Query Fails: Why They Happen

 

In my eternal quest for procrastination, I turned this morning to Slushpile Hell, a site to which writers have turned from time immemorial (since 2010) for a hearty laugh and a pleasant glow of superiority. The query letters on this site are so bizarre, clueless and illiterate that I would be tempted to believe the agent who curates them made them up, had I not been an agent myself for many years, during which time I received similar letters.

We passed those around the agency, I will admit. Agents do. It’s gallows humor of the sort ER doctors used to blow off steam. Outsiders, listening in, might have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.

So I went to the site and read some of the letters and laughed at the snarky replies; but at the same time found myself feeling sorry for the clueless writers of those queries, which seemed to fall into two general categories: the misled and the misbegotten.

detergentThe misled are the writers who believe they have to sell themselves to the agent the same way you’d sell detergent. They praise their own work, which to any professional is a cringe-making gaffe that screams Amateur! “This book is different from all other books; this book will make us both rich; this book will make you laugh and cry; this book is far better than the drivel put out by [insert name of best-selling author].” Real writers don’t talk about their work that way. They let it speak for itself. It’s not impossible that the author of such a letter could have written a good book, but it’s unlikely that any agent will asked to read it.

The misbegotten are those of whom it is said “everyone has a book in him.” Perhaps everyone does, but that doesn’t mean they should let it out. Some query writers seem completely unaware of their ineptitude with the language. Anyone who would send an ungrammatical, misspelled, totally incoherent query letter cannot possibly have written a book worth reading; and there are many examples of these on the website. Other query writers are  delusional people drawn to writing in order to propagate their delusions. Every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has received book proposals from messianic messengers of doom and revelation. These are often but not always religious, but they all have discovered the secret to life. Those letters range from sad to bizarre to scary, depending on the writer’s philosophy.

Speaking of misbegotten messengers, I’d like to give a shout out to my son’s alma mater, Vassar College, which was recently targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church, those lovely folk who like to picket the funerals of American servicemen. As a direct response to this group’s action, Vassar students and alumni raised  over $100,000 in a matter of weeks for the Trevor Project, an organization that helps LGBT youth. Way to make lemonade out of lemons, Vassar!

Writers who are currently seeking agents should not be deterred by sites like Slushpile Hell, but rather learn from them. These days there are so many excellent resources for writers available online that there’s no excuse for cluelessness. Before you send that query, run it by the savvy folks on Absolute Write, Agent Query, or CompuServe’s Books and Writers forum. You can also find a lot of advice on writing query letters on this blog—just click on “query letters” in the categories box to the right— with additional resources listed here.

Writing a decent query letter isn’t rocket science. It’s a business letter, not a confessional. From the perspective of top agent Gail Hochman : “A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his manuscript.” If you present yourself as a reasonable, interesting person with a compelling story to tell and enough pride in your writing to compose a letter with flawless grammar and punctuation,  agents will want to read your work.

Or won’t they? Let’s hear about your  experiences with query letters and agents.

Have red pencil; will travel?

 

Should writers hire freelance editors? It’s a vexed question, much debated on the writers’ forums and blogs. My own opinion has evolved over time with the changes in the publishing industry, and it may surprise those of you who know that I myself have worked as a fiction editor. My default position is that they should not… or at least, not right away.

Whenever this question is discussed on other blogs and forums, invariably someone will say, “It’s the writer’s responsibility to edit his own work. It’s part of the job,” to which I say, Amen. First drafts are not finished novels, and shouldn’t be regarded or presented as such. They are the imagination’s playground: rough, and meant to be.  Revising is where the real art comes in. That’s where writers deepen their characters, vet the structure of the book, deal with unruly subplots, refine the language and imagery, and find ways to bring out the theme, which often presents itself to the writer only after the first draft is written.  “Every writer,” Jane Smiley wrote, “has to learn to…come at each piece of work again and again with as close as he can get to a new mind and a new sense of joy.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and novels are not written in one pass. Most of the published writers I’ve known spend at least as much time revising as they to writing the original draft.  “I am an obsessive rewriter,” Gore Vidal once said, “doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say but a great deal to add.”

Nevertheless, writers need editors. As writers we can only see what we see; we don’t see what we can’t see. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Every artist gains through smart, objective feedback. Beta readers can be helpful if the writer chooses well and gets lucky, but it’s not at all like feedback from a professional editor with professional standards. A good editor knows not only when something isn’t working, but also why and how to fix it. The result is a better book, and that, I believe, is what every true writer wants most for his work. The process is also educational, since learning from smart editing is one of the primary ways in which writers grow. What they absorb through the editing of one book, they will apply to the writing of the next one.

Why, then, if editors are so essential, do I advise writers against hiring their own? For purely financial reasons. If the book sells, it will be edited at the publisher’s expense. Edits are not forced down the throat of writers, by the way, contrary to propaganda put out by some self-publishing advocates. Edits usually come in the form of questions or suggestions. The final word is always with the writer, although in extremely rare cases, when communication between writer and editor totally breaks down, a publishing house does have the right to withdraw from a contract if the book is not, in their view, publishable. (The reason such occurrences are rare is because publishers don’t usually buy books that need tremendous amounts of work unless they’re by celebrities, and in those cases there is usually a professional ghostwriter attached.) Paying out of pocket for the same level of editing would be exorbitantly expensive. First-rate, experienced editors charge a lot; $10 and upwards per page is common, and that is just for the first edit. To duplicate the services provided by trade publishers, you’d also have to pay for an edit of the revision, as well as copy-editing and proofreading: maybe $18, $20 a page. (Let me anticipate objections by conceding that yes, you can hire editors for less; but as is usually the case, you get what you pay for.)  That’s a lot of money to invest in a book that may never sell. And the sad truth is that the vast majority of first novels, edited or not, do not sell.

That’s why I recommend that when writers have finished a novel (by which I mean they’ve edited it thoroughly, shared it with a trusted beta reader or two, and revised again to implement whatever useful feedback they receive), they send it out to test it in the market. Of course, to give the book a fair chance, writers have to bone up on submission protocol,  write a great query letter, and assemble a list of suitable literary agents. Having done all that, it’s time to let the book go forth and seek its fortune in the wide world. If it attracts an agent who then sells it to a publisher, the publisher will provide editing services at no cost to the writer. That’s a big part of what they do, along with production and marketing.

But such a scenario is the best of all possible worlds. Suppose it doesn’t go that way? What if you’ve written a novel, sent it out, and gotten nothing but form rejections from agents:  no encouragement, no criticism, no feedback at all. It happens. Agents stop reading the moment they determine that a book is not for them; they don’t finish the ms. and write thoughtful critiques. Writers can accumulate a stack of rejections without an inkling as to what went wrong and how to fix it. Or they might come close—requests for full mss. from agents, even an offer of representation followed by no sale. What do they do then?

