book promotion, book sales, Literary Agents

Secret Agent Plan

OR

Five Four Three Two One Unique Ways to Get an Agent

Oh these sad and weary tales of woe.

Nope. Not this time. We’ve all been there and done that. Personally, I’ve read so many articles over the years about how to write the ideal query letter and get the perfect literary agent that I ought to be an authority by now. Unfortunately, like the typical ‘rules for writing’ article, most of them are little more than a list of things you shouldn’t do:

DON’T do mass, impersonal, “Dear Agent” queries;

DON’T query agents for genres they don’t represent;

DON’T make hyperbolic promises about your book being a guaranteed bestseller;

DON’T lie about all the literary awards you obviously haven’t won;

DON’T spell their names wrong.

There are lots more, but they all break down to the same basic piece of advice: be professional. A query letter is a business letter. Agents are in business to make money, so don’t waste their time with a lot of nonsense. Pitch the book, give your credentials, keep it brief. And edit for typos.

I think I’ve crafted some pretty good query letters in my day, but most great query letters end up in the same place as all the poor query letters: the reject pile. I don’t want to belabor a point that has been made too many times in too many places, so let’s just take it as a given that writing is hard, getting published is hard, making money is hard, yada yada yada. You can do everything right and still end up in the slush pile. In fact, most of us do.

Of course, most of us also keep dreaming. So when an article called “5 Unique Ways to Land An Agent” appeared in my email feed this morning, I had to look. Given that I am too cynical and hardboiled to believe that there are any magic beans in the publishing world, I wasn’t expecting much.

Guess what? There wasn’t much. Nothing against Meredith Blevins, who is a reasonably successful author and, I’m sure, a fine teacher, but I had to laugh at her list of five. I’ll summarize:

1) Get a writing degree. If you do (or hopefully did), you’ll meet people who can give you references and personal introductions and stuff like that.

2) Go to a writer’s conference, for the same basic reason.

3) Really. Go to a writer’s conference!

4) In fact, here’s one writer’s conference in particular that worked for one author she knows.

5) Go to New York and talk to agents in person. (The first time I typed this, I wrote “talk to agents in prison.” Sometimes the fingers just know what you’re really thinking.)

Maybe I’ve miscounted, but that’s really only three unique ways to land an agent. Unfortunately, two of them are nearly useless. Not a lot of us have the wherewithal to fly to New York or to attend graduate school (or even writer’s conferences, for that matter.) Her bottom line advice can be summarized thus: personal contact is always better than a letter. I have no doubt she is right. But also? Wow. Obvious.

So do these things work? Does a writing degree or attending writer’s conferences at least increase your chances of landing an agent? Maybe. I’m sure they can’t hurt. But I’ve known writers who have gone to plenty of conferences and never gotten representation, because it’s still an uphill battle against very long odds.han-solo-odds

I’ve had some big name agents request full manuscripts of mine, even had one offer rewrite suggestions—which I followed to the best of my ability and conscience—only to meet with eventual rejection. Not because she thought the book was bad, but because she didn’t see the potential for the kind of commercial success that would’ve made it worth her time and effort

The bottom line really is the bottom line.

But put all that gloom and doom aside. I’d love to get your take. Have you succeeded in landing an agent? What did it take? Did it help? Are agents even the way to go in this era?

Discuss, please.

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10 thoughts on “Secret Agent Plan

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Right on, Atthys! Agent queries are business queries. Tell the agent what you offer. They’ll tell you if they’re interested. If an agent likes cutesy, clever approaches they may have poor business judgement. They certainly do if they think you work for them. Agents make their money selling the writer’s work. They are sales agents. Hire the best you can to sell what you spent years creating.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    There are some very fine Midwestern traditional publishing houses that will not look at unagented material. If I want to play in that field, I need an agent. I do not have one.

    I too have heard that we should each get a MFA in writing. It may make us better writers. I think the best benefit of a MFA program is to make connections with people who have connections with other people who work in publishing. This sounds expensive and time consuming.

    I haven’t been to any of the big writers’ conferences or to meet people in New York City.

