Recently, a follow blogger talked about the challenges and stillness associated with querying literary agents in January. But I find that no matter when you do it, this is a cold and lonely process that mainly results in either no response or a very late and canned note saying something like “unfortunately, this piece is not for us . . . have a nice day 🙂 ”
This agent query business is a corrosive experience that can melt any would be author down to the bones. It works mainly by sending short query emails (or snail mail) to agents carefully selected based on that person’s indicated interest, prior work, tweets and blogs. The amount of information provided varies depending on the agent’s submission instructions that yo-yo between a short query to a more complex submission that could also include a synopsis, a bio and one or more sample chapters. Generally, I’ve been told that one should only send out a few submissions then wait patiently by the computer for a response before sending out another round. To say the least, in this day and age of instant gratification and short attention spans, this labor intensive process seems rather outdated.
A new way must be found to rattle the agent’s cage, to enable your work to rise up to the top of his or her slush pile. Matter of fact, you don’t even want to be in that garbage heap! You want a flash of light to jolt the agent’s world, to bring your work to the forefront long enough to make the agent want to see more. Of course, your work must be spic-and-span.
This new method may piss them off. But that constructive conflict is needed to put your work in center stage just long enough for the agent to see the shine of your work. What do you have to loose? What’s the difference between no response, an indifferent agent rejection and an annoyed agent rejection? But, having been stirred, that agent may see the golden light of your work and forget all about their ruffled feathers.
Speaking of gold, I’ve observed that book publishing today is much like the 1848 California gold rush. Anyone could jump in. But back then, the only ones who made money were the ones who sold the shovels. It’s time to change the rules.
10 thoughts on “Ruffled Agent Feathers”
A brilliant analysis! Twenty years ago I wrote several novels and had similar experiences when trying to get them into print – the Agent is in the catbird seat and we Author(s) sit below it and – with gritted teeth – hunch our shoulders and squint our eyes against the steady “drop”, “drop” “dribble” of acrid comments from above, and -mostly – no word at all!! I attended a one-evening seminar by a so-called “Author” who really lead his audience down the primrose path. For instance, he wanted us to “triple-space” all sentences and to leave wide margins in the copy we sent to our Agent (in those days, no Internet existed and manuscripts were sent via registered mail). This, supposedly, was to provide the Agent with plenty of space to make notes, etc. on the manuscript. I spoke to many agents after this – none of them ever required such pre-editing! Further – I found out later that this “author” had never gotten a book into print!
Don’t feel like you are below the agent. Just be realistic. If you got hundreds to thousands of letters a year I am betting you would not have the time or energy to respond to them all. When you find that agent who loves your work and they will be the one looking up to you–and hopefully that will lead to a mutually respectful business relationship.
For sure there are plenty of people out there willing to tell you how to do things. Best practice is to always double check things for yourself.
“Best practice is to always double check things for yourself.”
That goes hand in hand with the reality of writing anything… Check, double check then recheck again. I’m still making changes to my first novel- HEAVEN’S ANT FARM.
Agents are just people doing their jobs. By following their guidelines you are helping them get to considering your work (and all of your fellow writers work) faster. Rattle their cages? Why? It makes you an easy rejection. Maybe you should try some of the many pitch days that agents so kindly participate in (they don’t have to) to break up the monotony of submitting your work that you seem to be suffering from. I understand that waiting and rejections can be frustrating but you also need to not “wait patiently by the computer”. Get back to work. Query widely. There is no rule on how many agents you query at a time or how many projects you have going. Keep moving forward.
Thanks Heather for your response. I agree with your “keep moving forward” notion—a good philosophy for all aspects of life. It’s just that, with the changes and challenges of this industry, we must continue to explore new and innovative ways to attract agents such as you. Some of those changes may be disruptive resulting in ruffled feathers. But that’s the chance we all take and, in my opinion, beats following the crowd. After all, you and I would not be having this conversation today had I not penned this piece yesterday.
The best of the New Year to you!
I’m not sure what you mean by rattling the cage James? Remember that when you’re looking for an agent you’re looking for someone to be a business partner with you. Why would you want to start that relationship off by deliberately annoying them?
I know that querying can be slow and it’s tempting to try to find a short cut. But honestly, if you have what they’re looking for, and you’ve followed their guidelines (which are always perfectly reasonable), you don’t need a gimmick to get their attention. Your work and your professionalism will speak for themselves.
Thanks to you Samhawkewrites for reading this blog and your response. The goal of this entry is not to advocate deliberately annoying an agent or publisher.
Rattling the cage means new authors will have to explore new ways of getting their work to readers’ eyes. That may or may not include a literary agent or publisher. Or it may mean finding new ways of reaching an agent or publisher, or perhaps changing the message to those folks or doing some unexpected things that will set you apart from the others. These new methods are strategies that each writer will have to discover for him/herself based on what they feel is right and respectful for their specific situation and the amount of risk they are willing to take. That last part is important because some of those ways, while having good intentions, may upset folks who are use to doing things as they currently do them—hence rattled cages.
I guess I’m just not seeing any compelling evidence that the current system of communicating with agents and publishers isn’t working. I mean, you write to them, if they’re interested they write back. There are more people writing books than there are agents to rep them and publishers to sell them, but I don’t think the problem is that there is any difficulty getting your work seen. Getting someone to love it and want to champion it is a different story, but not one that’s about the method of delivery…
I’m not sure that “rattling the cage” is the best way to work outside traditional query parameters. There are many ways to help your reputation and work shine in an agent’s eyes. Attending conferences and events where you can meet agents in person (but treating them professionally – not following them to the bathroom to pass a manuscript), entering pitch contests, having a respectable social media presence (like this blog!) and starting every query with a great hook are all ways to make sure you stand out from the crowd.
Everyone seems to think they can write a novel these days – and agents are often overwhelmed by the amount of dreck they receive. Showing yourself to be serious, talented and professional actually go a long way!
Thanks for reading and responding to this blog . . . and thanks for your compliment on the blog! A lot of work has gone into it.
I agree on your suggestions and continue to do many of those items. Rattling the cage sounds harsh but I chose that term to ignite constructive discussion and thought. It’s not meant to endorse unprofessional behavior but rather challenge the status quo.
Your point about agents being overwhelmed is quite accurate in my opinion. Indeed, it is hard for agents and publishers to give the tons of queries a reasonable review without compromising their primary job functions. Hence the rising slush pile. It is for this reason, that I think writers should find innovative, yet respectful ways to show their capabilities to agents and publishers—things that go beyond Twitter parties, conferences, etc. I don’t have an exact prescription here. Perhaps writers should bypass them all together and self-publish (although that brings about other challenges). Nevertheless, some of these ideas, while having good intentions, may upset folks who are use to doing things as they currently do them—hence rattled cages.