Now that you know where to find an agent, and you know the essentials of writing a book proposal – which you will submit to land a contract with an agent, it’s time to learn how not to blow your big chance to gain literary representation. Here today to tell us all about literary agents’ pet peeves, so we can avoid them (which you, of course, want to do at all costs if you desire to take the traditional publishing route), is Katharine Sands, an agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency and the author of Making the Perfect Pitch, How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye. I’ve heard her speak about pitching, and I’ve even pitched to her a few times. She knows her stuff, so read what she has to say and take good notes.
A Plethora of Pet Peeves
By Katharine Sands
Literary Agent and Author
When Miss Snark retired from the blogosphere, writers lost a great rosetta stone for interpreting agent peeves. (I think the name “Miss Snark,” should be passed from agent to agent, and handed down through the ages the way that the Dread Pirate Roberts is passed from pirate to pirate in The Princess Bride.) Perhaps, I could invent my own alter ego: Mistress Peeve…
To peeve or not to peeve…that is the question.
- Okay. First that granddaddy of gripes: How writers misaddress agents. All agents agree: proper punctuation rules. For example: Let’s say you are writing your first query letter to (fictitious) agent Ivana Schmooze. The correct salutation is: Dear Ms. Schmooze; it is not: Dear Ivana Schmooze, Dear Ivana, Dear Agent, Dear Meredith Bernstein, or Dear Sirs. From an anonymous agent to the Book Biz Santa: ‘No addressing me as Sir/Madam. To my mind, there are only several agents who can pull this one off, and it’s usually after hours.’
- Agents will detect a font that is different from the one used in the body of the rest of the letter which leads me to – The Cadillac of classic peeves: sending to all the agent names that fit in print. Hello ‘Everybody-Who’s-Anybody’ displayed on your e-query. While this may seem like the smart, sure way to reach out to many potential agents and up your chances for success. Getting an agent to represent you is a numbers game and you do need to believe someone will choose you; but an e-mail blast to the agent directories dings the place in the agent brain marked auto-reject, and this is guaranteed to land you in the circular file, recycle bin, pronto. Why? This is the mark of the obvious amateur, and the writer who does not respect basic submitting-to-an-agent etiquette, the ABCs of the submission process that are widely written about. Agents see e-blast submissions as a reason to delete and move on even though it seems to bea timesaver. When introducing your work (or yourself) to an agent show, you are ready for the literary marketplace by selecting your agent candidates with a serious and intelligent eye. Sending to multiple agents scattershot does not attract their attention. It mostly ends up in spam filters. Make sure your submission does not become spam-a-lot…
- “My new peeve is a query made up of links,” says Rita Rosenkranz “I think a submission, especially via e-mail, should have at least a basic description about the work and the author, duplicating the content of a query letter sent through the mail. I feel the author is taking a self-defeating shortcut when the correspondence is made up only of links or attachments, requiring the agent to investigate these one by one. Even more annoying is when the attachments are not well labeled and get lost in a pool of generically identified attachments.” Yes, it worked in Fitzgerald’s day when genius could be cobbled from scribbles by editor of genius, Maxwell Perkins. But as Gerald Howard, a prominent editor, wrote in his oft-quoted essay, “Mistah Perkins, He Dead”
- Breakout success stories from the blogosphere where writers are blogging their way into agents’ hearts is indeed happening, but new snark bait is blog-like writing in submissions where the query is chatty and unfocused. One may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, but we have to riff a lot of blogs to find a print….
- Even though it may seem like an agent need only invest a few seconds to find a viable client, agents do not see a cyber scavenger hunt quite this way. To an agent, a writer stands out from the throng and shows preparedness by a crisp perfect pitch. One that gets the agent to say ‘yes.’ A pitch is not the beginning of your book it is the introduction to your potential as an author. The best pitches create a moment, pose a provocative question, or give a flavor for the project. Sarah Jane Freymann shares: “If you are able to sum up your entire book with a title or one-line description, that’s gold.” With the exception of lines that sound like they came right out of The Player: ‘It’s Sex and the City meets The Silence of the Lambs.‘ Or ‘Harry Potter meets Moby Dick.’ Titles or ideas that are derivative do not fly, for example we still see a spate of Dan Brown-inspired ones. ‘The Michelangelo Zone’ or ‘The Cellini Code’ – easy to decline.
- Reactions to rejection spawn several agent peeves. Says Janet Reid: “You just have to get over the idea that “it’s not right for me” is some sort of comment on the value or quality of your work. It’s not. It’s only a comment about whether it resonates with me AND whether I can sell it. I pass on really good stuff all the time.”
- Ah, but here is a new nettle: writers posting comments on a website froma letter of rejectionto create the impression of a blurb. This is false advertising since, the agent is, in fact, declining to represent the work, not extolling it. This is fast becoming a big no-no plus editors know these are probably from rejection letters, so it really does not serve a writer to claim a host of agents is championing their work, when they are merelybeing polite and encouraging. We appreciatewritersneedmoxie and marketing savvy, but we send such letters out by the hundreds to many writerswith interesting premises and atmospheric novels, these aregeneral comments we make often and do not want to find on wannabeauthor.com.
