At long last, the final installment of Book Marketing 101: tell me again why are we going to all this trouble?

If you have made it all the way through this series, either reading it 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, I hope, 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? Send out a few additional query letters this weekend. (Five is a nice number. Ten is better.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and not unreasonably, “doesn’t the industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and Christmas? 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.)

I have to admit, that’s a pretty reasonable objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put the querying on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument.

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be looking for an agent, much better than the dead of winter. Not only are there 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), but by querying now, you’ll also get a jump on the literally 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.

Since the average New Year’s resolution lasts only about two and a half 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. With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a MIGHT 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’s life calms down considerably toward the end of January. 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: get your queries out now, and beat the post-Christmas rush.

Even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push now, 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 book deserves to be 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 taking extended breaks from it.

Query 5-10 agents at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly — and keep that momentum going. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion.

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.

It can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes. 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 is going to 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.

Not to worry — I’m going to spend the weeks to come going over some of the more pervasive writing problems. But if you’ve been following this series, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you?

Get on out there and do it. At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time for us to work on polishing your manuscript.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are still resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. Okay, I’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to help you see why it just doesn’t make sense to take the vagaries of this often drawn-out process personally.

Throughout this Book Marketing 101 series — originally intended to encompass only a couple of months of summer — 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.

Yet as I have been writing, even I have caught myself wondering from time to time whether it is really THAT hard to break into the biz. 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 mild.

But still, I worry about scaring good writers away from trying at all. And then I read an article like this one in a trade journal:

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).

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, which is potentially good for retailer, 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.

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? 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 — and 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?)

Or, to take a very up-to-the-minute example, discovered a great writer who has been plugging away for years because he suddenly wins the National Book Award? (Well deserved, Sherman Alexie!)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore, 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 when he is NOT winning prestigious awards.

Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I think that would be a genuine shame. And since I hear that other UK publishers are considering implementing similar policies, I worry about all of those British writers whose work may go out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Call me a worrywart, but this news also made me gnaw my nails, pondering the financial prospects of UK 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’ve just spent the last week 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?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out 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.

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 had NOT become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection — because, unfortunately, there’s still a very 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’s just 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. Send out those queries.

Thank you for your patience with my slow posting during my illness, and keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: surfing the sea of book reviews, or, free the bound periodicals!

Earlier in this series, 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 or background resembles yours in some important respect. Yesterday, I suggested 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.

As I signed off yesterday, content with a job relatively well done, I heard faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention to the Book Marketing 101 series. “Um, 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 — 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.

One reason, in case you were 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 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. Professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed: to take a couple of famous recent examples, the same agents who were clamoring three years ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY at the height of the show’s popularity have spent the last year and a half insisting that chick lit is doomed.

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 in the United States, generic queries don’t work, gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold, 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 change. 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 over the last couple of weeks, 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 Marketplace or Publishers Weekly.

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. 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 it only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, the book review method, is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. 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.

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, most 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, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — 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 lately, 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, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

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 your work. 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 tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker 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 new agenting pastures. 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.

And 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?), 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 finding these.

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?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is 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 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.

Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: when your querying list starts to thin out

I’ve been writing for a few weeks now (on and off, as my health permits) about 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 just be a waste of an investment in stamps. As I argued last time, being the right agent for YOUR book requires more than merely being a person who represents authors for a living.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Being the best choice for you requires, at minimum, all that, having a delightful propensity for saying yes to you, AND being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs. 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 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 for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides 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.”

In other words, what do you do AFTER you’ve gone through your ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents? What 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 — I’m quite serious about this. Successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper a secret seldom heard in the hallowed halls of writers’ conferences and classes: the people who run it don’t always have all that complex an idea of who reads, or even writes, any given type of book. Particularly in a relatively new category. They tend to assume that for all intents and purposes, the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it went to high school together, or at any rate share substantial life experiences.

So believe it or not, it’s entirely possible that you are a precise fit for some agency’s already-formulated author profile, which might make them more willing to take a chance on you and your book.

Those of you who happen 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? Back in the day, a woman born after the Johnson administration pitching a literary novel about a woman who lived 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 anything for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided a bit, thank goodness, since chick lit seems to have had its heyday, but 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 in your demographic, right?

How might you go about this? Well, for starters, I might suggest finding out if any of the staff writers or columnists at your favorite magazines have written books, and querying THEIR agents, 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 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: n 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 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 magazine 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 you (a) are polite, (b) have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and (c) 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 — 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 magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals is that they will give you insight into what is coming out NOW, not five years ago, in your book category. Also, someone else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — is essentially doing your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

How so? Well, 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. (I’m looking at YOU, BUST).

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?

