Query lists and the fine folks who appear on them-palooza, part VII: perhaps not what you were expecting, but…

attacked-by-squid II

Okay, okay, so that’s not a particularly snappy title, but since we are nearing the end of this ‘Palooza on how to find agents to query (nope, already used that one), we should probably be expecting my title inventiveness to be wilting a trifle. Frankly, I’m eager to get back to some issues of craft…although, of course, given my very practical focus, I shall probably discuss them within the context of common manuscript failings that make agency screeners’ hair stand on end.

Which wouldn’t have been a bad image to use on Halloween, come to think of it: our old pal Millicent in a fright wig, permanently scarred by the haunting memory of submissions past. Have sympathy for her, campers; yes, she’s responsible for a heck of a lot of rejections, but hers is a very difficult job.

Unless, of course, aspiring writers are kind enough to make her life easy by sending her queries for books in categories nobody at her agency represents — or no longer represents. Then, her job’s a piece of proverbial cake.

Not entirely coincidentally, I waxed long, if not eloquent, in my last post on the desirability of bolstering the information one might find in a standard agents’ guide, a conference blurb, or even an agency’s website with a little further research. Today, I’m going to talk about where to seek out that additional info.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a savvy querier like you has been conscientiously haunting the library for the past month, shaking the Dewey Decimal System vigorously until a dandy list of authors of books like yours dropped out of it. Because you are market-aware, you have naturally limited your search to books that have come out within the last five years; because you are hip to booth just how tight the literary market is right now and how much more difficult it can be for an agent to sell a first-time author’s work than an established one’s, you have been focusing your efforts on first and second books, on the very sensible theory that the agents who represented them might be more likely to take a chance on a fresh new voice than others. You’ve already tracked down the agents thanked in these books’ acknowledgments.

Now, savvy querier, you’re all set to track down who represented the books ungraced by acknowledgement pages. Having embarked upon that laudable endeavor, one question is ringing in your mind like the Liberty Bell: why on earth is this most basic information so difficult to come by?

I wish I could tell you that there is some esoteric reason for that, having perhaps to do with national security or fear of offending the muses by breaking a millennium-old code of silence. In principle, since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record — not the financial specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players — gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park.

But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to a publishing industry database. While there are a few websites that offer searches by author represented, they are often also for-pay sites, and if the complaints one hears ringing through the bars that are never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America are accurate, the data on them is not always up-to-date; authors switch agencies almost as often as agents do.

Is that giant collective gasp of indignation that just rocked the ether an indication that neither of those last couple of revelations was what a writer seeking an agent wants to hear?

I hate to be the one to break it to you gentle souls, but landing an agent is not like tag: a writer doesn’t necessarily get to connect with It once, then drop out of the game. There are plenty of reasons an already-agented writer might find herself treading the wearisome querying road for a second time. An author might decide to write a book outside her agent’s interests, for instance, or the agent’s may decide he no longer wants to represent the kind of book a client writes. When an agent moves from one agency to another, his clients may or may not go with him. A mammoth, literature-deploring squid might attack Manhattan, reaching through the windows of major agencies and wrapping its grasping tentacles around any unlucky soul wandering the hallways.

Okay, so that last bit was to see if you were paying attention. Squid attacks on agencies are exceedingly rare.

My point is — you hadn’t thought I’d forgotten it, had you? — just as it would be foolish for an author looking to change agencies to revert to her query list from five or six years earlier, when she had last been in the market for representation, it would be counterproductive for an aspiring writer looking for a first agent to work off information that’s, well, a trifle on the elderly side. Or to assume that what was true a year and a half ago, when he first put together his querying list, is necessarily still true now.

Conditions change, even without the intervention of super-sized marine cephalopods.

So how might one update a query list — or add to it? The web is an invaluable tool: sometimes, you can learn who represents an author quite quickly, via a simple web search. However, as I’m sure some of you know from frustrating experience, this method can be very time-consuming, and it won’t always yield the results you want.

Why? Well, a standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work. As well as every article in which she is mentioned, prompts to buy her book at Amazon and B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website. (Which, before you get your hopes up, may or may not tell you who represents her. Surprisingly often, established authors’ websites don’t.) Wading through all of that information can be a long slog, and does not always lead to what you need.

That doesn’t mean, however, that none of what turns up will help you. If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Or just go directly to one of the standard advance review sites: Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book, not readers who might conceivably buy it from retailers. They appear considerably before the release date; long enough, in fact, that it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be revised prior to release. (Or, more commonly, re-re-re-revised.) Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all routinely post industry reviews, too, and it’s always worth checking to see if Publishers Weekly did an article on the deal. If you really wanted to take a month to get a feel for who was who in your genre, you could sit down and read the last year’s worth of advance reviews. (If you do, and you write SF/fantasy, stick with Kirkus. Trust me on this one.)

But honestly, who has the time to read all of that and write?

You were thinking that already, weren’t you? I can hear chairs shifting out there; skepticism is in the air. “Anne, Anne, Anne,” I hear some of you restless-but-observant types muttering, “you’ve been telling me for over five years that agents and editors are massively busy people who may well become impatient during the course of a two-minute pitch. Do you seriously expect me to believe that if they wanted to find out who represented a particular book, they would go shuffling though 50 websites?”

Okay, you’ve got me there: they wouldn’t. They would consult one of the standard industry databases. The catch: those databases are by subscription.

Translation: it’s gonna cost you something over and above your time.

Usually, you ostensibly join a sort of club, and one of the perqs of membership is database access. Almost invariably, you buy membership in specified time increments (often a month), rather than per-use, so if you are up for gorging yourself on agent info, you could conceivably lock yourself in a room with your computer for a week or two and generate a list of a couple of hundred names, along with the specifics of who has sold what lately, then cancel your membership.

You might be a little sick to your stomach afterward, having learned so much about what is and isn’t selling at the moment, but at least you would have a very up-to-date list.

Personally, I prefer the Publishers Marketplace database; it’s not terrifically expensive, and agents often use it themselves. It has a very straightforward function called WHO REPRESENTS, very easy to use. Feed in your favorite authors’ names, and presto! you have instant access to who sold their most recent projects. This, as those of you who have been trying to ferret out such information already know, can save you literally months of research time.

You can also track individual agents, to see whom they represent and what they have sold in the last few years. If you sign up for the for-pay Publishers Lunch e-mailings (which isn’t a bad idea, as such a high percentage of US-based publishing folks read it and/or Publishers Weekly; it’s a great way to gain a basic idea of how the biz works and how swiftly publishing fads change), you will gain access to this database.

PM charges month-to-month, so if you are strapped for cash, you could easily generate a list of authors, join for a month, search to your little heart’s content, then cancel. (But you didn’t hear it from me.) Or you could corral a few of your writer friends to go in on an ongoing subscription with you, with the understanding that you’ll share the data.

Even then, you might find it a little spendy, so I hasten to add: as savvy reader Nadine pointed out, PM’s website does allow non-members to search at least part of its database; if you’re looking for who represented a book sold within the last few years, this is a good quick option. I notice, however, that such searches do not yield specific deal information — which renders it considerably more difficult to check what, for instance, an agent has sold in the last 6 months.

Personally, I kind of like being able to look up everything that’s sold in my genre within the last month, but as we all know, my tastes a trifle odd. But why might access to such a database make a difference to the usefulness of your querying list?

Several reasons, actually. First, if you want to query every agent who has sold a book like yours in the last year, obviously, a search engine that would enable you to pull up the sales in your chosen book category over that period of time would save you quite a bit of time. Second — and this one should sound a trifle familiar to those of you who have been ‘Paloozaing of late — it’s always a nice touch to be able to mention an agent’s most recent sale of a book like yours in a query letter: Congratulations on your recent sale of Author McWriterly’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. As my writing is similar, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Third — and this one should ring a few bells, too — because both the market and agency personnel are changing so fast these day, information about who is selling books in your category right now, as opposed to a year or two ago, when the books hitting the shelves now were being acquired by editors, might enable you to fine-tune your querying list.

Please pick your jaws off the floor, writers brand-new to the publishing process. Especially if you are writing fiction, it’s imperative to be aware that from an agent’s perspective, what is selling in bookstores right now is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what she can sell to a publishing house right now. Since there is typically at least a year between a publisher’s acquiring a book and its release, trolling the New Releases shelf will tell you what interested editors a while ago — not today, or even yesterday.

See why a query list-generator might want to garner up-to-the-minute sales information?

Before you dismiss the idea of spending money on professional database access, do sit down and figure out how much your time is worth. Why? Well, the practically-free method of acquiring the same information that I am about to suggest is so time-consuming that shelling out for a subscription service may start to look downright reasonable.

If you do have the time to invest, there is a free way to find out who represented any book, if it was published within the United States. As I mentioned above, the sale of a book is a matter of public record, and as such, publishers must provide information about who represented the author to anyone who asks.

So how do you get ‘em to cough up the information? Pick a book, call the publisher (there is often a phone number listed on the copyright page, to facilitate further book sales; if not, try the publisher’s website), and ask to speak to the publicity department. When you reach a human being (have a magazine handy; it can take awhile), ask who the agent of record was for the book.

You may encounter a certain amount of incredulity at your old-fashioned approach, but do not let that deter you. They are obligated to give you the information, and often, they’re rather charmed to hear that someone liked one of their books so much that he was willing to go to such significant effort to find out who represented it.

See why I thought you might find it a tad on the time-consuming side? Don’t worry; I still have a few time-saving tricks up my sleeve.

I sense a bit of disgruntlement out there. “Yeah, right, Anne: people at publishing houses are going to be happy to hear from readers. Pull the other one. I’ve always heard that under no circumstances should an aspiring writer ever call a publishing house or an agency. And why would they be nice to an aspiring writer, anyway?”

Well, for starters, that advice about never calling? It’s intended to prevent this conversation, and this conversation alone: “Hello, agency/publishing house? I have a book that’s a natural for Oprah, and…hello? Hello?”

A writer familiar enough with the ropes to be querying is probably not going to make that mistake. A dedication to playing by the rules is why, I suspect, that a weary What do you mean, you’re going to treat me like a human being? cynicism tends to pop from the mouths of aspiring writers who have been querying for a good long time.

It’s completely understandable, of course. After a couple of dozen form-letter rejections — which entail, basically, being told by a faceless entity that one’s writing is not good enough, but not being told how or why — it’s very, very easy to start to believe that agencies and publishing houses are staffed by writer-hating ogres, leering loreleis who cajole writers into sending in their hopes and dreams, purely for the pleasure of smashing them into the ground.

No wonder the giant squid has it in for them, if so. But happily for writers everywhere, this just isn’t the case.

There are a few mean people, of course, as in any profession, and I suppose it’s not out of the question that some perversely masochistic hater of the written word might choose to torture herself by becoming an agency screener. For the most part, though, if you have the opportunity to talk to an agent, editor, or one of their overworked Millicents, you will discover someone who genuinely adores good writing and is sincerely eager to promote the interests of those who produce it.

Stop laughing, jaded queriers. It’s true.

Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good writing, of course — one doesn’t have to hang around the industry very long to realize that plenty of pros apparently don’t make too strong a distinction between what is marketable and what is well-written — but contrary to the gloomy rumors perennially circulating on the writers’ conference circuit, it’s rare to find an agent or editor who genuinely regards writers as merely the necessary evil behind a successful book.

So why do so many of their form-letter rejections, conference speeches, websites, and even statements in agency guides convey, to put it politely, the opposite impression? An array of reasons — absolutely none of which have anything to do with you or your writing. Please, for your own sake, do not fall into the trap of taking it personally.

In the first place, form-letter rejections are now the industry norm. Period. Even for submissions — yes, even when an agent or editor has asked to see the entire book. In fact, sending out rejections at all is one of the more polite responses; as I am sure many of you are already aware, many agencies have a stated policy that they will not respond at all if the answer is no.

It’s annoying as heck for the writer who receives them, of course, but non-responses, like boilerplate rejections, are the industry’s reaction to the incredible rise in queries since the advent of the home computer. Like so many other puzzling aspects of the submission process, these phenomena can be explained by the agents’ desire to save time.

Which, as long-time readers of this blog know, can be darned hard in an agency that receives 1500 queries per week. While reason tells us that it would take only a few seconds per query for the agent or screener to scrawl a couple of words of explanation in the margin of a pre-printed rejection (which does happen occasionally, if a screener has mixed feelings about the rejection), the sheer volume of envelopes on Millicent’s desk tends to discourage it.

See why I don’t think you should take it personally? Or even necessarily as an indication of the quality of your writing?

Do I hear still more disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” a few hoarse voices cry, “this isn’t what I’ve heard. I’ve always been told — sometimes by agents speaking at writers’ conferences — that if I have been querying for a while and receiving only form rejections, I must be doing something terribly wrong.”

I’ve heard that one, too — and interestingly, I’ve sometimes heard agents who use form-letter rejections heavily say it at conferences, so aspiring writers come by this impression legitimately. However, it is an outdated notion. Gone are the days when only those illiterate queries and submissions without a prayer of being salvaged were brushed off in this manner.

Although, to tell you the truth, since the invention of the photocopier, there have always been more agencies and publishing houses using boilerplate rejections than was generally recognized. Stuffing form-letter rejections into SASEs is just too good a way to plow through the day’s mail.

To understand why, place yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: she’s been screening submissions all day, and she wants to go home on time in order to crank out those grad school applications. (Oh, she dreams big, our Millicent!) Standing between her and the door are the 350 query letters that arrived in the morning’s mail and/or e-mail — probably more, if it’s a Monday — and she knows that another 350 or so will be dumped on her desk tomorrow. Isn’t it in her interest to get through each of those queries as quickly as humanly possible?

This is precisely what she does, of course. Dear Agent letters and queries for book categories her agency doesn’t represent are rejected barely read, of course, as are letters that fail to conform to the norms of submission. (For a crash course on just what those norms are, please see the QUERYPALOOZA! category at right.) For each, she stuffs the agency’s boilerplate rejection into the accompanying SASE and moves on to the next query.

And that, too, is partially a function of time. Think about it: since an acceptance requires a personalized letter or e-mail, it takes longer to accept a query than to reject it, right? If Millicent has already decided to reject a query, which is she more likely to do when she’s trying to get out of the office, give a detailed explanation why, or just reach for that pile of rejection letters?

Would it affect your answer to know that take the easy route might save her a full two minutes? Not a lot of time in the life of the writer who has poured years into writing the book being queried, I’ll allow, but the sheer volume she faces precludes lingering. Don’t believe me? Do the math: 350 queries x 2 minutes/query = 700 minutes.

11.6 hours. In other words, longer than a standard work day.

If she works at an agency that accepts e-mailed queries — still not universal, but becoming more common all the time — her rejection rate is probably even faster. One of the reasons that some agencies prefer e-queries is, after all, the greater ease of rejection. She is probably using pretty much the same boilerplate: all she has to do is copy-and-paste it into a return e-mail. Unless she simply hits DELETE.

The fact that e-mailed rejections are usually phrased identically to paper form-letter rejections often comes as a surprise to many habitual e-queriers: after all, how long could it possibly take to give a sentence or two of actual feedback?

We writers tend to forget this, but to most of the earth’s population, the transposition of thought into written sentences is a time-consuming and sometimes even painful process. A good reader is not always a good, or even adequate, writer. Which is a nice way of saying that Millicent is unlikely to reinvent the wheel each time she taps out an e-rejection. It’s much more time-efficient to paste the same only-apparently-kind language her agency has been cramming into SASEs for years.

To experienced eyes, the same stock phrases — and often even the same sentences — are evident in pretty much every boilerplate rejection, be it electronic or paper-based. I’m sure you recognize them: Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time. We are only accepting clients selectively. I just didn’t fall in love with it. There’s some strong writing here, but I just don’t think I can sell this in the current competitive market.

Okay, I’ll admit it: all of this may not be the best way to make my point that most agents and editors are really rather fond of writers and their work. I would argue, though, that precisely because such practices — form-letter rejections, non-response rejections — are impersonal by definition, it doesn’t make sense, logically, to read them as a reflection upon your work.

Seriously, there is nothing to read into a statement like I’m sorry, but this does not meet our needs at this time, other than a simple, unnuanced No, is there?

Which, admittedly, is lousy enough to hear — but it certainly is not the same as hearing, You know, I really liked your premise, but I felt your execution was weak, feedback that might actually help a writer improve the next query or submission. And it’s definitely better than hearing what so many writers read into such statements, hostility that amounts to Take it away — everything about this book concept is loathsome!

At minimum, it should NEVER be read as, since I’m saying no, no one else will ever say yes. Just note the response — and send out the next query immediately.

I sense some lightening of writerly hearts out there, but still, some strategic-minded spirits are troubled. “But Anne,” a few quiet voices point out, “this is all very well as encouragement, but why in Sam Hill are you telling us this in the midst of a series of posts on how to build a querying list?”

Because, sharp-minded questioners, in preparing these blog posts, I have been reading through quite a few listings, websites, and conference blurbs. In short, I have been sifting through what a writer trying to glean some sense of a particular agent’s preferences might find. Over the years, I haven’t been able to help but notice that just as many aspiring writers read a certain hostility into form rejections, they sometimes read a coldness into the listings and blurbs themselves.

I don’t think this tendency to leap to the most cynical conclusion is in an aspiring writer’s best interest, as far as pulling together a querying list goes. While some agencies seem to go out of their way to be encouraging, others come across as off-puttingly intimidating. Most of the time, though, what they are actually saying is just businesslike advice: Query first by mail. Include SASE. Query before submitting. No e-mail queries.

A bit terse, perhaps, but nothing to cause undue dismay. Sometimes, though, these statements — which are, the shy writer assumes, how the agency is choosing to promote itself to potential clients — can come across as positive discouragement to query at all.

Chief among these, naturally, are the ones that actually ARE intended to discourage queriers: We do not accept submissions from previously unpublished writers. New clients considered by recommendation only. Does not consider science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Or my personal favorite from the first page of the guide currently at my elbow: Although we remain absolutely dedicated to finding new talent, we must announce that until further notice we can no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. We also cannot accept queries or submissions via e-mail.

While a thoughtful peruser might be left wondering, how precisely the agency in question acts upon the absolute dedication it mentions, having so emphatically cut off the most logical manners of exercising it, it is usually best to take such statements at face value. To my eye, what that last admonition was actually saying was not do not approach us, but please send queries by mail only, and if you send unrequested pages with it, we won’t read them.

Not particularly hostile to new talent, is it?

Read such statements very, very carefully — believe it or not, agencies post them to help you. If an agency isn’t considering books like yours, or if it relies upon its existing client list to recruit new writers for them (not all that unusual), querying them isn’t going to be a very efficient use of your time, right? Similarly, when a listing or blurb includes a simple statement of preference, along the lines of No phone calls or Include first five pages with query, this information can help the savvy querier avoid annoying Millicent.

Hey, I’m all for anything that keeps Millicent’s itchy finger away from that delete button. Why wouldn’t a reasonable writer want to know practical information like We never download attachments to e-mail queries for security reasons, so please copy and paste material into your e-mail?

I consider specificity a very good sign in an agency guide listing or website’s submission guidelines; as anyone who has flipped through one of the standard guides can tell you, it’s fairly rare. Whenever I see a website whose organizers have taken the time to give the logic behind their preferences, I shout, “Wow, this agency has given the process some creative thought. Vive la difference!

But listings, websites, blurbs, and even conference speeches that bark advice at the writer — and, once notice, it tends to be the same advice, over and over again — can be harder to decipher. Does the assertion that I do not take on books described as bestsellers or potential bestsellers, for instance, mean that the agent is specifically looking for less commercial work, that he doesn’t like to see target market demographics in an e-mail, or just that he’s tired of receiving boasts? Does This agency prefers not to share information on specific sales mean that they don’t have many big names on their client list, that they tend to sell to smaller presses, that they are too new an agency to have many clients’ books on the shelves yet — or just that the guy whose job it was to fill out the questionnaire was in a hurry?

Here, too, the impulse to read character into the responses can easily run amok — but what a temptation some of agencies do provide! For example, does the order Be professional! mean that the agency stating it is interested in working with a writer new to the business, or doesn’t it? And why, the nervous would-be querier wonders, does this agency immediately leap to the conclusion that I intend to be unprofessional in my approach?

Actually, there’s a pretty good reason for that: expressing such preferences is usually an attempt to save themselves some time. An agent doesn’t have to receive very many phone calls from aspiring writers before she notices that each takes up quite a bit more time than reading a query letter, after all, or be buried under an avalanche of unrequested manuscripts before establishing a policy that she will read only what she has asked to see.

So yes, a lot of queriers do approach unprofessionally, but let’s face it, those are probably not the ones who are likely to take the time to read the agency’s guidelines, anyway. In my experience, the habitual readers of the standard agency guides — at least the ones who are predisposed to follow directions — are not the ones who need to be told always to include a SASE, or never to send an unsolicited manuscript; these are the wholly admirable souls who have done their homework, bless ‘em.

But the overwhelming majority of generic queries — and pretty much all of the much-deplored “Dear Agent” variety — come from aspiring writers who have not taken the time to learn the rules of the game. (Unlike, say, you.) This is way the terser listings and blurbs tend to focus upon what NOT to do or send, implying a focus upon the avalanche of queries an agency receives, not on the plight of the sender of this week’s 657th letter.

So when a listing strikes you as off-putting, ask yourself, “Is this snappish list of don’ts aimed at me — or at the nameless person who sent a query without knowing to include a SASE? If it’s the latter, I’m just going to glean this listing or website for what applies to me.”

That may sound like denial, but actually, it is a sane and rational response to what is being said in most agency listings and submission guidelines. Keep reminding yourself: this is generic advice, not intended for your eyes, but the last querier who annoyed the agent in question. Nor is it a personality evaluation for the agent who wrote it — again, probably not a professional writer.

“I can understand why an agent might want to give generic querying advice at a conference or on a website,” some of you argue, and cogently, “but the standard agency guides have entire articles about how to query, for goodness’ sake! Do we really need 74 agents also reminding us to query before sending a manuscript?”

Good point, oh skeptical one. But it brings me back to my earlier point: most agents are not writers. Thus, few of them have ever queried a book of their own.

That means, among other things, that the average agent may not be aware of just how hard it is for even the best manuscript to attract representation these days. (Tell the truth now: if someone had told you how hard it was before you tried it yourself, would you have believed it?) They may not realize that it is now quite common for a very good writer with a truly fabulous book to need to query 50 or 100 agents before finding the right fit.

Which makes it entirely safe to conclude that they are not given to thumbing through the nearest agency guide in their odd leisure moments. I seriously doubt most of them are aware just how much repetition there is in the listings.

Again, that’s useful information for the writer who is predisposed to reading character into trifles (and what novelist isn’t?) If you approach those pithy little bursts of advice recognizing that their producers could conceivably believe that this listing might well be the first time anyone has ever heard of a SASE, they make considerably more sense.

Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? And yet, amazingly, I still have a bit more to say on the subject of how to read agency listings, believe it or not. Steer clear of literature-loathing squid, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Just when you thought we were ‘Paloozaed-out, here comes Authorbiopalooza!

tickertape parade

Okay, so maybe the masses aren’t rejoicing to quite this extent. But back in the heady days of Querypalooza, a number of you fine people asked for a similar fiesta devoted to preparing for that usually unexpected request, the author bio. And since many, many more of you did not raise violent objection when I suggested I might take a run at it this fall, it’s been on my agenda.

Actually, I’ve moved it up on my agenda — and not only because my annual quick perusal of a few hundred agency websites (oh, you thought I didn’t check how submission guidelines change between my yearly querying series?) revealed that a higher percentage of query packets are expected to contain something bio-like than in times past. I had intended to devote an intervening week or so to close textual analysis of more winners in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — I haven’t forgotten about you, third-placers! — now that we’ve had a few refreshing, synopsis-filled weeks to catch our breath and get excited about craft issues again. However, that’s the kind of post that requires an upbeat attitude to write well, and since I had yet another crash-related health setback this week, I probably won’t be my trademarked chipper self for another week or so.

Don’t ask. Just pile up more pillows on the bed and hope for the best.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Specifically, about how you’re going to portray yourself in your author bio.

And half of you just tensed up, worried that you might not have enough professional credentials to render you interesting to an agent or editor, didn’t you? I recognize the symptoms: the same proportion of my readership drew in its collective breath sharply when I first broached the issue of composing the credentials paragraph for your query letters.

Back then, the whimpering ran a little something like this: “But Anne, this is my first book! I don’t come from a magazine or newspaper background, so I don’t have previous publications to cite. Therefore, nothing I could possibly say about myself has any potential whatsoever for impressing Millicent the agency screener. Hadn’t I better just avoid saying anything autobiographical at all?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOO. Why? Well, in the first place, it’s a myth that the only personal information worth noting in a query letter or author bio is previous publications. They help, obviously, but they certainly aren’t the only things a potential agent or editor might want to know about you.

It’s actually kind of surprising how pervasive that myth is, given the glaring logical fallacy it contains. Think about it: for it to be true, all agents would have to (a) prefer previously-published authors to the exclusion of all others, (b) not understand that even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, and/or (c) be unaware that writers occasionally draw upon life experience to construct their narratives. Obviously, selling memoir would be more or less impossible if (c) were true — and as any of you who have read an interview with an established author recently, disregarding life experience would render many novels harder to market as well.

But let’s zero in on the core of the concern: agencies that harbor the (a) prejudice will come right out and say prefers to represent previously published writers or obtains most clients through recommendations from others in their agency guide listings and websites; if neither states that up front, it’s safe to assume that while writing credentials might help your query get through the door, they’re not required for admission.

Why? Because even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, silly. (You might have seen that one coming, after (b), right?) While first books typically make up only about 4% of the literary market in any given year — yes, really — in the current tight market, it can actually be easier for an agent to sell an editor on a new writer with an exciting (read: easy-to-publicize) bio than on an author whose first two books did not sell well.

So it would be financially misguided for an agency that did not adhere to (a) to instruct its Millicents to rule out any query or bio that did not list past publications. Yes, even for fiction. Platform matters these days, of course — in the current tight book market, any selling point is bound to help — but contrary to popular believe among aspiring writers, platform need not consist solely of previous publications and/or celebrity in a non-writing field.

Even a cursory peek at the dust jackets of any randomly-selected group of new releases will demonstrate otherwise. Dust jacket bios virtually always contain non-publication information, for the exceedingly simple reason that it might interest a potential reader in the person who wrote the book.

Which is, incidentally, one of the reasons agency guidelines ask aspiring writers to include biographical info in their queries and/or a bio in their query or submission packets. Not only are they curious about what you’re like — they want to know if there’s anything in your background that would make a publishing house’s marketing department swoon with joy.

“Hey!” the marketers shout, linking arms to engage in raucous dancing. “This new writer is going to be a terrific interview on a subject other than his book! How often does that happen?”

Still not convinced that it might be in your best interests to make yourself sound like an interesting person, one who perhaps has at some point in the course of a lifetime done something other than sit hunched in front of a computer, typing feverishly? Okay, I’ll pull out the big gun, argumentatively speaking: (d) for non-publication credentials not to matter, agents whose submission guidelines or requested materials letters ask for biographical information couldn’t possibly mean their requests.

Which would be a trifle strange, considering how many query guidelines include tell us something about yourself or similar verbiage. And it would render all of those requests for query or submission packets to include an author bio downright bizarre.

That being the case, why would a savvy querier or submitter even consider not providing them with this information?

Does this sound vaguely familiar to those of you who followed Querypalooza and/or Synopsispalooza? It should: for the last — yow, has it been a month and a half already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Throughout that worthy endeavor, I have mentioned early and often that the guiding principle of constructing a query packet, submission packet, or contest entry is give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less. If an agency’s submission guidelines say to query with a synopsis, the first five pages, and an author bio, that’s precisely what the savvy querier’s envelope should contain, along with a SASE. By the same token, if an agent responds to a query with a request for the first 50 pages, the submission packet should contain a cover letter, the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-laden enough to get the whole shebang back to you.

That’s it. No home-baked cookies, even if you’re marketing a cookbook; no synopses for the other five manuscripts lying dormant in your desk drawer, and certainly no page 51. Remember, part of what you’re demonstrating in a query or submission packet is that you are that surprisingly rare aspiring writer capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Thus, as a clever between-the-lines reader might have already figured out, if an agency’s guidelines specify that they want to see a bio paragraph in your query or an author bio in your query or submission packet, it would behoove you to put ‘em there. Ditto if a request for pages asks for a bio.

All that being said, my next piece of advice may come as a bit of a surprise: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages in a submission packet. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if an agent asks to see even as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Oh, if you could see your faces; did Frankenstein’s monster just walk into the room? “But Anne,” you shriek in horror, ducking swiftly behind the nearest large piece of furniture, “that might look as though I (pause here for hyperventilation) were disregarding the submission guidelines! Why in heaven’s name would I take a risk like that?”

Good question, panicky ones. Try breathing into a paper bag while I answer it.

Quite simply, it’s such a common professional practice that it’s unlikely to raise any eyebrows. When an agent circulates a novel to editors, it’s generally with an author bio as the bottom page in the stack; it’s also the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than an amateur’s attempt to slip additional information in under the wire.

Just between us, though: if some additional information might slip under the wire this way, is that such a bad thing?

Before those of you who currently have requested materials floating around agencies or small publishing houses begin to freak out, I hasten to add: including an author bio in a submission packet is most emphatically not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, though, they are asking — even at the querying stage, which would have been unheard-of just a few years ago. Now, agents routinely request author bios with submissions, especially for nonfiction, agents will often want to know up front who this writer is, what s/he does for a living, and what else s/he’s writing.

That set some of you hyperventilating again, didn’t it? Relax — you can do this.

Soothingly, author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, eh? Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because twos things about the author bio have changed in recent years. First, the author is now expected to write it, rather than the publisher’s marketing department. (Although they may well tweak it.) Second, the author needs to provide it increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Well, I don’t want to disturb your plans for the weekend, but do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Come out from behind that large piece of furniture; the monster can see you perfectly well back there. Procrastinating about this particular professional obligation won’t make it go away.

Besides, you knew this day was coming — or that it would once you successfully sold a book, right? Although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it can hardly come as a surprise that you’d have to come up with one eventually. Any of you who has ever read a hardcover book with a dust jacket must have at least suspected that your bio was somehow relevant to the process, right?

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” those of you on your way out the door to mail requested materials whimper, “I’m aware that I’m going to need to construct one sometime, but need it be this very second? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until, say, somebody in authority actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could get away with doing just that. It wouldn’t be the wisest course, however.

Why? Well, writing an eye-catching author bio isn’t easy; just as it’s much less stress-inducing for an aspiring writer to cobble together a synopsis almost anytime other than immediately after an agent or editor has asked her to produce one, tossing together an author bio when you’re frantically trying to proofread your novel at 3 AM and figure out how much postage to slap on your SASE for its safe return is quite a bit more challenging than, say, devoting a free afternoon to the task three months before you’re planning to query at all.

I just mention. The results also tend to be — if not better, than at least of a quality that would not make the writer cringe should a shortened version ever turn up on a dust jacket to linger there until the end of recorded time. (Or longer, perhaps: most of the end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve seen have paper and cockroaches as the happiest survivors of nuclear activity.)

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air, despite the potential for attracting roving monsters’ attention. “Shortened version?” the confused shout in unison. “Wait, isn’t the author bio identical to that 50-word paragraph I’ve been seeing for years inside the back flap of book covers, a belief apparently corroborated by your crack above about how we all should have expected to have to write one eventually?”

Touché on that last point, and it’s a good question in general: many, if not most, aspiring writers simply assume that what they see in print is precisely what the publishing industry expects to receive. But just as a professionally-formatted manuscript does not resemble a published book in many respects — and if that’s news to you, hang on: there’s a Formatpalooza in our collective future — the kind of author bio appropriate to the query or submission stage differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. The standard in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, one double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (And yes, Virginia, I shall be inundating you with concrete examples of both later in this series. How can you even doubt?)

“Um, Anne?” the time-pressed pipe up again. “That sounds as though you’re about to ask me to rattle off my selling points as an author, and, as we discussed back in Querypalooza, I don’t feel that my credentials are all that impressive. Besides, it’s awfully difficult many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents. I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only might need if one of those agents asks to see the book — and asks to see a bio?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries well before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry slows W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions from those of you who do not happen to be U.S. citizens: I do mean after January 27th, 2011.

Why wait so long, you howl in frustration? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors.

Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together his tax information?

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you really want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks, so her February is not nearly so hectic as her January. But for those resolution-fueled few weeks, she’s not likely to be an exceptionally good mood, if you catch my drift.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that the foregoing could have been summarized quite adequately as, “Start getting those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself. Ideally, sometime really, really soon, even if you are not planning to query an agency that asks for a bio up front.

Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For some very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is focused upon other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: the one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yes, yes, I know: over the years — and frequently throughout the course of Query- and Synopsispalooza — I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask, cynicism hardening your comely eyes? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened more than once. Heck, it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, my background is pretty unusual (and detailed, conveniently enough, in my bio, if you’re interested). My cult of personality aside, a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is precisely what most aspiring writers facing a bio request do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between devoting 20 minutes to dashing off a synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the manuscript — or, heaven help us, the writer — also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that she should know best; if she can’t write about that lucidly, how can she write well about anything else?

That made you dive behind the sofa again, didn’t it? Sad but true, Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based solely upon the evidence on paper in front of them. If only a writer had any control over how they might perceive her personally…

Oh, wait, she does: she can write her bio so she comes across as fascinating.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. That’s important, because — chant it with me now, long-time readers – “What’s your platform?” is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask a NF writer.

Think about it: your platform consists of the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed at length when you were thinking about the credentials paragraph of your query letter. For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

“Hey, Anne,” some of you ask suspiciously, clutching your paper bags and keeping an eye out for any monsters who might be about to jump out at you, “why was that last bit in boldface? I’m a novelist, so I was preparing to zone out on that bit about platform, but the amount of ink in the type makes me wonder if I should be internalizing a lesson here.”

Well reasoned, paranoid novelists: just as the author bio is an alternate venue for the NF writer to demonstrate his platform, the bio provides Millicent similar information about a novelist.

Aren’t those of you fiction writers tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge glad that you already had your hyperventilation bags in hand? “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

If this comes as a nasty surprise to you, you’re not alone. The tendency to assume that someone else will take care of the bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is most assuredly not the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s post, absorb this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: if you want to gain practice in being an agent’s dream client, train yourself not to equivocate whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work. Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week is.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, post a comment here to inquire. That’s what Author! Author! is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent in your bio so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer can’t list in an author bio. A bio is not a self-praise session, after all: it’s a collection of facts, organized to make it clear to Millicent that you are either extremely credible, personally fascinating, the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, or, ideally, all of the above.

And no, you may not simply tell her any of those things directly. Self-aggrandizing statements look pretty silly on the page, after all. See for yourself:

Bart Smedley is a consummate professional writer. He’s up every day at 4:30 AM, hard at his writing. Instead of taking the lunch hour most ordinary mortals do, he hies himself to the local library to read past issues of Publishers Weekly, in order to understand his future agent’s lot better. An undeniably wonderful human being, Bart is a delight to know, funny, insightful, and personable. Also, he is physically attractive: he is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Admit it: you’d laugh if you were Millicent. To most people in positions to bring your work to publication, self-praise regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Again, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others. They are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel, though, that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before in this forum, is demonstrated in many ways. Via manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times. Also to have a paper bag and monster-repellant spray handy.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences? Or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer after perhaps 7 seconds?

And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium. Or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to relax.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration — or momentary hesitation — for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush. Go ahead and become one with those shoes.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us who live out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks. Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt by light provided by a squirrel-run generator. Or so I surmise from his tone.

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes. Not entirely coincidentally, I shall be spending the next week of posts on helping that happen.

And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. Oh, and six AA batteries on rye for the monster lurking in the background. In a paper bag, if you please, so we’ll be prepared for any contingency.

We’ve got to build up our energy for some hardcore bio-writing, after all. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: while I’m in nagging mode, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? If you can’t remember, wouldn’t now be an excellent time to rectify that?

Synopsispalooza, Part XX: taking those hurdles without breaking your stride, or, what’s black and white and read all over?

herd of zebra b & wskunk on a rampage
glasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car
strawberries b & wpenguin

Answer: not a query packet, synopsis packet, or even contest synopsis, necessarily. All of those are read only sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified, but before I elaborate on that rather lame joke, allow me to begin today with some completely wonderful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: congratulations to Kate Evangelista, who just landed an agent for her YA novels. Well done, Kate!

Keep that good news rolling in, everybody; there are few things I enjoy more about blogging than announcing my readers’ literary triumphs. It’s a long, long road from initial bright idea to publication, campers, and the more we can enjoy other one another’s successes, the happier we shall all be as we keep pushing forward.

Back to that double-take you did at the top of the post — and had I mentioned that it was well-justified?

“You drive me to distraction, Anne,” synopsizers across this fine land of ours wail, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending post after advice-heavy post on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that after all of that blood, toil, tears and sweat I’ve expended, no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here in this autumn of Paloozas??”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency submission guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do. At least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries.

As in less than 30 seconds. You’ve already shredded a few outfits over that one, I’m assuming, and come to terms with it.

If you haven’t, before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math: If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time every week just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money at all from reading queries; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. So while they might eventually see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case those of you who have been thumbing through one of the standard agency guides recently had been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing the dosh in setting at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their current agents into switching.

Oh, you’d be surprised at how many agented authors are looking to switch at any given time. Particularly recently, given the difficulty of selling adult fiction over the last couple of years. There’s only a certain number of times even the most patient among us can hear, “This is great — can you turn it into YA, preferably with the inclusion of vampires and/or zombies, within the next few weeks?” before beginning to cast longing eyes elsewhere.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing another 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, devoting a full-time employee, rather than a half-time one. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically understandable, I’m afraid, in the aforementioned tough sales environment.

So how will Millicent decide which to read and which to skip? Glad you asked:

1. The ones that are obviously incorrectly formatted.

The vast majority that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to ignore, if she’s in a rush. For a busy Millicent, the more of these, the better. In fact, a Millicent working for a very popular agent might well adopt the even higher standards typically utilized by literary contest judges: the reject-on-sight group would include synopses not in standard format (and if you were not aware that there is a standard for such submission-packet inserts, by all means, keep reading), those in odd typefaces, and those in business format (i.e., single-spaced and without indented paragraphs).

Before any of you e-queriers panic: if an agency’s submission guidelines ask queriers to include a synopsis of any length in the body of an e-mailed query (it’s exceedingly rare that any will ask for it as an attachment, due to the likelihood of computer virus transfer), it’s okay for that synopsis to be formatted like an e-mail, with single spacing and non-indented paragraphs, although you are also welcome to insert it in standard format. However, if the guidelines specify imbedding a writing sample or the first few pages of the book, that text should be in standard format.

Everybody clear on that? Yet another reason, if you needed one, to read every agency’s submission guidelines very, very carefully before you send them so much as a syllable of your writing.

2. The ones that she can tell at first glance need work.

Typos can really cost you here, as can those dropped words that so often result from repeated revision. Yet another reason to both spell-check and read every word in your packet or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why print out an e-query before sending? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because it’s much, much easier to miss a typo, missed word, or logic problem when proofing on a backlit screen.

3. The ones attached to query letters that have already prompted a rejection response

Many, if not most, queriers operate on the rather sweet assumption that Millicents — or, in most of these pretty mental pictures, their bosses, the agents to whom the queries are addressed — will conscientiously read every comma and exclamation point in a query packet before making a determination whether to ask for the manuscript or not. They simply don’t have the time.

Or, to put it as Millie herself might: if already decided to give the project a pass, why spend even a few more seconds on the query packet? She has dozens more to get through before lunch.

I hear you grumbling about that. In practice, though, that incentive not to agonize too long over a decision can work in the writer’s favor. Like so…

4. The ones attached to query letters that have already prompted a positive response

This, too, is a time-management issue: Millicent doesn’t have a tremendous reason to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why invest an additional unnecessary minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where Millicent is genuinely on the fence about requesting pages — or Mehitabel the contest judge is trying to break a tie between a couple of promising entries.

Which means, in practice, that in that relatively small fraction of cases, the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by Jove, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis

Or:

Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but a harried Millicent probably would not read even so much a line of that second one. An understandable choice, right: there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “By jingo, YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

Unfortunately, on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it.

Is that loud rapping sound echoing out there in the ether a good third of your tapping your feet impatiently? “You can stop bludgeoning that equine corpse anytime now, Anne,” a few of you snort, and with some justification. “I already know that presentation counts. I’m looking for more insight into how to improve my synopsis here.”

I was just getting to that, foot-tappers, when you jumped the proverbial gun. But since you are so eager, I’m going to turn the question back to you: setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and oddball typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. Yes, the first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease. Not only that, but by showing her something unusual in the synopsis, details that she won’t have seen in any other synopsis that day, week, or, ideally, year, the first version might give her the impression that this Shakespeare person might actually be able to write.

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is hardly an adequate character-identifying phrase. And where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

My point, should you care to know it: Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been quite accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her ultimate yea-or-nay decision is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. Again, most aspiring writers simply assume that the quality writing and the marketability of the book’s premise are the only decisive factors, but that’s not true: like agents, agencies specialize. If neither already has the connections in place to sell a particular book project — or, more commonly in this market, the agent doesn’t believe she could sell it right now — Millicent will be under instructions to pass.

Sort of changes how you look at any rejections your book may have racked up recently, doesn’t it?

Because she does have to consider fit for the agency and the current market, the synopsis can be a make-or-break document. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about, after all, or she may be a trifle skeptical about how the premise offered in the query would play out over the course of an entire book. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping to aspiring writers everywhere on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into one last iteration of a principle that has reared its helpful-but-ugly head throughout the entirety of Synopsispalooza: what makes a good synopsis for one type of book will not necessary work for another book category. That being said, all synopses should share some species similarities. Feel free to shout them along with me:

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on all that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a final few concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author, in this instance, since I’m the one who wrote this little gem, but play along with me here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s next take a peek at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? That’s extremely useful for Millicent: if the query letter falls into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or failing to state up front that it’s based on real events, she could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? Please pipe up, if not: this is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way, but it not the only way it can be done. Personally, I prefer lower-case — in the e-mail age, all caps comes across to some readers as shouting — but feel free to use either that looks best to you. Just make sure be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but also an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

Oh, you hadn’t thought beyond the synopsis for this book? Why, you are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Before I wrap up this post — and Synopsispalooza — I want to tackle one other common synopsizer’s concern, a puzzlement particularly likely to strike writers of SF, fantasy, and YA. Let’s let intrepid archive-comber Brian express it in his own terms.

I’ve more or less finished polishing up my synopsis and am wondering about a nitpick. The book ending doesn’t sound particularly like an ending in synopsis form, for the reason that the book is intended to be part of a series and the ending leads directly into the beginning of the next book. And it sort of ends on a cliffhanger too. I’m worried that Millicent may mistake this as my having committed the cardinal sin of leaving out the ending. I mentioned in the query letter that the book was part of a series, but should I convey this in the synopsis as well?

Thanks for bringing this up, Brian — you are entirely right to be worrying about omitting an ending, at least in a synopsis longer than 1 or 2 pages. And why might that be a problem in a longer novel synopsis, campers?

If you immediately bellowed, “Because part of what a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis is expected to demonstrate is that I can indeed plot out an entire book!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Nay, the series: you’ve obviously been paying close attention.

Even in the face of that imperative, though, a series-writer should not make reference to the next book in the synopsis. To an agent or editor considering only the first book, it would necessarily come across as a touch presumptuous, not to say irrelevant. Besides, the synopsis is not the proper place for this information.

Where is, you ask? Well, that’s kind of a tough question at the query or submission stage. In theory, the fact that the book is part of a series should be irrelevant: if they’re not grabbed by the story in Volume I, they’re not going to be interested in seeing Vols. 1-6, either.

In practice, however, there are many book categories in which a premise having series potential might in fact be quite relevant to Millicent’s assessment of its marketability. If you happen to be writing in a category where series are quite common — say, SF, fantasy, or YA — you might want to work the information into your query letter. Try working it into the marketing paragraph: The first book in a three-volume series, MARS ON A BUDGET will appeal to readers interested in intergalactic travel.

But under no circumstances does should you mention the other books in the synopsis. Concentrate instead upon showcasing what renders this book unique — and making its plot in book sound like a good story, beginning to end. To pull that off, you’re going to have to find away to tell the story of Book #1 in a way that is dramatically satisfying.

Which the first book of a series would need to be in order to prompt readers to want to rush out and buy the next, right? It’s a common misconception that a cliffhanger alone will achieve this effect, but let’s face it, unless the reader is drawn into the story long before the end, he’s not going to read as far as that suspenseful ending.

One reader most assuredly will not: Millicent. Thus, the series-writer’s goal in a query or submission synopsis for the first book should be to find a way to make the ending of Book #1 sound like

(a) it wraps up the plot of this book (not the series) in a satisfying manner, even if the manuscript itself does not tie up all of the loose ends,

(b) if the reader did not immediately pick up a sequel (which he will not be able to do right away, since most series are published sequentially, not simultaneously), the story could stand on its own, and

(c) you’re not counting on subsequent books in order to make sense of the storyline in Book #1 retroactively, as surprisingly many series synopses imply.

In other words, pretend it’s not the first book in a series, but a stand-alone novel, and write the synopsis accordingly.

There’s no other sensible way to go about it, really. Remember, while an agent or editor may base her decision whether to read Book #1 upon the synopsis (or, more likely, whether to ask for the rest of Book #1 after having read a partial), she will be basing her decision to read Book #2 upon Book #1, not upon a synopsis for Book #1.

Concentrate on garnering interest in one book at a time. When your adoring new agent is clamoring for you to produce synopses for the next five books in your series because an editor fell in love with Book #1, that will be the time to worry about showing how all of the stories tie together.

And that’s it for Synopsispalooza, folks. Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now figure out how it’s done.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon: this weekend, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

Hint, hint. Keep up the good work!

Wrapping up on wrapping up: what precisely should go in that box?

brain in shipping box

Are you excited to have reached the end of this extended megaseries on everything and anything that should go in a query or submission packet — other than the manuscript, that is? Did that collective “Nyeah” I just heard mean that you’re thrilled to have all of this knowledge under your belt, in preparation for that supercharged, tense day when you’re asked to bundle your pages together and send ‘em off, or that the long-term readers amongst you are just pleased to have this info in consecutive posts, for easy future reference? Or is it merely that you will be awfully glad when I stop yammering on about these less-than-thrilling practicalities and wend my way back to craft?

However it may be, last time, I launched into an extensive discussion of the kind of boxes a writer should (sturdy, clean, size-appropriate) and should not use (grease-stained, mangled, clearly last used to ship books from Amazon) to send a manuscript to an agent, editor, or contest. Today, I’m going to round off our discussion of submission packets with some examination of what a writer might conceivably want to stuff into that box.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about REQUESTED materials here, not just sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited pages crammed into a query packet.

I know, I know: it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement on a website, in an agency guide, or from a conference dais that a particular agent would like to receive these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t. The logic runs thus: guidelines that recommend submitting extra material with a query are generic, aimed at any aspiring writer who might conceivably be considering sending a query.

By contrast, a solicited submission, a.k.a. requested materials, is one that an agent is WAITING to see because she has asked a particular writer to send it following a successful pitch or query. Because the agent expressed positive interest in seeing those pages, the lucky requestee is fully justified in scrawling REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters two inches high in the lower right-hand corner of the envelope or shipping box, just to the left of the address, to assure that the submission lands on the right desk instead of the slush pile made up of, you guessed it, unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyone clear on the difference between solicited and unsolicited materials? Because if you don’t by this point in this megaseries, I can only fling my hands into the air and tearfully inquire of any deities who might happen to be listening just where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Just as generic requests vary in what agents ask queriers to send, so do requests for solicited material. Out comes my favorite broken record again: while every agency and small publishing house seems to have a slightly different idea of what constitutes a standard submission packet (word to the wise: read those requests CAREFULLY), here are the most commonly-requested constituent parts, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter
You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? As I mentioned a few days ago, just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude, as well as strategically unwise.

“Oh, please, Anne,” I hear the submission-weary complain. “Rude? What do you call making a successful querier or pitcher write ANOTHER letter to an agent who has already agreed to read my work?”

I sympathize with the submission fatigue, oh weary ones, but don’t get your hackles up. In the first place, there’s no need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do. It’s hardly onerous.

In the second place, the submitter is the one who benefits from including a cover letter — all the more so because so few submitters remember to tuck one into their packets. An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these submitting writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?

I’m not going to depress you by telling you just how unlikely this is to be the case.

Suffice it to say that it’s in your best interest to assume that the person who heard your pitch or read your query won’t be the first person to screen your submission, for the very simple reason that it is, in fact, often a different person. Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to presume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with who you are and what you write.

And it’s not problematic purely because a Millicent new to your project might get offended by not being addressed politely from the moment she opens the manuscript box. Does anyone out there want to take a guess at the PRACTICAL reason omitting both a cover letter and a title page might render a submitter less likely to get picked up?

If you instantly cried, “Because it renders the agency’s contacting the submitter substantially more difficult!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Like a query letter and a title page, a good cover letter should include all of the sender’s contact information — because the last response you want your submission to generate is a heart-felt, “Oh, it’s too bad we have no idea who sent us this or how to contact him or her; all we have is the author’s last name in the slug line. This saddens me, because I really liked this manuscript!”

Okay, so that little piece of dialogue is pretty lousy, now that you mention it. But you get my point, right?

“Okay, Anne,” the former head-scratchers concede, “I get why I should include a cover letter. What does it need to say?”

Glad you asked. Under most circumstances, all it needs to say is the following. (If you’re having trouble reading this, try either double-clicking on the image or saving it to your hard disk as a PDF.)

Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Like any other thank-you letter, the courtesy lies more in the fact that the sender took the time to write it, rather than in what it actually says.

A couple of caveats:

(a) If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. As crushing as it may be for the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.

While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, along with REQUESTED MATERIALS. Heck, it’s a very good idea to write the conference’s name on the outside of a query to an agent one has heard speak at a conference, too, or to include the conference’s name in the subject line of a query e-mail. The point here is to render it pellucidly clear to the agent why you’re contacting her.

(b) If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — be sure to mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.

Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested.

(c) Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, either in the header (letterhead-style, as I have shown above) or under your signature. Again, you want to make sure that the agent of your dreams can call you up and rave about how much she loved your submission, right?

(d) Make absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks. (Yes, it happens. Don’t ask; just be prepared for this horrifying contingency.)

Everyone comfortable with the cover letter? For more tips on how to construct one with aplomb, please see COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS (where do I come up with these obscure category titles?) on the list at right.

2. Title page
ALWAYS include this, if ANY manuscript pages have been requested — yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book. (If you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right.)

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.

Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.

3. The requested pages in standard format, unbound in any way.

The operative word here is requested. If an agent or editor asked you for a partial, send PRECISELY the requested number of pages. Don’t fudge here — even if your novel features a tremendous cliffhanger on p. 51, if the agent of your dreams asked for the first 50 pages, send only the first 50 pages, period.

Actually, in this instance, you should send only the first 50 pages even if they do not end in a period. Even if the designated last page ends mid-sentence, stop there.

As to sending pages in standard manuscript format, please, don’t get me started again the desirability of sending professionally-formatted submissions. For a month after I run a series on standard format , the rules keep running through my head like a nagging tune.

If you’re brand-new to reading this blog and thus successfully avoided my recent series on the subject, or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts over the last three years, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.

For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there; I can hear your shallow, panicked breathing — allow me to add something you might not have picked up from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.

Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has rifled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis.
With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not the annotated table of contents appropriate for nonfiction. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.

Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I haven’t done a synopsis how-to in a while, so I shall be revisiting it beginning this coming weekend. For those of you in a greater hurry, please check out the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category at right. (Again, how do I come up with these category titles?)

5. Author bio, if one was requested.
Which you already have in your hot little hand, right? Aren’t you pleased with yourself?

For those of you joining us late in this series, an author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author bio is tucked immediately at the end of the manuscript or sample chapter.

6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game. Always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE.

I’m really running through that stack of old records today, but to reiterate: send a SASE large enough for the return of your materials EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. If the requested pages fit in a Manila or Priority Mail envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package.

