1. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Agents What the New Generation of Agents Thinks

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by EdFromNY, Jul 1, 2015.

    A lot of times, advice on this forum is offered based on second-hand information, or even just what someone (often, a very inexperienced someone) thinks is the case. An awful lot of speculation revolves around what agents want or don't want, and all too often takes the form of dogma.

    I therefore found this article - a roundtable discussion among four young agents in the most recent issue of Poets and Writers - illuminating.

    http://www.pw.org/content/agents_editors_a_conversation_with_four_literary_agents
     
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  2. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, it's interesting ...but very discouraging. They really are fixated on getting something similar to what they've already had before. They look at the first paragraph, where you tell them why your story is similar to something they've already done, and why you approached THEM—then they accept or reject you on that basis. One guy said he doesn't even read the synopsis (the middle paragraph.)

    That's just ...discouraging. It really is. Okay, I can understand why a guy who doesn't do sci-fi would reject a sci-fi book. But shouldn't it be enough to tell him you write sci-fi? Fair enough. He'll reject you. But why do you have to compare yourself to other books he's represented as well. Maybe you can't, but you know you've got a good book, and your category is not one he'd automatically reject. So.... Why why why? How many barriers are they going to set up, before they actually get down to looking at the kind of writing they claim they want?

    It's perfectly possible to write (or get somebody else to write) a perfect query letter, then follow it up with a bad or mediocre MS. What I'd like to see is what percentage of the query letters they 'pick' actually result in a good book? In other words ...is this query letter dance really worth it? I'm not convinced. I'm really not. If it works, then why do really good authors get rejected so many times, before somebody pays attention to them? It's all so arbitrary. I think they're just grabbing at feathers floating out of the sky, hoping one of them turns out to be pretty.

    They're busy. So what. It's their bloody job. Maybe they should slow down a bit, and take more time to actually look at what is getting submitted to them. Sure enough, they won't whack through quite so many queries in one day, but they might be less apt to miss a good book.
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
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  3. Tim3232
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    Tim3232 Active Member

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    It is an interesting article - and the bit where the 1 agent said he doesn't look at the middle paragraph of a query jumped out at me.
     
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  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, the bit about not reading the synopsis was a red flag for me, too.

    My takeaway from this was a confirmation that it is very definitely a "survival of the fittest" milieu. We've often heard that agents look for reasons to say, "no", but if you think about it, what that means is that the cleanest product is the one to which they say "yes". The comment that jumped out at me was the one who said she tries to read as many queries as she can herself. I was also impressed by the comments from those who said they want to be involved in more than just making the sale to an editor, like publicity.

    Jan, I understand your frustration at the idea that the first thing an agent wants to know is that your book is similar to something they've already sold. Because even then, you can find yourself in a pickle. I looked up the agent of one my comparables and found that she doesn't even represent historical fiction. Apparently, she considers my comparable a memoir, even though it's fiction. Another agent at the same agency indicates that she loves to read historical fiction, but doesn't list it as a genre she represents. In fact, of the half dozen agents listed there, only one - the founder - represents historical fiction. First time author with the most senior agent in the place? Not a chance.
     
  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you're treating agents as a monolith, and of course they aren't.

    There really is such a thing as personal taste, and agents have it just like everyone else. So a "good book" might work for one agent, but not for another.

    They also have contacts within the industry, or, in the negative, don't have contacts in some parts of the industry. There have been several times when I've sent things to my agent and she's said something like, "I was at a party with Acquiring Editor X on the weekend and he was mentioning how he's interested in moving in just this direction!" So if a new writer had subbed a book to her that fit that direction before I'd sent mine, she probably would have accepted the new client when some other agent wouldn't have accepted because she didn't know where to send the MS.

    It's not really agents' job to read submissions, it's their job to sell books for their clients. They don't owe random writers anything, but they damn well owe their clients something. Given a finite number of hours in the workday, if my agent starts spending a lot more time reading submissions, that means she's spending a lot less time selling my books and making my deals, and that's not a trade that makes sense.

    I feel like a lot of your agent-antagonism comes because you're anticipating rejection for your own book. And I can just about guarantee that some agents will reject it, if you ever send it to them, not because it's not a good book but because they don't know how they'd sell it. And the thing is, you want them to reject it based on that, because you don't want your book sitting with an agent who has no idea what to do with it. If I sent my fluffy romances to an agent who only represented political non-fiction, that agent had damn well better reject it and save us both some time.