Has that gotten your brainstorming muscles warmed up a little? Next time, I shall delve a little more into how reviews can help you at the agent-finding stage. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: how much does size matter, really?

Last time, I mentioned that, contrary to what many aspiring writers seem to believe, a great big agency is not necessarily the best choice for any particular book, 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 the day wallowing in 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, you do 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, if you intend to stick with the 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 likes an agent’s literary tastes to buy books from several of his or her clients.

Which makes a certain amount of empirical sense, right? As we’ve seen through querying, 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 another 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 can’t be sold anymore. Translation: he would have trouble selling it to his already-established editorial connections.

With a new agency, it can be harder to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established. As I mentioned yesterday, 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.

(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.)

But that doesn’t mean that other brand-new agencies may not be worth your while. Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — they are often more energetic in pursuing sales. And 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.

Something to think about: if 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 often after), 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 posts on FEE-CHARGING AGENTS, or you are unfamiliar with how much freelance editing can cost, you might want to check out the category 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. I received 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. 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 large 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, 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, 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 ends 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, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked — and, if his last few assistants’ career trajectories are any indication, may well move on to become a full agent at another agency within the next year or two.

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. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my admittedly egocentric opinion).

How much of a difference does it make on a practical level, you ask? Well, do you remember earlier in this series, when I was talking about how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders.

And if the glamour of THAT doesn’t impress you, perhaps this will: each time I’ve handed them a book proposal, they’ve been able to garner an offer within two months — lightning speed, in this industry — because they had the right connections to place MY work under the right sets of editorial eyeballs.

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.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: 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!

Book Marketing 101: look, lady, all I know is that I have a book in Category X; cut to the chase, already

As I have been arguing throughout this Book Marketing 101 series, queries tend to work best when they are sent to specific agents who habitually sell similar books. Not just because that’s the single best indication of what the agent in question likes to read — although that’s definitely good to ascertain, if you can, before you query — 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.

Thus, I have so far been approaching the guide listings, blurbs, etc., on the assumption that a writer 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!’ 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 they’ve said point-blank that they want to see books like mine, why shouldn’t I take their word for it and query them all without researching the last five years of sales for each and every agent at all hundred of those agencies, which would take me until next March at the earliest?”

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.)

Hold onto your hats, because I’m about to say something controversial: it does pay in the long run to double-check what one finds in the guides, in my experience — yes, even down to book categories.

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. To my eye, one of the most common ways in which listings and blurbs confuse agent-seeking writers is by appearing 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 member agent’s actual specialties are.

Let me hasten to add that my views on this subject are not the prevailing opinion, as nearly as I can tell; it’s not one you’re likely to hear at your garden-variety writers’ conference (unless, of course, I happen to be teaching there). There, you are 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. The information, it is implied, is all easily available to anyone who looks for it.

Personally, I don’t believe that this is entirely true; as I’ve shown in my last few posts (and in last year’s AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND PNWA series, categorized at right, where I took on real-world examples), there is a wide range in the level of information that agencies make available to potential queriers — and a great deal of that is in industry-speak, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent to those new to the biz.

I did not, after all, invent the oft-seen guide entry This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales.

There are plenty of quite authoritative sources out there, however, who will tell you (as they certainly told me, with some asperity) that no good can come of writers’ pointing out that some of the emperors out there are slightly underdressed, to say the least. And in a sense, they’re quite right: marching up to the nearest agent or standing up at a writers’ conference and demanding to know why a particular blurb or guide listing is confusing probably isn’t the best means of endearing yourself as a potential client.

But as James Joyce wrote, “We cannot change the country; let us change the subject.”

In other words, 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 blurb out there conveys with pellucid clarity precisely what every agent would and would like to see, well, as Aunt Jane would say, at least the credit of a wild imagination will be all my own.

I’m not just talking about blurbs that say vague things like, We’re open to any good writing, We accept all genres except YA, or Literary value considered first — although I think 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. I am also talking about those listings where the agency professes to represent virtually every major book category.

You’ve seen ‘em, 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.

Since I have already sung the praises of further research to determine who is representing what lately, let’s set aside for the moment the sometimes knotty problem of figuring out, over the course of a couple of dozen different listed genres, which is the agency’s specialty. Let’s also, and for the same reason, table discussion of the difficulties of determining which member agent would be the best to query for any given category listed without doing an internet search to see who has been to what conference lately — and if so, did they state any preferences in their blurbs? (Although while we’re at it, let’s all shout hallelujah for agencies kind enough to state who represents which category outright in a guide listing, saving writers everywhere a whole lot of time.)

Even apart from all that, I think such voluminous lists are potentially problematic. To pick one quandary out of that hat I told you to cling to, I think their breadth often tempts writers 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?

