September 19, 2014
DISCLAIMER: I am not a literary agent. I am not an editor. The below is not professional advice, but rather, a writer’s observations on other writers’ pitches. There is a bevy of information about queries on the internet, at conferences, on social media, in classrooms, from friends and colleagues. The only true advice I have about querying is educate yourself from a variety of sources and have a proofreader (or two) review it before sending it off.
In the past few months, I’ve have the privilege of reading for a poetry and short story literary magazine and for a literary agent focusing on young adult, middle grade, and picture books. Also, many years ago, I queried agents with an unfinished chick lit manuscript for which I received more positive responses than warranted. Further, at graduate school, a few agents gave lectures on the querying process and their own personal tips and requirements.
To be honest, 99% of book pitches will end up in slush piles. This was a point of contention at my grad program. Those of us who live in the heart of publishing (New York City) have access to building personal relationships with editors, agents, and all sort of publishing folk. However, NYC is an expense. We trade our free time (aka, writing time) for access to potential relationships that may allow our queries to skip the slushy stage. Those of us who do not live in the City sacrifice contacts for more writing time.
My arrangement with the literary agent is symbiotic. I read the slush, allowing the agent to concentrate on clients and seek new clients. In turn, I learn not only what makes a good pitch, but also, the concerns of artists. This is the most interesting aspect to me…the commonality of subjects, characters, settings, and genre from artists who have no other connection outside the literary agent they are querying. An Outlook folder filled with products of the zeitgeist.
The trends that happen in publishing begin in an agent’s inbox. Which made me realize: agenting is an imperative for creating culture.
A writer should use the highest level of etiquette when querying. Etiquette does not only mean using please and thank you, proper address blocking, and the like. Rather, the reason for etiquette, in general, is to create a situation that puts all those involved at ease. The selflessness that makes someone else’s life or moment effortless.
Agents receive an unwieldy amount of queries. The kindest thing a writer can do is remember that agents are humans. They will appreciate being treated as a friend, not an enemy. Further, if approached with respect and kindness, an agent will remember a name, even if they pass on the current project. So, make an agent’s life as easy as possible and you won’t be self-sabotaging.
The number one reason I reject queries is because the writer has not followed the submission requirements. Every agency specifies their query guidelines (see their website). Every agent specifies what they represent and what they are currently seeking (see agency website or agent’s personal website/blog). If a writer does not heed the agent’s or agency’s guidelines they’ve already lost.
For instance, if an agency requests the inclusion of a manuscript’s age group, genre, and word count, then do so. If the agent was met at a conference or class, include where and when and what was discussed. Fulfill the agency/agent’s guidelines upfront so they can concentrate on the pitch. I’ve read a few queries that do not state the age group (YA, Middle Grade, Picture Book), the genre (historical, sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary, etc) or word count (all part of the agent’s requirements). Even though I continue reading the letter, my mind is distracted by “but what IS this? is it adult? is it ya?” As a writer, we don’t want the agent preoccupied by these questions.
It is downright rude to not follow querying guidelines. They exist to make a query letter easy for an agent to read. The writer is disrespecting the agent by making them dig into the letter for the basic information an agent needs. It wastes the agent’s precious time. Another way to think about it: if you, the writer, are signed by the agent, would you prefer said agent to spend time getting you the best publishing deal possible, or slogging through other writers’ queries? A writer should want to start off the relationship with an agent or agency positively, even if not ultimately signed. Remember, the publishing world is a small one, reputations matter.
The Good News
As stated above, agents are human. Human’s are subjective; we all have personal preferences. In the same way readers will disagree on a read book, agents will disagree on a pitched manuscript. Mostly, agenting is subjective. One agent may pass on a query, a partial, or a fully manuscript, while another will sign that same author and sell the manuscript in a two book deal.
However, if a writer queries multiple agents and are rejected by all of them, they should consider revising the query letter. It is the writer’s responsibility to accurately pitch their manuscript, not the agent’s responsibility to see a diamond in the rough. If a writer is rejected after an agent reads their partial or full manuscript, then manuscript revisions should be considered. Writers should remember that agents are professionals and it’s 99.9% more likely that there are issues with the manuscript, and not with the agents “not getting it.”
Rules of etiquette would say: if you don’t like a situation, change the things you can control. A writer can’t change an agent’s mind or preferences. Writers can revise their own work or start anew. Accept rejection gracefully.
Before working with the literary agent, I learned a lot from following agents on Twitter. A few Twitter hashtags below that contain advice from agents:
#MSWL (manuscript wishlist)