    Finally, I think you're a bit over-caught-up on the "similar books" things. This doesn't have to mean identical books. You're writing an historical novel set in the US West, right? So send your MS to agents who've represented other historicals set in the US West. It doesn't have to be exactly the same, just a similar idea.
     
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  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Having read @jannert's book, I think I can safely say that her concern is that it is very unlike other historicals set in the US West. In my opinion, that makes it a more compelling read, but most of what we read about how agents do business suggest that her work wouldn't get a shot.

    It's a tough field. And, as one agent said to me recently, an agent can only effectively represent something about which they are passionate, and what makes someone passionate about a book is almost always subjective.
     
  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you find it compelling, why wouldn't an agent find it compelling?

    I feel like we're borrowing trouble, here, trying to figure out why agents would reject a book that hasn't even been submitted to agents yet.

    There have been genre-bending books before, and there will be again. Agents love books or they would have chosen a different job - give them a chance to love this book.
     
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  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I take your points—except that I'm not worried at all about rejection, because I have no intention of seeking an agent. I'll be self publishing. Life is short. Unfortunately, my book is not! :) I have researched agents on both sides of The Pond, and not a single one of them would look at mine, based on their listed requirements ...not only regarding subject matter (as Ed said, it's an odd one, and isn't really a 'historical' novel, although it's set in the past) but also its length. Automatic reject pile. Next.

    I really can't be bothered with time-wasting. I've spent nearly 20 years working on this, it's gone through many edits, has been drastically reduced in size, and has been approved by many beta readers of all different persuasions. I know it's ready to go. I just want to get it out there, and continue working on my second book. I'm 66 years old. I'm not firing up a writing career. Writing is a labour of love for me, and I'm happy enough to just punt it about via friends, family and other connections. Making money is not and never has been my objective.

    I'm sorry if I sound grumpy about the issue, but I AM grumpy.

    Why don't agents just ask for your genre (if that's relevant), your word count (if that's important to them) then look at your first 5 pages (submitted by electronic means?) They may well know after reading 2 sentences that it's not for them. Etc. It would not take any longer to do this, than wading through three paragraphs of query palaver.

    If the story grabs them, they'll keep reading. If it doesn't, they won't. End of. If they get to the end of the first 5 pages, however, and want more, they'll ask for it—and then may ask other questions as well, or ask for a synopsis. At least that way, everybody's writing will get a fair go.
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2015
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  9. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Well, actually, just about every agent I've looked at so far does request at least the first five or ten pages along with the query letter. Some ask for more (the most I've seen is 50 pages or 3 chapters).
     
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  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, fair enough. But was that mentioned in the article? If it was, I missed it.

    No I didn't miss it. That aspect wasn't mentioned. I just went back and re-read the article. It's mostly all about how writers need to schmooze around to get attention ...attend conferences, get other writers to recommend them, join social media, get stuff into magazines, etc. Basically, so the agent doesn't get bothered by unfiltered writing and unknown petitioners. All these filters.

    And then, towards the end of the interview, one of them says: Flashman: Like all agents and editors, I want a novel that, as one of my writers said, “has blood in it.” I want a novel that’s very deeply felt and urgent. I went to a PhD program almost right out of college and realized very quickly I did not want to be an English professor. There’s a tendency among writers to go straight into an MFA program, and for some writers, like Téa Obreht, it’s great. She had a great story and something urgent to tell. But a lot of writers don’t know their story yet. It might not surface till later."

    So how in hell is he going to know if the novel has blood in it or whether or not the writer knows their story (?) if he doesn't READ the damn thing. And he's made it very clear he won't, until the author has jumped through all these other hoops he's set up. One of the agents mentioned earlier that some authors jump through the hoops—but their writing isn't up to scratch, so they get 'passed on.'

    What they are really saying here, is that jumping through hoops is not a particularly efficient way to connect good writing with an agent. And furthermore, they DO say writers need to swan around looking for at least 10 other books that are similar to their own, and then start researching the book's agents, etc. Make sure the agent is alive??? Well, if the agent is dead, they'll be rejecting your book for sure.

    There is lots of stuff in this article about how the author has to target the right agent and make all the right noises, bla de bla. If an agent really wants 'blood' in their novel, and wants an author who 'knows their story,' I'd say the agent should be out there actively looking for this novel and that author. Not sitting around waiting for this marvellous creation to drop into their laps from a social media site, or wherever else.

    With all due respect to agents, they are salespeople. I think they're wielding way too much power over creation these days. If they were so good at picking great books, why do so many bestselling authors have tales to tell about how many rejections they received before somebody took them on? Agents are just people, and people with an agenda. We should not be allowing them this much power over what we write. Thankfully, self-publishing is out there, and growing in popularity—so those of us who write (and read) outwith the current 'market' fashions have someplace to go.
     
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  11. Tim3232
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    Tim3232 Active Member

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    I was impressed that Ballard (in the article) had worked with a writer for 4 years. That shows belief. I would have expected them to give up after a year at the most.

    Apart from the P2P, I’ve only submitted to 2 US Agents. Haven’t heard from the one yet, the other replied within 2 hours – but had only seen the pitch. As I’ve posted elsewhere, he expressed an interest on what I was working on based on 1 line. Uh?

    On comparisons, at least one of the editors on the P2P had tweeted about ‘comps’ quoted in a pitch. (Someone else clarified what comps meant.) I thought common advice was not to compare you or your work. And what’s the point of these editors basing pitch acceptance on a comparison and 5 pages. Five pages doesn’t show that you write like someone in particualr, or that the story compares well with another.
     
  12. criticalsexualmass
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    criticalsexualmass Active Member

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    I'm not getting the angst from this. It was some agents, telling not what we want to hear, but how it really works. It's common sense, really. Humans, like all animals, choose the path of least resistance unless given a compelling reason to do otherwise. These guys want to make the most money while spending the least time possible making that money. They owe their current clients a duty, but those of us querying them are owed exactly squat. I would expect that they would skim query letters rather than carefully read them. I would expect them to specialize in an area of fiction. I would want them, if they were my agent, to spend more time working for me than they spent looking for new talent.
     
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  13. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    No, that was my observation based on researching prospective agents to query.
     
  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I think a lot of new writers going through the process get irritated at the seeming arbitrariness of it all. As I mentioned in another thread, I know of two writers who pitched their work to the same editor. One was accepted because the editor liked buses and the other was rejected because the editor hated boats. As rejections mount up, those kinds of anecdotes can become both irritating and discouraging. It can also be irritating that almost all of what we read and hear about the process is anecdotal and based on subjective judgments.

    But it is. The rules are varied, subjective and prone to change. And I posted the article because it was a reflection of how at least some successful and still young agents function. At the end of the day, the best any of us can do (assuming we want to play in this arena) is to scan the field, write good queries and gripping openings, choose our query targets with care, do whatever we can to "jump the line" and then go.
     
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  15. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was actually surprised by how proactive the agents said they were, contacting people after reading their work in magazines. I never thought short stories were a good path to getting an agent for a novel, but maybe I was wrong.
     
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  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's not how I read that discussion.

    One woman said that she doesn't read the synopsis because "a lot of authors don't know how to write a good synopsis." That suggests to me that she's giving the author a chance to convince with the work.

    She also said that she has an assistant and interns "who look at things first." So my interpretation is that when a work is passed on to her as being worth looking at, she looks at the query letter for context and contacts and things like an explanation of why someone sent her a book in a genre that she doesn't represent, refrains from looking at a synopsis that might bias her by being lousy, and then looks at the work.

    Yes, I'm expanding on what she says, but I think that we can't really tell which of our interpretations is correct.

    Another said "Still, when a writer sends me a query, I connect first and foremost with the writing."

    To me, both of those are saying that what matters is the work, not the query. Exactly what you are telling them should matter.

    But my impression is that those comparisons might lead her to consider a book that, based on genre, she'd normally reject. Advice on how to get a second chance sounds like useful advice to me.

    For example, you say that your book isn't primarily an historical. It sounds like the query is an opportunity for you to explain to an agent who doesn't do historicals why they should consider your book anyway. I see no bad there.

    I don't have the impression that you have to be similar to one of the works they've represented, or know one of their authors. My impression is just that any context helps, and that provides context.

