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Why won’t most publishing companies even consider unagented submissions?
When most people think of an editor at a publishing house, they think of a person in a quiet, comfortable office with appealingly soft lighting, reclining in a comfortable chair and reading all day long. Pretty sweet gig, right? Sadly for my editor friends, this isn’t the case. In truth there’s a lot of fluorescent lighting; uncomfortable, standard office furniture; lots of scrambling to return e-mails and phone calls; and way too many meetings. There’s all the usual corporate office stuff—plus they have to find time to actually edit! There just isn’t time left for these busy people to be...
What do you look for in a query letter? How much do you need to know about plot versus potential marketing tactics in order to make the decision to request a partial manuscript?
Here are the things I look for in a query letter: a distinct pitch, a short tease of the plot (set up the story and make me want to read more), and a comprehensive bio. I take notice if it’s a referral, or when a query suggests the author knows the kinds of books I handle. I prefer a short, clear letter rather than one that is overwritten or opaque. By which I mean, get to it: Know how to talk about your work succinctly. And, in general, keep it to one book per pitch. When I read a query, I am going with my gut in deciding if I want to see more material. There’s no real trick....
I’m a self-published author who just completed his second novel. An agent once told me I shouldn’t state that I’m a self-published author in my query letter because it shows that no one has taken an interest in my writing and therefore I had to publish my own books. Apart from being rather insulting, does this agent have a point?
Yes, it’s a little slighting. Am I guilty of countless acts of the same? Um, yes. This may change as the definition of self-publishing evolves, but we’re not all the way there yet. So unless you’ve sold a zillion copies of your self-published book, best not to bring it up too soon.
I’m building up my publishing credits, maintaining a blog, coordinating a monthly writers group, and working on finishing up my novel. I have confidence that I can finish the book within six months. At what point should I start looking for the agent to represent me? Should the book be finished first, or should I remain open to editorial suggestions? I’ve read articles about how to approach agents, but very few on when.
You should wait until you’re really finished (and have set the book aside and finished it twice more!) before querying agents. This may sound like a Zen koan, but you should be finished and open to editorial suggestions. If you dream of locking in an agent before finishing your novel, the best way is to publish pieces of your work in literary journals, to build your credits and get your name out there. Agents are actively looking for talented writers, and I do represent a number of writers whose short fiction is exceptional and whose first novels I’m patiently anticipating. But by...
Does a writer need to have an established list of publishing credits to be considered by a decent agent?
If you’re writing nonfiction, then the answer is usually yes. You need to show credentials in your field, and such credentials often come in the form of previous publications. If you’re writing fiction, though, the answer is no. Publishing credits will always help, however. Even if you’ve only had a short story or two published in a small literary journal, those publications show that somebody somewhere read your work and fell in love with it. This is no small feat! Such credits show an agent that you’ve been writing for a while, that you’ve been sending your work out into the world, and...
I’m always reading about how writers should choose agents based on their client lists: If an agent represents an author you like or who writes like you do, it might be a good fit. But I also hear agents say they’re looking for something new, something unlike anything they’ve ever read before. Which is it?
Both are true. Aside from the obvious exceptions, you shouldn’t worry too much about how an agent will compare your book with what he already represents. You should instead focus mainly on whether the agent represents books in the same general category as yours, and if you like his taste. An exception to this is if your book is clearly in direct competition with something the agent already represents. For instance, it’s not a good idea to send your proposal for “The Basket Weaving Bible” to the agent who represents the author of The Definitive Guide to Basket Weaving. Of course,...
What kind of publicity is a publisher apt to offer a midlist author? Can this be negotiated, or is the author still going to pay out of pocket for a ten-date tour in key cities?
It varies widely, but most midlist fiction authors won’t be sent on ten-date tours. They’ll be encouraged to give readings in cities where they live or where they can guarantee a substantial audience. It’s become more cost effective for the author to reach out via the Internet. Moreover, it’s a recipe for depression to take an author far from home and have him read his novel to the events coordinator and the ubiquitous crazy guy. If you want to help make tours viable again, start by attending a local reading by an author you haven’t heard of, and buy her book.
About three months ago, I sent a synopsis of my novel as well as a cover letter to six literary agents whom I researched and found to be interested in the kind of fiction I write. I haven’t heard from any of them and I’m wondering when I should follow up with queries about my proposal. I don’t want to be pushy, but at the same time, life’s short.
It’s fair to follow up with them if you haven’t heard back after six weeks; it’s likely an oversight. Send an e-mail that says you are checking in to see if they had a chance to consider your query and that you look forward to hearing from them soon. Be emotionally detached, and don’t take it personally. If you don’t hear from them, move on to other agents. Your letter may be in a pile on an overwhelmed assistant’s desk, or stuck in his e-mail inbox or in his desk drawer. Or it’s in a stack the agent intends to get to, and feels guilty about not addressing more quickly. Unfortunately, most...
With the help of my agent, I published my first novel with a respectable press two years ago. I’m writing my second novel now, but I also have some short stories that I’d like to submit to literary magazines. Should I bother my agent with these submissions or just send them myself?
It really depends on the agent. The best thing to do is simply ask your agent how she would like to handle it. If the work in question is a story that has been excerpted or adapted from a forthcoming book under contract with a publisher, you definitely want to consult your agent, since it would be considered a first serial submission. With my own clients, I determine who will handle a story submission on a case-by-case basis. I mainly submit short fiction only to bigger magazines such as the Atlantic, the Paris Review, and Esquire. If the piece isn’t appropriate...