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

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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!

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