How does one handle this when using a box as a SASE? Well, since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, if you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but sometimes, they evidently have trouble figuring it out.

You can also nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. It’s bad enough that we writers are expected to underwrite the costs of agencies rejecting our work. (Which is, effectively, what the SASE accomplishes, right?) If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

“But Anne,” I hear the ecology-minded writers out there murmur, “surely it would be easier, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier to ask the agent or editor to recycle the submission pages if s/he rejects it?”

Yes, it would be all three, but I would strenuously advise against making this request of any agency or publishing house that doesn’t state directly on its website or in its agency guide listing that it will recycle rejected manuscripts. Most won’t, but many, many agencies will instruct their Millicents to reject any submission that arrives without a SASE.

Do you really want to chance it?

7. Optional extras.
If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the bottom of the packet (and mention it in your cover letter.)

Since the vast majority of agencies are congenitally allergic to submitters calling, e-mailing, or even writing to find out if a manuscript actually arrived — check the agency’s website or guide listing to be sure — it’s also a fair-to-middling idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. To generate a chuckle in a hard-worked Millicent, I always liked to send a SASP that looked like this — although with a stamp attached, of course:

Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.

Why, this suggestion seems strangely familiar, somehow…oh, yes, we spent all of yesterday’s post talking about it.

And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either.

In other words, make it all pretty and hope for the best. And, of course, keep up the good work!

The mysteries of the human memory — and a few more words of wisdom about the SASE

life of brian crosses

I’ve had Monty Python on the brain quite a bit lately, I notice — and not just because my neighbor was playing an apparently all-parrot-sketch-all-the-time station while I was planting bulbs this afternoon. I’m working on revising a novel with a 17-year-old narrator, set roughly at the time when — surprise, surprise — yours truly was 17, and since it’s a comedy, I’ve been having to recreate what I would have thought funny at the time. Since, as any memoirist could tell you, hunting internally for one type of memory often pulls up another entirely, I found myself procrastinating today by writing about the time in junior high school when my family and I actually had to cross a picket line in San Francisco — San Francisco! — to see The Life of Brian.

Strange much how the public perception of what’s upsetting changes, isn’t it?

A psychologist friend of mine told me recently that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks AS current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist. To be specific: I’m on a tight deadline with this revision, and if my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, MOST cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if it can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing. You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard.

Oh, you thought you were the only one? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline.

I suspect that this is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is about his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who are trying to get queries and/or submissions out the door within the next couple of weeks becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to sell my work. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical concerns we’ve been discussing for the last few weeks?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that Millicent and others like her who screen queries and submissions actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

Yes, you read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls him immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings his heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you fine souls out there have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor. So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially more noble put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. Yesterday, I started to answer a very practical question about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in a revision. Excuse me a moment while I feel my languishing cats.

To remedy at least the first of these situations, let’s recap: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return? “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

To help us all understand this cosmic mystery, I explained the history behind the SASE last time: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Spoiler alert: your thumb is probably going to get pretty tired before you find even one.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice — and that only rarely — is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: as I mentioned yesterday, it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY.

Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you PRECISELY how to play the SASE game correctly. The basic rule of thumb is to include a container and enough postage for the recipient to be able to ship any materials you may have submitted back to you. Thus:

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), include a stamped envelope addressed to yourself. Do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides.

A few technicalities: if you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage. Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours.

This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Again, do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read EACH agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs.

Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Speaking of tactics I hope each and every one of you was using long before you met me: every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower right-hand corner of the submission envelope. If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.

This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile. Or the non-existent recycling bin.

That 17-year-old voice wants me to pay attention to her now; so do my cats. I think all of us novelists already know which side is going to win that little tug-of-war, don’t we? Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XV: I’m okay, you’re okay, and so is a little definitional ambiguity, or, all right, already — I’ll do a post on synopsis length

medic waving white flag

I thought that I’d tied up the last few dangling loose ends of this extended (not to mention new and improved!) series on synopsis-writing, honest I did. I fully expected to be moving on to that last common query and submission packet ingredient, the author bio.

The muses had other ideas about how I should spend my day, apparently.

How do I know what the Old Girls are up to these days? Oh, I interpret omens, like everybody else involved in publishing: for some reason mortals are powerless to explain, for instance, Dan Brown’s prose continues to be super-popular while the work of many a fine author wielding subtle plot devices and interesting sentence structures languishes on the remainder table. While many a book-watcher would conclude that this is a sure sign that the Muses are either in a collective coma or on a very, very long vacation, I choose to take it as an indication that the Ladies on High would simply like all of us to pay a trifle less attention to the bestseller lists.

Sometimes, though, the messages from the muses are a trifle more direct. Take, for instance, the three nearly identical questions posted by three apparently unrelated readers within the last few weeks:

But what if the directions don’t give a specific length? Are you expected to include a 5-pg or the 1-pg version? (I’m assuming the 1-pg is this mysteriously vague “brief synopsis.”)

Could you mention again what each {length of} synopsis is used for? So many agents on my list ask for a “brief synopsis” and I have no idea how many pages “brief” is supposed to be.

I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

Strikingly similar, aren’t they? Is there some sort of epidemic of vagueness suddenly striking agencies’ websites this month, or are aspiring writers not reading as well as they were a month ago? Or is that rumor going around again, the one that maintains that agents have started deliberately adding misleading guidelines in the hope of confusing aspiring writers into being afraid to query?

Oh, yes, one does hear that little gem from time to time. It’s one of the great writerly urban legends, second only to the whopper about every agency in the country’s subscribing to a secret service that tells them at a click of a button whether any other agency has already rejected the query in front of them. Another popular myth: agencies keep such meticulous records of queries that if an aspiring writer queries, spends five years completely revising the manuscript, then queries again, the agency screener will instantly recognize it as a book they’ve been offered before and reject it accordingly.

Those of us whose job it is to translate between writers and those on the other side of the submission desk spend a lot of time quelling those sorts of fears. No matter how many times you hit them with the stick of truth, they rise again to trouble the sleep of aspiring writers.

Even if these questions were in response to a new set of urban myths or a fad in submission guideline-writing, it would have been tempting to assume that they weren’t: since none of the askers showed the ambiguity in context (by including more than a couple of words they found confusing in quotes, for instance), I’m basically having to guess what they find objectionable about the phrase brief synopsis.

Is it the fact that the term is redundant by definition? Or are they just miffed because not every set of agency guidelines gives specific length restrictions for synopses?

Experience tells me that it’s almost certainly the latter. How do I know? Because not only am I constantly hearing from writers panicked because they’re not certain that they are following rules correctly — sometimes because the guidelines are ambiguous, sometimes because they’re simply uncomfortable with not having their work checked for accuracy before they submit it, both completely legitimate reasons to consult a freelance editor — but I am constantly hearing from agents and editors who complain that writers can’t seem to follow directions.

Why, there’s a perfectly clear set of guidelines posted on the agency’s website, isn’t there? Isn’t there?

In short, while the popularity of this particular question may be new, the essential tension isn’t. Generally speaking, aspiring writers want far more guidance about what agents and editors expect than they’re getting, and those on the business side of the business believe that anyone seriously interested in writing professionally either knows the ropes already or can easily find out what to do.

Having recently done a virtual tour of a few dozen agency websites, checking out submission requirements, my sense is that they haven’t changed much recently; there are simply more agencies with websites than five years ago. The fact that they display less uniformity of expectations between sites than aspiring writers might like isn’t new — it’s just better-advertised.

Nor was there a particularly strong trend toward using either the dreaded term brief synopsis or asking for treatments of any length. (The latter is a movie industry term, not a publishing one, though, so it may well pop up in the guidelines of those relatively rare agencies that represent both screenplays and books.) Oh, plenty of agencies did not specify a particular length for the synopsis, but since the 5-page synopsis is so commonly used in agencies and publishing houses, and since agency guide listings have been asking for 3-5 page synopses for decades, everyone would just know to be in that ballpark.

Which is the short answer to the question, incidentally: if the guidelines don’t give a firm length, the agency does not have a firm expectation on the subject. As long as it’s in the general ballpark of what’s expected, you’ll be fine. Next question?

I heard that vast collective moan. Just then, I sounded like an agent or editor who was asked at a conference how long a synopsis should be, didn’t I?

Well, not completely, bit not merely because I didn’t automatically roll my eyes at the question — which, to save all of you conference-enthusiasts the trouble of trial and error, half the folks on the agents’ and editors’ forum dais would automatically do at this particular question. What they would actually say is, “Read the agency’s submission guidelines,” then call on the next would-be questioner, pleased at having evaded helping out someone who just hadn’t bothered to learn how the game is played.

Which would, of course, miss the point of the question entirely.

Let me run through the underlying logic here, because being able to place oneself in an agent or editor’s shoes is a really, really useful professional skill for a writer at any stage of her career. As I mentioned above, it’s rare that you’ll meet one who doesn’t believe that a writer’s not knowing how agencies work is a pretty good indicator of professionalism; that’s the basic justification for automatically rejecting Dear Agent letters and queries that run longer than a page, right? A writer who sends a three-page query is not only unlikely to be able to follow directions, they reason — her writing probably isn’t very polished, either.

Unfair to the talented individual who doesn’t happen to know the ropes yet? Undoubtedly. But statistically provable, based upon ALL of the queries and submissions the average agency receives over the course of a year? Absolutely.

So to them, the ability to follow an agency’s stated submission guidelines is not only a prerequisite for a writer’s getting her work read by an agent — it’s an indicator of professionalism. Thus, when a writer stands up at a conference and asks to be told how to write a synopsis, what they tend to hear is, “I haven’t bothered to learn anything about how the industry works. Because I’m lazy, I’m coming to you for a quick answer.”

Is that assumption disrespectful to the questioner? Of course. But doesn’t the habitual terseness and even sometimes downright anger many agents and editors display at being asked such questions make more sense now? They’re not responding to the question so much as the perceived tell-me-a-secret-so-I-don’t-have-to-do-my-homework attitude.

I hear all of you gnashing your teeth. “But Anne,” frustrated queriers and submitters across the English-speaking world wail, “don’t they realize that every agency’s guidelines seem to call for something different? Or that many of them are vague? How am I supposed to know whether what they have in mind by a brief synopsis is 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, or 117? What’s next — are they going to ask me to guess what color they’re thinking?’

Before I answer that, take a nice, deep breath. Not that wimpy shallow one you just took: a real one.

Feeling calmer now? Good, because it’s going to make what I’m about to tell you much, much easier to accept: If they don’t ask for a specific length for the synopsis, it’s because they don’t care how long it is — unless it is wildly out of keeping with professional standards.

