Surfing in the sea of reviews

Hello, all —

In previous postings, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work resembles yours in some important respect. Today, I am going to talk about how to expand your querying list by reading book reviews, an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area.

“Wait!” I hear those of you who have been paying attention to my recent postings cry. “Wouldn’t any list of books just coming out now be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year ago, rather than now? Aren’t you always yammering about how agents live in the now, and how we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

Why, yes, intelligent readers: you get a gold star for the day. However, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW pretty much requires subscribing to one of the rather expensive publishing databases, such as Publishers Marketplace, or an industry paper, such as Publishers Weekly. As a dispenser of free advice myself (free in both directions: writing these blogs is my volunteer contribution to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, a fine organization devoted to helping all of us), I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available to writers. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to find time to write, and there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping all of them become better and more publishable writers. So if I can save you a few shekels, I like to do it.

And the book review method is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy the newspaper to read book reviews. While print media book reviews almost never list the agent of a book in question (as opposed to industry advance reviews – see several posts ago — which occasionally do), reading the reviews will enable you to single out writers who are either writing for the same micro-niche you are (and the more specific you can be about that, the better, in terms of soliciting an agent) or whose style is similar to yours. Then, once you have identified the writers whose representation you covet, you can use the methods I have already discussed to track down their agents.

The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books 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. If you see a review in a major publication, it is because it is 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) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales, 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.

Obviously, 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 your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their notice. Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker is talented and that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author, but as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules; I merely tell you about them.

If you have read a publication several times without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication. And if you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the review section of the paper 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 book is at all likely to admire your prose stylings.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers rush to compare new authors to established ones, often within the first few lines: just today, I was reading a review of Stephanie Kallos’ John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this can make it unnecessary to read the rest of the review. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent, you would be well advised to try Kallos’. Get it?

If all of this seems like a lot of work, bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you blanket the agenting world with generic requests. Allow me to reiterate: just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing. Sending only targeted queries can substantially reduce your rejection rate.

Especially if you have been going the mass mailing route – most agents simply ignore “Dear Agent” letters, but they genuinely do pay attention to queries that pay them the compliment of noticing that they have sold books in the past. As I have mentioned before (see my late August and early September postings), it is VASTLY to your advantage to be able to open your query letter with a clear, book-specific reference to why you have selected that particular agent: “Since you so ably represented David Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, I believe that you will enjoy my book…”

Trust me on this one.

In postings to come, I shall be turning my attention from agent-finding to other aspects of the publishing process. This does not mean I am leaving the subject forever, though: if you have questions you would like answered, or agent stories you would like to share, feel free to chime in via the COMMENTS function, below. Heck, if you’re having an unusual amount of trouble finding out who represented a particular book, let me know, and I’ll see if I can help you out. (Within reason, of course; please don’t just send me your entire list.)

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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