance at her empty hands before replying. “I’m sorry,” he says, “my agent has asked me not to refer any new writers to him.”

What happened here, and how did Isabelle harm her own chances of success? For extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off, rather than a simple statement of his agent’s feelings on the subject?

Isabelle committed two cardinal sins of author approach. First, she did not evince ANY interest in Ignatz’s work before asking him for a favor — and a fairly hefty favor, at that. She did not even bother to buy his book, which is, after all, how Ignatz pays his rent. But since he is quite aware, as any successful author must be, that being rude to potential readers may mean lost business down the line, he can hardly tell her so directly.

So he did the next best thing: he lied about his agent’s openness to new clients.

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out of this awkward situation would have been simply to say so. He did not, however: what he said was that his agent asked him — personally — not to recommend any new writers.

A subtle difference, but a crucial one, as far as tactfully refusing requests like Isabelle’s is concerned. Most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers: it saves the agent trouble to use the client as a screener. So if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he generally really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away. Please buy my book anyway.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work — and indeed, didn’t know she existed prior to the day of the request.

From Ignatz’s point of view, this is a no-win situation. He has absolutely no idea if Isabelle can write –- and to ask to see her work would be to donate quite a bit of his time gratis to someone who has just been quite rude to him. Yet if he says yes without reading her work, and Isabelle turns out to be a terrible writer (or still worse, a terrible pest), his agent is going to be annoyed with him for sending her along. And if he just says, “No, I don’t read the work of every yahoo who accosts me at a reading,” he will alienate a potential book buyer.

So lying about his agent’s availability is Ignatz’s least self-destructive way out. Who can blame him for taking it?

Because I’m a great believer in the try, try again approach to agent-seeking, let’s next assume that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, she decides to try her luck at another author reading.

Author-approaching scenario 2: this time, Isabelle makes a smarter choice, going to hear an author with whose work she has already read. Wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career. She also brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

After the reading, Isabelle once again stands in line to have her book signed. While Juanita is graciously chatting with her about the inscription, Isabelle slaps her 500-page manuscript onto the signing table. “Would you read this?” she asks. “And then recommend me to your agent?”

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers.

Oh, you may laugh, but #2 happens even more that the first scenario –- and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences than book signings. Just as some aspiring writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to the total stranger who has just pitched or queried them, the pushy often forget (or never knew in the first place) that many, if not most, working authors who show up at conferences are there to promote their books, teach writing classes, and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes, not merely to win karma points by helping out the aspiring.

That’s an important distinction in this instance — basically, Isabelle has just asked a writing teacher she has never met before to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. And for very little benefit.

Oh, you hadn’t thought of it that way? Okay, tell me: other than Isabelle’s admiration and gratitude, what would Juanita get out of saying yes? A single book sale, at most?

This not to say that some established writers don’t like to offer this kind of help; surprisingly many will routinely read at least a few pages of politely-offered aspiring writers’ work. But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when completely strangers demand immense favors. Establishing some sort of a relationship first –- even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that will prompt her to ask you, “So, what do you write?” — is considered a courteous first step.

This particular set of problems is not discussed much on the conference circuit – or, to be precise, they are not discussed much in front of contest attendees; they are discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because, alas, for every hundred perfectly polite aspiring writers, there are a handful of overeager souls who routinely overstep the bounds of common courtesy –- and, as I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not always easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

No one, however famous or powerful, likes being climbed. Case in point:

Author-approaching scenario 3: at a large writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do. Suspend your disbelief a little, for goodness’ sake.) After hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

Within minutes of Krishnan’s arrival at the coffee shop, however, he is plunged into embarrassed confusion: Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do to make Krishnan feel like he was being used? Partially, he echoed Isabelle’s mistake: Karl just assumed that by being friendly at the conference, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent. Because he was so focused on his own career, he didn’t pause to consider Krishnan, either as a writer or as a person.

In Karl’s mind, the only reason Krishnan could conceivably have agreed to have coffee with him was to discuss how he could help Karl land an agent. However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences. A small sampling, in descending order of probability:

(1) Krishnan might have just been polite because his mother brought him up to be nice to strangers.

(2) Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan.

(3) Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression.

(4) Krishnan is lonely — writing is an isolating craft, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to have coffee every now and again between chapters. (Was it too much to expect a nice conversation about Zoo Story?)

(5) Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group and wanted to test-drive Karl as a conversational partner.

(6) Karl is a heck of a lot more attractive than he thinks he is.

(7) Krishnan has long been desperate to get some feedback on Chapter 3 of his doctoral dissertation, Edward Albee, A Study of Every Line of Every Play in Exhaustive Detail. His backpack contains a draft for Karl’s perusal.

(8) Krishnan is actually a serial killer who lurks at writers’ conferences, trolling for victims because he likes to bury body parts and manuscript pages together, or,

(9) Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally).

Of these possibilities, only #5 would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and only if feedback would be exchanged, not a one-way arrangement. Even if #9 were true, it would be highly unusual for Krishnan to volunteer himself as a first reader; it’s a time-consuming task, and potentially awkward if Karl’s work does not turn out to be something that might conceivably interest Krishnan’s agent. Again, what would be in it for the agented writer?

Regardless, if either #5 or #9 had actually been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED to share his work. As any Millicent would be only too happy to tell you, even a cursory scan of a manuscript can take quite a bit of time.

But what of Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent? This, too, placed Krishnan in an awkward position. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. Think about it: if Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

That’s right: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to garner recommendations to agents.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan probably stood for quite some time.

See earlier comment about just how long it can take even the most gifted writers to land an agent these days. Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan invested a decade in finding absolutely the right agent for his work — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Err on the side of caution: presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was. And if he is in the throes of submission to editors, assume that he may be stressed out about that, too.

If an agented writer’s fretting about submissions seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast — and thus that you have probably not been hanging out after very many new authors’ readings lately. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after of being signed: practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about his agent’s turn-around time.

Don’t see how that relates to Karl’s request? Well, think about it: even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, every second she spends reading new work is one second less devoted to reading Krishnan’s latest revision — or marketing it. Some authors are a mite touchy about that, so tread carefully.

Note, please, that all of the above applies even if Krishnan actually has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as, actually, do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing books — is most emphatically not a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest friendship before you ask for big favors. Until you know an author well, keep your requests non-intrusive.

And be polite, always. Krishnan probably would not have minded at all if Karl had simply asked for his agent’s name after half an hour of pleasant chat. Heck, Krishnan might have offered the information unsolicited in that time — or even permission to use his name in the first line of a query letter.

I can picture it now: since you so ably represent Krishnan Jones, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Too bad Karl blew such an opportunity by being hasty, eh?

Another good reason to get to know your intended helper a bit first: it may well have turned out that Karl had a skill – computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine.

But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time. (And have actually done so, by the way.) Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had established a friendship or I was paying for her time, either monetarily or by exchange.

That does not mean, of course, that you should be shy about asking an agented writer who represents him. Just tread lightly, and be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping you — you are also implicitly imploring him or her to put credibility on the line.

And that, my friends, is something that most authors — and most human beings — do not do very often for relative strangers.

Next time, I shall examine a few more pitfalls that commonly open up under the unwary feet of aspiring writers seeking assistance in generating their query lists. Not exactly cheerful, I know, but I would far, far rather that you hear some of these unpleasant truths from me than for even a single member of the Author! Author! community accidentally tumbled into one of them. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, Part VII: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that bell bottoms are still in style, Barbie?

Barbie ad

Still hanging in there, campers? Last night, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener.

That made your eyes pop open this fine morning, didn’t it? “Wait,” some of the bleary-eyed call out, “back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query in the middle of that paragraph? Before I was fully awake? Is that fair?”

Never mind that — you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends. You’ve even, if you have been following Querypalooza with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. (Was that only 48 hours ago? This weekend has, I must confess, been a lengthy one for me.) You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical transformation? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would.

The first two steps: nailing down a book category for it and figuring out who your ideal reader is. A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it.

Which is to say: once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is, will make it MUCH easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.) Like the vast majority of queriers, she has not thought about her target market before approaching agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (Something a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER do, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Briana, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting fairy tale: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project over a long period (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list.

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions in Querypalooza VI (was that only last night?) for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has made it much, much easier to be dismissive. Although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

Most aspiring writers don’t even consider doing this — and frankly, it’s easy to see why. Many approach quite a few agents simultaneously — and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. One-by-one queries can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I sense some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Admittedly, sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on Publisher’s Marketplace.

What no agency will EVER leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess, I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time.

A query letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works. Virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a NOTORIOUS agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course — to put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

No, but seriously, agents (and their screeners) wonder about this. So it’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book to a publisher is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

The best way to justify your agent choice is by mentioning one of the agent’s recent sales. Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. (Everyone smart, anyway.) If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with any book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent book, {TITLE}, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call your favorite book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. For instance…

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be riding for all it is worth.

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there?

And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail? (Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.)

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list:

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?

Stop laughing, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that accept submissions directly through the website often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well.

If you’re in doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s also worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you shout, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it?”

Not necessarily, but often. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; verify before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, they will assume that you are aware of it.

While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the morning:

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie would constantly be receiving queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex.

If you’re in serious doubt, call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor; unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should NEVER call an agency until after she has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if she’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely accidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many talented people so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor.

Think we’re at the end of the query-refining questions? Not by a long shot. Tune in at 6 pm for my next installment, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part IV: what happens AFTER a successful query or pitch?

smiling-rock

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: there’s a LOT of information in this basic overview series, but if you start to find it overwhelming, just try to concentrate on the big picture, the broad strokes, rather than feverishly attempting to memorize every detail.

Even if you are not new to the business side of art, it’s good from time to time to distance yourself from the often-trying process of trying to get your writing published. And if you doubt that, do me a favor: rise from your chair, take two steps away from the monitor, and take a gander at the photograph above.

If you don’t see the rock smiling at you, you may be focusing too much on the small picture.

Besides, you can always come back and refresh your memory later. Seriously, it’s easy, if a bit time-consuming. One of the many charms of the blog format lies in its archives: as long as I am running Author! Author!, these posts aren’t going anywhere, and the archives are organized by subject. So please feel free to use this series as a general overview, delving into the more specific posts on individual topics grouped by topic for your perusing convenience on a handy list on the lower right-hand side of this page. There is also a search engine in the upper-right corner, so searchers may type in a word or phrase.

And, as always, if you can’t find the answer to a particular writing question, feel free to ask it in the comments. I’m always on the look-out for new subjects for posts, and readers’ questions are far and away my best source.

Last time, I went over the three basic means of bringing your book to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controllable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch.

Which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean. Or calling you and demanding that you give a three-hour dissertation about your book on the spot. Not that these are unreasonable fears, by any means: given how intimidating the querying and pitching processes can be but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried or pitched.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers; I said overtly mean, not dismissive or curt. There’s a big difference. Dismissive and/or curt responses are not personal, usually; overt meanness is.

So to those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you. (At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional.)

At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

You can handle that, can’t you? I hope so, because any writer who is in it for the long haul just has to get used to the possibility of hearing no. Because hear it you almost certainly will, no matter how good your manuscript is.

Yes, you read that correctly, newbies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.”

Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. (Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?) That’s just the way the game works these days.

Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query or pitch does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

Some of your hearts are still racing at the prospect anyway, aren’t they? “Okay, Anne,” a few of you murmur, clutching your chests and monitoring your vital signs, “I understand that it may take a few nos to get to yes. But if an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen? I’d like to be prepared for either the best or the worst.”

An excellent plan, oh ye of the racing heart rates. Let’s run through the possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
As we discussed last time, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. These pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials as a result of it, it was. If not, it wasn’t.

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however: it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. First-time pitchers and queriers often get carried away by a provisional yes, assuming that a request for materials means that they will be able to bypass the heart-pumping, nerve-wracking, ego-shredding, and time-consuming process of continuing to query and/or pitch.

And then, a week or a month or three months later, they’re shattered to receive a rejection letter. Or, still worse, they’re biting their nails six months later, waiting to hear back from that first agent who said yes. Shattered hope renders it harder than ever to climb back onto the querying horse.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: writers who walk into the querying and pitching process armed with a knowledge of how it works can avoid this awful fate through a simple, albeit energy-consuming, strategy. Send what that first agent asks to see, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets.

In other words, be pleased with a request for materials, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise to love it, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been unsuccessful?
If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the writer is generally informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list.)

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages.

Let’s get back to the happy stuff: what if I’m asked to send pages?
If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York (or wherever the agent of your dreams may happen to ply his trade). Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Take a deep breath — and realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to take at least a week to pull your requested materials packet together. That will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see.

How to pull together a submission packet is a topic for another day, however — specifically, the day after tomorrow. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving a request for submissions between now and then, please feel free to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, do not say yes before you have done a little homework. In the US, reputable agencies do not charge reading fees — for a good list of what an agent may charge a client, check the Association of Authors’ Representatives website. It’s also an excellent idea to look up an agency that asks for money on Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question about the agency on Absolute Write; chances are, other aspiring writers will have had dealings with the agency. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one. The fact is, anyone could slap up a website with the word AGENCY emblazoned across the top. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and apparently writer-friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers desperate to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or in the case of many scams, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge; to see a full correspondence between an actual writer and such a business, check out the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct reading; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of its clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard, especially if your primary means of finding agents to query is trolling the internet.

What if a writer receives no response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to a query at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last few years, an ever-increasing number of queries — and even submissions, amazingly — were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so directly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance. The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Seeing a pattern here?

I certainly hope so. There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: as I mentioned last time, it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and many agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

For some guidance on how to expand your querying list so you may keep several queries out at any given time, please see the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written.

The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it. Makes sense, right?

One piece of industry etiquette to bear in mind: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again — again, extremely rare — a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an annoyingly pervasive rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for decades, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as last week), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though. People who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, whatever you do, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. I can tell you now that it will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake; it will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap horror stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one. In an industry notorious for labeling even brilliant writers difficult for infractions as innocuous as wanting to talk through a requested major revision before making it, or defending one’s title if the marketing department wants another, or calling one’s agent once too often to see if a manuscript has been sent to an editor, writers new to the game frequently find themselves breaking the unwritten rules.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. Trying to get a rejection reversed is just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, really, the only thing that will genuinely represent a victory here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it.

What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Something else that might help you manage your possibly well-justified rage at hearing no: at a good-sized agency — and even many of the small ones — the agent isn’t necessarily the person doing the rejecting. Agencies routinely employ agents-in-training called agency screeners, folks at the very beginning of their careers, to sift through the huge volume of queries they receive every week. Since even a very successful agent can usually afford to take on only a small handful of new clients in any given year, in essence, the screener’s job is to reject as many queries as possible.

Here at Author! Author!, the prototypical agency screener has a name: Millicent. If you stick around this blog for a while, you’re going to get to know her pretty well. And even come to respect her, because, let’s face it, she has a hard job.

Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; most of the time, it’s just a matter of fit.

What is fit, you ask, and how can you tell if your book and an agent have it? Ah, that’s a subject for tomorrow’s post.

For today, let’s concentrate on the bigger picture. Finding an agent has changed a lot over the last ten or fifteen years; unfortunately, a great deal of the common wisdom about how and why books get picked up or rejected has not. The twin myths that a really good book will instantly find an agent and that any agent will recognize and snap up a really good book are just not true anymore, if indeed they ever were.

I’m not going to lie to you: finding an agent is work; it is often a lengthy process, even for the best of manuscripts. More than ever before, an aspiring writer needs not just talent, but persistence.

I know you have it in you. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part II: getting the facts straight from the get-go

Athene's birth from the head of Zeus

Last time, I launched into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis: compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5-page summary in standard format. Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

As I pointed out yesterday, it’s well worth double-checking who is requesting what these days, especially if you’re planning on including a synopsis with your query letters. This information that’s usually easily available in the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides, on its website (if it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t), or even, in the case of a REQUESTED synopsis to be included with a submission, in the communication containing the request for materials.

Yes, I AM saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often queriers seem to forget to consult either of the former (or both, since sometimes they contain different information) or, in the heat of post-request excitement, simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send. A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework.

Seriously, Millicent the agency screener is not going to consider ignorance a legitimate defense. If the agency has made the information publicly available, she will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it. As will her boss.

Why might a demonstrated lack of familiarity with an agency’s querying or submission guidelines (which are, lest we forget, likely to differ from other agencies’) raise red flags for Millicent? Readers who made it through my recent Pitching 101 and How to Write a Really Good Query Letter series, feel free to shout out the answer: because a writer who isn’t very good at following directions is inherently more likely to be a time-consuming client than one who shines at producing what s/he is asked to produce.

I hear some annoyed huffing out there, don’t I? “Aren’t you borrowing trouble here, Anne?” some of you ask, arms akimbo. “The first mistake you mentioned could simply be a matter of having found out about an agent from writers’ forum or one of the listing websites, rather than having plunked down the cash for a Herman Guide or tracked down the agency’s website. If agents were REALLY serious about wanting everyone who approaches them to adhere to the guidelines on their sites, wouldn’t they make sure that the same information appears in every conceivable listing, anywhere?”

Well, that might be the case, if agents had infinite time on their hands (they don’t) or if most of the information on fora and secondary sites you mentioned were first-hand (it seldom is). The advantage of relying upon one of the more credible information sources — Jeff Herman’s guide, Guide to Literary Agents, the Publishers’ Marketplace member listings, individual agencies’ websites — is that the information there comes directly from the agencies themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that these sources may occasionally provide mutually contradictory guidelines, you can at least be certain that someone at the agency you are planning to approach has heard of them.

Not so with a writers’ forum or an agency listing site. While writers can glean useful information this way, it’s almost invariably second- or third-hand: it may be accurate, but it’s not necessarily what the agent or agency you’re planning to approach would like potential clients to know about them.

So while searching fora and generalist sites can be a good way to come up with ideas of whom to query, that shouldn’t be a savvy writer’s only stop. Check out what the agency has to say for itself — because I can tell you now, their Millicent will assume that you are intimately familiar with its stated guidelines, and judge your queries and submissions accordingly.

Besides — and I’m kind of surprised that this little tidbit isn’t more widely known — it tends to drive people who have devoted their lives to the production of books NUTS to encounter the increasingly common attitude that to conduct a 20-second web search IS to have done research. Until fairly recently, conducting research meant actually going to a library and looking into a book, a practice that people who sold them for a living really, really condoned. They miss the days when that was common. They pine for those days.

Trust me on this one: aspiring writers who whine, “But how I was I supposed to know that you wanted a 1-page synopsis rather than a 5-page one?” when that information is clearly included in a well-respected guide that anyone in North America could have walked into a bookstore and bought do not win friends easily at the average agency.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s side of the desk, the second problem I mentioned, when queriers get so caught up in the excitement of querying or submission that they just forget to do every step recommended in the guidelines, looks virtually identical to poor research. The over-excited are often penalized as a result.

So how might one avoid that dreadful fate? Here are a few helpful hints:

For a query packet:
1. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.

You saw that one coming, didn’t you? Never, ever assume that any given agency will want to see exactly what all the others do.

Yes, even if you heard an agent at a writers’ conference swear up and down that everyone currently practicing her profession does. It’s just not true — unless she was talking about professionalism, attention to detail, courtesy, and submissions in standard manuscript format. (And if you don’t know what that is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider approaching an agent.)

2. Take out a sheet of paper and make a checklist of EVERYTHING those guidelines request.
Don’t trust your memory, especially if you are querying several agents at once: details can blur under stress.

3. Follow that checklist whilst constructing your query packet.
Again, you probably saw that one coming.

4. Before you seal the query packet (or hit the SEND button), go over your checklist again to make absolutely certain you’ve done everything on it.
Double-checking is the key. If you’re too nervous to feel confident doing this — and many aspiring writers are total nervous wrecks on the eve of querying — as your significant other, close friend, obsessive-compulsive sister, or some other detail-oriented person who cares about you to run the final check for you.

Sounds like overkill, but believe me, every agented and published writer in the world can tell you either a first- or second-hand horror story about the time s/he realized after s/he sealed the envelope/popped it in the mailbox/it was halfway to Manhattan that s/he had omitted some necessary part of the packet. Extra care will both help you sleep better at night and increase your chances of charming Millicent.

For a submission packet (and I warn you, some of these are going to sound awfully familiar:
1. Read over the request for materials (if any) and make a checklist of what you’re being asked to send.

If the request came after a successful pitch, you may have to rely upon your recollections of what’s said, but if the agent asked you in writing for pages, don’t make the EXTREMELY COMMON mistake of just assuming that your first excited reading caught all of the facts. Go over it several times and make a list of what to do.

Don’t tell me that you’re in too much of a hurry to do this before you get your manuscript out the door. Must I tell you horror stories about writers who didn’t?

2. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
Yes, you should do this even if the requesting agent was very detailed about what s/he wanted. Chances are, the agent of your dreams shares a Millicent with other member agents; if the agency expects submissions to look a certain way, so will the communal Millicent.

3. Have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests.
No, it’s not sufficient to have someone else double-check your list — this is too important. Have a buddy generate a separate list, to maximize the probability that nothing will be left off.

Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment.

4. Compare and consolidate the two lists.
If there are discrepancies, go back and find our which is correct.

5. Make absolutely certain that your submission is in standard manuscript format.
I couldn’t resist throwing this in, because so many submissions fall victim to unprofessional formatting. If you have never seen a professional manuscript in person (and no, it does not resemble a published book in several significant ways), please go through the checklist under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the list at right.

I usually add a bunch of disclaimers about how there are many such lists floating around the web, all claiming to be definitive, but it’s tiring to pretend that there isn’t a lot of misinformation out there. I’ve won a major literary contest and sold two books using the guidelines I show on this site; my clients have sold many books and win literary awards relying upon these guidelines. I know agents who refer new clients to my website for these guidelines.

So as far as I know, there is literally no debate amongst professional book writers about what is required. (Fair warning: the standards for short stories and articles are different.) For any readers who still throw up their hands and complain that there isn’t a comprehensive set of guidelines out there, all I can suggest is maybe you’re spending a bit too much time surfing and not enough time talking to the pros.

That wasn’t as peevish as it sounded: seriously, if you’re tied up in knots because there isn’t any army out there forcing every single advice-giver to conform to a single set of suggestions, sign up for a writers’ conference or go to a book signing. Pretty much anyone in the industry will be perfectly happy to refer you to a credible source.

But fair warning: almost without exception, they will be miffed at an aspiring writer who complains that an Internet search did not turn up definitive information. As I mention above, to book people, that’s simply not doing research.

6. Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.

Again, if you’re not a very detail-oriented person, at least not when you’re extremely nervous, have someone else do the final flight-check. Often, significant others are THRILLED to be helping.

Whenever you are scanning guidelines, be it for a query packet, submission, or contest entry, pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses. Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

If, as is the case with many agency guidelines, a particular agency does not set a length limit, be grateful: they’re leaving it up to you, not expecting you to read their minds and guess what they consider the industry standard. Use the length that you feel best represents your book, but never go over 5 pages, double-spaced.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but come closer, and I’ll let you in on the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable — and, ideally, reflective of the voice of the book.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book, a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge many times; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing one. Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how good your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Yes, it happens. It’s actually not all that uncommon for agented and published writers to be asked to provide synopses for books they have not yet written. In some ways, this is easier: when all a writer has in mind is the general outlines of the plot, the details are less distracting.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have been reading this blog all summer or have worked through some of the exercised in the archives, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind.

You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a pitch I used as an example just a couple of months back:

Nineteenth-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood? 

 

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? As I vaguely recall having mentioned at the time, this would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Lookee:

Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but see how simple that was? The trick to the 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. Like the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself insane, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1? Bears pondering, doesn’t it?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, composing a synopsis is still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?) Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 — 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves.

Just don’t expect Athene to come leaping out of your head on your first try: learning how to do this takes time. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XII: pulling together a query packet without a demigod’s help

labors of Herakles

I’m a bit frazzled today, I’m afraid: I am currently suffering under one of the more common professional writers’ ailments, an impending deadline. How do I feel about my prospects of meeting it? Well, here’s a clue: the ancient Greek vase above depicts one of the labors of Herakles.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult I’ll do right now/the impossible may take a little while.

I couldn’t bear to lock myself into my isolation tank, however, until I had wrapped up this series by talking about how to put together a query packet — a question I’ve been hearing often enough in recent months that I’ve started a category for it on the archive list on the bottom-right side of this page.

Hey, I’m all about ease of reference. FYI, if you can’t find a heading on the category list that matches the question that happens to be burning in your mind in any dark midnight, try typing a keyword or two into the site’s search engine, located in the upper right-hand corner of this page. If you still can’t find a few pertinent words of wisdom, feel free to drop me a line in the comments.