Once, for lack of any other alternative, these unwanted works would have been shelved, mourned over, and eventually forgotten. These days, writers have choices. They fall into four categories:

Option 1. Writer decides that agents are bums and stink at their jobs; tells himself that no one gets published without knowing someone in publishing; concludes that the game is rigged; and, rather than deprive the world of his work and himself of the glory, decided to self-publish. None of these suppositions, by the way, is true. Celebrity authors aside, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. In the past year alone I’ve had the pleasure of seeing four of my Next Level students sell their first novels, and none of them had any connections or “platform.” (If you want to learn how they did it, two of them, Tiffany Allee and Mika Ashley Hollinger, answer that question in interviews on this blog.)  Writers who choose to self-publish are well-advised to hire an editor, and not just any editor but the best one they can find and afford. Sending a book out into this market without editing is like dropping a toddler off to play in Times Square; it will be squashed flat in no time at all. It makes economic sense, too, to invest in editing. In a recent study of self-published books by the Taleist magazine, researchers found that edited fiction outsells unedited fiction by a wide margin.

The advent of inexpensive self-publishing and the rise of the ebook has given writers options they never had before. I do think self-publishing is a very difficult road, especially the marketing aspect. In the U.S., over 300,000 books were self-published in the last year, and they are all competing furiously for attention, reviews, sales. But that’s a whole other topic, and if you want to hear my take on it, you’ll find it in a post called “What If J.K. Rowing Had Self-Published?” My point here is that having choices is a beautiful thing. Over the years I have read some brilliant early novels by writers who didn’t have instant commercial success. Maybe they get to publish a second novel, maybe not; but an awful lot of wonderful writers disappear from the market because their sales figures killed them in the eyes of the increasingly monolithic (and well-informed) publishing industry. Who knows what they might have written had they been able to continue? Today such writers have other ways to find readers, and readers to find them.

Option 2. Writer concludes that the book is not good enough yet and goes back at it again. In this case, it makes sense for the writer to consider hiring an editor to provide skilled, objective feedback. It’s also possible to find professionals who will do detailed evaluations of the book or part of it, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work in a very specific way without actually doing the edit for the writer. Evaluations are usually much less expensive and possibly more educational, because the writer has to do more of the actual work of revision, rather than having it done for him. It must be said that making this investment of time and money does not assure publication. It will result in a better book, but whether it’s publishable or not depends not just on the quality of editing but the quality of the original material. What the edit is bound to do, I think, is teach the writer a lot about the craft. I see it as an intense, detailed tutorial that focuses on the writer’s own work; and given the uncertainty of publication, this may be its greatest value.

Option 3. Writer gives up on that book and goes on to the next, building on what he learned from writing the first. Most published writers have an early unpublished work or two in their drawers. (For current and future generations of writers, that may become “an early self-published work or two.”)  One novelist I knew—Ted Whittemore, author of the brilliant Jerusalem Quartet—wrote seven books before selling his “first” novel.

Option 4. Writer gives up on writing and takes up another pursuit. It happens, and not necessarily for lack of talent. To succeed in this tough business, people need also need fanatical perseverance. (As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”) They need another source of income, too, since only a small fraction of writers support themselves through books alone.  And let’s not forget the luck factor, lest it forget us.

Writers who choose Options 1 or 2 might also consider as an alternative to editing putting their books, and themselves, through a rigorous writing workshop that will allow them to work specifically on their novels. There are quite a few available, both in brick-and-mortar institutions and online. In my opinion, if a first round of submissions has not led to a sale, it’s worth delaying a second round, or self-publishing, in order to do your very best to improve the book in hand.

Whether you choose a course, an editor, or an evaluator, it’s essential to do your homework and find someone who’s both well-qualified and suited to your particular project. In my next post, I’ll set out a list of criteria for writers to consider before making that choice.

Top Ten Ways To Get Rejected By Your Dream Agent

 

Last week, West Coast literary agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg was in her car on the way to pick up her daughter at school when she was suddenly attacked by a man wielding a baseball bat. He started banging her head against the steering wheel and ran off only when her dog bit him in the arm. This was no carjacking or random attack. Just hours after the attack, police arrested a man who had written a threatening letter after his work was rejected by the agent.

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to say hats off to the dog, a Jack Russell terrier, I believe. Dogs should be standard issue for literary agents.

I was doubly shocked by this attack. First because I felt for and identified with the agent. I don’t know Pam, but I was a literary agent myself for many years and, like most agents, encountered the occasional unhinged writer. I was also shocked, with true writerly egotism, because the story so closely mirrored the plot of my upcoming novel, A Dangerous Fiction. In my version, a New York agent is stalked by a writer furious at being rejected, whose behavior escalates from harassment to sabotage to violence. The police were not as quick in my story to discover the culprit as they were in real life; but as often happens with fiction, my villain was smarter. The real–life attacker left his name and address in the agent’s files.

The day after the real attack, my e-mail box was full of messages from people who had read proofs of my book – – several fellow writers and people from Viking, my publisher – – exclaiming about the coincidence. The coincidence was indeed surprising, the attack wasn’t. Writers take rejection very personally, they get a lot of it, and it has a cumulative effect. Since agents are regarded as gatekeepers to the promised land of publication, they often bear the brunt of writers’ frustration. Their role is not unlike that of unfortunate Walmart employees tasked with keeping order outside the store on the morning of Black Friday. Not for nothing do agents barricade themselves behind assistants, answering machines, and form letters. Rejection is never fun for anyone, and a little distance can make it easier to bear. But for someone who’s unstable, that distance in itself can be a provocation.

I hope I don’t need to tell anyone reading this post that pounding the head of a potential agent into a steering wheel is not the best way to gain representation. It is in fact so counterproductive that one has to wonder whether the attacker actually hoped to succeed. Most writers, when they set out to gain representation, really do want someone to sell their book. There’s plenty of good advice available for these writers, including these articles and resources. But there must also be some writers who fear success and are determined to sabotage it. Perhaps being rejected plays into their self-image as misunderstood geniuses. So for those who are determined to fail, here is a list of the top 10 ways to get rejected by your dream agent:

1. Be crazy. If you harbor conspiracy theories, make sure to share them in your query letter. If you have the solution to the world’s problems, let the agent know. If your novel was dictated by any alien, occult or deceased beings, this is vital information for your literary representative.

2.  Be creative. There are plenty of ways of skinning a cat. If an agent won’t take your phone calls, find out where she lives and drop by. Send her gifts. Let her know she’s special.

3. Get cozy. Call the agent by her first name. Let her know you’ve done your research, not only into what genres and authors she represents, but also where her kids go to school, her mother’s nursing home, and her Social Security number. This will impress her with your research skills. Don’t hesitate to share your own personal story with her, as well. If you’ve been unjustly incarcerated or hospitalized, discuss it in the query letter and let her know you’re fine now.

4. Pattern Your Book on Current Bestseller. Why argue with success? Originality is for losers; you’ve worked out a formula that guarantees you a spot on the bestseller list.

5. Send your first draft, hot from the word processor. Don’t sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff, either. Editors exist to clean up in the wake of geniuses. Let them earn their keep.

6. Rules are for suckers. Real writers are nonconformists. Check out the agent’s rules for submission, by all means, but do your own thing. If he asks for a query of one page, write six if you need them. If he asks for a chapter, send the whole manuscript. You know he won’t be able to stop reading once he’s begun. You’re just saving a step.

