Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Defense of Agents

Caveat: I don't intend to beat up on writers in this post. I love you, writers, and I mean that. Without you I would have nothing to read and nothing to help sell, and therefore no fun and no job, respectively. And I am, as I've mentioned, a writer myself, so I'd also have nothing to do. So here's to you, writers, for continuing to write in the face of adversity, the daunting work necessary for publication, and potentially disastrous BookScan numbers. Cheers.

That said, there's one very important thing I'd like you to consider when querying agents. Jessica Faust has written a very thoughtful and diplomatic post on the subject, and I think it's something that should be said directly (if it hasn't been already): you are not necessarily an agent's first priority.

Please understand that I don't mean to be rude when I say this. Please also understand that I don't mean this in the sense that you are not necessarily the best potential client to query a given agent (this may be true), or that said agent has other obligations, i.e. a family, that probably come before you (this may be true as well). What I'm saying is that in addition to you, one of thousands of potential clients, any given agent has several existing clients who need his or her help with all the things I blog about: co-op, discussing misleading BookScan numbers with publishers, understanding the terms of their contracts, and so on. I imagine most agents are absolutely exhausted by the work they put in soothing, cajoling, and haggling with editors, clients, and publishers, and frankly, I'm impressed that some of them have as much time for potential clients as they do. Again, this is no slight to you; you are not unimportant. You just aren't as important to the agent as the agent is to you. At least, not yet.

There are ways to improve your odds, however. In addition to paying attention to the basics, making sure you're ready to query, following the guidelines and writing a kick-ass book, you could take a chance on a younger agent with fewer/no existing clients, or try querying in the summer, when the industry is running a little slower. If you read agent blogs (which you should), try to avoid querying when you know an agent will be on vacation, possibly somewhere without reliable Internet access.

At the end of the day, the publishing industry is just that: an industry, and it depends on sales. Does it depend on sales to the exclusion of all else? No. But agents, publishing houses, and book stores all have to turn a profit in order to remain in business, and unless that changes, the majority of attention will always have to be paid to the individuals publishing now, and not those who may be involved at some undetermined point in the future.


  1. Caveat: I don't intend to beat up on writers in this post.

    Dammit. There goes my daily dose of S&M.

    As a writer, thank you. I've done what you said, and made friends (not professional relationship yet) with a young agent just starting out in the UK. I'm trying to help her out with publicity and profile awareness (because I actually am a rather nice person sometimes), and I was slightly astounded when she offered to read some of my work when it is ready.



  2. Writers at the query stage focus so much on this part of an agent's job that it's easy to forget how much more the agent really has to do in his/her day. I really don't see how they get it all done.

    Of course, once one passes "query", runs the gauntlet of "partial" to "full" and finally to "agented" I'm certain one feels quite differently about how much time an agent should spend reading queries.

  3. Great post :) I try to avoid writers that are down on agents -- usually because they've been rejected by them. Everyone gets rejections, including JK Rowling and Steven King.

    I'm not sure about querying in the summer though. Summer is when a lot of the agents are away for conferences a lot and have even less time...

  4. Overall, I've had good experiences with agents, but good manners goes both ways. I don't care that much if an agent doesn't respond to a query. But it bugs me when agents don't respond to requested partials or fulls. This leaves writers, who already have fragile egos, saying to themselves, "You mean it was so bad, it doesn't even deserve a response?" This cavalier attitude won't serve these agents in the end. I have a writer friend who went from so-so to stellar and has a ridiculous amount of awards to show for it. It does happen.

  5. I'm constantly amazed at the number of writers that like to complain about the system without ever suggesting how to fix it. I thought we were supposed to be a creative bunch ;-)

    I think agents exist in part because editors want them to. They also serve a vital function for their clients in managing royalties and the other nuances of publishing (such as those revealed in this blog- thank you!).

    It's clear to me that my own business experience, while extensive in its own right, does not cover the needs of my future writing career.

  6. Great post, and I agree that writers should be aware of the fact that queriers are not an agent's top priority. This is something we need to know about the general process towards publication.

    However, I too work full-time in addition to mothering a small whippersnapper and attempting to maintain a household and a marriage. My job is incredibly demanding and full and stressful. It is not my customers' responsibility to show me some slack because I'm so busy and utterly exhausted at the end of the day.

    Agents are professionals. They can luckily choose to deal only with clients who will treat them as such. I'm a professional, and I do not expect (nor get) any slack because I'm busy. Writers should approach agents as any other business relationship: professionally, tactfully, and with common courtesy. Likewise, agents should approach writers this way. But I'm not going to assume an agent doesn't have time for me, or is too busy for me. It's a business relationship.