To tell you the truth, I’ve resisted writing much on this topic, for the exceedingly simple reason that I didn’t want anyone to confuse a query packet (i.e., the stack of things an agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides might ask a querier to send along with the query letter) with a submission packet (the array of papers an agent has SPECIFICALLY asked a writer to send after a query or a pitch).

The former known in the industry as unsolicited materials, the latter as requested materials.

And already the confusion starts: “But Anne,” some of you new to the process protest, and who could blame you? “I’m confused. If the agency’s website, guide listing, or page on that always-useful resource for writers seeking agents, Publishers’ Marketplace tells aspiring writers that they should send a synopsis or the first 50 pages with a query, in what sense is that not a request? Especially when half of those listings refer to their standards as submission requirements?”

I see your logic, oh rules lawyers, but you’re confusing passive guidelines with an active request. Anyone able to track down an agency’s website or listing might discover its submission guidelines, the prerequisites to which an aspiring writer must adhere in order to get a query under one of their agents’ spectacles at all. But as any agent or editor in the biz could tell you, agencies draw a very firm distinction between preliminary materials sent out of the blue (from their perspective) and pages that they actually asked a writer to submit, based upon a successful query or pitch.

How seriously do they take that distinction? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve seldom heard anyone who has worked within five blocks of an agency refer to any pages sent with a cold query (i.e., a query letter from a writer who has had no previous contact with the agency and hasn’t been referred by someone they know) as a submission.

Judging by the knitted brows out there, that little explanation didn’t leave you unconfused, did it? “Okay, Anne,” the brow-knitters say, arms folded and all ready for an argument, “I believe that they make a distinction, but I still think I’m right to think of those 50 pages the agent of my dreams’ website told me to send as both requested materials and a submission. If not, why would they call them submission guidelines, huh? Got a glib answer for that one?”

Actually, I have several. You’d better get comfortable.

In the first place, if your dream agent’s website stated that queriers should go ahead and send sample pages, it didn’t ask YOU to do so; it asked everyone who might submit to them. Given that such a public request effectively narrows down the potential pool of querier to every writer on earth who currently doesn’t have an agent, you can hardly blame those who work at the agency for not considering those guidelines in the same light as a specific request to a specific writer.

In the second place, submission guidelines is an industry term; publishing houses use it as well, but like word count or literary fiction, the definition in use at the moment is in the mind of the speaker. It’s not as precise as those coming into the conversation from the outside might like.

For all its imprecision, the term’s use in this context performs a pretty specific function: it catches the eye of writers so new to the industry that they are unaware that they shouldn’t just mail off a full manuscript to any agent who happens to catch their innocent imaginations. Understood that way, an agency’s guidelines are in fact submission guidelines — they tell aspiring writers not to submit at all, but to query instead.

In the third place, I hate to be the one to bring this up, have you by any chance compared the guidelines on the agency’s website with those in one of the standard agency guides and/or the individual agent’s listing on the aforementioned Publishers’ Marketplace?

It’s a bit time-consuming to check multiple sources, but often worthwhile: not only do guide listings tend to have different emphases than website blurbs (thus enabling you to fine-tune your query list), but it’s also surprisingly common for the various sources to ask queriers to send different things.

Yes, really. It’s not at all unheard-off for the most recent Guide to Literary Agents to suggest querying with a synopsis, the agency’s website to ask for a query plus the first ten pages, and the individual agent’s Publisher’s Marketplace page to specify a query plus the first chapter and an author bio. Heck, it isn’t even all that unusual for one source to say that an agency welcomes paper queries, while another insists that it will only accept queries via e-mail and the website has a form to fill out and submit electronically.

No wonder writers are confused. I’m not bringing this up, however, to criticize agencies, but as part of my ongoing quest to convince agent-seeking writers that being hyper-literal and rules-lawyerish is not necessarily helpful at the querying stage.

Why, you ask? Well, remember how I had mentioned earlier in the summer that conference-goers sometimes confuse an individual agent’s personal preferences with an industry-wide norm? Sometimes, what guidelines end up in an agency guide are a function of the preferences of whoever happened to fill out the form — or of no one at the agency’s thinking to go back and update its Publishers’ Marketplace listing when the guidelines on the agency’s website have changed.

It doesn’t really matter why it happens, does it? My point is this: if a particular agency has two or three sets of guidelines floating around out there, it follows as night the day that its resident Millicent must be seeing two or three different kinds of query packet on any given day.

What were you saying about taking a guide listing or website’s guidelines as a request?

In the fourth place (yes, I’m still working on the original question), as I have pointed out earlier in this series, just because if an agency’s site/listing/representative at a writers’ conference expresses a generic interest in seeing extra materials — a synopsis, for instance, or a bio, or even pages — that doesn’t mean its screener Millicent will necessarily read them. If the query doesn’t spark her interest, she’s extremely unlikely to give the book project a second chance just because additional materials happen to be in front of her.

Before you get all huffy about that, brow-knitters, allow me to add hastily: this is largely a function of time not being infinitely elastic. It’s Millie’s job to weed out queries, right?

“But wait,” my brow-knitting friends ask hesitantly, “is it possible that I’m misunderstanding you here? From what you’re saying, it sounds as though my being able to send pages along with my query isn’t necessarily an advantage — all it really does is save Millicent the trouble of asking to see them.”

Well, if that’s the conclusion you want to draw from all this, I would be the last to stop you. One of the Labors of Herakles is calling me.

Another is calling you, oh querier: do your homework before you send out that query. And send precisely what the agent expects to see.

How might one figure out just what that means, in the face of conflicting guidelines? Generally speaking, although the Publishers’ Marketplace and the Herman Guide listings tend to offer the most information (again, useful for figuring out which agent at the agency to approach), agencies’ websites usually offer the most up-to-date guidelines. I’d advise following them — but checking another source or two is always a good idea.

Especially if you’re not especially fond of copying and pasting your first few pages into the body of an e-mail or into a miniscule box on an online form. It can wreak havoc with formatting.

Querying via form on a website
Those forms are self-explanatory (part of their popularity, I suppose): many of them simply tell aspiring writers to paste their query letters into a form, along with a writing sample. I trust that you can figure them out on your own.

And if you can’t, I probably won’t be able to help: they’re too individualized for me to create general rules of thumb for dealing with ‘em. Sorry about that. Have you considered checking one of the standard agency guides to see if the agency with the troublesome form would accept a mailed query letter instead?

E-mailed query packets
E-mailed queries are not so straightforward, especially if the guidelines (wherever you found them) ask for additional materials. DO NOT, under any circumstances, include attachments in an e-mailed query; virtually every agency in North America has an iron-clad policy against opening unrequested attachments. They’re just too likely to contain viruses.

Hey, I’m not casting aspersions upon your no doubt squeaky-clean computer. I’m just reporting what the process looks like from the other side of the desk.

If the agency’s website SPECIFICALLY asked for attachments, send them in Word (the industry standard), but do not send them as .docx. Many, many agencies are running older versions of Word (on PCs, usually) and will not be able to open .docx files.

Like any file-transferring snafu between an agency and a writer, this is considered the writer’s fault. And no, Millicent won’t e-mail you back, asking you to send a different version. Nor will the agency call upon its crack computer support staff, for the simple reason that, as astonishing as this may seem to those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, NYC-based agencies seldom have an in-house computer expert. Probably because s/he would be so like to tell them to upgrade what version of Word they’re using.

I’m telling you: a little foresight will go a long way toward getting her a document someone at the agency can actually open.

If you happen to be running a recent version of Word, your document may be saved as a .docx automatically, so use the SAVE AS… function to save your document as a Word 97-2004 document (.doc). Mac users, do be aware that your system may allow you to give your documents longer names than an older PC’s system might recognize as valid.

How do you include additional materials without attachments? Copy and paste them into the body of your e-mail, a few skipped lines after the end of your query. Fair warning, though: as I mentioned above, formatting often gets lost in the transition.

Particularly vulnerable, for some reason: double-spacing. Even if you have to change the spacing in the e-mail by hitting the RETURN key at the end of every line, make sure any text you send is double-spaced.

Always start an e-mailed query packet with the query letter itself, then move on to any requested materials in the order they were listed on the website. Unlike a paper query, an e-mailed query need not include date and full address of the recipient, but do open with a salutation: Dear Ms. Smith…

Why? Well, think about it from Ms. Smith’s perspective: wouldn’t a mass e-mail be the most efficient way of broadcasting 2,000 generic Dear Agent queries? Do you really want your e-query mistaken of one of those?

Most of you probably knew most of this, though, right? Let’s move on to a little-known trick o’ the trade — located in the part of the e-mailed query to which writers tend to give the least thought.

The subject line of an e-mailed query
The subject line is key to an e-query’s ending up in the right place, so you are going to want to make that space count. Or at any rate, prevent your e-mail from getting relegated to the spam file.

Most agents prefer writers to include the word QUERY in it, presumably so they don’t mix up your e-mail with that invitation to their high school reunion. If you just heard the agent speak at a conference, include the name of the conference in both the subject line and the first line of your query; many agencies will give priority to post-conference queries.

Conversely, if you already have an in with the agent, make sure to include that in the subject line, too. If you met the agent at a conference and she told you to send her a query (as opposed to sending materials; it happens), write REQUESTED QUERY and the name of the conference in the subject line; if you were lucky enough to garner a referral from an existing client, type QUERY — (Client’s name) REFERRAL.

Getting the picture? Good. Let’s move on to mailed query packets.

Querying the old-fashioned way: on paper
Here, too, the running order is important: the query letter itself should be on the top of the pile, no matter how many pages of material the agency’s website said to send. It needs to be the first thing Millicent sees; she’ll want to read it first.

Underneath the letter, you may stack any pages the guidelines said you could send. Send ONLY the maximum number of pages — if the guidelines said to send ten pages, send only ten, even if that means leaving Millicent in mid-sentence.

Hint: double-check the agency’s guidelines to see whether the number of pages is a hard requirement or an up-to. Often, if the number of pages is significant, the requirements will say something like you may send up to 50 pages. In such cases, if your Chapter 2 ends on page 43, it’s perfectly acceptable to send only 43 pages.

Heck, Millicent might even be grateful for your restraint. She has a lot of reading to do in a day, you know.

Include a title page on top of the pages; it’s traditional, and the information included there will both make you look more professional and render it easier to contact you if the answer is yes. if you don’t know how to format a title page (and yes, Virginia, there is a specific way to do it), please see the aptly-titled TITLE PAGES category on the list at right.

Traditionally, the synopsis comes after manuscript pages, with an author bio always at the very end of any kind of submission packet. (True of book proposals, too, by the way.) Again, though, you’re going to want to read the submission guidelines carefully: a few agencies prefer a 1-page synopsis to precede manuscript pages.

Speaking of book proposals, I know that many agencies’ guidelines say a writer can just go ahead and send them with a query, but speaking as someone who has sold a couple of nonfiction books, I would be hesitant to send one out unsolicited, especially in paper form; that’s a lot of paper to mail, and it’s not as though you can copyright a book idea. Personally, then, I would simply send a query and wait to be asked to send the proposal.

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But one thing that’s easy to overlook amid all of these conflicting expectations is you’ll almost never go wrong if you just send a query letter without additional materials.

So if you’re in any doubt, keep it simple. Millicent can always ask to see more.

The SASE
Most aspiring writers are aware that every paper query should include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope), but many do not know that a SASE should be large enough and contain sufficient postage for the return of EVERYTHING sent in the query packet, as well as a single-page reply.

That surprised some of you, didn’t it? “Whoa, Anne!” some red-faced brow-knitters exclaim. “What do you mean, it needs to be able to hold everything? I’ve just been sending regular #10 business envelopes as my SASEs, even when I’ve been submitting my entire manuscript!”

Not what the agent of your dreams had in mind. The purpose of the SASE is to send your materials back to you, not merely so the agency doesn’t have to pay postage on a form-letter rejection. Okay, so it’s also so the agency doesn’t have to pay to reject writers, but it’s genuinely for the writer’s protection: do you want your pages wandering off just anywhere?

And then there’s the practical consideration: think how much paper Millicent handles in a week, especially if she happens to work in an agency that permits queriers to include manuscript pages. If she didn’t have a quick and painless way to get all of those pages off her desk as soon as she had rejected them, within a month, she wouldn’t even be able to get to her desk chair.

Within six months, no one would be able to get into the office at all. Poor Millie would be trapped under a mountain of unsolicited submissions, screaming, but nobody would be able to hear her. Paper makes terrific insulation, you know.

