In my day job as coordinator of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, I get a LOT of questions in my email inbox. While many of the queries are conference-related, an amazing number are about the writing business. More and more, it seems, the questions focus on finding an agent.
I’m not sure I qualify as an expert, but I have learned a lot about the industry over the years, both as a writer and in working with and attending the conference. So I thought I’d address some of the very frequently asked questions I receive, mostly from people who are brand new to the process and who’re stressing out about it. If any agents or agented authors are reading this, please feel free to correct my assumptions or add your thoughts in the comments. This post is entirely my own opinions, for what they’re worth. Please always check the websites of agents you’re considering for their specific preferences and go with those.
That being said, here are the top five things I end up repeating in my answers to emails about agents:
1. This is a BUSINESS. I know you put your heart and soul into creating the baby you’re sending out into the world. It wouldn’t be worth trying to find an agent if you hadn’t. But once you’re ready to send it out, you need to separate your emotional connection to your book from the business of getting published. Easier said than done? Of course! It’s a lot like sending your kid off to school and then going to a parent-teacher conference to hear a stranger’s assessment of his skills and personality. It can be brutal. But if you don’t want to be seen as the crazy parent no one wants to deal with, you stay polite and have a reasonable conversation, even if you drive home privately convinced the teacher has no clue about your child. As personal as your manuscript is to you, to a potential agent, your book is a business prospect. Do they believe in it enough to sell it? And if they do, have you shown them that you’re going to be easy to work with, professional, and able to respond reasonably to criticism and editorial comments?
2. On a related note, a query letter is a business letter. Inject your personality, give a sense of the voice of your book, sure, but don’t let it go out full of errors, don’t tell agents how fabulous your book is or how it’s going to be the next big thing (again, the kid analogy applies. You polish ‘em up and send ‘em out in the world; it’s up to those they meet to form their own impressions). DO be clear and grammatically correct and interesting and let your story sell itself by writing a great blurb.
3. Agents are people. For the time they have our manuscripts on submission, they hold our dreams in their hands, so it can be really easy to be intimidated or see them as somehow different, scarier, maybe. But they’re human beings like the rest of us. Remember this when you write to them or meet them at a conference.
4. Don’t get caught up in the idea of a dream agent. You’ve researched her inside and out and you just KNOW she’s The One. You hang all your hopes on her. And then she rejects you because your work isn’t right for her. I’ve seen a lot of people react to that by saying, “But I know she’s the perfect agent for me!” Guess what? If she doesn’t love your work, she’s not the right agent for you, no matter what your research told you. Assuming you’re only querying reputable agents who actually sell books, the perfect agent for you is the one who gets it, the one who cares about your book as much as you do and with whom you can have a great working relationship. And just like finding a partner in life, chances are she might not be the one you thought she was going to be when you started looking.
5. This can be a SLOW process. Your manuscript is the focus of your attention, the one submission you have to think about, and every day that goes by without news can feel like an eternity. But for agents, reading your submission is just one thing on a VERY long to-do list that has to lean in favour of existing clients if they’re going to succeed. You’ll expect them to work hard for you if you become a client, so trust that they’re busy doing that for their current ones, too, and may take much longer than you’d like to get to your submission. In the meantime, query widely and keep working on the next book.
Do you have tips to add, especially for those dipping their toes in the querying pool for the first time?