    Sure, they are. The Ballard person says that he/she sometimes gets a query every ten minutes. You can't read a full manuscript every ten minutes, and publishing doesn't make enough money for an agent to afford the dozens and dozens of employees to read all of them all the way through.

    I suppose instead of scanning the queries for clues about which books are good, and having their employees read the first few pages of everything, they could just do a full read of a randomly-selected one out of every....lemme think, if reading a book takes about five hours, and they get a query every ten minutes, that's thirty queries in the reading time, assume that they spend a quarter of their time reading....120 manuscripts and throw the other 119 out. But it seems to me that that will cause them to miss even more good books.

    I sound snarky, and I really don't intend to be, but when there are more books submitted than can possibly be read thoroughly, something has to be done to thin them out. And really good books will fall on the wrong side of whatever the thinning criteria are; it's inevitable. I'm sure that agents don't like that any more than authors do.
     
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  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was particularly interested because Tin House was the upper end of the magazines that I've been considering submitting to, and I wondered if it was a good choice. :) Now I have to get past "considering" and submit. (And choose a middle and low end.)
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I didn't say they should read all the books they get submitted to them. (!!!! :eek:) I say they should skip the query letter, and simply look at the MS the author sends them ... the first 5 pages, or whatever. They can make up their mind after two sentences if they don't think it grabs, and reject the book. Or page ahead, and try another paragraph, to see if things improve. If not ...out.

    What I'm trying to promote is them missing out the 'middle man' - the query letter with all its hoops and curliques - and just give the actual MS a look. If they don't like it, they can dump it immediately. It doesn't take any more time to read a paragraph of a manuscript than it does a paragraph of a query letter. But it gives the agent a much better idea of the author's style and competence.

    It would also maybe get the author to spend more time tweaking the MS, and less time researching and querying. But that's just me. If I were an agent, that's how I'd work it, anyway. Even if I had people working under me, doing the preliminary filtering, this is how I would prefer to work. Open up to surprises. I'd like to think, if I can sell something, I could sell anything. So a good book, no matter whether it's something like I did before or something I'd never seen the like of before, would be something I would work at selling ...if I thought it was good enough.

    But again, that's just me.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    [side track] This is totally out of place but:

    So I'm reading the stories on Tin House to get an idea if it's anything I could submit a story to and I find this bit about Ken Kesey in The Prankster and the Professor by David Gessner:
    Kesey used to bring over the ladies he was cheating with to Mike Hagen's house (I was living there in a shack on the property).

    OK, so who cares? I know but I just had to share. :p

    Reading further:
    The Kesey from Wolfe's book didn't change. [/sidetrack]
     
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  20. uncephalized
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    uncephalized Active Member

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    It's art. Of course it's subjective and random.
     
  21. GingerCoffee
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    I've read (or skimmed) all the free previews on Tin House and looked over some of the blog. It's a narrow (not that the market isn't large) sampling of literary fiction. There's so much more out there, sci-fi, YA, romance, mystery— I don't see any of that in those pieces. Granted the free previews are only a small sampling of what's there, if that is the kind of work the agents interviewed are into, it's only one slice of the pie.

    And, there may be a difference in what people think "similar", in this context, means. It could mean similar plot, characters, setting or anything.
    Considering what GoodReads thinks are books I would like, clearly their algorithm defining what a 'similar' book is, is different from mine.

    In my mind, my book is similar to books in the genre I enjoy reading, but different in several important ways. I imagine an agent is looking for both, something within a trend, but with some new spark. Yet how an agent would see my book might be completely different from how I see it because they are focusing on different aspects.

    So the key would be to find agents that are looking at the aspects you think your book contains.
     
  22. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's also important to be prepared to query widely. It's hard to know exactly what's going to click with whom, and there are a lot of agents out there. It's good to start with the ones you think are most likely to be match, but if your book doesn't speak to your 'dream' agent, that doesn't mean the book isn't right for some other agent.
     
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  23. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    True. About the best indicator you can get, beyond preferred genres, would be books (s)he has represented. And many agency web sites do not list by agent, only the agency as a whole.
     
  24. GingerCoffee
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    Can you inquire of the agencies which agents suit your needs?
     
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  25. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not sure how one would do that?
     

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