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because categories are how the industry thinks of books, 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.)

If it makes you feel any better, the problems caused by such all-inclusive lists are not just on the writer’s end. Uninformative guide listings, minimally communicative conference guide blurbs, and agency websites that, to put it mildly, do not give a clear indication of what kind of books would make their little hearts sing must, logically, tend to INCREASE the percentage of queries they receive for books outside their areas of specialty in any given day’s mail drop, not discourage them.

Think about it: if the agency doesn’t make its likes and dislikes clear in its guide blurbs or on its website, most potential submitters will be relying upon guesswork in addressing their queries. Which, logically, is going to lead to a whole lot of queries landing on the wrong desks and being rejected summarily — and to Millicents across the industry wringing their overworked hands with increasing frequency, 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. So they send out form rejection letters, so no one learns anything from the process, and lo and behold, they keep receiving queries for book categories they don’t want.

Excuse me, driver, but I’d like to get off. This vicious circle is making me dizzy. I’m guessing that it’s made those of you given to staring helplessly at agency websites and vague guide listings dizzy, too.

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 tomorrow.)

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.

(I feel another zany personal opinion coming on: although guide listings typically list a single agent as the contact person for the entire agency, I’ve found that it’s generally in the best interest of the writer to write directly to the member agent who represents YOUR kind of book, rather than the listed contact.)

If the agency in question is small, check to see how long it’s been around — this information, too, 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’s 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 — 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.

Ideally, you would like to be represented by an agent with a solid track record selling your type of book, right? And as I have mentioned, oh, 70 or 80 times in the last year, 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 all that uncommon 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?

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. Both, you see, are likely to say, “Oh, I know PRECISELY the editor for that.”

This is not, unfortunately, just a matter of my opinion. Ask almost anyone who’s been in the biz for the last decade or so, and you will probably hear a horror story 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. Everyone seems to know someone to whom it has happened.

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.

If the lead agent (whose name, as often as not, is the name of the agency) peeled off recently from a great big concern, taking her clients with her, she may well have clients across many, many genres. 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.

Do your homework, but try not to get paranoid about it. Much of the time, inappropriately-listed categories aren’t the result of anyone’ being mean or misrepresenting themselves. Industry trends often move faster than guides are released, after all.

Perhaps a category that was hip seven months ago, when the agency filled out the guide questionnaire, but has since fallen out of fashion. Obviously, if an agency was seeking a particular kind of book only because of its marketing potential, 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.

Yes, it’s a whole lot of work; 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.

This may be a minority opinion, but this process is genuinely hard, even for the best writers. I have faith that you can do it, though. Keep up the good work.

Book Marketing 101: playing hide and seek with agents

Oh, how I am looking forward to the day when I can be writing and editing in my office again! There’s nothing like a nice, ergonomically-correct computer set-up and full-spectrum lights for writing, and I’ve been missing both terribly.

Yes, I’m still bed- and couch-bound these days, for the most part. (The other parts consist of making tea and dragging myself to the doctor’s office.) The worst of it is that short of cutting off communication with the outside world altogether, I can’t avoid all of those annoying telemarketing calls with which home phones are continually plagued all day long.

It’s just like spam, but with a loud, persistent ringing sound attached. And if I refuse to answer, my caller ID informs me, they just call again later.

I’ve tried everything to stop them: I routinely ask to be taken off their lists (which they are required by law to do, but often don’t); I’m on the national do-not-call list (which, alas, does not apply to charitable organizations or political causes); I ask point-blank if the telemarketer is incarcerated (not uncommon, as prison labor is notoriously inexpensive). Yet still they come.

The other day, I got a real lulu, a bone fide prizewinner in the coveted rudeness category. First, the call began with a recorded message telling me to hold for the next available operator, as it I had called them. I can’t imagine anyone’s being so bored or lonely as to stay on the line for any reason other than mine: to order them to remove me from their call list. When a representative came on the line (with tell-tale sounds of other telemarketing voices in the background), I did just that.

And he refused, insisting that he was not a telemarketer at all, but instead offering a service. I explained, none too gently, that soliciting business over the phone was, in essence, telemarketing, and that I still wanted to be taken off the list. Ah, but there wasn’t a list, he told me triumphantly: he had my file.

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “And how does that affect the fact that I’ve already told you no twice?”

He could not explain the difference; neither could his manager. In the end, I had to threaten to call the Federal Trade Commission before they would agree to take me off their non-existent list. “Look,” I told the manager, “the fact that you call your telemarketers representatives and your call lists files does not change the facts of what you are doing. You’re soliciting customers via telephone, so you’re subject to the same rules as any other telemarketer.”

Apparently, this is what is known in the call center as giving attitude.