Save her from that dreadful fate: send a large enough SASE with enough US stamps — not metered postage, please; you want Millicent to be able to toss it into the nearest mailbox — to get back to you. In order to pull that off if your query packet contains more than 4 pages, you’re probably going to want to send it in a Manila envelope, rather than a business-sized envelope.

That way, there will be plenty of room for the SASE, right?

Traditionally, the SASE goes at the bottom of the pile: present if needed, but not distracting. In years past, it used to be considered kind of stylish to include both an adequately-large SASE with a submission, in case of rejection, AND a business-sized one, in case of acceptance, but in a query packet, that’s likely to strike Millicent as overkill. Besides, these days, she’s every bit as likely to e-mail you a request for more pages as to send it in your SASE.

And that, my friends, is the story of query packets; like so much else in writer-agent relations, the practices were much more streamlined back in the days before the rise of the personal computer, much less the Internet. In fact, a case could be made, and a cogent one, for the popularity of the Internet’s being the cause of each agency’s specifying that it wants different materials in query packets: back when the standard agency guides and word of mouth were the primary ways that writers found out what standards were, pretty much everyone just asked for a query, or query + synopsis.

In fact, the industry truism of yore dictated that a writer should NEVER send manuscript pages or a proposal unless and agent had specifically asked him to do so. Frankly, I think that expectation was a bit easier on writers: there was far less stressful guesswork involved.

So are agencies asking for more materials up front just because they can? Maybe, or maybe some of them just wanted to streamline the rejection process by arranging to have a writing sample on hand as soon as Millicent read the query letter: that way, she can rule out promising book concepts whose writing doesn’t deliver in one contact with the writer, rather than the former two.

Or perhaps — and I’m not saying this is true; I’m merely speculating — providing guidelines that are unlike those of other agencies is a clever means of discovering just how good a prospective client is at following directions; if every agency asks for something slightly different, the Dear Agent queriers who treat every agent on earth as identical are going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs, right?

Just in case I’m right on that last one, follow the individual agency’s directions. To the letter. And if that means choosing from amongst several sets of guidelines, pick one and cling to it like a leech.

Trust me, both you and Millicent will feel better if you do. In an often confusing and alienating process, concrete direction can be very reassuring.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part I, or what do you mean, I already have the building blocks of a query at my fingertips?

rettig-in-5000-fingers

Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, way back in mid-July, and you’ll find that when I first began talking about how to pull together a verbal pitch. Back in those practically prehistoric times, I promised that doing so it would help you crank out a stellar query letter.

And the laughter could be heard for miles around. Those of you who had never pitched or queried before shook your heads in wondering skepticism, rent your garments, and troubled the heavens with bootless cries of, “How is that possible, when verbal pitches and written queries are such different things? When will this horrible miasma of confusion end?”

To be precise, now.

Today, I’m going to start talking about how to construct a query letter from the building blocks of the pitch. (And if you’re joining us late and are not clear about what they are, check the category list at the lower right-hand side of this page — each has its own category, for easy reference.) This is a perfect time of year to be working on polishing a query — as I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so waiting until early-to-mid-September (after Labor Day, but before the Frankfort Book Fair, since I’m on a precision kick) makes good strategic sense.

I should probably acknowledge before I start that there are almost as many formulae out there for sure-fire query letters as there are professional givers of writing advice. Personally, I don’t believe that the perfect query exists, at least in a generic form: in my experience, the most effective query letters are the alchemical effect of a combination of a well-written, professional letter, a writer who has taken the time to learn to talk about her manuscript in terms meaningful to the publishing industry, a book concept that happens to be appealing to the current literary market, and an open-minded agent with the already-existing connections to sell it successfully.

Such a confluence doesn’t occur all that often — and it virtually never happens by accident.

Did I just sense a multitude of jaws dropping out there? “Heavens, Anne,” some prospective query-writers scoff, “if that’s your standard of querying perfection, I’m not surprised that you think it doesn’t happen very often. As Elizabeth Bennet told Mr. Darcy after he listed his criteria for a genuinely educated woman, I do not wonder at your not knowing many; I wonder at your knowing any at all.”

Touché, oh skeptics, but as a matter of fact, I know scads of writers who were able to produce such query letters by dint of persistent and intelligent effort — but only because they realized that there is no such thing as a single query letter perfect for every conceivable recipient.

There is, however, such a thing as a perfectly wonderful query letter specialized to appeal to a specific agent, as well as a slightly modified version personalized for another. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about cobbling together a whole flock of such letters.

Already, I hear martyred sighs rising across the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” easy-fix advocates protest, “that sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work, and I already resent taking time away from my writing to query agents. Couldn’t I, you know, just recycle the same letter over and over again?”

Well, you could, oh protesters, but I doubt it would result in identical outcomes each time. Or perhaps not even a single outcome that you would like.

I understand your frustration, though — I’m fully aware that in advising a tailored approach, I’m placing myself firmly in the minority of writer advisors. You could, I assure you, stop reading this right now, invest less than 20 seconds in a Google search of writing the perfect query letter, and come up with literally hundreds of one-size-fits-all templates that would make your life easier in the short run.

But I don’t think you should use any of those. Frankly, I think that the literally thousands of sources out there telling writers to follow this or that fool-proof formula are doing a disservice to those they advise.

Why? A tendency to produce unwarranted self-blame, mostly: if an aspiring writer believes that the one-size-fits-all approach she is using cannot be the problem, then the only possible reasons for rejection could be problems with the book concept or pages submitted, right?

Actually, no. The culprit could also be having made the right case to the wrong agent, or having made the wrong case to the right agent.

Or having formatted the letter oddly, or having failed to follow the directions on the agent’s website, agency guide listing, or Publishers’ Marketplace page. (Yes, PM has very informative explanations of who represents what and what they like to see in a query, but fair warning: it’s a for-pay site.) It could even have been a matter of having adhered to the standards set forth on one of these sources after the agency has changed its rules, or because the targeted agent no longer represents one or more of the types of book one of those sources says she does.

Rejection may, in short, come flying at an aspiring writer from any number of sources. As I think would be quite apparent to your garden-variety querier writers talked amongst themselves more about both rejection and the nuts and bolts of querying.

I know, I know: that’s a rather startling statement for an online writing guru to make, but hear me out. Most of the query letters currently floating through the US Mail or flying via e-mail actually do deserve to be rejected by professional standards, but not because the books they are pushing are poorly written, lousy concepts, or any of the million other reasons a manuscript might not be up to publication standard.

No, most queries fail on a few very basic levels: unprofessional presentation, non-standard spelling and/or grammar, omitting to mention necessary information, hostile tone, being sent to an agent who does not represent the kind of book presented, and, most notorious of all, obviously being a boilerplate letter designed to be sent out indiscriminately to every agent currently operating in North America.

Agents have a pet name for the latter: they’re called Dear Agent letters, because some of them are so generic that they are not even addressed to a particular agent. Virtually without exception, US-based agents simply reject Dear Agent letters unread.

Also destined for the reject pile: queries sporting overused tricks to attract an agent’s attention — strategies, incidentally, often borrowed from one of the zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively infallible query letter. Perhaps it is unfair, but nothing says generic letter like the hip new lead-in that some hugely popular marketing guru was advising two years ago.

In my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. Quite possibly because it is rarer.

Although I am confident that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls that plague the average querier, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits-all pattern.

We can do better than that, I think. So let’s start at ground zero and work our way up, shall we?

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest in the manuscript it describes.

A strong query is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly, professional write who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) Nor is its goal to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

In order to elicit the admittedly less dramatic but ultimately more respectful of your writing latter option, an effective query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound awfully familiar to those of you who stuck with me all the way through my recent Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it.) To cast the query in the context we’ve been discussing for the last month or so, the query is a written pitch, intended not to prompt an instantaneous offer to represent the book, but a request to read some or all of the manuscript or book proposal.

Ah, I just lost some of you with that comparison to pitching, didn’t I? “That’s all very easy to say, Anne,” those of you who find the prospect of sitting down face-to-face with a real, live agent about as appealing as hand-feeding a hungry wolf marshmallows by balancing them on your nose point out, “but you just got finished telling us that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all formula. So how does a writer trying to break into the biz pull it off without a prescriptive plan that tells him precisely what to do at every step?”

Well, for starters, don’t feed wild animals that way. What, are you trying to get mauled?

Once you toss aside the preconception that there is only one kind of perfect query letter and you are being expected to guess what it contains, constructing a good query letter introduction for your manuscript or query letter becomes quite a bit easier. It just requires a bit of advance preparation.

I just felt you tense up again, but trust me, this is prep that you are uniquely qualified to do: figuring out what your book is about, who might want to read it, and why. Once you have established those, writing the query letter is a matter of building a structure with parts you already have on-hand. And that’s a comparative breeze, because instead of trying to chase an elusive wraith of an ideal or copying what worked for somebody else, you’re talking about a book you love.

What’s more natural to a writer than that?

Let me hasten to add: being natural does not mean presentation doesn’t count. Your query needs to be businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), discussing your book project in terms that an agent might use to describe it to an editor.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths; you are already well prepared to do this.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the information you would need to include, so you may see for yourself just how much of it you already have at your fingertips. Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent
Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,”  “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title
Self-explanatory, I should hope.

*The book’s category
I.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries omit it, but as in a pitch, it’s essential; no agent represents every type of book on the planet. (If you don’t know why, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count.
This one is completely optional. Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre — for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words — go ahead and include it. (And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.
This is the part that stymies most queriers. Relax — we’re getting to it.

3a. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book That’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page.

3b. and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.
If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book
Or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Here is where you present your platform — or, to put it in a less intimidating manner, where you explain why the agent should take you seriously as the author of this book.

Actually, this paragraph is not optional for nonfiction, and it’s a good idea for everyone. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, don’t panic: just omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid work.) Or any public speaking experience — that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph
Here is where you thank the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, or whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not impossible to pull off in a single page, is it?

Oh, dear, you’re tensing up again at the prospect, aren’t you? If so, I have some very, very good news for you.

If you have been prepping your pitch throughout our recent Pitching 101 series, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter. You merely have to pull them together into a polite missive personalized for each agent you plan to approach.

Don’t believe me on the preparation front? Look at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name,

I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.

{ELEVATOR SPEECH}

I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Aspiring Q. Author

Or, to show it as it might appear on an actual piece of paper (bright white, please; this is not the time to break out the solar yellow in an misguided effort to grab Millicent the agency screener’s attention), like this:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

I see quite a few lit-up eyes out there. “Um, Anne?” some wily sorts murmur, jotting down hasty notes. “What you’ve just shown looks suspiciously like a template. Mind if I borrow it wholesale and use it as such?”

Actually, I do, but not because I’m especially proud of having penned a sentence like I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. You should eschew copying anybody else’s query letter for the very simple reason that it is important that your query letter sounds like your book.

Not my book or the creation of any of the small army of writing gurus, but yours. After all, you’re not seeking representation for a generic volume; you’re looking for the best agent for your particular manuscript.

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination; today’s post is the lead-in for one of my patented exhaustively in-depth discussions. By the time we’re finished, the very suggestion that your book’s chances would be improved by utilizing boring, one-size-fits-all query copy is going to make you laugh out loud.

At least, I hope it will. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIV and Writers’ Conferences 101, part IIII: working up the nerve to pitch — or to ask pointed questions, for that matter

At the opera the other night, I saw something I’d never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call — and at a rather specific point, too, when the singer playing the lead was walking out for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show.) Why would they have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? I cannot say for sure, but my guess would be that it was for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in golf claps when she appeared.

It wasn’t because she didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she had demonstrated in Act III. She’s world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had not sung full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.

Did she have a sore throat? Had she lost her nerve? Or did she merely figure that this was Seattle, not New York or Berlin, so she could afford to phone in half of her performance?

Performance anxiety, medical excuse, or apathy — we in the audience will never know. All we can judge her by is how she sang.

Performance anxiety is on my mind today, campers, because I’m going to be concentrating in this post upon the delicate art of working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. And — brace yourselves — to start to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.

Okay, perhaps not quite as much, given just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days, but certainly, it’s not a face-to-face meeting to approach uncritically. As, alas, the vast majority of pitchers — and queriers, for that matter — seem to do.

Oh, I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable — undoubtedly, it is. In the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Before an army of Valkyries shouts, “Well, duh!” at me at a volume certain divas would have done well to emulate, allow me to add a spin to that observation that may not have occurred to some pitchers: since a pitch meeting is a professional encounter, not a social event, it is very much in your interests to consider whether the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.

