I recently had a friend ask her Twitter followers what one question you would ask an agent if you could. I was surprised at the answers. I thought they might be akin to the blog posts I had been writing, but they centered around, “Why don’t you love me?” and “How do I get representation?” and “How do I become one?”
I am going to start with these.
Most agents do love helping authors. That’s why we get into the business. We want to help connect authors to publishers. But the publishing game is just that…a game.
I know you’ve heard from queries, that it is very “subjective,” and it is. Let’s go back to how an agent gets started, first.
No special selection goes on, no secret order, agents are not born into the job. It is a personal choice. There is no class to take, no certification to be an agent. This is how people end up being scammed. You could wake up tomorrow and say, “I’m an agent.” You could make your own company, hire interns, and attempt to sell manuscripts to publishers. But there is a problem with that. Not only does this agent not have any training, but they do not have connections.
Connections in the publishing realm are crucial to being able to sell books to Top 5 publishers. Can it be done? Yes. But is it likely? No. For an agent without connections, it is just as hard to get a publishing contract, as it was for you to find the agent. The agent will make a list, like you did, targeting acquiring editors (they are the ones who take your book), and writing a pitch similar to your query before they send out in rounds. You can only pitch to one agent per house, and only once for the same book. So you need to know who works where and what they are seeking. This takes some research.
The “real” agents, the ones you want, have gone to a reputable agency, interned or apprenticed under an established agent, and learned the ropes. Those agents have access to the company’s database of editors and their emails and wishlists. The more real work you do, the more connections you make. And the easier it is for you to use those publishers again.
You are looking for someone who has already sold a book. I have been an agent’s first book before and it is not ideal. If they know what they are doing, they will send your book out to the Top 5 houses and their imprints first. If there is no interest, they begin to submit to smaller publishers. You can pay for a subscription to www.publishersmarketplace.com and search for agents there. Each agent reports their sales and it lists what they’ve sold in the past year and overall. You can see the types of books they’ve sold and to whom. To caution you, some agents do not use Publisher’s Marketplace, but I’ve found that a majority of them do, so it’s worth the price if you are querying.
I caution any author who is faced with a contract from a small publisher. Again, small publishers often think they are helping authors by publishing them, but very often, they are using a site like Createspace to publish your work for free and keeping the greater share of your profits. They offer little to no marketing assistance, and you will end up doing most of the work yourself, gaining nothing but the ability to say, “I was traditionally published.”
For some people that is enough. But when you realize that you could have, and should be, keeping all your own money, it feels like being cheated. I recommend that if your goal is traditional publishing, you query until you find the right agent and submit and revise that book as many times as necessary to achieve that contract. If it doesn’t work out, I highly suggest self-publishing for the reasons mentioned above.
Most agents love authors. We love helping them achieve their dreams and publishing goals.
Once you are in the business, however, it becomes more of a game. Hundreds of queries pour in daily and the agent is looking for a needle in the query haystack. They are looking for that manuscript that is brilliant in concept, story, or writing. I have said this before, but the agent looks at your query for the story hook, or concept of the novel. The synopsis tells them if you can tell a whole story with rising action, climax and resolution. Your sample shows the agent your writing style and lets them know if you can pull off that great story line.
If your concept is not clear in your query, the agent may say, “They either don’t know their own concept, or they are not good enough at verbalizing it. Either way, they are not ready.” Some agents only get that far. Some agents will go further and see your potential, and they may let you know that it wasn’t your story, but they can’t publish you. You are not ready.
It is extremely hard to explain to each author why you did or did not choose their query. Sometimes, it’s the same story they got all week, sometimes it’s too original and the agent can’t fit it into a category. That doesn’t work in your favor. Publishers, and then agents, want to be able to put your story into a genre box. Mixing genres is not as well-liked by publishers in the Top 5. I mean, science fiction/fantasy would work but a horror/romance is going to be awfully hard to place.
Agents look to publishers to see what’s trending. Because if they want it, they’ll buy it, and conversely, if they are burnt out on that genre, they aren’t going to want it. Agents have a few minutes with your query to decide if they think they love it enough to back it up and send to all their contacts. They have to believe you have something that is one revision away from the manuscript that a major publisher wants to buy. If an agent has accepted several queries for women’s fiction mysteries, but they aren’t getting many bites with publishers, that agent is not going to be taking on anymore women’s fiction mysteries for a while, at least until they sell what they have.