7. Explain how much money your book will make them. Agents are idiots and don’t know what sells. Show them they’re dealing with a savvy customer.

8. Carpet bomb the industry with generic query letters. Just because an agent asks for scholarly nonfiction is no reason not to give him a chance at your paranormal thriller. Plus, agents are idiots. They’ll never know.

9. Promote yourself. Query letters are sales pitches, after all. Tell them you’re the hottest thing since sliced bread and John Grisham. Compare your work to the top-selling books out there and explain why yours will leave them in the dust.

10. Insult the agent. They’re sick of toadies. Some clever sarcasm and home truths will win you their respect.

 

The good news for those seeking rejection is that the odds are in your favor. Incorporate a few of these methods into your pitch and success is guaranteed.

A DANGEROUS FICTION is out, published by Viking/Penguin! In addiiton, Barbara’s last three novels have just been reissued in e-book and paperback form: SUSPICION, ROWING IN EDEN, and HINDSIGHT.

Publishing Mosquitoes

It’s a bad year for mosquitoes – or rather, a great year for mosquitoes, a bad one for their prey. On Long Island, where I live, I can’t step out to the garden without being attacked. There’s a wooded park nearby where I like to take the dogs for long, off–leash walks. Last couple of times I tried, I longed for one of those veiled hats that women explorers used to wear. I spent the entire walk waving my hands in front of my face, batting the pests away.

I thought of those mosquitoes when a former student (thanks, Deniz!)  sent me a link to a service that offers, for an hourly fee of over $100, to match writers with literary agents. What’s wrong with that? you may ask. If you do, I’m glad you’re reading this post, because this is also a bad year for purveyors of unnecessary services to writers. It’s money they’re after, not blood; but how much of either can writers spare?

Writers who’ve invested time, effort and emotion in writing a book desire to see that book published with a passion like that of people who long for a child. Desire of that magnitude makes people vulnerable to hucksters. Of course, hucksterism on the fringes of publishing is not a new phenomenon. Long before the advent of inexpensive self-publishing, vanity publishers existed to fulfill the dreams of aspiring writers, at a hefty price. Distribution was never part of the deal, so most often those writers ended up with boxes of unsellable books in the garage. Today, writers can distribute their self-published books through the same online channels as trade publishers, and they have far more tools to communicate with potential readers. The market is booming, and so is this year’s crop of mosquitoes.

I was a literary agent for many years and have been a writing teacher for many more. I feel protective toward writers and I don’t like seeing them ripped off. Today I’m going to look at just a couple of the services currently offered to writers. Take, for example, the submissions service I mentioned earlier, which promises to expedite the (admittedly tortuous) process of getting a literary agent.

In fact there are numerous companies that offer the same service, and they exist for a reason: it’s not easy to get an agent, or to sell your book without one. Unless they have an introduction from client or publishing professional, writers need to work hard just to persuade agents to read their manuscripts. Most submissions are rejected at the query stage…but not all. If the work is good enough, and the writer goes about searching in a smart way, finding an agent is definitely doable. Many of my students and forum friends have found agents in recent years, and several had multiple offers of representation. This, by the way,  is why when agents decide they want a book, they tend to act very quickly: they assume that if they are interested, others will be, too.

Agents are still reading, searching and hoping for the next original voice. (See this interview with literary agent Gail Hochman.) Writers need to learn to present their work professionally: polish the manuscript till it shines, research agents, writes a good query letter. Excellent books and websites abound with guidance on how to do that. (Here is a list of some of my favorites.) Any service that guarantees to find writers an agent probably has some snake oil and a bridge or two for sale. Even the ones that don’t guarantee it imply that their service makes it more likely. Not so.  If the work isn’t first-rate, no intermediary will be able to persuade a legitimate agent to invest time in it. If the work is good enough, agents don’t need an intermediary to point that out.

All these submission services do, in my opinion, is impose an extra layer between writers and publishers. Their expensive guidance is based on free data bases available to any writer with an Internet connection; Agentquery’s, for example.  For more on this topic, see Victoria Strauss’s article on Writers Beware.

There are many species of publishing mosquitoes. Some varieties (Anopheles scribus) specialize in self-published writers. It hurts me to hear about writers paying hundreds of dollars for reviews from bloggers or companies like Kirkus Indie Book Reviews. The purveyors of this service are exploiting a weakness in the self-publishing industry: the difficulty in finding readers when your book is one drop in a sea of millions of self-published works. Eventually, I expect, legitimate reviewers of self-published work will emerge with sufficient clout to sell books. Paying for a review of your own book is no substitute.  Before writing this post, I read a whole batch of these reviews from the better-known sites, which claim to be impartial. I found several things in common. The reviews are primarily plot summaries, as if to prove the reviewer had actually read the book. Then the reviewer said some nice things and some mildly critical things about the writing. No matter how negative the overall review, there was always a line that the writer could extract as a blurb.

Writers, save your money. Paid reviews have no credibility, and I don’t believe they sell books. The only review worth having is an impartial one from someone not paid by, related to, or sleeping with the writer. Better to invest that money in learning the craft. Take a writing class or find an experienced editor with a track record to work on your book with you. (Scroll down on this page for a list of criteria to look for in writing teachers and editors.) The best way to sell a book is still to write a really good one.

 

 

Gail Hochman Interview, Part 2

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes in a literary agency? There’s not a lot of transparency in the business. Most agents erect high walls to protect themselves from constant interruption and to preserve their ability to actually do the work they’re hired to do. Many of the busiest agencies don’t even have websites. Clients have open channels of communication with their agents, but aspiring authors in search of an agent will never even get to speak to one until and unless an agent decides to offer representation. If none does, the writer may never even get a response to his query; and if he does, it’s usually a form rejection letter, very brief, with no real explanation.

What are literary agents looking for? Are they even reading the reams of submissions they receive? What makes them sit up and take notice, and what makes them stop reading? Today, in the second half of my interview with Gail Hochman, the veteran literary agent answers these questions and more. Gail speaks for herself alone, of course, and every agent is different. But she is one of the savviest agents I know, and one of the frankest. Gail is the president of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency and longtime president of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR.) Her clients include Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, Ursula Hegi…and me.  You can read the first half of the interview here.

Barbara: What does a query letter have to do and be, to convince you to ask for pages?  

Gail: Good credits, maybe a connection to a contact or client or writer we respect; a good, succinct pitch of a novel that seems to have a “hook;” not an annoying personality or pushiness. A letter that is interesting to read means the writer might have something interesting in his ms.

How important is it for a fiction writer to have a platform?  

To me not at all, unless it is a nonfiction project that demands this kind of platform.

What credits do you consider worth mentioning in a query letter, apart from publishing credits? For example: membership in RWA or like organizations, writing groups, contests won, previous self-published work, college degree?

I think publishing credits, educational achievements, any awards, any interesting other career the writer may have or passionate hobby that is relevant and interesting. If the person sounds interesting and reasonable and the story sounds good, I might well ask to read.

If a writer has self-published previous work that has not sold well, does that hurt the writer’s prospects? What sort of sales figures would get your attention?

I really don’t care about other numbers or self-published books. But I don’t want to be asked to read and represent a self-published book for the commercial marketplace. To me—and this could be short-sighted, but I only have a 24-hour clock—if a book has been self-published, it has been “published.” I want to see new work.