There’s more to an agent-writer relationship than friendship, you know. In fact, that’s often a relatively small element. Obviously, you’re going to want to be able to trust your agent, but whether the two of you clicked during your ten-minute chat is far less important to how well you will work together than your ability to communicate — and, yes, the agent’s contacts with editors who happen to publish books in your category.

So the common writerly fantasy that a friendly pitch meeting automatically equals a long-term personal connection is not only seldom true in actual practice; it can lead aspiring writers do make foolish choices. “Oh, but I really clicked with Agent Z,” they will protest. “I couldn’t possibly submit those pages Agent Q requested until I hear back from Z.” Or: “Since I had such a great pitch session with Agent R, why should I bother to pitch to anyone else at this conference? He’s sure to sign me.” Or even: “Yeah, it’s been 10 months since I submitted those pages Agent B requested, but I’m not going to keep querying or contact the agency to see if they have lost my submission packet. She seemed to like me; I don’t want to mess that up.”

All of these are poor strategic choices, based upon a misunderstanding of the pitching relationship. Successful pitchers’ hopes often rise sky-high, leading them to confuse a request for pages for an implied commitment. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be interpreted as such.

Far too few pitchers seem to understand that. Here’s a useful rule of thumb: until an actual offer is on the table, a good pitch meeting is just a nice conversation at a conference.

But even if a smiling request for materials did imply more (which it doesn’t), the mere fact of liking an agent personally is not the best determinant of whether this is the right person to represent your manuscript. Or even whether the two of you can work well together under stressful conditions.

Yes, I said work together, because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes. It’s rare that a manuscript or proposal does not go through at least some revisions after the agency contract is signed, generally at the new agent’s request. So before you think about committing your manuscript or proposal to anyone’s hands, you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers.

Stop cringing — if you’re going to be a successful author, this is CRUCIAL information.

Why? Well, agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it. Some want their authors to check in regularly, while others roll their eyes if a client has the temerity to inquire whether the manuscript the agent sent out six months ago has met with any results yet.

It really does behoove everyone concerned, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

I know: a pitch meeting is an intimidating situation, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover people like YOU. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions. Hey, I was merely being honest about the kind of client I would be.

Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask such questions: most writers’ conferences feature panels where agents and editors talk about their work. Almost universally, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.

That prospect should make you start rubbing your hands in glee like the villain in a melodrama: here’s a risk-free chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

It’s a golden opportunity, yet much of the time, it’s is squandered with the too-specific question of the conference newbie who thinks this is an invitation to pitch. “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but that’s not really the issue here: this guy is trying to give a mass pitch to everyone on the panel. Universally, this kind of approach-disguised-as-question falls flat on its face.

Why? Manners, my dears, manners. Question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching.

Let me repeat that, as it may sound a bit strange coming from the fingertips of the queen of the hallway pitch: the agents’ and editors’ forums should NOT be construed as pitch sessions. You may, if you can work up the nerve, walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

Still not convinced? Okay, let’s take a gander at what happens when our misguided friend above ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does at every major conference. If the agents are feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward (some other focus entirely)…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience. Like hallway pitching, the response all depends upon the mood and generosity level of the agents approached — and how politely the writer has made the request.

Even if you are Emily Post personified, however, don’t bother with the broadcast pitch approach: it’s not worth the risk. Most likely, the only result will be your getting talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Trust me on this one.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident to the pros? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about how deal memos are constructed: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. (If you have no idea what a deal memo is, you might want to take a gander at the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right. Even aspiring writers who have done their homework often harbor misconceptions about how the process works.)

Second, a manuscript that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now. So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.”

Again: not the best idea.

So how does one use question time correctly, you ask? You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for critique.

Oh, it happens. It’s pretty to see how quickly agents — who, after all, are in competition with one another just as much as writers are — will rush to defend one of their own.

Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”

If you take nothing else I say into the Q&A session, remember this: this type of question will not help you win friends and influence people.

Why? Well, no one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people, right? Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification. Human nature, I’m afraid.

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’, who even at the height of her blog’s popularity enjoyed at best a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although should you happen to bump into MY agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved. As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “…and she says that what you told us before is wrong.”

Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? A few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else — and will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:

“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described; darned useful information.

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” This is a question agents tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names, nodding vigorously to indicate that you either believe that the author mentioned is the best thing to happen to literature since Homer first got the idea of telling the story of the Trojan war or that you are intending to rush to the nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore the instant the conference is over and buy all of that author’s books.

Hey, agents make a living from their clients’ royalties. You think they DON’T mention their clients at conferences partially in order to stimulate some book sales?

“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project that was hard to place, but eventually succeeded.

Word to the wise: while it’s tempting to be impressed by the story about how the agent showed a particular manuscript to 43 agents before it got picked up, it’s worth asking the follow-up question, “Is that your regular practice, or did you especially love that book?” It’s not unheard-of for an established agent to recycle a single heroic incident from the very beginning of his career throughout a couple of decades’ worth of writers’ conference panels. What he was willing to do for the best manuscript he ever read back in 1982 isn’t necessarily indicative of how he might handle your book now.

“If I were looking to understand what a great first novel (or first book in your chosen category) would read like from an agent’s point of view, what books recently out would you suggest I read?” Another question that tends to be popular with panelists — because, trust me, no agent on earth is going to name a book that s/he DIDN’T represent.

“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” They’ll like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” This last varies a LOT, but in the last year or so, many fiction agents have been on the look-out for career writers, rather than those with only one great book in them. Asking panelists this question will let you know to whom to mention the other three manuscripts you have sitting in a drawer.

“How much feedback do you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately. Translation: they don’t like to take on unpolished manuscripts, even if they have great market potential.

“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend?” Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.

What was the last book you picked up from a conference pitch and why? What made that pitch stand out to you? The benefits of this question are twofold: it will enable agents to gush about clients whose books have not yet been released (always fun for them), and you might just glean a pitching tip or two.

Do be aware, however, that some agents will respond defensively to this type of question, disliking the implication that they might EVER sign a writer without having read the manuscript in question. The usual deflecting response: “Well, I don’t really judge by the pitch; it all depends upon the writing.”

“I’ve been hearing that many of the big agencies employ submission screeners. How many other people need to read a submission before it will reach your desk — and what kinds of comments to you like to see from them?” It can be difficult to get an answer to this question — some agents who normally employ screeners pride themselves on reading requested materials from pitchers themselves — but it can reveal quite a lot about the unwritten rules of screening.

“What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. (Beginning your query, naturally, with the magic words, “I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XYZ conference…) The responses are usually pretty colorful.

Do you have any automatic red flags for submissions? Any pet peeves we all should avoid? You are well within your rights to ask this one — and everyone in the room will bless you for it. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

Fair warning about the response to this one: it’s very, very common for agents to imply that their individual pet peeves are shared by every other agent currently walking the earth’s crust. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes it isn’t.

However, should you EVER hear an agent mention a pet peeve on a panel, scour your work for that problem before you send that agent anything. If an agent makes the effort to warn you, s/he means it.

You’ll be pleased to hear, after all that, that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask at the editors’ forum — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pull the pin on the grenade:

“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, all of the major US publishing houses currently have policies forbidding editors from signing unrepresented writers — a policy of which editors tend to assume that pitchers are already aware. So much so that editors new to conferences are sometimes surprised that writers want to pitch to them. Often, senior editors are at the conference merely to give a class, network, or make connections with the already-established authors that often hang out at their local conferences; they may only have agreed to participate in pitch meetings to fill the time in between. (Hey, it happens.)

Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts. Generally speaking, an editor from a small publishing house is more likely to be able to say yes to a manuscript, but if, for instance, an editor at HarperCollins is given to perusing its online competitive submission site, asking about direct submissions will probably elicit that information.

These questions will also help you decide to whom to pitch (in the hallways, probably) on a more professional basis than whether the agent or editor struck you as a nice person whilst speaking on the dais. This is not the best criterion to use, and certainly not the best ONLY criterion to use, because:

(a) Most people are rather different when speaking to large groups than one-on-one, which is how a signed writer would be dealing with them; your first impression might not be an accurate one.

(b) Agent and editor fora tend to be rather early in the morning, and folks in the arts are often not morning people (see conclusion on previous point).

(c) The pro who comes across as nastiest may in fact just be trying to save writers some chagrin. Telling the hard truth from a podium is not usually conducive to popularity, but the truth about the publishing industry is what you paid to come to the conference to hear, right?

(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients.

Finding out more about these people’s personal tastes and professional interests is also just good manners — and this is an industry where manners do count to a surprisingly great extent. From a more self-interested perspective, wouldn’t you rather learn in an impersonal forum that Agent A isn’t remotely interested in your kind of book than during a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting?

Of course you would. See why I was so adamant about your picking a book category?

Once you have figured out which agents and editors from small houses (again, all of the major US publishers currently have policies against picking up unagented authors) represent books in your category and like your type of voice (not always the same thing, in practice), try to get appointments with ALL of them.

Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this — although fair warning: this practice does tend to annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk. Also, many conferences lay down rules barring signing up for extra appointments (unless you pay for them). However, even at such conferences, the eager beaver who happens to be standing by the desk when someone cancels can sometimes nab the extra slot.

A great, great time to do this: immediately after the agents’ forum. Would-be pitchers who have just heard their assigned agents declare from the dais that the appointment was a mismatch are often overjoyed to switch appointments with someone else, or even just cancel their own.

If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to your likely candidates in the hallways. Again, immediately after the agents’ forum is an opportune moment for this.

I felt your chest seize up, but please, don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think: you are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.

As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”

You deserve to be heard, in short. Don’t let ‘em intimidate you.

But if you DO find yourself too intimidated to walk up to someone in the industry and gasp out your magic first hundred words, do not despair: that information you gathered at the agents and editors’ forum will still serve you well. After the conference, you can query ALL of them — or at least the ones on your narrowed-down list.

And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? (Hint: I mentioned it above.)

If you said, “By Jove, you would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query,” give yourself a gold star for the day.

Why is this a dandy idea? Because in most agencies, conference-goers are regarded as a bit savvier than the average querier; their queries, therefore, tend to be taken a bit more seriously AND read with greater attention. So it’s well worth your while.

Oh, and before I forget: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above. (Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor DID request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.)

But whatever you do, don’t be a silent wallflower at a writers’ conference: take a few polite risks, and don’t be afraid to approach editors from smaller presses. The Brünnhilde who perpetually saves her voice for the final act has a hard time making a good first impression.

Sing out, Hildy. This could be your big break.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XVII: location, location, location, or, but wait, I’ve heard…

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There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise. — Gore Vidal

Not that I don’t just adore telling people what to do — a not uncommon preference, as even the most cursory glance at writers’ advice websites will demonstrate — but my last couple of weeks’ worth of posts have been awfully prescriptive, haven’t they? I mean, only yesterday, I was giving fairly explicit directions on how to accost an agent in a hallway (or bar) at a writers’ conference, politely ask if s/he could spare thirty seconds, and give the shortened version of your pitch known as the elevator speech. Just like that, as if what I was recommending were as simple as ordering a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Believe me, I have no illusions about how difficult hallway pitching actually is; I’ve done it. It’s sort of like surfing: the people who are good at it make it look effortless, but in reality, it takes a whole lot of practice and a great sense of balance to master. Not to mention an eye for picking the right wave to tackle.

But hey, surf’s up. It’s literary conference season, you know.

Because I have thrown quite a bit of instruction at you in the last couple of days, I thought I might devote today to answering questions, spoken and unspoken. (And yes, that is my subtle way of asking, “Hey, does anyone have any questions before we move on to the pitch proper?” Now is the time to trot ‘em out, people. I realize that many people’s interactive web time is eaten up these days with Facebook and Twitter, but remember, the difference between a blog and a column is whether readers write in to comment and ask questions.)

Let’s begin with the unspoken, shall we?

Perhaps it was merely the growls of my restless imagination, but after yesterday’s rather intense post, I thought I heard some frustrated sighing out there. Oh, you may have been too timid to post a question about it, disgruntled gusters, but I have marvelous powers of perception.

Not to mention projection.

In any case, I sensed your unspoken irk. “But Anne,” I heard some of your psyches muttering in the dead of night, “if the elevator speech is so effective at piquing interest, why shouldn’t I just use it as my pitch in my meetings with agents and editors? Since I’m already crunched for time to write, let alone to find an agent, why do I need to invest the time in preparing more than one conference pitch?”

