It always cracks me up when people send me a letter addressed to “Agent Bransford.” Not “Dear Nathan” or “Dear Mr. Bransford.” No. “Dear Agent Bransford.” Needless to say, as I’m perusing a large stack of letters in my office, wearing my sensible work attire and sitting comfortably in my standard office chair, I do not feel anything like a secret agent. But whenever I receive an “Agent Bransford” letter it makes me imagine myself in some sort of a cape or mask, saving authors from disadvantageous contract language and/or preventing some sort of global literary catastrophe. So no, I am not a secret agent, but today I have a case that would be worthy of a Bond-esque literary agent with super-secret hidden X-Ray vision powers. I subscribe to the newsletter “Kirkus Discoveries,” which comes out every week or so — it’s a listing of some of the best self-published books that Kirkus has recently reviewed. I have no idea how Kirkus finds these gems or how they have the time (I usually like to think that they spend most of their time honing their notoriously snotty reviews and laughing like hyenas), but I have found some very, very good books this way. Anyway, today Kirkus Discoveries came out, and there’s a very interesting book called FOUR OF DIAMONDS that I would very much like to read. The first line of the review is “A young man stumbles his way to enlightenment in the wilds of the Australian outback.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to read that? I’d really like to find the author and ask for a copy of the book to consider for possible representation. But there’s one problem. I can’t find the author’s contact info anywhere online. Maybe I lack proper Google-stalking skills. But still. Take this as a public service announcement from Agent Bransford: “Kids, if you’re an aspiring author it is absolutely imperative that you have a Google-able website or a myspace profile or both or SOMETHING so people can easily find you by searching for you and your work. Opportunity can’t knock if opportunity can’t find your door! Also, eat your vegetables.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off saving the world, one query letter at a time.
Ah, query etiquette. As I mentioned in a previous posting, your number one goal in writing a query is to convince people that yes, you have a great project, but also that you’re SANE. You’re cool. You’re not going to go crazy on your agent. You won’t freak out if they don’t email you back in five minutes. You have social skills. You’re going to win “Client of the Year Awards.” You don’t want to tell your agent how sane you are (because that would be an insane thing to do), you want to demonstrate your sanity by being a calm person at every stage of the query process. All of the answers to the below questions have that goal in mind. Q. Is it ok to follow up on a query? A. You’re well within your rights to follow up on a query. But I would advise against it. If you haven’t heard back in two months, you can assume it’s a no. Agents are very, very busy, we get tons and tons of letters and emails, and the unfortunate fact is that while you have one letter to think about and worry over we have several hundred to deal with every single month. So if you haven’t heard back in a while I’d just let that one go. The exception to this rule is if an agent has specifically requested your manuscript and you haven’t heard back in two months. In that case it’s ok to send in an exceedingly polite letter or email inquiring about the status. But never call to follow up. Always send a letter or email. It’s much less of an imposition and thus much more polite. And never act annoyed no matter how annoyed you are. Be understanding and patient. It’s much better in the long run. Q. If I get a rejection, is it ok to ask for suggestions on other agents? A. I’m not sure how other agents feel about this, but I’d advise against it. When I really really like a project only I don’t specialize in that particular genre, I will occasionally suggest an agent who might be more appropriate. I’ll volunteer that information without being asked. But if I just passed on a project, I don’t want to be an imposition on another agent who will then have to take the time to consider something I just rejected. There’s an awkward dynamic at play there — by recommending something I just rejected, I’m sending a message to another agent that essentially this isn’t good enough for me, but hey, I’ll pass it off onto you. So I’ll always answer “no” when someone asks if I have recommendations. Q. I’ve written five books, should I tell the agent about all of them in my query? A. No. Pick the best one and don’t even mention the rest. If you’ve written five unpublished books, you’re not showing the agent that you’re an amazingly productive writer, you’re advertising that you haven’t been able to find an agent for any of them. You don’t want an agent to think that. Pretend this is your first book. Q. If an agent just rejected my query is it ok to send them another project? A. Not immediately. There’s nothing worse than reading a query, deciding it’s not for me, writing a polite letter or email and then five minutes later receiving a query for the sequel. Wait six months — by that time the agent probably will have forgotten that they rejected another one of your projects and will be much more inclined to give your new project a fresh look. Q. Is it ok to write queries to different agents at the same agency? A. This is complicated. In theory there’s no harm in writing separate queries, but one thing you have to keep in mind is that agents often share assistants (who often have the job of reading queries). So if you happen to query two agents who share an assistant you might be advertising that you are sending out blanket queries. Agents don’t want to feel like you sent a letter to everyone in town. So if you are going to send queries to agents at the same agency choose one and write to them first. If you get a rejection make sure you wait a while before you try again with another agent. And make sure that you’ve researched each agent individually and tailor your letter appropriately. Q. Is it ok to send a thank you note to an agent after they rejected my query? A. I’ve never changed my mind about a project because someone wrote a very nice thank you note, but good thank you notes have definitely made me feel guilty. So if you want revenge on an agent, a nice thank you note is the best weapon. Good luck!