Given the writers already on your list, what makes a first novel stand out enough for you to offer representation?  

Incredible voice, fresh idea, something that tugs at my heartstrings. If it is well written and makes me cry, that is the perfect formula!

What makes you stop reading?

If a book drags or gets redundant; if the pacing is so slow that nothing new happens chapter after chapter; if I lose sight of what I am reading to find out—then I have to stop.  An editor friend said once that he reads till he feels secure he is not going to buy this ms.  My husband put it clearly, some years ago when he saw my incredible  piles of reading.  “What is that book about?  Do you love it? Are you going to make the writer any money? Is it going to make you any money? Can you help the writer? Can the writer help you? No???  Then get it off the desk!”

Apart from the quality of the work itself, what other factors do you weigh in deciding whether to offer representation?

If I have met the writer and he seems helpful and mature; if my clients rave about the writer. If I sense a difficult personality, I may think long and hard before offering representation. But usually the book wins out, if I like it enough and have some good ideas for trying to sell it.

If an agent offers representation, what should writers ask before signing on?

The writer has to make sure that he understands and agrees with what the agent intends to do with the ms.  He also needs to know how the agent will communicate, and that the agent won’t dump the ms. on an assistant.  The author may have to sign an agency agreement, and for me (we don’t have agreements) this is an important moment. He should read and study the agreement and know just what he is getting into. I think the writer needs to know how he can get out of the agreement in a certain amount of time if things don’t go well.  Some contracts say that the agent is the agent of record and will take a commission on this book forever, in any form, in any deal, etc. The author may think hard before signing with that particular agent, might try to change some of the wording if he feels it is necessary. (Some excellent agents may require this; but some under-performing agents could also demand this, and in the latter case the author would not be well served.)  The client must understand what the commission situation is for all sorts of sales, and what other charges may be sent to him for payment.

What do most writers not understand about agents that you wish they did?

We are only people, mere mortals. The more we are in demand, the more we have to read, the more contracts we have to work on. We represent other people as well, and we have scores of people who are not yet clients sending us mss. We want to read your work fast, but there is only so much time in the day.

At times, agent and author disagree. I don’t know that the agent is always right, but there should be a calm way to discuss the situation. An unsold book is a distress to both parties, but there may be a moment when the agent thinks he has sent it out enough, and author may disagree.  Instead of playing the guilt card, both parties should try to find a way to talk through this.

The most important thing that I wish authors knew is that our day-to-day work lives have become incredibly more intense in this current difficult market. We work long hours, we try to make connections.  I feel very close to most of my mss but realize that the author feels even closer, more protective, more pro-active.

What happens when a book doesn’t sell?

There is a point, alas, when an unsold ms. is taking up much more of an agent’s time than it should be, and perhaps at this point the author should take over any submissions to small places.  When the author keeps pushing new small houses to send it to, the agent is in effect being asked to spend more and more time on an unsaleable ms. that will never pay the agent back for any of this time.  It is interesting also to know that sometimes  a tiny press contract is more difficult  to negotiate than a corporate contract, because the buyer is that much more stubborn, unknowing, maybe naïve. They may not do things in the standard way. Since the house is an unknown, we don’t want to let author sign a contract with clauses we’re uncomfortable with, because we don’t know how it would play out if we had a disagreement. And there may be a lawyer behind it all, or a university press board of some sort, so we actually work many more hours on a tiny deal from a tiny place, spending much more time than this contract is worth, because we don’t want the author to sign anything that could hurt him.  And remember, all we can offer in the first place is our time and expertise. When that time and expertise are taken up with work that really does not help anyone very much, it is frustrating . Some agents don’t want to spend the time to work through a self-publishing contract, though that may be something we all have to start doing.   We don’t want to complain to the client, whose work we really do support! It is the invisible use of our time that gets so frustrating—no one has yet invented the 28-hour clock, but that is the Xmas gift I hope to receive someday.

Having been in this industry for a couple of decades, what would you say are the most significant changes you’ve seen as they affect agents and their clients?

Just briefly—the technological revolution has changed everything. The internet as a place to promote and sell books, the digitization which allows for print on demand and self-publishing has opened up a huge new area. Anyone who wants to publish can now publish, can now promote, has a chance to find his own audience.  The big question people seem to ask is do we still need publishers, and I think resoundingly we do. But there are more options, and the conventional houses are harder to crack, and it seems everyone is writing and making multiple submissions, so we are all working longer hours than we ever bargained for, just to keep in place. Then, with all these properties out there in the marketplace, it may seem more difficult to distinguish your own amazing work to the buying public. I think this is a difficult time for an “Emily Dickinson” type of writer, who may be really talented but really retiring.

No doubt; but the upside, as Gail  points out, is that writers now have opportunities and tools they never had before.

Thank you, Gail!

A personal note: I have been blessed with several excellent agents in my career. Gail Hochman took over my representation several years ago and since then has not only sold my new book to Viking/Penguin, but also negotiated the reissuing of my backlist in ebook and paperback. SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT are now available in ebook and paperback; ROWING IN EDEN will be coming out on July 17, 2012. I’m quite proud of those books, and I hope you’ll give them a read. Click here for links to your bookseller of choice: Amazon; B&N; and Indiebound.


 

Interview with Literary Agent Gail Hochman

If you think of getting published as a game of Candyland (younger readers, think of your favorite fantasy video game; religious readers, think of Pilgrim’s Progress), there is a broad swathe of the board, close to the end, known as the Slough of Despair, aka Agent Hell. Finding a literary agent is a rite of passage writers must undergo to emerge into the Promised Land of publication–not self-publication, which is a different topic altogether, but mainstream, trade publication. In this phase of the game, writers must sling their words over walls too high to see across, and then wait patiently for a response that may or may not come.

Because literary agents are inundated with submissions, they rarely acknowledge receipt of queries. Some agents never respond at all unless it’s to request pages. Others send form rejections that shed no light on their reasons. With so little feedback, it’s no wonder some writers resort to magical thinking. (“What’s the best time of year to submit? The best day of the week? What sort of stamp should I use?”) Others get angry and imagine agents as literary bouncers barring the entrance to the Promised Land. (“Agents aren’t really reading; it’s all about who you know; there’s a secret handshake and if you don’t know it, you’ll never get in.”)

As a former agent myself, I know these things are untrue, and I’m always happy to talk about that; but it’s been a long time since I was an agent. In the interests of bringing a bit of transparency and perspective to the current workings of the business—a business very much in flux—I’ve launched a series of interviews with publishing professionals and authors. The first interview was with Tara Singh, editor at Viking/Penguin. Now I’m delighted to bring you a leading literary agent to share her insight and perspective.

Gail Hochman has been in publishing for over 30 years. She is the president of Brandt & Hochman, long-time president of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) and agent to Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Bob Shacochis, and Ursula Hegi. Gail is also, I’m proud to say, my agent, and she’s been kind enough to give me the following interview.

It’s long and thought-provoking, so I’m dividing the interview into two parts, the second to be posted next week.  (Check it out here.) You might want to sign up for email notification or RSS feed so as not to miss it.