I’m sure that you’re wondering by now: is this anecdote merely the rambling of someone who has barely seen the outside of her house for seven weeks and counting, or does this actually have something to do with the topic at hand, finding agents to solicit?

Hold for our next representative, and you shall see.

For the past couple of weeks (in fits and starts), I have been 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. And, as you’ve 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 be there, going to author readings, making use of connections made at conferences, through writing groups, etc.

In essence, this advice is predicated on the assumption that the information is out there; it’s just the writer’s responsibility to search for it. And 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 like telemarketing calls, the results 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 they are reputable, have a good track record, and represent 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 be awfully hard to tell the difference.

Why? Well, the aspiring writer market is a large one; just look at how many conferences, seminars, books, and magazines there are designed for 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 around the usual long, hard slog can sound awfully appealing to many.

But the fact is, there just isn’t a short cut around the hyper-competitive querying and submission process. You can learn how to do it more professionally, but as far as I know, no one has yet bottled sure-fire literary success and offered it online to any comer.

Many of the businesses that profess to do just that are clever about it, though. Just as my caller used a name switch from telemarketer to call center to imply that his business was something it wasn’t, 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 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 or editing fee — it should set off warning bells. (If you’re in doubt about what fees are and are not reasonable, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Why should an up-front charge render you suspicious? Because reputable agencies, my dears, earn their money through commissions on their clients’ writing — and that requires selling books. If a 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 extraneous fees.

So you see, I’m not the only one who considers agents’ charging reading fees highly questionable.

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.

The mere fact that they have seen fit to note that should give you some indication of just how many good writers have been burned by fake agencies.

A third great resource is the Absolute Write water cooler, where aspiring writers’ comments on individual agents and agencies are indexed for your perusing pleasure. They also garner information on publishers and share advice about avoiding scams.

This is not a complete list, of course, but it should get you started. (And please, those of you who have done your time in the agent-searching trenches: if you have other suggestions for sites useful in the searching process, share ‘em via the comments section, below.)

While it may seem Luddite-like to suggest it, two of the most reliable agency guides are in book form, the Herman Guide and Writers Digest’s perennial bestseller, Guide to Literary Agents. 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?

These guides are both excellent places to find contact information for agents — which is to say, I have always found 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, for precisely the same reason that telemarketing calls are so annoying to receive: they are 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 in my next post, I promise), most aspiring writers simply assume that where there is little presented, there just isn’t much to tell.

However, that’s not really true. Most guide listings are pretty terse, 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 — in other words, 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 they were looking for three or four years ago isn’t necessarily what they are seeking today. I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last year as 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?

I have, of course, much more to say about using the standard guides, but for today, let me leave you with this: 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.

It is every bit as annoying to agents — and still more to our old friend Millicent the screener, who reads queries all day, every day — to be solicited in this manner by aspiring writers. 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 posted about an agency in one source does not match what is posted elsewhere.

The world is a complex place, my friends: more on using the guides and other resources to navigate it follows next time. In the meantime, wish me the best of luck in dodging telemarketers, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: but what if I just walk up and ask?

While I was on the subject of tracking down who represents whom, so that you may query agents who represent books similar to yours, I thought I would make a slight detour to an agent-finding strategy favored by the bold: walking up to a published writer (or a pre-published but agented one) and simply saying, “Do you mind if I ask who represents you?”

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. But really, “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.

Kinda changes the way you think of author readings, doesn’t it?

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. And 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. (Possibly because the editor 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. They’re usually pretty grateful to their agents, too, and thus like to talk about them.

As a fringe benefit, they 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 worth a try. To be blunt about it, you’re far more likely to garner an actual recommendation to query a new author’s agent than from an established author, 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 mean. Just experienced.

Let’s revisit some of the characters from my long-ago Industry Faux Pas series who gamely walked up to published authors and asked for their help. The etiquette in this situation can be a little murky — after all, these authors 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 — but these examples should help you steer around potential road blocks.


Because the road to recognition is usually so very long and winding, many savvy writers seek to speed things up a trifle by enlisting the help of already established – or already agented – writers on their behalf. This is not a bad idea – but, like everything else, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way.

Come with me now to the land of hypotheticals, to explore the latter.

Writer-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, and during question time, 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 afterward.

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 work 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 did Isabelle do wrong? (And, 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 writer 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 would have been simply to say so, but he did not. What he said is that his agent asked HIM not to recommend any new writers; a subtle difference.

Most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers; it saves the agent trouble, to use the client as a screener. So, generally speaking, if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away.”

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 that evening.

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 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. 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?

Let’s say that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, she goes to another reading.

Writer-approaching scenario 2: Isabelle spots another reading announcement in her local newspaper. This time, it’s an author whose work she’s read, Juanita; 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 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.

