Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Query Widely/Wisely

We always tell writers to query widely. You never know who’s going to love your work, we explain, so get that manuscript in front of as many agents as you can. It’s a numbers game, after all, and you’ve got to give yourself every opportunity to succeed. That’s true (to some degree), but the flip side of that coin is that even as you’re querying WIDELY, you still have to query WISELY.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but agent proliferation has reached epic proportions. Editor Molly O’Neill tweeted the other day that she received submissions from nearly 200 agents last year, and it seems like every other week you hear about some other new agency put together by two more agents you’ve never heard of. Now I’ve no doubt these agents are eager, hard-working people who love books, books, and more books (they must be, since they certainly can’t be in this for the money), and most of them, I imagine, have only the very best of intentions.

The problem is, a lot of these eager, hard-working agents haven’t the slightest idea what they’re doing, so here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. First off, I'm not talking about junior agents at well-established agencies. The way to become a literary agent is fairly straightforward: You intern at an agency, sorting through someone's slush and reading requested material. You have lots of conversations with this someone about what works and what doesn't and, more importantly, why. You form relationships with editors and other industry professionals and learn, among other things, how to negotiate deals, read contracts, and handle royalty statements. After a while (usually a year or two, maybe more), the agency promotes you to junior agent, or maybe you just find a manuscript you love, love, love and beg your mentor to let you take it on.

If you don’t go through this process, you probably aren’t going to have the know-how to, say, interpret the clauses in a boilerplate contract, let alone the industry contacts to even get one in the first place. An agent’s job is a lot less about writing and a lot more about business, so if you don’t put in the time to learn all those things, you’re probably not going to succeed on the agent side of this industry.

2. Thoroughly vet the agents you plan to query. You don't have to read every book on their lists, but you should at least be familiar with some of the writers they represent and what they've sold in the last couple of years. Reputable agents want you to be able to figure this out, so if you have to hunt too long and hard for this information, that's probably a bad sign.

Also, even if they are selling, be aware of who they’re selling to. If all of their sales are to smaller presses, they’re probably going to sell your manuscript to a smaller press also. That’s fine, of course, if you’re hoping to work with a comparable publisher, but if you’re hoping to sign a contract with one of the Big Five, you might as well not even query that agent.

3. You owe it to yourself to be selective. Thirty years from now, when you're swimming in royalties and your bookshelves are sagging under the weight of your words, you're not going to remember the one two four eight or however many years it took you to get an agent. But if you don't sign with an agent who actually sells things now and then, you're never going to get to that point. So take your time. Be selective. Don't query someone you wouldn't want representing you for the rest of your career. I know authors have to change agents sometimes, but don't shoot yourself in the foot right out of the starting gate. BE WISE.

What other thoughts would you add?

15 comments:

Michael G-G said...

BE WISE is the watchword for all publishing endeavors. Your advice is spot on, Krista.

JeffO said...

I think you have to be careful about the 'numbers game' thing. There are tales of people getting agents with their first book, on their first round of queries, and people who query hundreds of agents over multiple books. Yes, the more agents you hit, the greater the chances of hitting the right one, but it's about more than just saturating agent-world with queries.

And I'll second Michael, and third you: Be Wise.

Susan said...

Trust your gut! If you get more than one offer, go with the agent you feel most comfortable with as a partner for your career.

Lori M. Lee said...

Fabulous advice, Krista. A must-read for querying writers.

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Yes yes yes. I think people forget that anyone can set up a website and call themselves an agent. But do they have the experience? The contacts in the industry? Do your research, and also talk to other writers about their experiences, if you can.

Eliza Tilton said...

You read success stories stating the author found her agent on her 131st query. When you take the time to research agents, there might be only 60 agents who are a good fit AND you'd want to work with. Don't query just to query.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Isn't it, Michael? Sometimes we get caught up in all the drama and dollar signs and forget common sense...

JeffO, I liked what you said about finding the right agent. The right agent is going to be different for every writer, but it's never going to be someone who doesn't know what they're doing.

Great advice, Susan. Hopefully, we're in this for the long haul, so you always want to think past that first manuscript and even that first deal.

Thanks, Lori! (And thanks for tweeting about it!)

Liz, I think it's so important to TALK TO OTHER WRITERS, especially an offering agent's clients. Nothing will give you a better feel for how an agent works behind the scenes.

Exactly, Eliza. It is possible to get an agent after sending so many queries, but that agent may not be the best agent for you in the long run.

ferris robinson said...

Thanks Krista! You shed new light on the agent search - great advice!

E.D. said...

Great advice - especially #2. The agent may not be who you think he or she is, in terms of the books they represent.

Kaye M. said...

Wonderful stuff in this post. The gray line for me is always, always those new agents you mention, because sometimes, it doesn't feel so simple. Some new agents take on really talented writers, are lauded about the blogsphere, judge contests and appear at conventions - and then decide they won't rep any more.

Anyone else have this worry?

Krista Van Dolzer said...

No problem, ferris!

So true, E.D.

Kaye, I worried about the same thing when I was querying. There's always the risk that your agent will up and quit, and the newer they are, the less sales they have under their belts, the greater the risk. This is a tough business to make money in, and you're going to have to be able to weather a few--or more than a few--lean years to stay in the game.

However, I don't think you have to worry about newer agents at established agencies from a competency perspective (which is the point I was trying to make in this post). They CAN do the job (and have qualified mentors to back them up if they run into problems); whether or not they actually WILL is another matter entirely. But then, if you sign with an established agent who works with multiple best-selling clients, the concern is that you'll get swept under the rug, so there are always risks. That's why I strongly recommend that writers TALK TO THE CLIENTS OF AN OFFERING AGENT whenever possible. It's the best way to find out how an agent functions behind the scenes.

Book and A Baby said...

Solid advice! Looking at a writer's whole career is key.Nice blog btw : )

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Welcome to the blog, Book and A Baby! I hope you enjoy your stay:)

Kirtida Gautam said...

Brilliant Advice.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, Kirtida! *tips hat*