The Agent Panel

[April 2010] A number of years ago, I was sitting on the deck of the local Irish pub on a Friday evening after work. This isn’t something I do often–my wife was out of town at a conference. The ambient noise was high from the combination of raucous drinkers and traffic on the nearby interstate.

My cell phone rang. Also an unusual occurrence. I figured it was my wife letting me know she’d arrived at her destination. Instead, it was an editor from New York who raved about one of my short stories and wanted to know if I had a novel to show her. It was a surreal moment, made difficult by the fact I was having a hard time hearing her over the noise.

Things like that don’t happen very often. I’m not sure I’ve heard of it happening with anyone else, except for some of my co-authors in that anthology, From the Borderlands.

One reason to write and publish short stories is the hope that your work will come to the attention of an editor or an agent who will reach out to you in the fashion described above. Unfortunately, the reality is that such things rarely happen.

I attended the Houston Writers Guild conference last weekend. The opening session was a 45-minute panel discussion with three literary agents, one from Seattle, one from D.C. and one from New York. One of the first questions the moderator asked was where they found new clients. As expected, their main source is through submission packets. The Seattle agent said that she often attended readings in the city and had approached writers at those venues. Their other main source of new clients is at writing conferences, where they sit for pitches.

As a follow-up, the moderator asked if they ever found clients by reading literary journals or magazines. All three of them admitted that reading literary journals was on their list of things they wished they had time to do but never seemed to get around to. Nor do they troll through the blogosphere looking for interesting non-fiction material.

Much of their advice concerning submissions is common sense, but it bears repeating for those of you who are beginners to the process. Foremost, be professional in your submissions. No colored paper, fancy fonts, pressed flowers, etc. Don’t appear to be high maintenance or oversell yourself. As an example, one agent said he’d received a query that praised the submission, said that it would make an excellent movie, and Cameron Diaz should play the main role. The agents all said they had developed a good sense of which writers might be high maintenance, but that excellent writing could overcome difficult personalities.

One agent said that a good title often was enough to get her attention. The first five pages have to be excellent–which doesn’t mean that the rest of the manuscript can be mediocre, but if you haven’t won the agent over in five pages, they’ll move on to the next submission. One agent said that five pages might be generous when it comes to editors, because many of them are reading manuscripts on Kindles or other eBook readers, where a “page” (i.e., a screen) is smaller than a manuscript page. Editors may think they’ve flipped through the first five pages, but it might be only two or three pages, in fact.

One agent said that is can be helpful to mention the name of a mutual friend or acquaintance in a cover letter. However, each agent said that he or she had received queries that name-dropped names that he or she didn’t recognize.

More advice: Don’t say “If you don’t like this book, I have five more.” Don’t make it overly complicated for the agent. Don’t say that you know the book still needs editing. Don’t submit until you have a complete manuscript ready to deliver. If you aren’t the type of person who checks your e-mail often, get in the habit of doing so if you have works in submission with agents. If agents are excited about your query, they will be frustrated if they end up having to wait a long time for the full book.

Make sure to spell the agent’s name correctly in query letters, and try not to make a letter look like a form letter. Finally, if an agent takes the time to respond with reasons why he or she is rejecting your manuscript, don’t argue or contest the reasons for the rejection. Take the advice and move along.

If an agent agrees to represent your work, be prepared for a potentially lengthy editing cycle. The agent hopes to find a book’s Achilles heels–reasons that will be cited in pass letters from editors.

Best of luck with your quest to find an agent. I hope some of this advice helps.

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