In that case, if you (the author) are querying that agent with your women’s fiction mystery, the agent may skim your query, they may pass it along to someone else they know who is publishing that genre, or they may simply “pass.” This has nothing to do with your book or its readiness, or your skill in prose. It is not right for that agent at that time.
You, as the author, cannot know this when you send. You may have looked the agent up on www.manuscriptwishlist.com or www.querytracker.net and vetted them, you’ve seen they are looking for mysteries and also women’s fiction. You made your list and sent out queries, but you may be the third query of the same genre they’ve gotten this morning. You can’t know when and where you’ll end up in someone’s inbox, but do NOT take it as a failure if you are not chosen.
The fact that you didn’t grab that agent by the balls, is not your fault. You may not be what they are looking for. You may be too much of what they’re looking for. They are so inundated by queries that they must reject 98% of the queries they get. It sucks, but agents are looking for a reason. They are looking for a really good reason to publish you, and they are also looking for a good reason not to.
Make sure your query has your voice. Do not send in a query in your protagonist’s voice. But if you wrote a comedy, let some of that leak into your query. If your query doesn’t make them laugh, they won’t believe your manuscript will. Keep the tone of your book. If it’s a horror, get spooky. Make the agent WANT to read on. Make them ask questions that they want to know the answers to. Don’t frame your query in questions, either. This is where your skill as a writer comes in handy. If you can’t make them want to read your book, they can’t make editors want to read your book, so spend some time on this.
One question was: How do I get you to read my pitch?
By making us curious. Tease the agent. Give them enough information to grasp your concept, but don’t give away the ending (that’s for the synopsis), and get them wanting to know if Melisande will escape the evil wizard’s clutches before he reduces the kingdom to rubble with his dragon army…
Another question: Are you proud of what you do?
I am not an agent anymore, I am a consultant, but when I was an agent, yes. I was very proud of being able to help connect authors with publishers. I felt like I was doing authors a service by helping them achieve their publishing goals. I did my best to see potential in people and give them advice in my rejections. I didn’t have time to write to everyone, but if I saw your potential, I tried to give you next steps to take. Most busy agents don’t have the time to do that.
Final question for the day: Why are responses so vague? A little constructive criticism could make all the difference.
It is not easy to discuss with authors why they didn’t make the cut. And not all authors want to hear, you just aren’t ready yet. In fact, authors tend to take agent comments very much to heart. And they will write back to argue that they DO have an original concept, or they HAVE edited the book already, or HOW DARE YOU say that you don’t like my voice?
Agents are just people who want to help you. Your comments hurt just as much as ours. When you try so hard to appease everyone, you risk losing your sanity. And some authors take any positive feedback as an open conversation and will email you daily asking about their NEXT manuscript, or how they will fix the one you rejected. Not that agents don’t want to hear from authors, they do, but authors tend to put agents up on pedestals because they are the only bridge they have to a Top 5 publishing contract. And agents can get really big heads over this.
It is nice to go to a writer’s conference and have people want to know you, want to make an impression with you, want you to like them. It inflates the ego. We are people, after all. But then they get swarmed and people take the rejection personally because you both had a conversation about how both of you have teacup poodles, so why didn’t you like my book? I thought we had a connection?
It’s all politics. Part of the publishing game. Blow me away with your query. Have a concept outlined, introduce me to up to three of your main characters (with their names in all caps), show me your voice whether it be humorous, literary, or a horror/romance. Capture me with your new idea, thrill me with a popular story with a twist, be something I haven’t seen before.
It seems like such a waste to target all your agents just to be rejected, but targeting your agents gives you a better chance of success. Don’t send out to more than one person per agency and don’t send a sci-fi novel to a romance publisher, unless they are asking for sci-fi/romance. Do your homework before-hand and never give up. If it’s your dream to be traditionally published, go for it. If it’s not, self-publish. That’s my two cents.
I wish you all luck with your publishing journeys, and come back next week to see how agents approach publishers, do they help with media kits, will they contact media outlets for interviews, and do they set up places for presentations/workshops by me? Have more questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments.