books with Athena

books with Athena

Friday, July 24, 2009

5 Tips on How to Query the Right Agent

More updated advice for newbies--from the archives of INkwell Newswatch

Recently I cautioned against scam agents, but also noted that the ratio of legit agents to newbie novelists is approximately one to twenty-five gazillion.

So what do we do—throw mass queries at big-name agents, perhaps employing the services of a Mafia henchperson or Voodoo practitioner?

That would be a no.

One of the reasons the process is so gruesome is that beginners clog the query pipeline with clueless mass-mailings, making agents harder to reach (and way crankier.)

A little research saves everybody grief, and it doesn’t have to cost you. (I’m annoyed by mindless old-fashioned instructions to “read The Literary Marketplace.” LM is too costly even for strapped libraries to keep current copies, and in such a fast-changing industry, the latest version is out of date before it sees print.) Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s directories are less pricey for the starving writer, but also pretty much obsolete on delivery. You can subscribe to Writers Market online for about $4 a month, but I find free sites often have more current info.

For A-list agency addresses, the AAR website is up-to-date and free. To find new agents who haven’t been in the business long enough for AAR membership, check sites like Query Tracker, Agent Query and Freelance Writing Organization-International. The best sites will indicate which agents are actively looking for clients, and they do their best to screen out the scammers. Then follow a few guidelines:

1) KNOW YOUR GENRE

The most common mistake new writers make is querying agents who don't represent what they write. If you write romance, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy, sites like RWA, MWA, and SFWA offer lists of genre-friendly agents

If you write stuff with murkier definitions, like literary, commercial, women’s, or mainstream, browse amazon entries for books similar in tone or subject to yours. Often amazon lets you look at the first few pages, where authors may thank their agents. (Or peruse your local bookstore.) Also, authors often mention their agents on their websites. Or you can do a search with the author’s name and keywords like “agent” or “represented.”

Note: if you don’t have an MFA and a/or friend on staff at the New Yorker, it’s probably best to avoid calling your book “literary.” It’s something of a closed market.

If you don’t know your genre, you’re not ready to query. This doesn’t mean your book isn’t good enough. It means you need to learn more about the business. Go to writers conferences, browse every writing site you find, and read, read, read.

2) VISIT THE AGENCY WEBSITE

This is imperative. The closer to the source, the more up-to-date the info. An agent who accepted queries last quarter may now have a full client list or an Everest-high mountain of partials she has no time to read. Submission guidelines change weekly. Someone who took e-queries six months ago may only accept snail mail after a barrage of spam. One member of an agency wants a synopsis with the query; another likes a few pages of text (pasted in the body of an e-mail—NEVER as an attachment.)

Look for new agents in established agencies who rep your genre and are “building a clientele.” They’re more likely to have time to read their slush piles

Of course, some agents don’t have websites. The venerable agency Curtis Brown had none until a few weeks ago. But some of their agents, like the wonderful Nathan Bransford, have blogs. A Google search will turn up an agent blog. Which leads me to…

3) READ AGENT BLOGS

OK, this can become something of an addiction, but blogging agents provide precious insider info—not just about their own likes and dislikes, but about the industry in general. They can be cranky and snarky, and you may see your own query ridiculed in front of the entire blogosphere, but they give up-to-the-minute news of sales and trends. They’ll tell you what markets are overfilled; what’s on their wish list, and what sort of faux pas will get their panties in a bunch.

Nathan Bransford is the reigning king of the agent bloggers. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ He is remarkably gracious and helpful. So is Kristin Nelson. http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ They both update almost daily and their archives offer mini courses in publishing. (Kristin’s series, “Agenting 101” offers a step-by-step picture of how a contract is negotiated.) Janet Reid, http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/ Bookends LLC http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/ , Rachelle Gardner, and Colleen Lindsay also offer must-read blogs. There are a whole lot more great ones coming along all the time. And for lots of great nitty-gritty info, there are the “Snarkives” of the late, great Miss Snark. http://misssnark.blogspot.com/


4) STUDY CLIENT LISTS

There’s a broad spectrum within genres: if an agent’s romance sales are mostly to Christian publishers, your gay vampire-demon romance probably won’t float her boat; and if all the mysteries sport pink covers, your hardboiled noir won’t make the list.

Check recent sales. The agency that sold mass quantities of chick lit in 2004 may only be selling steam punk now, and they’ll delete your chick lit query without a glance.

NOTE: it’s best to not to use the term “chick lit,” at all, even if that’s what you write. Call it “romantic comedy” or “women’s fiction.” Overbuying a few years ago has put chick lit on a publishing blacklist. Great discussion on this Rodney Dangerfield of genres at Carrie Kei Heim Binas’s blog http://heimbinasfiction.blogspot.com

5) SEARCH FOR INTERVIEWS AND PROFILES

Narrow your list further with a quick Google. Interviews, articles and guest blog posts can give valuable insight into an agent’s personality and needs. A fantastic blogger who provides regular agent profiles is Casey McCormick http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/

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Finally, don’t take it personally if the “perfect” agent doesn’t respond. We’re in a brutal business. Go buy a lottery ticket. The odds will be more in your favor.

And there’s always that Voodoo practitioner…

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Agent Janet Reid adds a caveat

Re: young and hungry non-AAR agents. Veteran agent Janet Reid of Fineprint added this to the comments section:

"Young and hungry agents who are looking for clients may indeed not be members of AAR, but what you can ask them (BEFORE SIGNING!) is what literary agency they have worked in. Interned in or worked in. I'm always rather taken aback by people who decide they can be literary agents without actually having been inside an agent's office."

Oh, and she said my post was "nicely written." I can float around on that all day. Thanks Ms. Reid!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Beware Bogus Literary Agents

Six Tips to Avoid Getting Scammed


I belong to the generation of women who were told we were more likely be shot by terrorists than find husbands. Several decades later, we’re all writing books about our fabulous single lives—as desperate now for literary representation as we once were for the white dress/gold ring thing.

I haven’t seen statistics about the comparative likelihood of being shot by a terrorist vs. finding a literary agent, but given the global political climate, I’d say odds heavily favor the terrorists.

But I guess I can fantasize that someday I’ll be shot by a terrorist who works for Curtis Brown.

We can’t blame agents. We’re in this situation because there are only 438 members of the Association of Author’s Representatives in the U. S. while most of the 230 million of us who own computers have at least one novel in progress in the files. (If as many Americans bought books as wrote them, our situation wouldn’t be so dire.)

With such vast herds of us overpopulating the planet, it’s inevitable that we’ve attracted our share of predators.

So here are six pointers to help you hang onto your dwindling cash reserves during this soul-crushing process (and no, publishing a few books with a small press to good reviews doesn’t do much to increase your chances of getting an agent’s attention—in fact it probably works against you—more on that in another post.)

1) NEVER PAY AN AGENT A “READING FEE”

Any agent who charges money to read your manuscript isn’t going to help your career. Publishers consider it unethical and won’t do business with them.

If you have to pay somebody to read your book, it’s not ready for publication. If you’re a newbie, DO pay a qualified freelance editor or book doctor, but never with a promise of publication attached. They simply can’t deliver.

2) NEVER PAY “MAILING” CHARGES UP FRONT

A popular scam. Bogus agencies sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never make a sale. I’ve seen heartbreaking letters from writers who’ve lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.

Small agencies may legitimately ask for copying and mailing fees AFTER they’ve sent out your work, but they’ll provide proof they’re sending out your manuscript.

3) AVOID AGENCIES THAT ADVERTISE

A librarian friend recently forwarded me an intriguing ad from an agency advertising for submissions. I visited their refreshingly positive website and almost fell into the trap until I Googled them.

They appeared on the list of “20 WORST AGENTS” at the Writer Beware site: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/twentyworst.html

Do the math: agents don’t have to advertise.

3) CHECK OUT CLIENT LISTS

If there’s no client page on their website, run. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.” If they represent a literary star, they’ll pound their chests and bellow about it.

4) CHECK RECENT SALES

Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Steven King, if it happened in King’s pre-Carrie days and she hasn’t sold anything since, don’t go there.

5) ASK HOW OFTEN THEY FORWARD REJECTION LETTERS

A good agent will always send on your rejections, usually every quarter. Some scammers do send manuscripts to publishing houses, but only in mass mailings addressed to no particular editor. Those go into recycling without a response.

6) VISIT WRITERS FORUMS WHERE AGENT INFORMATION IS SCREENED AND EXCHANGED.

The site I visit daily is AgentQuery—the best site for up to the minute agent info and also a great forum for writers to exchange information. http://www.agentquery.com/

And before you query an agent, make sure you check with those tireless watchdogs at Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/beware/index.html.

And here are some other great web sites that can alert you to scammers:

Preditors and Editors http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/

Absolute Write http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/

Query Tracker http://www.querytracker.net/

And do check the Association of Authors Representatives site http://www.aaronline.org/mc/page.do?sitePageId=9693&orgId=aar

But it’s important to note that an agent doesn’t have to be a member of AAR to be legitimate and even top-notch. New agents have to work for a certain number of years before they’re allowed to join—and it is the newer and hungrier agents who are reading queries from new writers and actively building their lists.

But most of all, don’t forget: Google is your friend. Check ’em out.

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To all my new followers: Welcome! I hope to visit all your sites soon. I realize this info is probably old news to most of you who are already visiting blogs, but do pass on the information to friends who might need it. Everybody’s a newbie once.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Everybody's a Critic: dealing with unsolicited criticism

Early into our journeys in wordsmithing, most writers discover our chosen art form has a major drawback: everybody’s a frakking critic.

For some reason, folks who happily offer praise to fledgling musicians, quilters, sculptors, or Star Trek action-figurine painters, feel compelled to launch into scathing critiques of the efforts of the creative writer.

I remember showing an early story to a boyfriend. He returned the manuscript covered with red-penciled “corrections”—changing characters’ names, dialogue, and much of the plot. He’d barely finished High School; I had an Ivy League degree. I asked why he felt the need to edit my story. He said, “What else would I do with it?” I said, “The same thing I do when you show me your woodworking projects—say something nice.”

He looked at me as if I were speaking Klingon.

Even my years of professional writing credits don’t deter a compulsive critic. Recently, a visual artist who’s always e-mailing me .jpgs of her latest work—which I dutifully download and praise—asked me about my latest project. I sent her the first chapter. She replied with a 100% negative critique.

Maybe this behavior is perpetrated by those grade-school teachers who had us read aloud our poems about “What Thanksgiving Means to Me,” and invited class comments—which often devolved into verbal spitball attacks. I don’t remember the same free-for-all judging sessions for our construction-paper Pilgrim hats or renditions of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Maybe some grade-school teacher can tell me why.

Gratuitous criticism is often so clueless, we can laugh and ignore it. It can even be helpful. An untrained eye can sometimes help us look at problems in a new way.

But if it’s derisive, hostile and/or entirely lacking in praise, energize your deflector shields. It has nothing to do with your work and everything to do with the “critic.” An amazing number of people, even decades out of adolescence, still think negativity sounds smart. But it’s good to remember that any Bozo can look at a Picasso and say, “My two-year-old paints better than that!” Appreciation takes education.

We do need feedback. If you don’t have an editor or trusted beta reader, find a good critique group, preferably writers in your own genre. A good critique is a gift. You know when you hear one. It may sting, but it gives you an “ah-ha” moment that improves your work. Good critiquers know “not my cuppa” shouldn’t be expressed as “your story sux.”

Plus they’ll always give positive comments to balance the negative. Nobody can take undiluted criticism. The brain registers it as an attack, which triggers a fight or flight response.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with self-appointed critics:

1) Avoid showing first drafts to non-writers.

2) Consider the source. If Mr. Judgmental hasn’t read anything but the TV listings since he dropped out of Bounty Hunter school, this is not his field of expertise.

3) If someone asks to see an unpolished WIP, be clear you aren’t inviting critique. Say something like, “My editor prefers that nobody else edit my material. However, I’ll be happy to hear about what you enjoy, and please let me know if you catch any typos.”

4) Give the critic a sweet smile while plotting her murder in your next novel.

5) Think of this as practice for when you’re successful enough to be reviewed by snarky professional critics.

6) If something feels like verbal abuse, consider the possibility that it is. Ask yourself if the critic is:

a) Feeling neglected. Writers can be selfish with our time. Take him out for a drink and catch up.
b) A writer-wannabe: she’s dying to write, but too terrified/ blocked/lazy. Envy makes people mean.
c) A narcissistic bully. We writers are magnets for them. We pay attention, which is what they crave—and we’re solitary, which makes us easy prey. They lure us with praise and fascinating stories; keep us enslaved with threats and/or self pity; then try to erase our personalities and make us mirrors for their reflected glory.They will do or say anything to destroy a victim’s sense of self. Remember NOTHING a verbal abuser says has value. Win a Pulitzer, and you’ll hear, “What, no Nobel?” You’ll never please them by doing better, because nothing pleases them but having power over you.

Good criticism is necessary to any art form, but the unsolicited, negative variety is poison. If comments are unhelpful, ignore them and boldly warp into the next galaxy.