    You studied psychobiology at Oberlin and considered a career in medicine. How did you end up in publishing?

I took maybe one English class in college, majored in psychobiology and Italian studies. After I took a year off and went to school in Italy, I realized I did not want to go to medical school. I was a voracious reader as a child. A family friend who was a publishing executive lived in a house filled with books and manuscripts, and that looked intriguing.  I discussed the field with him and thought I would try to get an entry level job, which I did.

You started working for Putnam’s before becoming an agent. What made you choose agenting over publishing as a career path?  

I happened to be working at Putnam’s when it was a privately owned firm.  This was the mid 1970‘s, when many publishers were independent, and the corporations were just starting to take over publishing houses.  We had a change of management and a new publisher when the company was sold to a corporation, and it appeared that the new team would hire their own editors rather than promoting from within. Most of us younger people (assistant level) realized we should look for jobs elsewhere if we wanted to move along on some kind of ladder.  I made a series of appointments to see the senior people who had been very kind to me when I first looked for a job, to ask their advice, and one of them steered me to John Hawkins, who was then looking for a young agent. I took that job, not expecting to love it, not knowing how it would be to be an agent, but figuring that I should try.  I told him that if I hated it, I would quit in 6 months, and we would probably both be happy.   But as it turned out I did not hate it!

What qualities and abilities does an agent need?

I think an agent needs patience (not my best quality, I confess) and willingness to read and reread and explain things and re-explain things.  An agent must be detail-oriented but also be able to see a larger picture at all times, to help steer the writer forward in a smart way. I also think the agent must always remember to keep firmly in sight what might be going on in the mind of the person he/she is communicating with (on the phone, on email, whatever.) If it is a client—what is that client thinking about, what does he need and want, what does he fear most, what is his goal, what is he trying to accomplish? Many times a client calls with a question which is not really truly what is on his mind—our job is to try to understand what is on his mind and help him get there, or get him the proper information, or help redraw his goals to keep him on a wiser path.

When you are talking to an editor, or a buyer of any sort, what is on his mind? What does he want from you? What do you want from him? How can you make a meeting of the minds so that the author –your client!—gets closer to accomplishing his goal?  So the agent must listen, and be able to put the pieces together. And the agent must be a wise problem-solver.

What’s the best part of your job?

Discovering a new writing voice in a new ms that I think is outstanding, and eventually making that wonderful phone call to say we have an offer.

What’s the most frustrating part?

This is a business in flux. The authors have been working on their projects for the past several years, and must maintain optimism. They read articles and hear stories from other writers and even though they read in the business sections that this is a tough time for publishing, they don’t seem to get it. They feel that yes, story collections are hard to sell, but my story collection is worthy so it will sell…or my book should be selling in huger numbers, so the publisher is doing something wrong…when actually the market in general is tremendously depressed. Publishers are incredibly cautious in their buys, and the stores are buying very, very conservatively. And there are fewer physical places (stores) where they can ship copies of the books. So explaining this new drop in business to clients to me is the hardest. I sit in my office until 8 pm many nights and still leave much undone, because to accomplish anything these days takes so much more work.

Approximately how many unsolicited queries does your office get a year?

I myself get 40-50 query letters a week.

Are they all read?

Someone reads the query letters, but I don’t read them all. I am a softie and might well say yes to half of them, and I just do not have the time to read all these mss.

Approximately how many are real contenders—books you read in full and consider seriously? 

Maybe 10% we would read and maybe half of them could be contenders.

How many new writers a year does your office take on? (A rough average is fine.)

I have approximately 6 agents.   Half of them take on maybe 5, 6 maybe 8 writers a year.  I am optimistic and so I probably take on a dozen or 15 a year, sometimes more, if I receive an amazing manuscript that I just don’t want to turn away. But note that there are many young agents who need to build a list, whereas I have a 30+ year old list!

Some people might look at those numbers and conclude that an unpublished novelist has as much chance of getting an agent as a camel of passing through the eye of a needle. What do you say?

There are scores of new agents, hundreds of excellent agents out there. I have been doing this for 35 years, so of course I have a full list already and have to be cautious in taking up more projects.  I usually have 20-30 mss in my house to read on a weekend, so obviously I cannot consider every page of every ms  with the care and attention the author would like. Each agent can figure out relatively quickly if a project could ever be “right” for him, and we can reject quickly the ones that are not at all right.  But it is the mss that are kind of on the fence that are difficult. I do a lot of editorial work on my mss most of the time, so I find myself reading revisions more often than I care to admit—it takes hours and hours. So I have to be careful in what I decide to work with.  And then, even after a ms passes scrutiny with a good agent, it is hard to sell. So the next step is that the author begs us to keep sending out a ms even after we have tried the most likely houses, and gotten nowhere with it.  Agents these days have too many mss we love but cannot sell, and the authors of these mss are dying for us to keep sending, which keeps us in the office till 8 pm, to try to get through this work load in some kind of wise  and also helpful way.

PART 2 OF INTERVIEW

 

That’s just the start of my interview with literary agent Gail Hochman. Next week we’ll talk about what she looks for in a query; the importance of “platform”; what attracts her to a novel, and what turns her off; things every writer should ask before signing on with an agent; changes in the industry; and the impact of the self-publishing phenomenon.

Interview with Viking Editor Tara Singh

Today I have a huge treat for you: an interview with Ms. Tara Singh, an editor with Viking/Penguin who, I’m delighted to say, is now my editor, having acquired my latest novel for publication in 2013. If you’ve ever wondered what editors are really looking for, what motivates them and how they choose their books, read on. Tara’s intelligence and passion for her work shine through her words.

Tara would like to point out that the opinions expressed below are her own and don’t represent Viking/Penguin.

And so, with no further ado, meet Tara Singh!

 

Tara, would you tell us a little about yourself, your interests, and how you achieved what many people would consider a dream job? What were the steps along the way?

I grew up outside of Chicago, the middle child to an Indian, Sikh father and an Italian/German, Catholic mother. They always stressed that education was the most important thing an individual could get, but they also envisioned my using that education in a very traditional way, i.e. to become a doctor or a lawyer. After a brief stint as an intern at a legal aid society during college, I quickly realized that career wasn’t for me. I thought long and hard about what I loved enough to actually build my life around. The obvious answer was books. I was actually first drawn to being  a literary agent, which I thought was the perfect job.

I interned at the Curtis Brown, Ltd. in New York the summer between my junior and senior years in college. After my senior year, I knew I wanted more life experience and so I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where I was a bartender and tour guide. Before moving though, I contacted several publishing professionals through my college’s career network to discuss this step and whether it would take me “off course”. I was advised to keep my toe in the literary world and so I found an internship at Jenny Brown Associates, a literary agency in Edinburgh.

I returned to New York a year later, and year wiser. An internship at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates quickly turned into a full-time job, but after a year I couldn’t stop wondering what happened to our books after we sold them. I mean, what happened really. So I began looking for, and was lucky enough to land an editorial job working for Kathryn Court, President & Publisher of Penguin Books, and an excellent mentor. From my first week on the job, she had me edit behind her on books until I began acquiring my own. The rest is history.