The short answer: so you can be flexible. As I pointed out last time, you never know when — or where — you may end up pitching.

The long answer: let’s face it, it’s not as though simply memorizing a pitch, be it 3-sentence or 2-minute, is sufficient to prepare a writer for a meeting with an agent or editor who might be interested in the book. In fact, a pretty good argument could be made for NOT memorizing either, but reading one’s pitch from a handy piece of paper, index card, etc., to avoid the glassy-eyed, zombie-like delivery that regurgitation of memorized material.

Besides, as intrepid reader Dave likes to point out each time we discuss pitching (and bless you for it, Dave), a full-scale pitch is an interactive process, not a speech declaimed to an audience who can only clap or boo at the end. If an agent or editor likes your hallway or full pitch, she’s probably going to ask some questions.

Perhaps — and this comes as a substantial shock to most first-time pitchers — even DURING your pitch. Do you really want to be caught tongue-tied and unable to speak coherently about your book?

Stick your head between your knees until the dizziness induced by that last image passes. I’ll wait.

That’s why I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to nudge all of you away from the all-too-common notion of the three-line pitch, practiced over and over as if they were lines in a play. If you concentrate too much on the words themselves, and the short amount of time you have to say them, it’s too easy to freeze up when an unexpected question knocks you off script.

Call me zany, but in my experience, helping people learn to talk about their work professionally and comfortably in a broad variety of contexts works far better in practice than ordering people to write, memorize, and blurt a specific number of lines of text.

Hey, I warned you at the beginning of this series that my views are a trifle iconoclastic.

The rules lawyers out there aren’t satisfied with those excellent reasons, though, are they? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I can always ADD to my pitch on the fly, but I can hardly subtract from it. So why wouldn’t I be best off just preparing the 30-second version and using it no matter where I’m called upon to pitch?”

Hmm, what was that about the advisability of people doing as I suggest?

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: a lot of people do use the 3-sentence elevator speech as their only pitch; to be fair, it can work, just as hallway pitches work.

Just let me ask you a couple of questions: a 30-second pitch leaves quite a bit of a 10-minute appointment unused, doesn’t it? And why would you want to trade an opportunity to say MORE about your book for a format that forces you to say LESS?

I have another, more strategic reason for advising you to prepare both a short and a long pitch: not all conferences are equally open to hallway pitching. Especially, I’ve noticed, the ones that charge would-be pitchers per pitching appointment.

Not too much of a surprise, I suppose. They, too, would prefer that every writer currently wandering the earth’s crust do as they advise. And pay them for it, please.

Brace yourself, because I’m about to be subversive again: my experience has been that even at pay-for-pitch conferences, a brave writer can pretty much always buttonhole an agent or two after an agents’ forum or in the lunch line. It’s pretty difficult for conference-organizers to prevent ANY extra-appointment chance encounters between agents and the writers who came to the conference to pitch to them.

However, even at some conferences that don’t charge by the appointment, the organizers do try to discourage hallway pitching. I’ve seen many a conference brochure that featured rhetoric telling attendees that it is ALWAYS rude to pitch outside a formal appointment, for example, or that forbade attendees to switch appointments after their assigned agents announced from a dais that they’re no longer accepting a particular kind of book.

Other conferences offer only a small handful of appointment times on a first-come, first-served basis, so late registrants are left with only the options of hallway pitching or not pitching at all. It’s also not at all uncommon for agents and editors to be whisked away to private parties or hospitality suites, so that they are seldom seen in the hallways for accosting purposes.

Seldom seen sober, at any rate. Not much point in pitching to someone who thinks you’re just one of the dancing pink elephants.

Even when the rules and/or schedule do not discourage casual pitching, it can require significant bravery to place oneself at the right place at the right time. Even at fairly inclusive conferences, attendees often report feeling like comparative outcasts, unwelcome at the luncheon tables where the bigwigs hobnob. I’ve been to many a conference where the organizers and invited guests sat on one end of a banquet hall, and the paying attendees on the other.

Heck, I stopped by a conference (which shall remain nameless) a couple of years back where the visiting literati were whisked off their respective airplanes, driven immediately to a party at a local NYT bestselling author’s house for abundant merry-making, and then plied with alcohol so steadily throughout the course of the conference that the following Monday morning, one of the agents e-mailed me from New York to ask what had happened over the weekend. Rumor has it that some of the invited guests did not even show up for scheduled a.m. pitch meetings.

Which, I imagine, played some havoc with those pitchers whose assigned pitchees did not appear.

My point is, writers often pay a lot to attend these conferences, yet find themselves with relatively few pitching opportunities — and not always the ones they expected to have. Sometimes, a writer has to be pretty creative in order to snag those precious few moments for pitching, at least without coming across as obnoxious.

Which brings me to a perfectly marvelous question posted earlier in this series by insightful first-time commenter Penelope. So trenchant was it that I’ve been saving it to share with the entire class:

This is a wonderful post! I especially like the advice on what to do in the case that you’re paired with an agent who doesn’t represent your genre; which I had no idea could happen.

I do find one part of this post confusing, though. I have read on the internet (agent’s blogs, mostly) of how much agents despise being cornered and pitched to in places like elevators, hallways, bars, etc, yet you seem to be saying that this is okay. Is there a certain way to go about pitching in an elevator (for example) that would help an agent be more open to the pitch?

I find this question excellent — rather than passively accepting that what I’ve been advising is true, Penelope has thought it over, weighed advice from a variety of sources, and asked for clarification. This is a great strategy when dealing with anyone who has been immersed in the biz for a good, long while — as counter-intuitive as its ins and outs may be, once one gets used to them, their underlying logic can start to seem obvious, believe it or not.

Bear that in mind the next time you hear confusing pronouncements from the dais at a literary conference, please.

Back to the matter at hand: Penelope is quite right that there are some agents out there who hate, loathe, and detest aspiring writers asking to pitch outside scheduled appointments. Perhaps because they’ve never been in the position of a writer assigned to meet with an inappropriate match, these agents don’t believe that a polite writer would ever accost them in a hallway.

Fortunately, the relative few who feel this way — and they are few, at least amongst agents who habitually go to writers’ conferences — tend to be quite vocal about it. They post it on their websites; they announce it from the conference dais; they write articles and give interviews about it.

Thus, they have good reason to be insulted if an aspiring writer walks up to them and just starts pitching: they could hardly have made their preferences clearer. Approaching them on the fly, then, is every bit as likely to offend as picking up the phone and cold-calling an agent instead of sending a query letter. Or querying an agency that states on its website or in the standard agency guides that it is not currently accepting queries. The result of ignoring these stated preferences will be the same: instant rejection.

So here is my advice: do not, under any circumstances, attempt to pitch informally to an agent who has ever stated publicly that s/he abhors it.

How can a writer new to the biz avoid this faux pas, you ask? At the risk of repeating myself, do your homework. Performing a simple Google search on each attending agent before you head off to the conference should turn up any statements on the subject. If not, listen closely to what the various agents have to say at the agents’ forum.

Chances are, though, that you won’t turn up too many hallway-haters; it’s a common enough practice that folks who are seriously turned off by it tend to avoid the conference experience altogether. (Hey, it’s stressful for the pitch-hearers, too — listening to that many people’s hopes and dreams is mighty tiring.) After all, agents go to conferences in order to pick up clients, and it honestly is a waste of everyone’s time if they only hear pitches from the 10 writers who happen to be assigned formal appointments with them, if there are 75 writers there who write what they’re looking to represent.

Especially if 5 of those appointments turn out to be mismatches, where writers are pitching types of books that they do not represent.

If a writer’s polite about approaching, it’s usually fine. That’s a big if, though — unfortunately, there are PLENTY of rude aspiring writers up there who will simply walk up to an agent they’ve never met before and start launching into a pitch, without so much as a “Hello” or “Could you spare me thirty seconds to tell you about my book?”

Typically, when agents complain about informal pitches, that’s the kind they’re talking about, by the way, not the nice folks who approach them respectfully. You can’t really blame them for resenting the rude approach: anyone would despise being accosted right after he had just swallowed a mouthful of pasta or as she was unlocking the door to her hotel room.

Yes, it happens — but I cling firmly to the belief that none of my lovely readers would be that obnoxious.

Use your common sense, be polite at all times, and be prepared for the possibility that any given agent may have a personal pet peeve about being disturbed in some specific locale. As far as I have been able to tell in a couple of decades of going to writers’ conferences, the only UNIVERSALLY agreed-upon do-not-pitch zone is the bathroom. Other than that, whether the smoking area or the make-up mirror in the ladies’ lounge is off-limits honestly is a personal preference.

Hey, not everyone considers that part of the bathroom per se. I would err on the side of caution and avoid pitching at all between the WOMEN’S sign and the stalls, but hey, that’s me.

The trick to approaching gently lies in both timing and courtesy. If an agent is lying prone on a hallway bench with a wet towel over her face, clutching her head and moaning about a migraine, that might not be the best time to try to catch her eye, for instance. Nor is the moment just after she walks out of the room where she has been listening to pitches all day, or when she is deep in conversation with an author she hasn’t seen in 25 years.

Remember, she is under no obligation to agree to hear you out. Listening to an informal pitch is a favor, and should be treated as such.

So don’t, for instance, walk up to an agent who is laughing with her friends, tap her on the shoulder, and start talking about your book. Instead, walk up to the dais after she’s given a talk, wait politely until it’s your turn, and say something along the lines of:

“Excuse me, but I was enthralled by how you talked about your clients. I couldn’t get a pitch appointment with you, but I think you may be interested in my book. May I give you my thirty-second pitch? Or if now is not a good time, could we set up an appointment later?”

Hard to find that offensive. It clearly gives the agent the opportunity to say no, but still makes it flatteringly plain that you are taking her time seriously. Works in an elevator, too, as long as the would-be pitcher remembers that no really does mean no.

And no, in response to what some timorous souls out there just thought very loudly indeed, none of this is particularly pushy; it’s being smart about promoting your work. By preparing to be able to speak about your book in a variety of contexts, social and official both, you can be ready to take advantage of that chance meeting with the agent with whom you found it impossible to make a formal appointment.

In, say, an elevator.

The other way a hallway pitcher can avoid seeming rude is to keep the hallway pitch BRIEF. If you ask for 30 seconds of the agent’s time, do not take up more unless he asks follow-up questions.

I’m quite serious about this: don’t go overboard. This is not the appropriate time to give your full-fledged 2-minute pitch; save that for a scheduled pitch meeting or, if you’re lucky, the appointment the agent you caught in the hallway agreed to give you later in the conference.

This is where the formula we discussed yesterday will save your bacon:

MAGIC FIRST 100 WORDS + ELEVATOR SPEECH = HALLWAY PITCH.

If you follow this prescription (oh, there I go again; the book doctor is apparently in), you should not go over the promised 30 seconds. That means that you won’t have to keep checking your watch while you’re talking.

See why I’ve been so adamant about urging you to prepare an elevator speech in advance? An audience granted at the last minute is no time to wing it.

Out come the broken record and the dead horse again: by emphasizing the 3-sentence pitch to the exclusion of all others, I think the standard sources of writerly advice have left first-time pitchers ill-prepared to address those other vital issues involved in a good pitch, such as where the book will sit in Barnes & Noble, who the author thinks will read it, why the target market will find it compelling…

In short, all of the information contained in the magic first 100 words.

All that being said, if an agent has stated publicly (on an agent’s panel, for instance) that he hates informal pitches, steer clear — but don’t necessarily write that agent off as a possibility. Instead, send a query letter after the conference, beginning, “I enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and since I was not lucky enough to obtain a pitch appointment with you…”

But whatever you do, don’t swear off hallway pitching just because a few agents dislike being pitched informally. Not everything every agent says is applicable to all agents — nor do the agents who make such pronouncements necessarily expect everything they say in public on the subject to become codified as The Law Eternal.

Sometimes, a personal preference is just that: personal. By preparing yourself to talk about your work in a variety of contexts, you will be substantially less likely to be caught with nothing coherent to say when the pitching opportunity of your dreams presents itself.

Oh, I’m sensing some impatient seat-shifting out there again, amn’t I? “I get it, Anne,” some of you say, rolling your eyes, “you believe that I’ll be happier in the long run if I prepare to be able to give my pitch in a house, with a mouse, in a hat, near a rat, and anywhere else that an agent with a successful track record selling books in my category happens to be. Fine — I’m GOING to practice my elevator speech AND my pitch. But I’m hardly going to forget my own name or the title of my book. I DO have social skills — I don’t seriously need to practice introducing myself, do I?”