- If truth be told agents are increasingly imperiled by being, quite literally, in the hands of irate writers. The writer community – in blogs, review threads, forums and on sites such as AbsoluteWrite and Predators & Editors – abounds with buzz and has much to say about agents. The word on the gripe grapevine is how much it riles to read rags on the Web for real or, more often, imagined slights. If you take umbrage consider carefully how you take it out on the agent. Whatever you post that goes on Google will outlive both of you in the blogosphere. In Cyberspace everyone can hear you scream…
For more ways not to gravel, and vex, consider this potpourri of peeves:
- We see a lot of channeled and cosmic-inspired material. Hey, maybe your spirit guides did select the agency(but how do I know my spirit guides are simpatico with yours?). All forms of faith are a matter between you and your god, not you and your agent. Connection with the divine is best left to the heavens and out of your pitch. Whether a writer intriguingly knows of the coming apocalypse, has an in with the Other Side, or can summon entities with unique insights, their material must still be evaluated on merit as a book. Presume agents do not want to be convinced or converted within minutes of a meeting or reading a query
- Red flags wave when a writer starts to huff and chuff for any reason. You want to always behave professionally and purposely and positively. Remember how you interact is important indicator of how you will work with your publisher. An agent is an author advocate, but functions a bit like an officer of the court. We do not swear oaths, but we are bound to represent to each side honestly. You want your agent to act like a tigress on the prowl? Not likely in today’s publishing climate. The martini-swilling dragon lady of your dreams who fights on your behalf for every deal point has been replaced by increasingly impersonal dealings with the corporate politics of a publishing imprint of a media behemoth. The new criteria: not how tough you are as opponents, but how effective you can all be as ambassadors for your writing.
- Your attorney (a cousin in Florida who practices maritime law and has never seen a publishing contract) is unlikely to be a welcome part of the negotiation process. Agents – who only benefit from executed contracts and published clients -have a vested interest in your success and legal protections. It is not in your interest to obtain inaccurate legal advice, or to want the agent to address every issue that might arise for the Slovakian theme park rights from your 15th international bestseller (when you are really just starting out). And you might protect yourself right out of a potential agent.
- At a conference, many writers react badly to being critiqued. If you are ready for an agent meeting, steady yourself for the hot seat. Your work will be deconstructed in a way unlike that of a supportive writing group, retreat, MFA program, or workshop. Best use of the time is to understand where and why the agent suggests next steps about what to do before readying for publishers, and to listen to feedback that is valuable (whether or not it’s agreeable). Agents do strive to be sensitive when rendering professional opinions about personal stories and we understand how emotional it can be to be reviewed, but, in all candor, stories of catastrophic events or adorable pet antics make you an interesting person, but not necessarily a person of interest for the client list. And, yes, you can presume the attending agents are always hoping to find clients at the writer’s conferences. We do not live by those rubber-chicken dinners alone….
- Self-publishing works for you some ways, but against you in others. When a company for hire has printed your book, you are not considered a published author. But if you have a means of promoting and selling your book through your own marketing efforts you might accrue numbers of books sold (and better profits than being published by a trade publisher). You might be reviewed, get media attention and so on. If you show a strong track record, a larger entity might want to take the project to the next level, and re-publish, or distribute the book. And, also, the book will quite possibly be the text exactly as you wrote it (which appeals to some authors). Less successful is self-publishing and then shopping the book to agents…because several things kick in: 1) Your ISBN# and sales record are tracked, the numbers will not be as high as a trade publisher would like to see. 2) A book from 2003 looks like what the Japanese call “old cake”. It does not look as fresh or current as it might have done five years ago. 3) I presume 158 agents have declined the project prior to the author’s decision to self-publish and pay to have books printed. Even though we know it may well be untrue, this is a pop-up thought in an agent’s mind. 4) If you have obtained a copyright and an ISBN# this signals you might be very difficult to work with – apropos the agency input and the editor’s suggestions, which would change the text necessitating a second copyright. Part of an agent’s job is to locate and secure a publishing contract that always includes the copyright clause.
Whether meeting with you or reading your pitch letter agents want to be engaged, zero in on the Zeitgeist, find hooks and sales engines, identify the intended audience, and be impressed by a writer’s voice. We need to determine the answer to two pressing questions: Why you? Why now? The guiding principle is to remember that agents are looking first for a reason to keep reading, and then for a reason to represent you. Be certain you give us crystal clear answers – fast. We cherry-pick our clients, and want things to progress smoothly and happily. We want writers to get as close to their ultimate dreams and goals as possible.
About Katharine Sands
A literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Katharine has worked with a varied list of authors who publish a diverse array of books. Highlights include XTC: SongStories; Make Up, Don’t Break Up with Oprah guest Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil; The Complete Book on International Adoption: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Your Child; Taxpertise: What to Expect When They’re Detecting; Under the Hula Moon; Writers on Directors; Ford model Helen Lee’s The Tao of Beauty; Elvis and You: Your Guide to the Pleasures of Being an Elvis Fan; New York: Songs of the City; SAT Word Slam, to name a few. She is the agent provocateur of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, a collection of pitching wisdom from leading literary agents. Actively building her client list, she likes books that have a clear benefit for readers’ lives in categories of food, travel, lifestyle, home arts, beauty, wisdom, relationships, parenting, and fresh looks, which might be at issues, life challenges or popular culture. For reads in faction, memoir and femoir, she likes to be transported to a world rarely or newly observed; for fiction, she wants to be compelled and propelled.
What I am looking for: I know it when I see it (like the Supreme Court definition of pornography)… The last thing I would have thought I wanted to represent was a book of poetry for the young adult market; so, guess what I have just sold! Yes, SAT Word Slam by Jodi Fodor, a book of rhymes for a YA audience. I always want to allow for the falling in love aspect of taking on a client…and cannot always predict what a writer inspires me to undertake for my select list of projects.