What  drew you to publishing? (I’m guessing it’s not the big bucks.)

As I said, books, I decided, were what I wanted to build my life around. I must have read the Anne of Green Gables series five times throughout my childhood and I still try to reread them every five years or so. Anne Shirley, a fictional character, may have been one of the biggest influences on my young life. I know it may sound trite, but I believe that books change people’s lives, even if only for the short while they are reading them. Books can be an escape and a refuge and I believe in the mission of Penguin and of other publishers: to publish the best books that we can, to entertain and to educate.

What do you like best about your job?

My absolute favorite part of my job is that moment, when reading a submission, that I realize that I have something good. And then, the moment after I’ve finished that submission and it delivered. It feels like a gift. A close second are the people. Publishing attracts intelligent and interesting people and editorial is by necessity a social job. Consequently I have been lucky enough to meet many fascinating people, many of whom have become friends.

What do you find most frustrating?

 

The work can sometimes feel never ending. You have to keep reading or else you might miss the next big thing. You have to keep editing because you have to get out your books for the next list, and then the next list, and then the next list. The cyclical nature of publishing can be a comfort because the type of work that you do doesn’t necessarily change that much, but it can also make it feel as though you are constantly racing ahead.

What qualities does a good editor need?

A good editor must be decisive, discerning and a fast reader. He or she must be able to articulate what it is that he loves about a book and to get other people excited about it. Even if you are the best line-by-line editor in the world, it won’t necessarily do you much good unless you can convince sales and marketing and the big bosses that your book is unique and exciting and worth the time and energy that would otherwise be spent on other books.

Have you ever had a writer disagree fundamentally with your edit, or agree with it but be unable to execute? How would you deal with such situations?

I’ve never had a writer disagree fundamentally with my edit. I have, however, had writers disagree with some of my specific situations. When that happens I like to have a conversation with the author to discuss my reasons for suggesting the edit and her reasons for rejecting the edit. Depending on each of our reasons I will either concede the point because it is very important to the author or we will find a compromise. Rarely have I had an author take all of my edits wholesale; there is a lot of give and take.

In the rare cases when a writer really can’t execute what he or she has promised or needs to do, then a book contract can be cancelled. But that is very rare and I think is likely more common with non-fiction, which is bought based on just a proposal. This is why editors dislike when agents submit only partial manuscripts. It is impossible to know, no matter how promising the partial manuscript is, whether or not it will deliver in the end. This is also why editors prefer for the option language in a contract to provide for an entire manuscript. It is very difficult to acquire a book without reading it first!

The submissions you receive come through agents who think they might interest you. What portion of those submissions will result in an offer?

Figure that an editor receives between five and ten submissions a week, that’s somewhere between 250 and 500 submissions a year (not counting a couple of weeks for holidays) and most editors, I would think have between nine and twelve books a year, so that’s between one out of thirty or so submissions and one out of fifty or so submissions.

What makes a novel stand out for you?

A novel in which the author has created dynamic, three-dimensional characters and then makes them interact in interesting and often unexpected ways. Many of the novels that are turned down have great premises, but the characters are flat on the page, which really turns a reader off. I think it’s the characters more than anything that make a novel relatable.

What makes you stop reading?

Typos. If there are multiple typos within the first few pages of a submission, I am much less inclined to read further. Also rants. Thankfully material that comes from agent is usually devoid of these two things, but sometimes you would be surprised. Also as an editor I’m often reading the unagented manuscript of a relative’s friend or the friend of a friend and those are the first things that will make me put it down.

Are you ever swayed by cupcakes?

While I love cupcakes, no, they’ve never changed my mind about whether or not to take on a book. Unfortunately, when acquiring a book there is more at stake than cupcakes. That said, if an author sent me cupcakes after I had acquired his/her book that might make me want to work even harder for him/her. I think that authors may sometimes forget that their editor is also their number one advocate in the house and that we are on the same team. Being nice and cooperative can go a long way towards influencing your editor to go the extra mile for you.

How important to you in taking on a new fiction writer is the writer’s “platform?

A platform is always enormously helpful. If a writer has a platform, it also usually means that he or she has been honing his craft for years and submitting short stories places, networking with other writers and is often therefore producing better work. That isn’t always the case, but it is true enough that when reading the bio on a submission I will take it more seriously if the author has been published in a few small places and/or otherwise proven that he is working on his craft.

Are there particular genres or subgenres that you currently seek out or avoid?

I wouldn’t say that I am ever avoiding certain genres. If a book is good, I will always want to publish it. If it has an excellent plot and incredible characters, I’ll find a way to make the genre work. I do sometimes look for certain types of books. As a young editor I am trying to acquire across a broad range of genres rather than limiting myself. Right now I am really looking for some good narrative or prescriptive nonfiction.

If a writer self-published previous work and didn’t sell thousands of copies, would that factor into your decision about a new novel that you liked? What sort of sales figures would impress you?

If the new novel was really good, it wouldn’t matter that much to me. I think being self-published and not selling a lot of books matters less, actually, than being published by a publisher, particularly one of the big six, and then not selling a lot of books. I think if a self-published book had sold twenty thousand copies I would be impressed.

What are the most important things writers can do to help themselves get published?

I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.

Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly. Without a good book, the great online presence isn’t going to get you anywhere in terms of getting published. If an editor is on the fence about a book, however, and the author has five thousand twitter followers, that could really make a difference. Along the lines of getting a platform, I would also encourage writers to try and get published in literary journals and to get their writing chops, if they can.

Thanks, Tara!

 

So now, dear readers, you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. And I hope you’ve noticed that the horse in question is charming, modest and as great a book lover as anyone reading these pages. Next time some self-publishing zealot characterizes mainstream publishers as evil vampires intent on sucking the ink out of writers, send them over here for a corrective.  In fact, I’d be pleased if you’d share this interview with all sorts of writers. Tara says she speaks only for herself, but in my experience she represents precisely the sort of person drawn to this industry.

Questions and comments welcome. Maybe Tara herself will jump in to respond to some—who knows? At worst you get me.

 Coming up soon: interviews with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon and leading literary agent Gail Hochman.  Sign up for email notification or the RSS feed so as not to miss these.

MEDICALERT: THE SCOURGE OF PREMATURE SUBMISSION

 

You’ve been working on a novel for a long time in solitude, a year, two, maybe more, and at last you’ve completed a draft.  You’ve shown chapters to a few trusted friends, and they loved it, but you know they’re soft critics. Questions percolate in the back of your head. How good is it really? Is it publishable?

You have no idea. Some days you read it and it’s total crap; others, it’s spun gold. However secure you are in other areas of life, this writing business feels like crossing a bottomless chasm on a bridge of words. Better not to look down; but sooner or later you’ve got to. You need to know where you stand.

You start thinking about submitting, seeking an agent as the first step toward publication. You know what to do; you’ve read up on the publishing business, and you have a list of dream agents.  A small voice inside objects: “The novel’s not perfect; it still needs work.” But that’s what editors are for, you tell yourself. Why not let the professionals judge it and hope they come out on the side of spun gold? So you cross your fingers and send out queries.

And just like that, you’ve succumbed to the writerly affliction I call Premature Submission.