See why I wanted your brain nice and oxygenated for that one? Given how easily it is for aspiring writers to fall into the trap of believing (inaccurately, as it happens) that guidelines are just a bunch of arbitrary tests designed to trick writers, I’m betting that the last paragraph came as a great, big surprise to quite a few of you.

Especially to those of you who have stared at an agency’s website until your eyes blurred with tears, muttering, “What length do they want me to guess?”

Seriously, they’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not expecting you to read their minds. These are people who spend their lives nitpicking over commas; believe me, if seeing a 4-page synopsis rather than a 3-page synopsis would ruin their days, they’d specify. So here’s a rule of thumb in which you may absolutely place your trust:

If the agency’s guidelines ask for a particular length of synopsis, send one of that length; if they don’t specify, then it’s up to the submitter how long it should be. Just don’t go over 5 pages — or less than 1 full page.

Oh, dear — that last bit sent your arbitrariness-sensors blaring, didn’t it? Actually, this is a matter of aesthetics: as I mentioned last time, in a synopsis, fuller pages tend to look more intentional to the pros than those less than half-full of text, probably because professional authors are used to having page limits. A synopsis that just sort of peters out 3 lines into page 4 is likely to strike Millicent as a first draft, rather than something tightly edited.

That was catnip to the paranoids out there, wasn’t it? “Aha, Anne — we’ve caught you. If that’s a secret handshake sort of thing, how do I know that the term a brief synopsis isn’t some sort of code? How do you know that every agent who uses it doesn’t have a specific length in mind?”

Um, experience? Not to mention a strong understanding of probability: what precisely would be the benefit to these folks in coming up with a secret definition of a term that is on its face deliberately ambiguous? And why on earth would people who spend their lives in cutthroat competition with one another waste their all-too-precious time getting together to conspire on something that couldn’t possibly benefit them?

Look deeply into my eyes and repeat after me: there is no secret definition here, and 100% of the demand for standardization of submission guidelines comes from aspiring writers, not agents. No matter how much aspiring writers might like for there to be absolute standards, agencies have different expectations for a lot of parts of the query packet — that’s why they post guidelines.

Think about it: if there were one set of expectations governing the entire industry, why would individual agencies bother to post guidelines?

In short, everyone has something different in mind by the term brief synopsis. They each want what they want, period; if they care about a specific length, they will say so up front. If they just want a synopsis to try to find out what the book is about, and they don’t want to get sent a 20-page diatribe, they may well employ the adjective brief.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, honest.

I realize that the explanation above may seem a bit out of character for me — usually, I’m encouraging in-depth analysis, not bottom-lining things. But in my experience, aspiring writers usually ask this sort of question because they believe (sometimes rightly) that their queries and submissions will be rejected on sight if they guess wrong, essentially, in gray areas. They want all of the grayness removed.

That’s understandable, of course. But remember how I showed above how differently folks in the biz sometimes hear writers’ questions? That perfectly legitimate longing to be told precisely what to do tends to be interpreted on the other side of the querying desk as either a lack of confidence or — brace yourselves; this one’s nasty — as a lapse in creativity.

Seem odd? Think about it from an agent’s perspective: writers are constantly going out on interpretive limbs in their manuscripts, right? So why should it be scary to apply their own judgment to something that could be seen as a creative decision, the length of the book summary?

So when she omits mention of how long the synopsis should be from her guidelines, she doesn’t merely misunderstand the writerly terror of doing something wrong; she doesn’t get why you don’t consider the freedom from length restrictions a gift.

It might even strike her as a trifle arrogant: is this writer really so sure that everything in his query or submission packet is so marvelous that the ONLY reason she might reject it is the length of the synopsis?

The fact is, it’s really quite rare that a submission, or even a query, has only one red flag. There’s a bright flip side to that: if a writer follows all of the actually posted guidelines and adheres to standard format, sending in a four-page brief synopsis rather than the 5-page one the agent might have had in mind is not going to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

95% of the time, the writing and the content determine that.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, for starters, that an aspiring writer’s energy would be better invested in the actual writing, rather than obsessing over whether there’s a secret handshake imbedded in the submission guidelines. Follow what directions are there, use standard manuscript format as your guide where an individual agency’s rules are silent, and accept that agents tend to assume that writers are intelligent people, not psychic ones.

Do your best to follow the guidelines you’re given, then move on.

Believe it or not, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is great training for working with an agent or an editor: it’s not at all uncommon for an editor to expect an author to revise an entire book based upon just a couple of sentences of commentary, or for an agent to expect a client to structure a submission one way for submission to editor A and another for editor B without having to hold the client’s hand every step of the way.

Try to think about navigating every agency’s slightly different expectations as a dry run for those more glamorous challenges.

Is everyone clear on the length issue? Or is someone planning to e-mail me the dreaded question again six hours from now? No, but seriously, folks, I guess I should have devoted a post entirely to this question years ago; how lucky that the muses poked three readers in a row to ask the relevant question.

Many thanks to whichever muse coordinated that effort. But if you found this post at all helpful, may I ask you to do me a favor right now?

Please leave a comment with your suggestion for the category name under which this post should repose on the archive list at right. It shouldn’t be more than about 30 characters (slug line length!), but it should catch the eye of someone running down the list, looking for an answer to the question, “If guidelines don’t specify a length, how long should a synopsis be?”

If you were about to suggest HOW LONG SHOULD A SYNOPSIS BE? as the heading, I’m way ahead of you: in my experience, people scanning the S section of the list tend to miss categories that begin with Hs.

Why am I asking for your help in this? Because I happen to know from past questions that all three of the readers who brought this up are quite good at finding answers online. My guess — and my own brief research on what else is out there for aspiring writers bears this out — is that while this question comes up in writers’ forums, pros in the field seldom take it on.

See earlier comment about thinking like an agent or editor. It’s just not a question that someone who has been at it a while would think to ask.

I was also kind of disturbed by the responses I got when I asked a few fellow writers-on-writing if they’d been getting this particular question more lately. (Hey, when I do research, I do research.) Literally all of them advised me to ignore the questions BECAUSE they were repeated, perhaps with the addition of telling question-repeaters that on a blog where readers ask really good questions all the time, reading the earlier comments on an ongoing series might make some sense. They also pointed out, with some justification, that I’ve provided so many categories on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page that readers don’t always take the time to do a site search using the easy-to-use search engine located at the upper right-hand side of this page. Those bloggers over 35 concluded their feedback with diatribes about how much it annoys them that so many people now believe that if the answer to a question doesn’t pop up in the first three pages of a Google search, that’s the extent of research possible on the subject.

As you may have noticed, I chose to eschew this collective advice. Oh, I’m not saying that I don’t occasionally want to follow their lead and bellow at readers to check the archives, or that I might from time to time think about not revisiting topics for which there are already several hundred well-identified posts clearly labeled on the right-hand side of this page. I’m aware that most readers don’t archive-dive on a regular basis; that’s why I come back to pitching once per year and standard format at least twice. Some readers peruse only the latest issue; others read intensely for a short period, then stop; still others come tearing up, breathlessly wanting one very specific question answered. To make it accessible for everyone without boring the daily readers into a stupor, I try to keep things lively.

And I’m not going to claim that it isn’t kinda annoying to receive several e-mails three times per week accusing me of never having covered subjects that have their own categories on the archive list. Which makes this a good time to reiterate my question policy for the benefit of those of you who missed my last request on the matter: if you have a question or suggestion, PLEASE post it as a comment; it’s infinitely more time-consuming for me to answer one question a hundred times via e-mail than to answer it once as a comment. Trust me, it’s highly unlikely that you’re the only person who has your question; if you ask it in public, then everyone else who is curious can benefit from the answer.

But frankly, I worry about the reader who stumbles upon my blog at 3 AM when the query or submission packet is going into the mail at 9 AM. There’s a LOT of material here — don’t take my word for it; read any of the 15 e-mails I receive per week telling me that it’s intimidating and I really should a narrow it down to four or five pages that tell every aspiring writer everything he needs to know about the publishing process and leave it at that.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I find the notion of barking unexplained orders at confused aspiring writers really distasteful. I spend a lot of time here trying to make a genuinely opaque process more comprehensible, so I’m certainly not going to dumb down my approach. (And the 30 e-mail admirers I hear from every week cheer! Thanks for the support, but my agent’s going to be a lot more impressed if you post your kind thoughts here.)

But I do want the panicked to be able to find the answers to their questions. So I ask again: how should I title it in order to catch that bleary 3 AM eye?

A final wrap-up on synopses follows next time — and I mean that, muses. Keep me abreast of those new writerly legends, everybody (via the comments, please). And keep up the good work!

The ethics of exclusives, or, the pros and cons of early admission

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Yes, yes, I know: the tulip encroaches upon the useful information running down the right-hand side of the page. For one day, I think we can all live with that, can’t we? Besides, its enormity is very much in line with my feeling at the moment — isn’t it about time that spring came? (The photograph, incidentally, was taken by the ever-fabulous Marjon Floris.)

Why the longing for sun, light, warmth, color, and other things we tend to take for granted for half the year? Well, as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t post for a couple of days (and weekdays, too), I’ve been a bit under the weather again — or, to be specific, I have been inside, looking out at the weather, feeling like a school kid whose bright plastic rain boots have sprung a leak.

If I’m stuck inside, it seems to me that the least my yard could do is fast-forward a month or two to provide me with colorful scenery. Is that so unreasonable?

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m going through my list of often-asked questions, those excellent poke-in-the-ribs reminders that I should really write a blog post or two on certain murky issues. Today’s murk comes courtesy not of a question posted as a comment here, but rather as a culmination of something writer friends ask me privately a dozen or so times per year: what should a writer who already has submissions out to agents do if a newly-responding agent asks for an exclusive?

You didn’t think I had been procrastinating about the topics on the murk list because they were conducive to EASY answers, did you?

An exclusive, for those of you new to the term, is when a writer agrees to allow an agent a specific amount of time during which no other agent will be reviewing a manuscript. Generally speaking, agents will request exclusives for two reasons: either they fear that there will be significant competition over who will represent the project, or it is simply the agency’s policy not to compete with outside agencies.

Do I feel some of you out there getting tense, doing the math on just how many years (if not decades) it could take to make it through your list of dream agents if you had to submit to them one at a time? Relax, campers: requests for exclusives are actually fairly rare.

Why rare? Well, the first kind of exclusive request, the one Agent A might use to prevent Agents B-R from poaching your talents before A has had a chance to read your manuscript (hey, A’s desk is already chin-deep in paper), tends to be reserved for writers with more than just a good book to offer. Celebrity, for instance, or a major contest win.