This, believe it or not, happens even more that the first scenario – and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences. Just as some 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 a new writer, so too do established writers – many, if not most, of whom teach writing classes and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes.

So basically, Isabelle has just asked a writing teacher she has never met before to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Not the best means of winning friends and influencing people, generally speaking.

Yes, the process of finding an agent is frustrating, but do try to bear in mind what you are asking when you request help from another writer. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. Other than your admiration and gratitude, tell me, what does the author who helps you get out of it?

This not to say that some established writers don’t like to offer this kind of help; many do. But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when total 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 precedes the question, “So, what do you write?” – is considered a polite first step.

In other words: whatever happened to foreplay?

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.

And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that. Case in point:

Writer-approaching scenario 3: at a 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 they share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do.) So 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 dismayed when 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 wrong here?

Partially, he echoed Isabelle’s mistake: he just assumed that by being friendly, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent. However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences, including the following, listed in descending order of probability:

*Krishnan might have just been being polite.

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

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

*Krishnan is lonely – writing is a lonely craft, by definition, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to commune.

*Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group.

*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 the last two would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work – and the next to last one definitely implies that reading would be exchanged, not one-way. However, if either of the last two had been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED.

Ditto with Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. At minimum, it could be embarrassing. 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 get this kind of recommendation.

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 stood for quite some time.

That’s right: just as it is relatively safe to presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was – because, by everyone’s admission, it’s harder than it was ten or even five years ago to wow an agent – it is a fair bet that an agent who has been signed but has not yet sold a book will be lugging around quite a bit of residual resentment about the process, or even about his agent.

If an agented writer’s hauling a monumental chip on his shoulder about his agent 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}. 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 the agent’s turn-around time.

{Truth compels me to add: except for me, actually. Among my agent’s many sterling qualities as a human being, he’s also an unusually fast reader, bless him.}

The point is, every second Krishnan’s agent spends reading new work is one second less devoted to reading Krishnan’s latest revision — or marketing it. Some authors are a might touchy about that, so tread carefully.

Even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, 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 struggled for YEARS to land his agent – 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.

Note, please, that all of the above applies EVEN IF Krishnan 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 novels – is 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. Krishnan probably would not have minded at all if if Karl had simply asked for his agent’s name after half an hour of pleasant chat — heck, Krishnan would probably have offered the information unsolicited in that time — or even for permission to use his name in the first line of a query letter. As in: Since you so ably represent Krishnan Jones, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

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. 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 a close friendship or I was paying for their time, either monetarily or by exchange.

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 a relative stranger – you are also expecting him or her to put credibility on the line. And that, dear readers, is something that most authors – and most human beings – do not do very often for relative strangers.

Keep up the good work!

Book Marketing 101: revisiting those thank-yous

Welcome back to my series of revisited posts, complete with present-day commentary. I was hoping to be up to writing new posts from scratch again by now, but alas, the mono gods have decreed otherwise.

I’m excited about today’s post, which is a composite of a couple of posts I wrote last year. It addresses a couple of perplexing problems commonly encountered by aspiring writers who comb acknowledgment pages, looking for agents to query. It may seem a bit odd that I would spend this many posts on how to deal with those pesky thank-yous, but so much of the advice given about how to do this is vague, predicated on the (false) assumption that every book will HAVE an acknowledgements page — and that a good writer should only need a short list of querying prospects.

As anyone who has queried within the last five years knows, these assumptions are somewhat outdated. It’s harder now than it used to be for even a great book to find its best agent. For the next couple of days, I’m going to talk about how and why.

I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly at conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport. But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. I say, if you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together.

Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from her NORTHANGER ABBEY — the novel, if you’ll recall, that her publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir of my authorship I could mention — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:

“Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologizer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now.

Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (because it’s not as though Random House originally saw it as a novel or anything) or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE (because the average 17-year-old is more than capable of dictating ethics to her publishers), this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last couple of years.

So I say let’s commit to being mutually supportive. Send in your triumphs, everybody, big and small, so we can celebrate them together.

I bring this up advisedly, as today, I am going to talk about ways in which published writers are NOT always very nice to their less-recognized brethren and sistren: helping them get agents. And not just by saying know when a fellow writer asks, very nicely, for an introduction to one’s agent.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)

In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.

Remember how I was ranting earlier in this series about how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…

It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and as nearly as I can tell, it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group.

With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. For one very simple reason: one less page per book saves publishers money.

As the fine folks who work on the business end of the business are so fond of saying, paper and ink are expensive.

And that, in case you’ve been wondering, is why so few books have dedications anymore — or have stuck them someplace the average reader would not know to look for them, such as the copyright page.