DIAGNOSIS: Though it’s not yet listed in the diagnostic manuals, Premature Submission is very real.  Writing is a lonely business; loneliness is stressful; and stress erodes the immune system: hence the particular susceptibility of novelists. Finding an agent or publisher represents the purest form of validation. It means someone besides you, someone with publishing experience and a track record, thinks you’re the real thing.

My first encounter with the malady came as a literary agent. Most unsolicited submissions aren’t close to publishable, but there was a sizable subcategory of promising,  close-but-no-cigar submissions:  books that, in my opinion, had been sent out a draft or two too soon.

Agents are always strapped for time. They don’t have time to teach writers, even talented ones, how to write. And they don’t need to; there are plenty of excellent writers, many with publishing credits, vying for their attention. The same is true of editors.  And once they say no to a project, there’s usually no going back.   If the writers of those promising submissions had had the patience to go hard at the draft novel with energy and an open mind, to revise, not just by changing a word or two and running spell-check, but in the expansive sense of honing theme, deepening characters, pruning abortive subplots, and polishing the novel’s language, a very different novel might have emerged. It might have; there are no guarantees. What’s certain is that revision is an essential part of the writing process, and writers who skip or skimp on it short-change their own work.

VARIANTS: There are several variants of the syndrome, notably the failure to vet agents and publishers thoroughly prior to submitting. This can result in a parasitic attack by sham agents and publishers who feed on writers’ dreams.

TRANSMISSION: As Premature Submission is not known to be contagious, quarantine is contraindicated. Chicken soup may or may not bolster immunity. As a precaution, firearms and sharp objects may be removed from the sickroom.

PROGNOSIS: Sadly, Premature Submission often leads to Premature Rejection, which in turn may lead to Premature Self-Publishing.

TREATMENT:  If you have symptoms of Premature Submission, don’t be embarrassed; most writers have caught it at one time or another. Fortunately, the malady is both curable and preventable through homeopathic remedies. Patience and pride are the antidotes: patience to go back over the novel time and time again until it is as close to perfect as you can make it, and pride to prevent you from ever submitting anything but your best work.

Have you ever succumbed to Premature Submission, or encountered it in others? Let’s talk about it here. And I hope you’ll all share this medicalert with other writers and join me in a campaign to wipe out, once and for all, the scourge of Premature Submission.

 

 

 

Your Novel In One Paragraph

Last week, in my post about Query Letter Do’s and Don’t’s, I suggested that you limit your description of your novel to just a few intriguing lines. What I didn’t say (ducking the hard part) was how to pull off this magical shrinking trick.

Unless you’re a natural born copywriter, which most novelists aren’t, this can be fiendishly difficult. But it is a necessary skill, not only when you’re seeking an agent, but also later, during the publishing process. For catalogs, lists and interviews, you will need a pithy, intriguing description of your novel.

As it happens, I needed one myself not too long ago. My agent was preparing a foreign rights catalog for the London Book Fair and asked for a paragraph describing my upcoming novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION. I spent half a day trying idiotically to compress the entire plot of the novel into a single paragraph. Nothing I came up with sounded remotely like anything I would want to read. Finally I turned to a real expert for help. It occurred to me that my editor at Viking must surely have needed a short description of the book to use in-house. I asked if she could share it, which she very kindly did. I fiddled around with it a bit, but here is the essence of her description:

“Thirty-five-year-old Jo Donovan always manages to come out on top. From the backwoods of Appalachia, she followed her dream to life in New York City amongst the literati. Thirteen years after her arrival in the city, she’s the widow of the renowned author (and former playboy) Hugo Donovan and a sought-after literary agent with charm, a biting wit, editing prowess and a backbone of steel. When a would-be client turns stalker, Jo is more angry than shaken… until her agency falls prey to a vicious e-mail attack that only a consummate insider could have launched. As her web of suspicion grows wider and her circle of friends draws nearer, she’s convinced by her client and friend, a former FBI profiler, to go to the police. Jo finds herself face to face with a former lover she hasn’t seen since Hugo Donovan eclipsed all other men: the handsome Tommy Cullen, now an NYPD detective. When her stalker ups the ante to murder, Jo herself becomes a suspect. Meanwhile, a biography of Hugo Donovan is in the works, and the author’s digging threatens to destroy the foundation of Jo’s carefully constructed life.

With humor and a wicked wit, Barbara Rogan introduces readers to Jo Donovan, literary agent cum detective.”

Now that sounded like something I would want to read. The description is coherent, it flows smoothly, and it accomplishes a lot in very few words. A closer look at this description shows that it hits certain points:

First, it introduces the main character as an unusual, driven woman with a rags-to-riches backstory: that is, a character interesting enough to carry a novel. Second it presents the “inciting incident” that it launches the story: the conflict between Jo and an obsessive writer who won’t take no for an answer. Third, it shows the stakes rising, as harassment escalates to murder. (This illustrates the arc of rising tension that characterizes just about all good fiction.) Fourth, it indicates an element of romance in Jo’s meeting with an old flame turned detective. Finally, in the last line, it characterizes the novel’s tone (“humor and a wicked wit”) and indicates that the book is in the first in a series. Pretty efficient for half a dozen sentences, don’t you think? And all of these elements (apart from the romance, which isn’t universal) need to come across in your description; in fact, they provide its structure.

It’s equally important to consider what the book description doesn’t do:

1. It doesn’t attempt to summarize the entire plot.

2. It doesn’t include any subplots, which in such a short description would only muddy the water.

3. It doesn’t attempt to introduce all the characters.

4. It doesn’t reveal the ending.

All of those items belong in a separate synopsis, not in a query letter. The goal of the query letter is simply to tempt the agent into reading more– the synopsis and the opening pages, usually–and ultimately induce her to request the full manuscript. And agents are reading. Two days ago, I heard from a former student with heartening news. She’d sent out queries to the first five agents and received requests for partial or full manuscripts from three.

RESOURCES:

For writers who want help putting together compelling submission packages, there are workshops like Submitting Your Work. Among the many free resources, Nathan Bransford’s blog and the entire Agent Query website are standouts. Writers’ forums, including Absolute Write and CompuServe’s Book and Author Forum, can provide valuable feedback on your query letters. There’s a lot of information out there, but also a lot of misinformation, so exercise discretion. Here, for starters, is my list of recommended resources for writers. Happy hunting!

QUERY LETTER DO’S AND DON’T’S

 

Coming soon: interviews with Viking editor Tara Singh, top agent Gail Hochman, and bestselling author Diana Gabaldon. Sign up for the RSS or email feed so you won’t miss these!

 

At a certain point, after you’ve written a novel, edited it, maybe shared it with beta readers, there’s nothing left to do but to seek publication. These days there are two parallel but unequal publishing worlds: mainstream publishing  and self-publishing. My advice to aspiring novelists, explained in an earlier post, is to try for the big leagues first. Since most mainstream novels in the U.S. are sold through literary agents, your first task will be to find an agent to represent you.