Basically, the agent is hoping to snap up the hot new writer before anybody else does. Or before the HNW realizes that s/he might prefer to be able to choose amongst several offers of representation.

If you suddenly find yourself the winner of a well-respected literary contest or on the cover of People, remember this: just because an agent asks for an exclusive does not mean you are under any obligation to grant it. If your work is in demand, it’s not necessarily in your best interest to sign with the first agent who makes an offer — you will want the one with the best track record of selling books like yours, right?

Chant it with me now, long-time readers: you do not want to land just any agent; you want the best agent for YOUR work.

I mention this now, in advance of when at least some of you attain either celebrity or your first big literary prize, because when either of these things happen to a writer, it can be pretty disorienting.

Contest winners, after all, are often good writers who have spent years querying agents. (Partially because it’s considered a trifle gauche for the already-agented to enter contests for unpublished work.) The switch from frantically trying to catch an agent’s eye to multiple agents asking to see one’s winning entry, pronto, can often throw even the most level-headed writer for a loop.

Trust me, this is a problem you want to have: it’s a compliment to your work.

You will, however, want to think in advance about how you’re going to respond. Yes, I am speaking from experience here — and a big, well-deserved thank-you to all of my former contest-winner friends who had drilled me to say, no matter how shell-shocked I was after receiving the prize, “I’m sorry, but I’ve sworn that I won’t grant any exclusives. Would you like me to submit to you at the same time as I send out to the others?”

Granted, this glassy-eyed response did make a few agents grumble, but believe me, it was far, far better than my having to decide on the spot whether the first agent who asked to see my pages was so much more suited to my book than the other agents at the conference that I should not even let the rest take a peek at it.

Which is, incidentally, precisely what you are being asked to do with an exclusive. Think of it like applying for early admission to an Ivy League school: if the school of your dreams lets you in, you’re not going to want to apply to other universities, right? By applying early, you are saying that you will accept their offer of admission, and the school can add you to its roster of new students without having to worry that you’re going to go to another school instead.

It’s a win/win, in other words.

So if the best agent in the known universe for your type of writing asks for an exclusive, you might want to say yes. But if you have any doubt in your mind about whether Harvard really is a better school for your intended studies than Yale, Columbia, or Berkeley — to mix my metaphors again — you might want to apply to all of them at the same time, so you may decide between those that admit you.

My point is, if you are asked for an exclusive because your work is sought-after, it is up to you whether you would prefer to go steady right off the bat or date around a little. Got it? (If not, I can keep coming up with parallel cases all day, I assure you.)

With the other type of exclusive request, the one that emerges from an agency that only reviews manuscripts that no one else is, the writer is not offered that choice. Consequently, a request for an exclusive from these folks is not so much a compliment to one’s work (over and above the sheer desire to read some of it, that is) as a way of doing business.

In essence, these agencies are saying to writers, “Look, since you chose to query us, you must have already done your homework about what we represent — and believe us, we would not ask to see your manuscript if we didn’t represent that kind of writing. So we expect you to say yes right away if we make you an offer.”

Why might such a stance be advantageous for an agency to embrace? Well, it prevents them from ever having to experience the fear associated with the first type of exclusive request: if you send them pages, they may safely assume that you won’t be calling them in a week to say, “Um, Agent Q has just made me an offer, slowpoke. I still would like to consider your agency, so could you hurry up and finish reading my manuscript so you can give me an answer? As in by the end of the week?”

Okay, so you wouldn’t really be that rude. (PLEASE tell me you wouldn’t be that rude.) But let’s face it, agents who don’t require exclusive submissions do receive these types of calls a fair amount. And nobody, but nobody, reads faster than an agent who has just heard that the author of the manuscript that’s been propping up his wobbly coffee table is fielding multiple offers.

Agencies who demand exclusivity are, by definition, unlikely to find themselves in a similar Oh, my God, I have to read this 400-page novel by tomorrow! situation.

What does the writer get in return for agreeing not to submit to others for the time being? Not a heck of a lot, unless the agency in question is in fact the best place for his work.

But if one wants to submit to such an agency, one needs to follow its rules. Fortunately, agencies that maintain this requirement tend to be far from quiet about it. Their agents will trumpet the fact from the conference dais. Requires exclusive submissions or even will accept only exclusive queries will appear upon their websites, in their listings in standard agency guides, and on their form replies requesting your first 50 pages.

(Yes, Virginia, positive responses are often form-letters, too, even when they arrive in e-mail form. I sympathize with your shock.)

If they had company T-shirts, in short, there would probably be an asterisk after the agency’s name and a footnote on the back about not accepting simultaneous submissions. If they’re serious about the policy, they’re serious about it, and trying to shimmy around such a policy will only get a writer into trouble.

Do I feel some of you tensing up again? Relax — agencies with this requirement are not very common.

Why? Well, because they require their potential clients to bring their often protracted agent search to a screeching halt while the submission is under consideration, such agencies are, in the long run, more time-consuming for a writer to deal with than others. As a result, many ambitious aspiring writers, cautious about committing their time, will avoid querying agencies with this policy.

Which, again, is a matter of personal choice. Or it is if you happened to notice before you queried that the agency in question had this policy.

In my next post, I shall talk about what a writer who finds himself dealing with simultaneous requests from both exclusive-requesting and ordinary agents, but for today, let me leave you with something to ponder.

Requests for exclusives are, as I mentioned, rather rare. Writers who believe that ANY request for a submission is AUTOMATICALLY a request for an exclusive are not. As a result, would-be submitters sometimes delay sending out requested materials until they hear back from earlier requesters.

This is a serious strategic mistake. Unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive — and believe me, if an agency requires exclusivity, the member agent interested in your work will tell you so directly — it is NOT expected. In fact, now that the agent-finding market is so fierce, the vast majority of agents simply assume that good writers are querying and submitting widely.

Long-time readers, take out your hymnals: that apparently immortal conference-circuit rumor is simply not true — expectations of exclusivity are NOT the norm amongst agents. Nor is reticence about submission requirements.

A writer is under no obligation whatsoever to stop submitting or querying other agents while one is reading requested materials. So there.

Granting an unrequested exclusive is like applying to only one college per year: you might get in eventually, but it’s a far more efficient use of your time to apply to many simultaneously. Unless, of course, the school you’re absolutely sure that you want to attend offers you early admission.

Keep up the good work!

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Quotable courage — and yet another reason to read (as if you needed one more)

I’ve been beating the drum of risk-taking so hard for the last week that I needed a day to stop and change gears. Most of the work of writing, after all, occurs long before the submission stage, alone in the dark of night. Or light of day, depending upon your schedule.

So I was very pleased to stumble across a delightfully apt quote for aspiring writers this morning, courtesy of Anaïs Nin’s DIARY (Vol. 3, 1939-1944): “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

While I don’t think that’s always true — one is not, after all, the absolute center of the universe — it’s certainly true of trying to break into the publishing world. Opportunities do in fact expand for those courageous to keep pitching and querying.

The converse is also true: opportunities contract for those not willing to put their writing out there. As I pointed out in my recent series on SIOA-avoidance, too many writers reject their own work (by not Sending It Out, Already, for those of you who took Thanksgiving week off) before a soul in the industry has an opportunity to take a look at it.

Creative minds are uniquely qualified, unfortunately, to talk their owners out of taking the big risk. The what if? muscles in writers’ brains tend to be rather sophisticated, after all.

And, as Ruth Gordon informed us in L’OFFICIEL, courage, “like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.” (Oh, like you don’t go scurrying to your quote book when you find a good new one to add, and then start leafing through what’s already there…)

Again, true of both querying and submission: plenty of writers never get past the first rejection letter; it crushes them, because they read it as an entire industry’s — nay, and entire world’s! — rejection of what they have to say.

If you have fallen into this category for even twenty consecutive minutes, ever — and who among us hasn’t? — let me ask you to take on faith, at least provisionally, something I have learned from long, long experience: the 4th rejection hurts less than the first, and the 147th less than the 146th.

Believe it or not, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly. But we kept ploughing ahead until the industry started to take us seriously.

As Louise Nevelson wrote in DAWNS + DUSKS, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”

I’m not going to lie to you — it takes courage, and plenty of it, to keep querying and submitting your work to total strangers. And while I’m on a truth-telling binge, allow me to add: I think that those of us who don’t have to query anymore (i.e., already agented writers) and those who never had to query in the first place (agents, editors, pretty much everyone on the business side of the publishing industry) have a nasty habit of pretending that querying is just like sending out any other business letter.

It isn’t, of course; it requires facing down the naysayers in your own head and risking the rejection of people you do not yet know. Yet have you noticed how often speakers at writers’ conferences and writers of articles on querying imply that it’s the easiest thing in the world?

“There is plenty of courage among us for the abstract,” Helen Keller wrote in LET US HAVE FAITH, “but not for the concrete.”

Having been on both sides of this particular aisle, I’m here to tell you: tackling the day-to-day necessities of maintaining an ongoing querying campaign is much, much, MUCH more difficult than standing up and gassing about querying techniques from behind a podium. So the next time you’re at a conference being lectured about it, remember to pat yourself on the back a little for being braver than the speaker, in all probability.

Speaking of which: Spokane-area writers, I am going to be in that toddling town next week, on December 6th, giving a talk on reasons that manuscripts tend to get rejected to the Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. Come to listen, ask questions, or just to graze at what I hear is a pretty spectacular buffet.

It is SO easy to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by an established name.

This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market, contrary to popular belief, but considerably above it.

Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year — then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately. Do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

It’s a good idea in general to get into the habit of reading the work of new authors in your book category, anyway, to keep abreast of what is being bought and sold recently — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago.

Besides, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right?

And if neither is incentive enough to spur you to curl up this winter with the latest offerings in your chosen book category, here’s another: reading first-time authors is a great way to pick up agent leads. As I’m sure you’re already aware (because I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published.

Why? Well, they have track records. And think about it: how often do you — or did you, prior to adopting the practice of actively seeking out first-time authors I suggested above — buy books by first-time authors?

Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores often encourage the practice. Unless the writer is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, such books are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf (which increases that probability of being browsed considerably). Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that established authors sell better than new ones.

So your chances of getting picked up are higher if you already know a particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

And wouldn’t you know it, Helen Keller has ANOTHER pithy statement that’s appropriate here, and from the same book? “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful TRACK RECORD of selling first books.

As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!

To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to a publisher than a second or third. On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.’” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”

I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

Tomorrow, I shall be talking about ways to translate your reading habit into querying leads — because while life may shrink or expand in proportion to one’s courage, chance also favors the prepared mind. Or so said Louis Pasteur.

What, you thought the boiling milk thing just came to him one day while he was thinking of something else? 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.