Over Labor Day weekend, I had the privilege of attending Worldcon, aka Lone Star Con 3, in San Antonio, Texas. It was full of awesome moments, like spotting George R.R. Martin less than ten feet away or shaking Scott Lynch’s hand before sympathizing with him about how complex the convention center was. Awesome moment, by the way! However, some of the best treasures of the weekend came in the form of wisdom and experiences passed through the many panels composed of agents, editors, and authors.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend everything, and due to a family emergency, I had to leave Worldcon early, but I took notes. Now, it is my privilege to pass on these treasures of information to you, dear readers. Every Friday until we reach the end of my notebook, with the exception of prearranged interviews, I’ll pass on my notes in hopes you find them just as helpful. I’ve included some personal commentary, elaborating further in ways that I hope you find useful.
Today, we begin with the first panel I attended, How to Obtain an Agent. This panel included agents Joshua Bilmes of the JABberwocky Literary Agency and John Berlyne, British agent with Zeno Agency Ltd.
Agents’ Perspective: Write from your heart, not query letter guidelines that you happen to find online. This doesn’t mean avoiding a particular agent’s guidelines, but don’t use formulae and general structures touted at various query help sites.
My perspective: I’ve heard this sort of things before from authors. So many authors say that when they finally “got real” with their writing and their submissions, things began to click. It’s so tempting to rush online and find out exactly how to do something, especially when we want that thing--in this case, publication--so badly. However, then we become generic and boring. After all, great fiction comes from riding along in another person’s head for a while. We don’t get that if we follow a formula. We get that when we’re ourselves.
Agents’ Perspective: Mr. Bilmes specifically said that, when you write a query, it’s best to personalize it to the agent you’re querying, “I’m writing so and so because...” The query should be about your book and you. Specifically, his agency--presumably he--does not care for queries that begin with a question.
My Perspective: I love it when agents and editors talk about their specific likes and dislikes. It helps me determine how well a fit my book or I might be. Starting a query with a question is, of course, a personal preference, but if/when I query Bilmes, I’m less likely to get myself tossed in the rejection pile if I avoid that particular preference of his.
Self-Published Authors Querying
Agents’ Perspective: It is perfectly acceptable to query an agent as a self-published author. Being self-published doesn’t automatically eliminate you. However, you’re unlikely to get an agent to take on a book you’ve already self-published. Further, while self-publishing won’t cause an agent to dismiss an author offhand, an agent likes to see an author who is interested in publishing with the big publishers.
My Perspective: I’ve heard debate on this online for a while. A lot of people of suggested that self-publishing can ruin you or at least decrease your odds of an agent or big publisher taking you on. Naturally, there are examples where big publishers have proven that rule wrong. Then there are those who claim that self-publishing is the only good way and that agents are outdated. One way or another, it was a relief to me to hear actual agents express opinions on this. Considering the number of traditionally published authors now also self-publishing, though, it makes sense that agents would be open to authors who do both.
What Agents Are Looking For
Agents’ Perspective: Aside from the book itself, agents may google the author and see what comes up.
My Perspective: That means all of us writers better watch out. The moment we post anything online from a picture on Facebook, a remark on Twitter, or a comment on even the most esoteric blog, it’s forever. Sure, we can erase it, but by the time we do, even if we’re quick, someone somewhere has already copied it: Google, Facebook, some random guy who thinks it’s amusing. We must be very mindful of the impression we give of ourselves online. For all we know, that impression is part of why agents and/or editors reject us. No one wants to work with someone who appears inconsiderate of others, rude, or who badmouths others, no matter how great their submitted book might be.
Other Great Tidbits
AgentQuery.com is a great website for searching for agents. You can even search by genre.
Authors can submit to agents and editors simultaneously.
An author can submit to multiple agents at an agency, but not simultaneously. If doing this, however, bear in mind that all queries may be going through the same intern, which means she’s already seen and likely rejected your story at least once.. Further, some agencies specifically state that submitting to one agent means you submit to all and not to resubmit to another agent at that agency. In either case, read the agencies guidelines.
Look carefully at the language of an agreement with an agent. Make sure there is an exit clause for how things will be handled if and when you leave your agent/agency.
Your agent is not a partner in your book. It is your book.
It’s also normal that an agent will negotiate their pay into the contract for your book, i.e. they’ll negotiate a better deal for you so that the difference will at least equate to what they’re owed as your agent.