Obviously, this means that it’s harder now than in days of yore to pick up agent recommendations from acknowledgment pages: it’s pretty difficult to search what isn’t there. Even more unfortunately for searching purposes, first book authors, whose agents have demonstrated, and recently, their openness to new talent, are the least likely to be granted the ability to thank the people we would like for them to thank.

And for some reason, few authors include acknowledgment pages on their websites — although it’s definitely worth doing a quick web search to check. Occasionally, a well-disposed author, kindly thinking of the aspiring, will just say who represents her. Heck, sometimes they will even include a link.

Like the one in the upper right-hand corner of this page, say.

Changes in paper usage and website problems aside, though, I think that most advisors of acknowledgment-trawling overlook one salient fact: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — or, more to the point from an aspiring writer’s POV, especially open to new ideas.

That tepid mention in the back of the book, then, may not actually constitute a recommendation, per se. It’s simply expected.

Think about it: while the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.

Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me throughout the writing process that they thought I should concentrate on a different topic entirely. Go figure.

So why do we occasionally see acknowledgments that apparently bear no mention of the author’s agent? Request, often. Some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors NOT to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents.

This species of request is why, in case you were wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…”

This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Wondering why they would want to do this to nice people like us?

You know how I keep telling you that the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult? Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.

Well, as nearly as I can tell, this one IS specifically intended to make our lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents (or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents); blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I was telling you about a couple of days ago, because such actions are generally adopted in self-defense.

Seriously. Stop laughing.

Agents do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. Agents are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, “Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…”

See why it’s so helpful to be able to drop in a specific compliment about Author X’s book?

There’s another reason to be a bit wary of relying too exclusively upon acknowledgment-searching — or to query an agent found that way without also checking out the agency’s website (if it has one; even in this day and age, surprisingly many don’t) AND one of the standard agency guides to make sure that the agent in question is, indeed, open to work similar to the one you found in a bookstore. A very simple reason: many published writers are represented by agents who do not accept queries from previously unpublished writers.

And that’s not something the acknowledgments page is at all likely to tell you.

I hear this one from agent-hunters all the time, actually, although from their POVs, it tends to be a lost-and-found problem.” “My favorite writer thanks her agent profusely,” they tell me, “but I can’t find which agency it is!”

I hate to be the one to break it to these eager souls, but if an agent is not listed in one of the standard agency guides or on Preditors and Editors, it’s usually because

(a) she has stopped being an agent, due to retirement, promotion, death, becoming an editor, or intraoffice politics (the turnover at some agencies is pretty rapid),

(b) she’s between agencies (see a),

(c) she’s not back from maternity leave, and other agents within the agency are handling her client list, or

(c) she’s no longer looking for new clients, and thus did not bother to send the questionnaire back to the guidebook.

In other words, an aspiring writer may not be able to find her because she is not looking to be found by aspiring writers. Check one of the standard guides, ask around at the Absolute Write water cooler, or check with the Association of Authors’ Representatives, but if you hit a blank wall, assume that the agent is not looking for new clients and move on.

(A) is particularly likely, by the way, if the author who thanked the agent so profusely was originally published more than ten years ago or works at a boutique agency, the kind that caters to a very few, very successful group of clients, often in a particular niche market. While such agents do occasionally have openings on their client lists, it is rare, rendering the probability of getting past their screeners rather low.

Call me wacky, but if you’re going to be expending time that you could be devoting writing on expanding your query list, I would rather see you concentrate first on agents who are actively looking for new writers.

All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even five or ten years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.

Fortunately for us all, there are other sources for finding out who represents whom, and rest assured, I shall move on to them in future posts. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: tracking the wily agent in the wild

Yes, I am sticking my toe back into the blogging pool again today, but don’t worry: I’m dictating this immediately after an afternoon-long nap, whilst wrapped up to my nose in blankets, reclining on a couch, clutching a mug of herbal tea AND using a long-ago post as a crib. No low-tech effort has been spared, you see, to render this post as minimally energy-sapping as possible.

I’m anxious, you see, to get you out querying before the industry’s long winter’s snooze. This week marks the Frankfurt Book Fair, an annual literary extravaganza that leaves many high-powered agencies and publishing houses down a few bodies each fall, but from next week through Thanksgiving is prime querying time.

It’s a good time to send out a few additional queries even if you are already on the query-a-week plan — and especially if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this.

As my long-time readers are well aware, I’m of the keep-querying-until-the ink-is-actually-dry-on-the-contract school of thought. Think of keeping the query flow going as insurance: if, heaven forefend, something goes wrong with your top prospect, you will have possible alternates waiting in the wings. Or at the very least will be spared the effort of having to come up with a new prospect from scratch.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: contrary to pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, being sought-after by more than one agent is a GOOD thing — after all, nothing speeds up reading turn-around like the news that another agent has already made an offer.