Easier said than done, of course. It’s a tortuous process, and one that tests the writer’s reserves of perseverance and self-confidence.  When I was an agent, I took on two or three new clients a year at best, out of hundreds of submissions.  Nowadays, since the advent of e-queries, agents are even more swamped, to the point that many no longer respond even to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Writers who do receive written rejections rarely get a reason or explanation of where they fell short, so it’s not surprising that many writers feel their work is not even being read or considered.

But it is.

True, there are some agents who’ve closed their lists, and others who accept only referrals from established clients or other professionals, but they are the minority. Most agents are still doing what they’ve always done: searching for that needle in the haystack, a publishable book they’d feel proud to represent. Consider the recent experience of one former student, whose first novel was just published by Random House. When she started searching for an agent, she had no prior publications, no platform, nothing to tempt an agent but a first-rate  novel; and she received offers from four or five excellent agents, all of whom she queried cold. How does that happen, if they’re not reading?

So how do you get an agent? If you look only at the numbers, it’s a daunting task. Agents can only handle so many books, and their first obligation is to existing clients. They might add a new writer or two to their lists, maybe three or four in a good year. What are the odds they’ll  pick yours?

Luckily, it’s not a lottery. Leaving aside celebrities and politicians, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. Yes, agents get thousands of submissions a year…but the vast majority of those are complete non-starters. Unless you’ve read through an agents’ slush pile, you can’t imagine how depressingly bad most of them are. That’s why agents always warn their assistants, (who are the first to cull the slush pile)  to beware of Standards Creep. After reading reams of awful stuff, mediocre work looks great in comparison.

If you’re a good writer, a serious writer who cares about both craft and story, your writing’s going to shine in that haystack.

With a strong query letter and a well-written novel, you propel yourself into the much smaller pool of contenders. The query letter is key. With submissions flooding in, agents must be struck by that first letter or they will go no further. The goal of the query letter is to get agents interested enough to read pages; then it’s up to the work to speak for itself, which is all we can ask.

To that end, here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s based on the decade +  I spent as a literary agent.

DO:
BE BRIEF. A query letter should be one page long, single-spaced. If you have a lot of credentials, maybe a page and a half—no longer. Agents regard the query letter as the first test of the writer’s ability to write economically and effectively. And since they (or their assistants) read hundreds of these a month, they appreciate brevity

GIVE YOUR PUBLISHING CREDITS. Even if they’re far afield from the novel, having been published suggests that at the very least you’re literate, which not all applicants are. If you have none, not to worry: there’s nothing agents love more than discovering great unknown writers.

MENTION YOUR PROFESSION or other life experience only if it’s relevant to the book: if, for example, you’re a lawyer who’s written a courtroom drama, a cop who’s written a gritty crime novel, or a call girl who’s written about politicians she has known.

INCLUDE A SHORT SUMMARY of your story, just a paragraph or two, including genre. If you can write a good hook of one or two sentences, do that. Give readers a sense of where and when your story’s set, what makes your protagonist interesting and novel-worthy, and what great challenge or peril he faces.

GIVE A WORD COUNT. (“Complete at ——— words.”) If your novel’s not complete and edited, you shouldn’t be submitting. One of the most common mistakes of aspiring writers is submitting a draft or two too soon.

TELL WHY YOU’RE SUBMITTING to that particular agent. This is essential, and too few writers do it. The best possible reason, the one that will move you to the top of the pile, is that you’ve been referred to them by a client or publishing professional. If you’re not that lucky, there should be another reason you can cite, because there should be a reason for every agent on your list. (See WRITERS’ RESOURCES for links to help create that list.) . Giving a reason means you’ve done your homework and are unlikely to waste their time.

STRIKE THE RIGHT TONE:  respectful but not obsequious, confident but not boastful, businesslike in that it is short and to the point, but conveying a sense of the person who wrote it.

ENCLOSE AN SASE if querying by snail mail.

INCLUDE THE FIRST FEW PAGES. This is a bit controversial, because not all agents ask for pages and some get huffy if you don’t follow instructions.  But I advise it anyway, because when I was an agent, if a query letter intrigued me, I’d always read a few pages; and if I liked them, I’d ask for the whole manuscript. It’s a matter of striking while the iron’s hot.

 

DON’T:

DON’T PRAISE YOUR OWN WORK, and don’t play the huckster. I can’t tell you how many letters I received as an agent informing me that I’m going to love the enclosed because it’s thrilling, heartwarming, beautifully written, and more commercial than [insert name of bestselling author.] Those letters would be passed around the office for a laugh. I do understand how it happens. Writers are told they need to sell themselves, and many misunderstand that to mean they need to hype themselves and their novel like TV gadget salesmen. More experienced writers understand that the work must speak for itself. The only acceptable comparison to other writers is in terms of the market your novel seeks to address, as in “This book, with its strong female sleuth, will appeal to readers of Sara Paretsky.”

DON’T CALL YOUR NOVEL “LITERARY FICTION.” Its literary quality is for others to judge, and anyway, in publishing lingo, the term is a synonym for “Won’t sell above 5000 copies.” Call it mainstream.

DON’T STALK.  Some writers—not you, of course, but some writers—get obsessed with the hunt. Don’t send cupcakes or haunt the agent’s lobby or trap her in elevators. Don’t jump out at her from behind trees. Until you’re a client,  don’t call her office. Use mail or email.

DON’T ADDRESS YOUR LETTER “Dear Agent.” Anything that looks like a mass mailing will get tossed. (Likewise “Dear Jane” letters: if you don’t know the agent, don’t  call her by her first name until she calls you by yours.)

DON’T MAKE GRAMMATICAL OR SPELLING MISTAKES. If you can’t write a proper letter, agents will assume you can’t write a book, either.

DON’T SUMMARIZE THE WHOLE STORY. Summaries are inherently flat. Four or five sentences is the outermost limit of the average literary agent’s attention span.

DON’T MENTION SELF-PUBLISHED WORK as publishing credits unless you have large, verifiable sales numbers.

DON’T GET EMOTIONAL. Agents don’t need to hear that you’ve always wanted to be a writer or that you spent ten years writing this book and plan to shoot yourself if it doesn’t sell. They probably have enough neurotic clients already.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It’s never pleasant to be turned down, but it comes with the territory. Writing is a tough business; if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll need to develop thick skin and fanatical perseverance. When you do get turned down, bear in mind that an agent’s decision is based on many factors that are totally beyond both his and your control, including the state of the market. The right fit is also a factor; just as you need an agent who genuinely loves your work, so do agents need writers they can feel passionate about.

There’s also, always, the possibility that your work is not yet where it needs to be. But don’t rush to that conclusion after just a handful of rejections, because that’s only to be expected. Not every book speaks to every reader. There are plenty of other agents out there, and it’s good to remember that they’re as eager to find terrific new writers as writers are to find them.

If, however, you’ve been turned down by dozens of agents, it’s appropriate to consider whether the novel might not need an overhaul. At that point you might benefit from a professional evaluation or a rigorous writing class. I’ve linked to services and courses I offer, but there are many other options open to serious students of writing. Scroll down this page for a list of criteria to consider in choosing an editor or writing teacher.

Please feel free to comment! I’d love to hear about your perspectives on querying and the whole agent search; I also welcome follow-up questions and will expand on these notes at the slightest provocation.