Just what am I getting myself into? Part V: they’re not going to be mean to me, are they?

Does that high-pitched twanging I hear out there in the ether mean that subtitle struck a chord with some of you? Yes, yes, I know: for those of you who are gearing up to query for the first time — or working up nerve to start querying again after having been rejected, steeling yourselves to submit requested materials, or girding your emotional loins to head on out and give a verbal pitch — the question of how a real, live agent might respond to your polite little request can assume nightmare proportions.

How did I know about those middle-of-the-night tremors, you ask? A lifelong association with that peculiar species, the domestic writer, that’s how; we excel ourselves in psyching ourselves out. Who is better than a writer for fleshing out the contours of a vague fear into a mind-numbing horror story, after all?

Especially if one tends, as so many aspiring writers do, to view any individual agent not as a human being, full of personal quirks and individual tastes, but as Everyagent, a powerful soul whose singular opinion might as well be taken for speaking for an entire industry’s opinion on any given query, submission, or pitch.

If your dreams have been haunted by Everyagent, I have some good news for you: s/he doesn’t actually exist. Agents are individuals — often charming ones — with unique tastes, each of whom specializes in certain limited areas of the publishing industry. Although not all of them are graced with equally polished manners (especially if approached rudely or unprofessionally), the overwhelming majority do not take umbrage when approached by an aspiring writer with a project that does not interest them. At worst, most of them will just say no, and that will be that.

Again, what makes me so sure? One very, very simple reason: being nasty about it would take up too much of their busy days. Due to the incredibly high volume of queries the average agent receives, investing the time in a personalized mean response to even 10% would suck up hours that could be spent selling their clients’ books. Or reading current and prospective clients’ submissions. Or even, you know, having a life.

Oh, you smile, but you’re feeling better already, are you not?

The same holds true for pitching, incidentally — and that cheering you hear is the masses pacing the floors of their studios until they wear paths in their carpets as they ponder the perfect pitch. Yes, it’s terrifying to walk into a meeting with a real, live agent, but honestly, most of them are quite nice to pitchers. They may not say yes — in fact, most will not — but it’s seldom worth their energy to be genuinely unpleasant. (Would any of you planning to attend conferences soon like for me to go over how to write a pitch, by the way? I used to address it every summer, but conference season is much longer than it used to be: this year’s is starting right about now, I believe.)

The one great exception, equally applicable to approaching agents by mail, e-mail, or face-to-face: the writer who is pushy to the point of rudeness. This brash soul either hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of polite approach or doesn’t think they apply to him. (Usually because but I want so much to get this book published, a sentiment which, naturally, differentiates this guy from EVERY OTHER ASPIRING WRITER OUT THERE.) What does he do that’s so terrible? He calls agents out a clear blue sky, instead of querying; his e-mails contain sweet expressions along the lines of you’ll be sorry forever if you let this one pass you by and other threats; he queries the same agent over and over, with a tenacity that the average pit bull would envy; he argues with agents who say, “No, thank you.”

But my readership wouldn’t dream of acting in that manner, I’m convinced. All of you are far too nice — and have done your homework far too well — ever to do any of those things, right?

You should worry about the rude aspiring writer, though, because he actually does affect you: many of the hoops through which respectful writers need to jump in order to convince an agent to read their work were erected in order to keep him at bay. Rules against calling agents unless they call you first, for instance, or stern admonitions from conference organizers not to bug agents in the hallways. These are not designed to keep polite people like you at a distance; they’re intended to ward off the few and the rude.

I can feel some of you trembling already. Not to worry; if you follow the norms of the industry, you’re not going to offend an agent accidentally. (Unless you inadvertently mention you didn’t like a book you hadn’t realized she represented; again, doing your homework pays off.) Those contact restrictions work both ways, you know.

Yes, you did read that correctly: the querying, pitching, and submission rules protect the conscientious writer, too. So kudos to you for taking your writing seriously enough to learn the ropes.