I know it’s tempting to rest on your laurels while waiting to hear back on a partial or a full, but believe me, if — heaven forefend — the answer is no, you will be far, far, FAR happier if you have already begun to seek out pastures anew. The law of inertia tells us that a process already in motion tends to remain in motion; as anyone who has done serious time in the querying trenches can tell you, it takes quite a bit more energy to restart your querying engines again after they have gone cold than to keep plowing forward.

I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next. Repeat until you’re picked up.

But to keep that flow going, you’re going to need to generate a hefty list of prospects. Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find agents to query — not just any agents, but the kind of agents who represent writing like yours.

And by writing like yours, I don’t mean books along vaguely similar lines — I’m talking about books in the same marketing category.

Didn’t I tell you that those exercises earlier in the Book Marketing 101 series would come in handy later on? Those of you who have been reading all the way through should already have a fairly clear idea of which categories come closest to your work — and if you do not, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES category at right.

Why is nailing down your marketing category so important? Because it is the language agents and editors use to describe books. Until you know in which category (or categories; many overlap) your baby falls, you will have great difficulty not only understanding agents express their professional preferences at conferences, but also deciphering their wants as stated in agency guides and on their websites.

I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach. I’ve written about why at some length in this series, so I shall not repeat myself, except to say that if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach.

As a rule, they don’t like being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books. This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides. Go figure.

As I mentioned earlier in this Book Marketing 101 series, the single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them.

Later in this series, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected. Within the industry, respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

This is probably old news to most of you, right? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before, right? Although perhaps not its corollary: don’t approach agents — at conferences, via e-mail, or through queries — unless they have a PROVEN track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

This is for your protection, as much as to increase your probability of querying success. Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre?

Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. You want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out agents to query. If you attended a conference this year, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were NOT able to pitch.

However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those who client lists do not include books like yours.

I’m dead serious about this. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection, after a “Dear Agent” salutation, is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent; like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked, or that the second agent from the left on the panel bears a startling resemblance to your beloved long-ago junior high school French teacher. Deciding whom to represent is a business decision, not a sentimental one — and it will save you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin if you approach selecting your querying list on the same basis.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book (and didn’t keep in touch with the person sitting next to you, scribbling like a fiend), check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds.

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; at most agencies, this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

If you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield half a dozen more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

This is a serious question, one that I have argued long and hard should be addressed explicitly in seminars at writing conferences. Far too many aspiring writers abandon their querying quests too soon after their first conferences, assuming — wrongly — that once they have exhausted the array of attending agents, they have plumbed the depth and breadth of the industry.

This is simply not true. The agents who show up at any given conference are just that — the agents who happened to show up for that particular conference, people with individual tastes and professional preferences. If you didn’t strike lucky with that group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have the same luck with another.

But obviously, conferences are expensive; few writers can afford to attend an unlimited number of them. So how else can you find out who is eager to represent what?

The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours.

Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or NF, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous.

Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

So I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, “I already knew about querying agents I saw at conferences and checking acknowledgement pages. Aren’t there more creative ways to expand my query list?”

As a matter of fact, there are — but even as a dictator (dictatrix?), I have run out of steam for today. Hang in there, folks, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: a professional-looking title page, part III

Well, so much for predicting how tired I would be: the very day after I said I didn’t want to abandon you all in mid-title page, I found myself too wiped out to do my promised next post on title pages. Mea culpa — but I think I shall be taking the next few days off from posting, until I figure out how to integrate it with the masses of sleep I seem to need at the moment.

Let me move on to the second style of title page quickly, though, while I am fresh from a nap.

Last time, I mentioned that there were two formats commonly used in professional title pages. The one I showed you last time, what I like to call the Me First, is actually rather more common in submissions to agents than submissions from agents to editors, but it is certainly acceptable.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, more closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like. Take a gander:


Elegant, isn’t it? And yet very market-oriented, because all of the requisite information is so very easy to find. Here is a downloadable version of the same, for those of you who would prefer to have it on hand.

I probably don’t need to walk through how to construct this little gem, but as my long-term readers know, I’m a great believer in making directions as straightforward as possible. I like them to be easy to follow in the ten minutes after an agent has said, “My God, I love your premise! Provide me with the manuscript instantly!” Call me zany, but on that happy day, I suspect that you’re going to have a lot on your mind.

So here’s how to put this little gem together. Set up a page with the usual standard format for manuscripts defaults — 1-inch margins all around, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier — then type in the upper right-hand corner:

Book category (If you’re unclear on what this is, are tempted to vacillate between several, or resent having to categorize your complex book at all, believe me, I sympathize — but please see the BOOK CATEGORIES category at right with all possible speed.)