    I was fortunate to find a small traditional publisher to take on two short story collections. I wanted to make a personal connection with the publisher in my query letter, and I wrote about the city he grew up in and his high school, compared my stories with the writing of others whom he should have known, shamelessly dropped names, and wished him well on his summer vacation at the family cabin, which was only a couple hours’ drive from my home. It was a part of my “It’s All Personal” strategy. We shared beers and a pizza in a bar near his cabin before we signed a contract. Can I replicate that in an agent search? I don’t know.

    In a series of day jobs I spent decades hiring people for jobs all the way from kitchen help to top managers. Sorting through the resumes and cover letters was a chore, and it was depressing sometimes, knowing there were good people in there that I would never call. Focused candidate credentials reduced the risk and promised success for some, and these are the ones I called for an interview. Sometimes the credentials included referrals or references from people I respected in the field.

    I don’t want to believe that my writing will be judged not on what I can do but rather on who I know. The guys and gals getting contracts are good writers, but they’ve built connections too, and it makes a difference.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I don’t read articles about how to get an agent. I have no interest in courting an agent. Because I have no hope of managing it.

    I do read the pleas for guidance on Scribophile. For laughs, not for tips. Such hopeful entreats. It’s kind of heartbreaking. A first novel is complete. They’re ready to conquer the world. The endless fine-tuning of strategies! Not for me.

    I’ve had an idea for a good long while. Literary agents are being off’d by a writer who’s finally flipped out over waits and rejections. He starts sending out, under assumed names, queries describing increasingly violent plots against agents. Agents start dying. A low level assistant with a network of slush pile reading friends, who socialize regularly, talk about the deaths and the disturbing queries and the frightening similarities. Haven’t gotten beyond that.

    It’s fun to think about, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mimispeike says:

    My advice: Don’t break your hearts chasing an agent. Make a racket on the web. Like so, on my Facebook page:
    ________________________________________

    Life Event 7/22/16 (Big Boo-Boo):

    Crap! I just noticed that I typed my website name (below, under my initial Life Event, Still Alive), I spelled it .con instead of .com (don’t look for it, it’s fixed).

    Freudian slip? My MC (main character, in author jargon) Sylvester Boots, aka Sly, is a con-man through and through. Hmmm . . . a con-CAT, to be precise. He’s a cutie! I hope you check him out. (On my site, the book is not published yet.)

    A whole lotta stuff ought to be on the .con – what do they call it – is it the URL?

    donaldjtrump.com needs to be donaldjtrump.con

    Oh I like it, I like it! How about you?

    My long-lost family members, whom I’ve reconnected with here: don’t take offense. I figure we’ve got Trump people in our ranks, Hil people for certain-sure, I was and am for Bernie. What do I do in November? Damned if I know. (Jill Stein?)

    I guess DJT made the choice dead-obvious/piece-of-cake last night. I’m not much of a Hil fan. (Middle Class Warrior, give me a break.) Well, what do you expect of someone who started out as a Goldwater Girl? But, what ja gonna do? What ja gonna fucking do?

    ________________________________________

    I’m already getting likes on my page, mostly from folks I’ve engaged with on Wix Design Experts. How many will toddle over to my site? How many of them will read a chapter of my novella? I don’t know. I’ll just keep on keeping on. Blind faith, I recommend it.

    Next I join some of the writer groups, see what trouble I can get into there. And, there are reader groups, with big numbers. Maybe there’s a group of cat fanciers. I’m just getting started.

    Take a lesson from the activists. Act Up! (I’m not comparing writing to a disease, and I’m not trying to be cute at the expense of the AIDS fight.)

    Writing is not an often soul-crushing affliction, you catch the strain, you may subdue it, but you’ll never shake it.

    Hell, maybe it is.

    Like

  5. atthysgage says:

    I should admit right out front, I stopped looking for an agent a long time ago. As I said in the post, even sympathetic agents who like my books ultimately find them not worth their while, and it’s hard to blame them. They may look mainstream from the outside, but once you get past the covers, they’re not particularly user friendly. They don’t sit well in their genre category, they aspire to be literature, plus the humor is pretty quirky. I’m not ashamed of any of that, but I can’t pretend that they’ll ever be bestsellers.

    On top of that, I’m not convinced that agents are necessarily all that helpful, especially for small-timers like myself. It’d be great to get into a big house publisher, but the onus for promotion still falls on the author, and my reach is still my reach. It’s still plenty easy to wither into obscurity even IF Penguin publishes your novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, I’ve never even tried to find an agent, my book was sent to Bookkus before it was ready, and my day job precludes the volume of writing necessary to attract an agent. But let me offer a couple of comments.