Earlier in this series, I went over the three accepted means of bringing your book politely 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.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers: we’re talking overtly mean, not merely dismissive. There’s a big difference. And call me zany, 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. So let’s pitch in, so to speak, to help those new to the game overcome those butterflies that seem to enjoy inhabiting the writerly stomach.

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.”

But just so you’re prepared, rookies: 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 does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

“Okay, Anne,” those of you about to query or pitch for the first time quaver, clutching your butterfly-filled tummies, “I’ll bite. 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?”

Glad you asked, butterfly-catchers. Let’s run through the most common possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, 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. As we saw in the last couple of posts, those 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, it was. Congratulations!

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. Be pleased, certainly, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise, 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.

Stop averting your eyes, please: I’m quite serious about this. Remember, pitchers, a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation is at a conference, but a representation contract is a deal. Keep pitching and/or querying until the agent right for your work offers you the latter.

So send what he asks to see, of course, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets. No matter how much you want (or, in the case of face-to-face pitching, like) a particular agent, it’s not in your best interest to grant an effective exclusive to any agent who hasn’t actually asked for it; unless you are dealing with an agency with an exclusives-only policy (which should be stated openly on the agency’s website and in its agency guide listing), most agents will simply assume they’re not the only one looking at a manuscript.

It’s up to you, of course. However, since turn-around times can be six months or more, even on an eagerly-solicited manuscript, waiting by the phone instead of dating around might not be the best strategy in the long term, if you catch my drift.

All that applies if the answer is yes. But how does one know if the answer is no?

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 querier is usually 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 on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Because pitching is done in person, agents often do give a reason if the answer is no. Often, the stated reason isn’t all that different from the reasoning typically found on a boilerplate rejection letter — I just don’t think I can sell that book in the current tough market; it doesn’t sound like the kind of book I represent; I might have been able to sell that story 2/5/20 years ago, but now… — but since it is considered quite rude to argue with an agent who has just said no to you, does it really matter why? Just thank the agent for his time, and walk away with dignity.

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.

They’re trying to be nice, you see. But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages or a book proposal..

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. Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Before you do anything, take a nice, deep breath. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to wait at least a week to before pulling your requested materials packet together — or at least before sending it.

Why, you demand? It will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see. It will also give you the opportunity to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

Until that happy day, 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; instead, check with the agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question on Absolute Write. (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. Again, 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 — and it can be awfully hard to tell the real from the fake based upon a website alone. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and writer friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers looking 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 rather, 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) 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 readings; 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 their 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, go ahead and 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.

What if a writer does not receive a response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to queries at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more reports from writers whose queries (or 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 explicitly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance; so do submissions.

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.

Sensing a pattern here? There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and an increasing number of 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.

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.

One thing you should not do: 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, a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an apparently immortal rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for years, however, 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 two months ago), 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. And the individual Millicent who opened a query may well have moved on to pastures new by next year.

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.

And there’s one thing that you should not do under any circumstances: try to talk the agent into changing his mind. If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. It will only end in tears.

Why? I can tell you now that that no matter how good your argument is, you 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 Wow, That Writer Was Rude stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. It’s just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, honestly, the only thing that will genuinely represent a win 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.

Before you do, however, double-check that the next agent on your list — and the next, and the next — actually do represent your type of book. 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; it’s just a matter of fit.

Why, you ask? Read on.

Book categories and why they are your friends
No single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest. As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists, even ones like me who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of such an arrangement, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well. So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Science Fiction-Romantica-Western.

Generally speaking, though, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a synopsis. Think of it as the conceptual box that the agent of your dreams will want to unwrap.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground — so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a good place to start is by tracking down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examining the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funny.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

It can be rather a pain to decide, admittedly, but once you have determined your book’s category, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: you don’t even need to consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent your category. And why is that, veterans of last autumn’s Querypalooza?

If you shouted, “Because that would be a waste of my valuable querying or pitching time!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Since agents habitually represent only certain types of book, offering them another variety is only courting rejection.

Acceptance is what we want to court around here, right? Keep up the good work!

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