Most depictions of agents in popular culture fall into two categories: the Ari Gold fast-talking hustler who is vainly trying to be one of the boys, and the bloodsucking leech who attaches itself to the author to extract that 15 percent; Or, possibly, both. It sounds pretty dire. But if you talk to authors about their agents, you might find something pretty strange — most authors love their agents. Why is that? It’s very difficult to fully describe the range of functions of an agent, but one of the most important aspects of the author/agent relationship happens at the very beginning. Agents sift through the mass of queries and letters and projects to find projects he really believes in. From the author’s perspective, this usually means that in a sea of rejections and adveristy the agent is the first person who really truly believes in the author’s talent and potential. Being an author is really, really tough — there’s a lot of rejection throughout the process, and sometimes even their friends and family don’t believe in them. Knowing that there is someone who believes in them is invaluable. Once the agent has found a project, he shops it to publishers. A lot of expertise and networking goes into this. Agents have lunches with editors and network relentlessly so they know who is buying what, what’s working and what’s not, and where and to whom they should submit. It’s more art than science, but since publishers will generally only accept submissions from agents it’s a crucial step. If there is an offer on the book, an agent will negotiate the advance and the terms of the contract. Again, there’s a great deal of expertise that goes into this. Agents know how to get better deals than authors could get on their own. They know what rights to hold onto, how to get editors to increase the advance or royalties, how to negotiate the contract to protect the authors’ interests, and often the simple fact that the author has an agent automatically ensures that they’ll get a better deal simply because the publisher knows they can’t mess around. Once the contract for the book is signed, there are other rights to deal with, such as film and translation. Some of the bigger agencies, such as Curtis Brown Ltd., have their own foreign rights and film departments, and can be very effective in selling film and translation rights. The smaller agencies usually still work to sell these rights through other agents with whom they are affiliated. After everything is all signed and finished, the agent continues to track the book to make sure things are happening as they should, to make sure the author’s money is being paid on time, and just generally keep on top of things. The agent will also work with the author to craft a long range vision for their work to aim for the greatest success down the line. So in short, what does an agent do? A good agent is part business advisor, part creative director, part lawyer, part salesman, part negotiator, part life coach and part psychotherapist. Now let’s hug it out, bitches.
UPDATE: 10/4/14 – This post is pretty out of date. Check out the resources section on the blog itself for more up-to-date suggestions.
Finding an agent can be daunting, but there are resources that can help:
Literary Marketplace (LMP) – a massive tome that lists everyone in the industry. Since very few agencies have websites it can be very useful if you need contact information. Check out your library, they may have a copy.
Association of Authors’ Representatives (aar-online.org) – the website of the AAR has a database of reputable agents, and you can search by genre and whether an agent accepts email queries. Everyone in the database follows the AAR canon of ethics.
Publishers Marketplace – sign up for the free Publishers Lunch emails to familiarize yourself with industry news and the latest book deals. You can use this as a resource fo find agents. If you can afford it you can also subscribe to the site, which allows you to search a comprehensive database.
Jeff Herman’s Guide – provides a list of agents and some advice on how to find an agent.
Your favorite books – always check out the acknowledgements section to figure out who represents your favorite books. Use these names to personalize your query letter (i.e. Because I’m such a fan of X I thought I would write you about…)
Publishers (and therefore agents) are very leery of short story collections because, typically, they dont sell. Its kind of a mystery because a lot of people like short stories and a lot of people read short stories, but, for whatever reason, they don’t sell. Publishers will generally only publish short story collections if the author has received some national exposure (i.e. published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, etc.), has graduated a top tier MFA program (generally Iowa) and/or if the author also has a novel that the publisher loves, and they plan to whet the publics appetite with the short story collection.
Yes, I represent short story collections. But. Rather than pitching your short story collection to an agent, who will likely be reluctant to read your work from the get-go, I would focus on trying to get your stories published. Once you have had some success publishing stories it will be much easier for you to find an agent – one of the best ways to find an agent is to be able to say that you have been published in some very reputable magazines or journals.
UPDATE 8/23/10: This post is now woefully out of date! Please consult this new handy-dandy replacement post on how to write a query letter.
First off, ask yourself if you want a response. Do you want to know if you’ve been passed over or are you fine just assuming you were passed over if you haven’t heard anything back in a few months?
If you want a response, you should go the old fashioned way. Write a letter to an agent, print it out, and include a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you don’t require a response, you can try emailing agents — but don’t expect that an agent will ready your letter or that they’ll respond. Most agents delete e-mailed query letters without reading them, and the rest read them and then delete them unless they’re interested.
Try to target your search to agents who are just starting out or seem less experienced. The big agents don’t really bother with query letters because they already have a full list, and they only take on sure-thing new clients. So try to find out who is just starting out, and you’ll have a much better chance that 1) your query will be read and 2) they’ll take you on as a client.
The letter itself should be short, to the point, and free of gimmicks. Just tell your story in a straight-forward fashion. It should be no longer than a page. Be concise. If you’re a good writer, the agent will be able to tell immediately just from reading the way you describe your story. Try to sound as sane as possible.
One thing you can do to attract an agent’s eye is to actually research them and tailor your letter to that particular agent. Find out what other writers they represent. If you have a thriller, find out who represents some of your favorite authors, and tell them what a big fan of you are of their client’s work. This works particularly well if you’re a fan of a lesser-known author and can draw a connection to your work (i.e. I see you represent so and so, and since I’m such a big fan I thought I’d contact you about…). Check the acknowledgements of your favorite books to figure out who represents whom.
A few query letter don’ts — Don’t be too boastful. Don’t say you are a published writer when you self-published. Don’t compare yourself to Dan Brown or Stephen King or any other super-famous author of the moment. Don’t tell the agent that your work is going to be the next ..1 New York Times Bestseller. Lastly, don’t ask rhetorical questions. So many letters start off along the lines of, “Have you ever wondered what would it would be like if you found out everyone around you is an alien?” My response is always “Um, no, not really.” And try your utmost best not to call a prospective agent — they’re going to want to see your work before they talk to you, so don’t try calling first. Let them contact you.
Let me know if you have any other questions about query letters or any other aspect of book publishing. Good luck!