Estimated word count (If you’re unclear on the hows and whys of estimation, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered on the page:
Your title
(Skip a line)
(Skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

Skip down 12 more lines, then add in the lower right corner:

Your real name
Line 1 of your address
Line 2 of your address
Your telephone number
Your e-mail address

As you may see from the example, it looks nifty if the information in the top section and the information in the bottom one share the same left margin. Since some addresses are longer than others, using this format results in that left margin’s being set at different points on the page for different manuscripts. While Flaubert’s address is short, Edith Wharton’s is not, producing a cosmetically altered title page:


Again, there should be NO other information on the title page, just lots and lots of pretty, pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does.

That’s it, my friends – the two primary options you have, if you want your title page to look like the bigwigs’ do. And believe me, you do. Try formatting yours accordingly, and see if your work is not treated with greater respect!

After my last post, forward-thinking reader Crista anticipated my next point, so I have already covered the issue of whether you should include a title page in an e-mailed submission. Since the comments are less easily searched than the text of my posts, I’m going to go over the logic a bit here as well.

The answer, in case you were wondering, is yes — it is an excellent idea to include a title page with an e-submission. It’s an even better idea to include it as PART of the manuscript attachment, rather than as a separate attachment.

A bit perplexed? You’re not alone. Let me deal with the whys first, then the hows.

As Crista rightly points out, an agent who sends you an e-mail to ask for a full or partial manuscript, like one who calls after reading your first 50 pages to ask for the rest of the book, obviously has your contact information already. So why repeat it by sending a title page?

The first reason — and not the least significant, in an industry that values uniformity of format — is that every professional title page includes this information. It’s what agents and editors expect to see, and believe me, any agent who accepts e-queries receives enough e-mail in a day to render the prospect of scrolling through those received a few weeks ago a Herculean task. Make it easy for her to contact you, and she’s more likely to do it.

Second, even if the agent or screener scrupulously noted all of your contact information from your query AND filed away your e-mail address for future reference, agencies are very busy places. Haven’t you ever accidentally deleted an e-mail you intended to save?

I tremble to mention this, but most of the agents of my acquaintance who’ve been in the game for a while have at least one horror story about reading a terrific piece of writing, jumping up to show it to someone else in the office — and when they’ve returned, not being able to find the mystery author’s contact information.

Don’t let them tell a story like this about you: Millicent is unlikely to scroll through 700 e-mails to track down even the most captivating author’s contact information. And even if an agent asks for an e-mailed submission, he will not necessarily read all of it on screen — once it’s printed out, it’s as far from the e-mail that sent it as if it had come by regular mail.

Besides, do you really want to begin your relationship with the agent of your dreams (or editor of your passions) by deviating from standard format, even virtually? As every successful civil disobedient knows, you are generally better off politely meeting expectations in matters of little moment, so you may save your deviations for the things that really matter.

As Flaubert famously advised writers, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Okay, so he wasn’t talking about title pages. But the same principle applies here: a title page — or lack thereof — does make a strong statement about the professionalism of the manuscript, regardless of context.

I wouldn’t advise sending the title page as a separate attachment, though: because viruses can be spread through attachments, folks in the industry tend not to open attachments they did not specifically ask to see. Instead, insert the title page at the beginning of your manuscript file.

Do I see a raised hand or twelve out there? “But Anne,” I hear some quick-on-the-draw readers cry, “won’t including it in the document make the title page look wrong? Won’t it automatically have a slug line, and won’t including it mess up my pagination?”

Good questions, all, but these outcomes are relatively easy to avoid in Word. To prevent a slug line’s appearing on the title page, insert the title page into the document, then go to the Format menu and select Document, then Layout. There should be an option there called “Different First Page.” If you select that, you can enter a different header and footer for the first page of the document, without disturbing the slug line you will want to appear on every other page.

Don’t include a slug line (AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/#) on the title page, or a page number. Just leave the header and footer blank.

To ensure that the first page of text (which will be page 2 of the document, right?) is numbered as page 1, you will need to designate the title page as 0. In Word, you do this by going to the View menu, selecting Header and Footer, then Page Number Format.

While I’m on the subject of formatting, and now that I know how to insert snapshots of pages into this blog, I think that next time, I shall take reader Dave’s excellent suggestion and show you what a page of text in standard format looks like. I have long been yearning to show how to format the first page of a chapter correctly.

And that’s the kind of longing I have when I’m NOT feverish; there’s no accounting for taste, eh? Speaking of which, my couch is calling me again, so I am signing off for today. Keep up the good work!