I’m sure that you have social skills that are the pride and joy or your mother under normal circumstances, but hear me out, please: while it may seem a tad silly to have to practice saying your own name, or to remind yourself to mention that your book is a novel (or a memoir, or a nonfiction book) most people are NERVOUS when they pitch.

I know; shocking.

Practice will help you remember to hit the important points, no matter how brief or how strange the locale of your pitching experience. Especially if you practice saying them in a number of different ways.

Yes, you did extrapolate correctly: I AM seriously suggesting that you do dry runs where you have only a minute, only thirty seconds, five minutes, etc., in order to get comfortable talking about your work. And I’m not just saying that because I once found myself stuck in the same tiny airport with a very famous agent for five hours, waiting for the same flight.

True story. Nice guy.

But surprise openings are not the only reason practicing rolling with the punches is a good idea. You’d be amazed (at least I hope you would) at how many first-time pitchers come dashing into their scheduled pitch appointments, so fixated on blurting those pre-ordained three sentences that they forget to:

(a) introduce themselves to the agent or editor, like civilized beings,

(b) mention whether the book is fiction or nonfiction,

(c) indicate whether the book has a title, or

(d) all of the above.

I find this sad: these are intelligent people, for the most part, but their too-rigid advance preparation has left them as tongue-tied and awkward as wallflowers at a junior high school dance.

We’ve all been there, right?

And don’t even get me started on the sweat-soaked silence that can ensue AFTER the 3-sentence pitcher has gasped it all out, incontinently, and has no more to say. In that dreadful lull, the agent sits there, blinking so slowly that the pitcher is tempted to take a surreptitious peek at his watch, to make sure that time actually is moving forward at a normal clip, or stick a pin in the agent, to double-check that she isn’t some sort of emotionless android with its battery pack on the fritz.

“And?” the automaton says impatiently after approximately 150 years of silence. “Are you done?”

Call me unorthodox, but I don’t think this is a desirable outcome for you.

But that doesn’t mean that you should just prepare a hallway pitch and trust your luck to be able to handle questions about it for the rest of your pitch appointment. You will be happier in that meeting if you have prepared at least the outline of a 2-minute pitch. (And yes, Virginia, we are going to talk about that next week.)

And, by the way, you should time it as you say it out loud, to make sure it can be said in under two minutes without leaving you so breathless that oxygen will have to be administered immediately afterward.

Why? Well, even more common than pitchers who dry up after 45 seconds are writers who talk on and on about their books in their pitch meetings so long that the agent or editor hasn’t time to ask follow-up questions. You really do want to keep your pitch to roughly two minutes (as opposed to your hallway pitch, which should be approximately 30 seconds), so that you can discuss your work with the well-connected, well-informed industry insider in front of you.

A pitch meeting is a conversation, after all, not a stump speech: you WANT it to start an interesting exchange, not to engender stony silence, right? Come prepared to talk about your work — and in terms that will make sense to everyone in the industry.

In a box, with a fox — or balanced in a crabapple tree with a dirt-encrusted good luck charm. (I thought I wouldn’t make you guess that time.)

Trust me, you can do this. I have faith in you.

Okay, now we’re coming up on the main course: the two-minute pitch. But that, my friends, is a subject for another day.

Thanks for the fabulous questions, Penelope and the rest of you who contacted me privately. (You’d be amazed at how often the floating voices I cite here are the result of ex parte approaches; just for the record, I vastly prefer that questions be posted as comments on the blog, so everyone may benefit from the answers.) Have a fabulous weekend, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part V: talking about your book’s market appeal in terms the entire industry can understand, or, there’s still no fool like a fool playing hooky

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Welcome back to my annual series on the conception, construction, and delivery of a good verbal pitch for a book manuscript or nonfiction proposal. I’ve been worrying all weekend, campers, that I overwhelmed some of you last time by cramming everything you have ever wanted to know about book categories but were afraid to ask into a single post. Believe it or not, I’ve written far, far more extensively on the subject in the past: you’ll find an entire series about it under the BOOK CATEGORIES section in the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

Before we move on to the next building block of a successful pitch, I suppose I should say a few words to those of you who spent the weekend not just figuring out your respective book categories, but wondering why in the heck I went to such great lengths in my last post to defend the necessity of having to pick one at all. One of the great advantages — and great liabilities — of having taught so many aspiring writers to pitch (in every context from one-on-one tutoring to conducting classes for a couple of hundred people to running mass pitching practice sessions to working with small writers’ groups via Skype or conference call) is that over the years, I have heard legions of writers complain bitterly about the process.

Leaving aside for the moment the undeniable fact that a successful conference pitch allows the pitcher to skip the querying step of landing an agent entirely — not a benefit at which anyone looking for an agent should be turning up his perky little nose — the source of the bitterness is not all that mysterious. Many, if not most, agent-seeking writers (and plenty of already-agented ones) resent, hate, or at minimum fear paying a lot (or even a little) money to conference organizers in exchange for the opportunity to sit across a table from an agent or editor and try to convince her that your premise is fresh enough and a good enough fit with the current market in your book’s category to render it worth her while to take a gander at the first few pages of the manuscript or proposal.

(Which, in case any of you have been wondering, is the goal of a pitch — or a query, for that matter: enticing the agent or editor to ask to read your work. Not, as too many pitchers and queriers assume, to induce a spontaneous cry of, “I love this book! I don’t need to read a syllable of it — I’m going to get this writers name on a contract this very day!”)

Given the level of pressure inherent to pitching, the resentment, etc. are certainly understandable — and not just because we all know that judging the quality of writing by how the writer talks about it is a little like judging a singer’s voice by looking at the sheet music he’s planning to sing.

Ever since the first caveperson chiseled the first sentence on cave wall and called the rest of the clan to admire it, writers have been pretty sensitive to critique. No matter how many times a writer tells herself, rightly, that a rejection based solely upon how she talks about her writing could not possibly mean that the rejecter hates the writing he hasn’t read, it sure can feel like it in the moment.

So I really can’t blame first-time pitchers — or even experienced ones — for fearing the prospect of pitching. What puzzles me is the extreme distaste so many first-time pitchers display toward even the concept of talking about their books as products that they are trying to market.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what anyone who pitches or queries an agent is doing.

A surprisingly hefty percentage of aspiring writers seem to find that hard to accept. I hate to stick a pin in anyone’s illusions, but unless a writer of books plans to post his writing for free on the internet or print up copies at his own expense and hand them out gratis on street corners, he’s thinking in terms of getting paid.

So in what sense is his manuscript or NF book proposal not a product he’s trying to sell to a publishing house? And by what stretch of the imagination is the relationship he’s attempting to establish with an agent not primarily a business one?

For that reason, we’ve already learned the first building block of a successful pitch: the book category, the terminology that enables everyone in the industry to know instantly which presses, editors, and agents might be interested in a particular book. Learning to describe your work in the same terms that the publishing industry would is a far, far more effective strategy for meeting those goals than folding your arms and pouting about how unfair it is that art has to be shoved into a marketing category.

Not only is the latter a waste of energy for most writers (some honestly do find resentment motivating, but most merely find it enervating), but refusing to speak the language of the industry in a pitch or query is self-defeating; all insisting upon eschewing any discussion of marketability does, typically, is make the agent or editor on the receiving end think, “Oh, dear, here’s another one who doesn’t know how publishing works.”

Being able to describe one’s book in market terms is as essential for a killer pitch as for an effective query letter. So today, we’re going to be focusing closely on marketing your art.

As Fat Albert used to say, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.

Last time, I broached the subject of the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, the book category. The more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among pitchers is in the opposite direction. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the author’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

Which means, incidentally, that within the pitch setting, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language.

While it may feel like writing your own tombstone, it’s just better marketing strategy to commit to a category and state it at the BEGINNING of your pitch, rather than making your hearer try to glean a category after hearing five minutes of exposition on the plot. Why? Well, among other things, being up front about it will permit your pitch-hearer to listen to the CONTENT of your pitch, rather than thinking the whole time, “Well, that sounds sort of like a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery. How on earth am I going to categorize that?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

By contrast, a manuscript or proposal with a category already assigned to it requires less energy to market. This handy tool will not only feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see the TITLE PAGES category at right before you even CONSIDER submitting any material to an agent or editor.)

Okay, now that we have one tool in our writerly toolkit, let’s work on adding a more sophisticated marketing instrument, one that is not technically required, but will instantly stamp your pitch/query as more professional.

I refer, of course, to identifying your target market. Or, to be more precise, to preparing a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic group.

And yes, Virginia, that can mean adding a few — dare I say it? — statistics to your pitch or query letter.

Intimidating news to those of us who vastly preferred the verbal section of the SAT to the math, isn’t it? (Actually, I was always good at math, but I suppose my high school calculus teacher didn’t nickname me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. Still, there’s no fool like a fool playing hooky, so let’s press on.)

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.) Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter.

But before I talk about how one goes about doing that, let’s discuss what a target market is. Simply put, the target market for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. It is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

Or, to put it another way, who out there needs to read your book and why?

I know these are not the first questions we writers like to ask ourselves, but if you pictured your ideal reader, who would it be? What books does this reader already buy? Who are her favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with those that would draw your ideal reader to both?

While we’re at it, who represents her favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective: if she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs.

Do Fat Albert and the Cosby kids really need to break down these issues into a song for the likely outcome to be clear?

It’s very much worth your while to give some thought to your target readership BEFORE you pitch or query, so you may point it out to that nervous editor or market-anxious agent. Try to think about it not as criticism of your book, but as a legitimate marketing question: who is going to read your book, and why?

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make you stand out from the crowd of pitchers.

Why? Well, to put it charitably, the vast majority of fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — which is to say, most don’t seem to consider the question at all. (A luxury, I might point out, that nonfiction writers do not have: NF book proposals invariably have an entire SECTION on target audience. No one ever seems to think that is incompatible with the production of art.) Or when fiction writers are forced to answer the question, they identify their readership in the broadest possible terms.

PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Especially the one about Oprah — even if your book is in fact a natural for her show. Agents in North America hear that all the time, applied to a jaw-droppingly broad array of books.

Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I have heard that particular cliché, I would own my own publishing house — and the island upon which it stood, the fleet of sailboats to transport books from there to market, and a small navy’s worth of shark-wranglers to keep my employees’ limbs safe while they paddled between editing projects. (For an interesting discussion amongst Author! Author! readers about the effects of the Oprah Book Club on book sales in this country, please see the comments on this post from last year.

Why do sweeping generalizations tend to be ineffectual, you ask? Well, agents and editors do have quite a bit of practical experience with book marketing: they know for a fact that no single book will appeal to EVERY woman in America, for instance. Since they hear such claims so often, after awhile, they just block out all hyperbole.

Coming from authors, that is. Anyone who has ever read a marketing blurb knows that folks in the publishing industry are not all that shy about using hyperbole themselves.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents an immense group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to her?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

Once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your pitch, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is will make it MUCH simpler for them to talk about your book to higher-ups.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my pitch or query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things.”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. Let’s further assume that like the vast majority of pitchers, she has not thought about her target market before walking into her appointment with agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana, the agent to whom she is pitching, says that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

The result was that Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.”

So what’s the moral here? That as scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities; writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about marketing it to them.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt say many times again: art for art’s sake is marvelous, but an author’s being cognizant of the realities of the market renders it far more likely that her book is going to be successful.

And, to paraphrase Fat Albert, those who don’t do their homework are not as likely to succeed as often as those who do.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to dig up specifics about your target demographic relatively painlessly. As always, if any of you out there find what I’m suggesting confusing, I would MUCH rather that you ask me about it BEFORE you follow my advice than after.

I’m funny that way. In the meantime, don’t play hooky, try not to assume, and keep up the good work!

What do you mean, I have to describe my 400-page novel in under two minutes? Or: how to stop worrying and learn to love to pitch

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Happy Bastille Day, everyone! Yes, it’s that time of year again: time for me to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript!

Try to contain your excitement — or at any rate, don’t start cheering until I tell you that this year’s series will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon, answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find it on the category list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

But soft! Do I hear some grumbling out there? “But Anne,” a few scattered grumblers point out, “I’m a WRITER; I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

I must admit, oh grumblers, that you make a pretty good point. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer should give very serious thought to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if she were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage entirely — in fact, it could be said that a pitch is an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft. It can give you an edge.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it. Sorry.