    I don't think the people who don't already know this read your blog. :)

  7. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I learned early on that if I don't do my research, find what sounds like the right agent, follow the guidelines slavishly, and have more patience than is natural for me, I annoy agents and get either form rejections or ignored. I realize that agents are pestered right and left by people who think they have written the next great American novel. I haven't, but I have written a solid series of women's novels that are perfect for midlist sales. Wish I could find an agent who thinks the same. Sigh.

  9. i'm WAY less diplomatic than jessica:


  10. I've got a new blog post with 5 tips to help writers target the right agent and not clog the pipeline with pointless queries. http://annerallen.blogspot.com

  11. Thanks for sharing this collection of gems -- lots to think about for the writer who plans to query, and you touch upon the right stuff. :)


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  14. Oh, I will say, Rick D., I have offered very specific suggestions to agents about how to improve the system. For example, queries are a waste of their time. Go right to the writing. The amount of time and energy they could free up...how can they not want to do that??

    But no one listens to me. Sigh.

  15. Once I've secured an agent I'll be pleased they're not spending all their time on reading queries. :-)

  16. Hi Mira—

    I sympathize with your wanting agents to go straight to the writing, but (and I think we've touched on this topic before) agents still need to know genre, plot arc, cast of characters, &c, and while I agree this could be done with a web form (as I think you've suggested), the amount of time the writer spends on said form will be, I think, comparable to the amount of time spent on the query.

    If you don't think this is the case (and please forgive me if I'm putting words in your mouth, but I think you mentioned that many authors spend huge quantities of time writing and perfecting their queries), then I submit the following: as you've read here on PMN, pitching the book is insanely important. I know how to do it. My bosses know how, editors know how, marketing knows how, publicity knows how, agents know how, &c &c. But as I've said before, no one is a stronger advocate for your book than you. Consider the query letter an exercise in pitching your novel. If you, ostensibly your biggest advocate, can't do it, why should anyone else care enough to?

  17. It's amazing to me how good manners has fallen to the wayside in so many areas. No agent has to accept me as a client or even read what I write. If he or she does take the time to read what I write and then actually respond to that writing then I should feel honored. It wouldn't hurt to drop a few thank you notes to all the agents that have ever said no with a note! Agents have a job to do and hand holding me through the query process should not be added to that list.

    PS - I'm in a "stand on your own two feet" mood today. :D

  18. Eric, I think agents should reverse the order.

    Why bother to read all those queries of people they won't be working with?

    Get the fill-in form (which can be set up to be quick) and the writing.

    If the agent likes the writing, they can contact the writer. If the writer turns out to be an unprofessional nightmare, the agent doesn't have to sign them.

    Besides, I've said this before, writers can hire someone to write a pitch for them if they don't have that skill themselves. And it's certainly not worth the hours and hours and hours of time agents spend reading queries just to determine if the writer is capable of writing a pitch.

    Especially since the agent will never end up working with the vast majority of people who submit queries anyway.

    In my humble opinion, the query system is just not the most efficient or effective system, and is an enourmous waste of time for agents.

    That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it. And I'd like to thank you for listening to me voice it. :)

  19. Hi Mira,

    I used to work at the bottom of the feeding chain at a literary agency (and now I write round ups for PMN. Is that a career move forward or backwards?), and I have to say that your suggestion to just get to the writing is pretty similar to what I would do with the slush pile--skim the query letter and then read the first page or so of the included sample. The query letter was like a college interview--not enough to get you in, but sometimes enough to keep you out.

    It would take me 30 seconds to skim a query letter (and sometimes reject things right there: I saw someone mix up "heroine" and "heroin" once), and then a minute to read the first pages. With a form, I would take 30 seconds to skim the filled in information and then a minute on the first page.

    Plus, you *know* someone would come up with a specific format for the form...that would look just like a query. Womp womp.

  20. Hi Laura,

    Well, frankly I always thought that's how the query letter would work, but since I've been going around to different agent blogs, it doesn't seem to actually work that way.

    For example, there are still agents that won't accept samples; they just want the query letter. Then, if they like the query letter, they'll request samples. That's a huge time waster, in my humble opinion, why not just go directly to the writing?

    On the web, authors are given very detailed instructions about query letters. Very, very detailed. There are agent sites set up just to critique queries. Agents frequently talk about going through hundreds of queries a day, and talk about queries that don't work for them. Is that all bluster? Hard for me to believe, but I suppose it could be.....but it certainly has given me the impression that query letters are of significant importance, and agents spend TONS of time on them.

    Thanks for your response, it's interesting to think about. Of course, if queries are basically a 'dummy system' and are used to screen out writing, I would have plenty of arguments against that as well, given how much time writers spend on them, and the fact that they really don't necessarily reflect the value of the writing itself. :)