    Any publication for people trying to reach a professional level becomes repetitive very quickly. Remember, people get paid to write these articles. I’ve picked up Writer’s Digest a couple of times and really didn’t find much insightful material. (I found it interesting that much of what I read as advice I had posted as a blog on my Web Page.) I compare this to years of subscribing to various photography mags and my feeling (when I thumb through the latest issue) of “Yep, know that, that too.” Truthfully, I only maintain my subscription so I can look through the reviews of new photo gear.

    The other thing to remember is that most of what you read (maybe 75%) is common sense. Many of the Don’t’s Atthys mentioned are pretty much the same ones I tell my students to observe when they are writing cover letters for job or grad school applications. But hey, proclaiming “ … Unique Ways to Find an Agent” on the cover of this month’s issue will probably guarantee good sales.

    MFA’s? Well, I read an article about a year ago (don’t remember exactly where, but I can do a search if anyone wants) about the explosion of MFA programs at Universities and Colleges. To a very large extent this is driven by the massive fall-off in English Lit graduate students (to say nothing of undergrad majors). Right now we’re going through an era where students are looking for degrees that get them jobs right out of college. I know a number of Ph.D.’s in English Lit and Philosophy that can’t find jobs in their fields, and with the major decline in teaching jobs at all levels that holds for Humanities in general. So what do our Centers of Higher Learning do? They push a new shiny product (MFA’s) just like a normal business would do. Apparently there are now lots of MFA’s out there, hideously in debt, driving cabs.

    The biggest downside for writers is that the MFA’s who do get jobs (editing, etc.) tend to favor other MFA’s because (as they were told in the college recruiting brochure) only an MFA really knows how to write.

    A bit cynical? Sure, but sometimes cynicism helps you put your head down and keep plugging away.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    A degree in Creative Writing confers a standing. Acquiring an agent does the same: you have been judged worthy. Someone (presumably, with connections) is willing to spend time shopping your book around.

    It seems to me that the people most obsessed with finding an agent are those just starting out. That makes sense. They are anxious to have their work certified by an insider. The approval would (generally, and necessarily) be on the basis of commercial potential.

    You may get a radio interview you wouldn’t have. Find other ways to get the word out. As Tom says, put your head down and keep plugging away.

    Let’s make it our goal to ruin an agent’s life by being the next Hugh Howey/Amanda Hocking, self-publishing after we’ve been refused and refused, making it on our own.

    Agents, publishers too, have nightmares about that, that’s what I’ve read. Let’s aim to be their worst nightmare. In the midst of this doom-and-gloom, that’s gotta put a smile on your face.

    Like

  8. mimispeike says:

    I can’t help but think back to my mother. She died just as I was starting to write. She’d graduated from a trade (secretarial) school very young, that’s what they did in those days. She was a secretary, then she married. That was her life.

    She told me once, way before she knew that I was writing (actually, I’m not sure she ever knew, we were not close) that she’d dreamed of being a writer. I’m sure she felt you couldn’t be a writer unless you’d gone to school for it. She wrote my father’s vanity press autobiography and it was nicely done. That was her doing, I’d bet my life on it.

    I always wanted to say to her, Then write, damn it! You don’t need permission to write. If you want to write, and don’t, it’s your own fault. But she was so beaten down by my authoritarian father, I couldn’t bring myself to scold her.

    We don’t need permission to write, nor to publish. Those days are gone.

    Validate yourself. Trust yourself. Agent or not, you have to sell your book yourself. An agent may get you a book deal. A book deal can get you into stores, where you’ll maybe be seen. In a book store, unless it hits big, your baby has a shelf life. Online, it can sell forever. If it takes off, an agent will come looking for you.

    Are the odds of that so much worse than for your meticulously composed, every word weighed, hat-in-hand entreat? I did it myself, until I said, no more.

    Some genres do better at the query process than others. Sci-Fi would seems to be one. Romance, certainly. (Bigger audience with lower expectations?) Epic fantasy, not sure, there’s so much of it out and about.

    For those who’ve given up on queries, there can still be a happy ending. Ask Hugh Howey.

    Like

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