So perhaps the title’s suggestion that you would learn to love doing it was a bit of an exaggeration. Survive it with your dignity intact may be closer to the truth — but hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, today we launch into the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. Writers tend to waltz into conferences with high expectations and nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Could the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions. (And for those of you seeking guidance in how to put together a submission packet, please see the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right before you seal that envelope.)

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally good; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

However, truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but since I was too busy to post yesterday, let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy, but don’t tense up. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching. (Again, sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they?

See why I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams?

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides (for some tips on how to use these, please consult the AGENCY GUIDES category at right). Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do what they’re representing these days.

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come. Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Keep those expectations realistic and those hopes high. You can do this, honest. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Getting good feedback, part VIb: not all mysterious strangers are romantic

Or, this raccoon-visitoris not the same thing as this valentino

I meant to get back to our series on how to find useful feedback on your manuscripts — or, more precisely, to my mid-series digression on protecting your work whilst sharing it — over the weekend, or at any rate yesterday. (Happy post-Presidents’ Day, everyone.) However, my Significant Other harbors some absurd prejudice in favor of our spending Valentine’s Day weekend together. Where do kids these days pick up such zany ideas?

I’m mention this not for the sake of romantic one-upsmanship, but as an explanation to those of you new commenters who may have been trying to chime in over this particular weekend. For those of you new to the blog: in order to prevent the truly epic amount of spam I receive from wasting everyone’s time in the comments, my blogging program requires that I personally approve posts by all first-time commenters. As a result, freshman comments sometimes take a few days to post.

It’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.

Over the weekend (which I must admit was probably significantly more romantic than it would have been had I kept sitting down to blog; my SO was quite patient while I held an editing client’s hand through a no-fault-of-her-own literary crisis), I was thinking of you, however. To be specific, I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I asked one of the most basic questions that must be faced by writers in the computer age:

When was the last time you backed up your hard disk — or, more importantly for our purposes, your writing files?

Like, say, the ones containing the novel you’ve been writing for the past two years, or the contest entry you’re planning to pop into the mail next week? If you didn’t make a back-up either today or yesterday, may I cajole you into doing it soon?

How soon, you ask? Well, not to be alarmist, but would now-ish work for you?

I’m quite serious about this; go ahead. (If you’re new to backing up your work, the BACK-UP COPIES category at right may prove helpful.) I’ll still be here when you get back, languishing on my chaise longue.

What’s with the urgency, you ask? I could answer in philosophical terms — he things of this world are, after all, ephemeral, and computer files even more so — but frankly, my reason for nagging you about it periodically couldn’t be more practical. I’ve seen far too many writers lose weeks, months, and even years of good work due to various stripes of computer failure. As a freelance editor, I can’t even begin to tally up the number of times clients have called me in tears, begging me to search my files for a hard copy of an earlier draft of their books, because the only soft copy fell victim to a virus or hard drive meltdown.

Ask anyone who works in a computer repair facility: with even the most reliable system, it’s not a matter of if it will break down; it’s a matter of when. In picking the day of demise, computers are notoriously disrespectful of a writer’s imminent deadlines, requests from agents, or even the joy that accompanies finally polishing off a complete draft. In fact, if the moans I’ve heard over the years are a representative samples of those let down by their computers, the heavy use a computer often sees just prior to the end of a major writing project seems to be conducive to bringing on system misbehavior.

Which leads me to ask again: if your hard drive died right now, would you have a copy of your current writing project? What about of that query letter you spent two months composing, or that synopsis that took you a year to perfect? Would you even have an up-to-date record of whom you queried when?

Ah, that made you turn pale, didn’t it?

Please, even if you save nothing else on your computer, make frequent backups of your writing. It only takes a few minutes, but some day, you may be deeply grateful that you did.

Back to the topic at hand — which, as it happens, will also make me sound like your mother and might make you turn pale with dread. Last time, I broached the always-hot subject of protecting one’s writing from poachers, including — and this is why we’re talking about this in the midst of a series on finding good feedback-givers — unscrupulous folks with whom you might choose to share your unpublished manuscript.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so if you were looking for actual legal guidance on a specific copyright-related matter, you’d be well advised to get advice from one who specializes in giving legal advice to such legal advice-seekers.

Everyone got that? Good.

We can, however, go over some general principles here. To see how well I made my points last time, here’s a little quiz:

Rudolf Valentino (hey, it was just Valentine’s day, after all) has written a tender novel with the following plot: boy meets girl; boy loses girl over a silly misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up within five pages had either party deigned to ask the other a basic question or two (along the lines of Is that lady holding your hand your sister or your wife?); boy learns important life lesson that enables him to become a better man; boy and girl are reunited.

Having composed such an original story, our Rudolf, being a sensible boy, seeks out other writers to give him feedback on it, or at any rate to help him figure out why the first 74 agents he queried did not find this plotline unique enough to pique their interest. He joins a writers’ group; he posts excerpts of his first chapter on an online critique site; he sidles other romance-writers in the hallways and charms them into reading his book and giving him their honest responses. (Our Rudolf can be pretty persuasive, you know. If you don’t believe me, see SON OF THE SHEIK.) Soon, several dozen copies of his manuscript are circulating throughout his extensive acquaintance, both in hard copy and electronically. He receives feedback from some; other copies disappear into the ether.

At what point in this process should Rudolf begin worrying about protecting his writing — and at what point running, not walking, toward an attorney conversant with copyright law with an eye to enforcing his trampled-upon rights?

(a) When he notices that a book with a similar plot line has just been published?

(b) When he notices that a hefty proportion of the romantic comedy films made within the last hundred years have a similar plot line?

(c) When a fellow member of his writing group lands an agent for a book with a similar plot line?

(d) When he picks up a book with somebody else’s name on the cover and discovers more than 50 consecutive words have apparently been lifted verbatim from a Valentino designer original?

(e) Before he gave it to anyone at all?

Let’s take the point where he should be consulting a lawyer first. If you said (d), clap yourself heartily upon the back. (I know it’s tough to do while simultaneously reading this and making a back-up of your writing files, but then, you’re a very talented person.) The last time I checked, anything beyond 50 consecutive words — or less, if it’s not properly attributed — is not fair use. After that, we’re into plagiarism territory.

If you said (c), you’re in pretty good company: at that point, most writers would tell Rudolf that he should be keeping a sharp eye upon that other writer. It would be prudent, perhaps, to take a long, hard look at the other writer’s book — which, as they’re in the same critique group, shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

But should plot similarity alone send him sprinting toward Lawyers for the Arts? No. Plot lifting is not the same thing as writing theft.

Why? Everyone who read my last post, chant it with me now, if you can spare time from making that backup: because you can’t copyright an idea for a book; you can only copyright the presentation of it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few small steps that Rudolf might take to protect himself. Unfortunately, most of those steps would need to be taken prior to the point of discovering that some enterprising soul had made off with his writing.

Hint: the answer to the first question in the quiz, the one asking when a prudent Rudolf should begin thinking about protecting his manuscript, is (e). Especially — and this doesn’t happen as much in the age of computers as it did in the age of typewriters, but the warning still bears repeating — if Rudolf was circulating his only copy.

(That couldn’t happen to you, of course. You have a back-up of your writing files tucked away somewhere safe now, right?)

As I mentioned last time, the single best thing you can do to protect yourself is to deal with reputable agents, editors, and publishing houses. The problem is, you can’t always tell. The Internet, while considerably easing the process of finding agents and small publishers hungry for new work, also renders it hard to tell who is on the up-and-up. I hope I’m not shocking anyone when I point out that a charlatan’s website can look just like Honest Abe’s — and that’s more of a problem with the publishing industry than in many others.

Why? Well, new agencies and small publishing houses pop up every day, often for the best reasons imaginable — when older publishing houses break up or are bought out, for instance, editors often make the switch to agency, and successful agents and editors both sometimes set up shop for themselves. But since you don’t need a specialized degree to become an agent or start a publishing house, there are also plenty of folks out there who just hang up shingles.

Or, more commonly, websites.

Which is one reason that, as those of you who survived my 2007 Book Marketing 101 series (conveniently collected for those of you who missed it on the category list at right) will recall, I am a BIG advocate of gathering information about ANY prospective agency or publishing house from more than one source. Especially if the source in question is the agency’s website — and if the agency in question is not listed in one of the standard agency guides.

“Wha–?” I hear some of you cry.

Listing in those guides is not, after all, automatic, and like everything else in publishing, the information in those guides is not gathered mere seconds before the book goes to presses. The result: agencies can go in or out of business so swiftly that there isn’t time for the changes to get listed in the standard guides.

That’s problematic for aspiring writers, frequently, because start-ups are often the ones most accepting of previously unpublished writers’ work. But because it is in your interests to know precisely who is going to be on the receiving end of your submission — PARTICULARLY if you are planning to query or submit via e-mail — you honestly do need to do some homework on these people.

Happily, as I mentioned last time, there are now quite a few sources online for double-checking the credibility of professionals to whom you are considering sending your manuscript. Reputable agents don’t like disreputable ones any more than writers do, so a good place to begin verifying an agent or agency’s credibility is their professional organization in the country where the agency is ostensibly located. For the English-speaking world:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

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. It’s also worth checking on Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. 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.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2009 has receded into memory.

Again, I just mention. And have you done that backup yet?

As with any business transaction on the Internet (or indeed, with anyone you’ve never heard of before), it also pays to take things slowly — and with a massive grain of salt. An agency or publishing house should be able to tell potential authors what specific books it has handled, for instance. (In the U.S., book sales are a matter of public record, so there is no conceivable reason to preserve secrecy.)

Also, even if an agency is brand-new, you should be able to find out where its agents have worked before — in fact, a reputable new agency is generally only too happy to provide that information, to demonstrate its own excellent connections.

Also, reputable agencies make their money by selling their clients’ books, not by charging them fees. If any agent ever asks you for a reading fee, an editing fee, or insists that you need to pay a particular editing company for an evaluation of your work, instantly contact the relevant country’s agents’ association. (For some hair-raising examples of what can happen to writers who don’t double-check, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENTS category at right.)

Actually, anyone asking a writer for cash up front in exchange for considering representation or publication is more than a bit suspect — not only according to me, but according to the AAR. Unless a publisher bills itself up front as a subsidy press (which asks the authors of the books it accepts to bear some of the costs of publication) or you are planning to self-publish, there’s no reason for money to be discussed at all until they’ve asked to buy your work, right?

And even then, the money should be flowing toward the author, not away from her.

With publishing houses, too, be suspicious if you’re told that you MUST use a particular outside editing service or pay for some other kind of professional evaluation. As those of you who have been submitting for a while already know, reputable agents and editors like to make up their own minds about what to represent or publish; they’re highly unlikely to refer that choice out of house. And any reputable freelance editor will be quite up front about the fact that while professional editing can help make a manuscript more publishable, it’s not a guarantee of publication.

Generally speaking — to sound like your mother for yet another long moment — if an agency or publisher sounds like too good a deal to be true, chances are that it is. There are, alas, plenty of unscrupulous folks out there ready to take unsuspecting writers’ money, and while many agencies and publishers do in fact maintain websites, this is still a paper-based industry, for the most part.

In other words, it is not, by and large, devoted to the proposition that an aspiring author should be able to Google literary agent and come up with the ideal fit right off the bat.

Do I hear some more doubtful muttering out there? “But Anne,” I hear many voices cry, “I certainly do not want to be bilked by a faux agency or publishing house. However, I notice that you’ve been talking about such disreputable sorts conning me out of ready cash, not potentially walking off with my submission. Weren’t we discussing about protecting our writing, not our pocketbooks?”

Well caught, disembodied voices — and that’s part of my point. The fact is, if an unscrupulous agent or editor were seriously interested in defrauding aspiring writers, stealing manuscripts would not be the most efficient way to go about it. Historically, direct extraction of cash from the writer’s pocket has been the preferred method.

But that doesn’t mean that a savvy writer shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect both her pocketbook AND her manuscript. Even during a period where the legitimate literary agencies are being so cautiously selective, an aspiring writer should never front money for professional services without knowing precisely what s/he is getting in return. Take the time to do your homework.

Oh, and make backups regularly as well. Imagine Rudolf’s embarrassment if he had to admit to his wide circle of blandished acquaintance that he was the only one of them who didn’t possess a copy of his manuscript.

Next time, I shall delve into manuscript protection itself, I promise — and, shortly after that, return to our larger topic, tracking down sources of good manuscript feedback. In the meantime, keep up the good work!