How NOT to Get an Agent (And What to Do After You Get One)
This is a column with practical advice about ways to improve your chances of finding and retaining a good agent to represent you and help sell your work to a publisher. Some of the suggestions I proffer are obvious, some not so obvious. But I write this as someone who has maintained an excellent relationship with one literary agency for 27 years and 8 books. I think I know what I’m talking about.
Getting an Agent
Do Not Call
Most literary agencies ask prospective clients to submit their work in writing, but even when this request is stated clearly and succinctly on the agency’s website, some folks just can’t take the hint. They call. This falls under the category of Colossal Mistake.
First off, what can you say in a phone call that doesn’t sound either fatuous or incomplete or both? “Hi! I’m a great writer!” “Hi! You’re gonna flip over my unpublished manuscript!” “Hi! Wait – don’t hang up – please!”
I will send an autographed copy of my book Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis to anyone who comes up with a truly brilliant introductory line that could be delivered on the phone to a prospective agent who has made a point of telling people to submit their queries in writing.
Think about this, too: you’ll be talking to a receptionist, not an agent. That receptionist will almost certainly tell you the agency’s policy: Submit your request in writing. So you’re only wasting your time as well as theirs with an unwanted phone call.
Don’t – under any circumstances – either verbally or in writing, claim that your book is sure to become the next big bestseller that’s going to make everybody rich rich rich! Why not? Because it won’t won’t won’t. You’ll just look like an idiot. If bestsellers were that easy to predict and produce, I wouldn’t be writing LitReactor columns, I'd be bonking surfer boys on my private island in Hawaii.
Don’t Be Folksy
When writing an introductory letter to a prospective agent or a cover letter to accompany a manuscript, try – try! – to be professional. Face facts: you don’t know the person to whom you’re writing, so address him or her formally. For instance, if you were pitching yourself to an agent named Robert McCarthy, address him as Mr. McCarthy. Don’t try and appear friendly and casual by writing, “Dear Robert,” and whatever you do, never go the wretched distance and write, “Dear Bob.” You want to impress the agent with your sophistication, not your chumminess, which would be purely one-sided if it existed at all, which it doesn’t. He doesn’t know you from Adam, or Eve, or even the serpent, so jettison the folksiness and act like a pro.
Your introductory letter should be short and sweet. As one agent I contacted for this piece told me, “Submission letters that are more than a page long always fill me with dread.” What on earth would you be going on and on about anyway? Yourself? Hate to tell ya, butcha ain’t that interesting if ya ain’t already got a couple books published. And yours is scarcely the first query the agent has ever read.
Rather than blathering on and on about yourself, keep the focus on the work you’re submitting for consideration. Your personal fabulousness will emerge in time. And if you can’t be succinct in a cover letter, you’re a lousy writer and shouldn’t even bother trying to get an agent.
Don't Come Off Like Joyce Carol Oates
Another agent I spoke to when preparing this piece told me something in the same vein, something I didn’t expect: even if you have tons of material to submit, less is more. The way he put it was, “When someone writes an unsolicited letter that says that the writer has ‘three novels, two books of short stories, and a screenplay,’ it sets exactly the wrong tone." The agent is predisposed to reject the writer without having read even a word of the submission. He or she would be justified in thinking, "Wow - all that writing and nobody has published any of it? Must be a reason." And so ends your chance with that agency. Besides, hardly anybody is that prolific; you're not Joyce Carol Oates. You can reveal your extensive collection of unpublished material after the agency signs you, but even then you are better off concentrating on the one piece of writing that you most want to put forward. Only later, if your first effort sells, should you bring up the subject of your enormous vault of unsold material.
That agent went on to say, “Another no-no are writers who suggest that their work is in the same vein and reminiscent of authors who are already clients of ours. We’re only looking for works that are original, not self conscious and derivative attempts to write in the style of another author who has already been acclaimed for the specificity of his or her prose.”
That certainly makes sense. Why should Chuck Palahniuk’s agency (which happens to be mine as well) take on someone who bills himself as “the next Chuck Palahniuk”? They’ve already got the real one. Why should they be at all interested in any wannabes?
That said, I must say I’ve successfully placed several writers with agents by recommending that they take a look at books they admire and see who represented them. They can then write to one of those agents saying something on the order of, “I so enjoyed your client So-and-so’s book, XYZ, and I would be honored to have you consider my novel for representation as well. It’s very different in style and subject than XYZ, but I think it has a similar level of quality.” That way, you’re not telling your prospective agent that your writing is just like that of someone the agency is already representing; instead, you’re flattering the agent for his or her good taste in clients. And contrary to the old adage, flattery often gets you somewhere.
Avoid Naked Greed
Never, ever ask how much your book is going to bring in. You’ll only be sizing yourself up as a fool. The publishing market is extremely unpredictable, now more than ever before, and no agent in his or her right mind would cite a dollar figure off the top of the head. Sure, you can dream of a six-figure deal, but keep it to yourself. These days, you’re lucky if you get published at all.
Once You Find an Agent
So you won the battle. Now get ready for the war. You've got representation, which puts you way ahead in the game. You've got an advocate who knows the publishing terrain and is willing to stake his or her own reputation on your manuscript. This triumph brings with it a whole new set of pitfalls you must avoid, some of which, I think, result from the clinically narcissistic core of most writer’s psyches. Admit it: we crave attention. With the exception of the incomprehensible Emily Dickinson, we write to be read by as many people as possible. The temptation to focus all of that raw need onto your new agent is very powerful. So…
Limit Your Phone Calls and Emails
This is a tragic true story: Many years ago, I collaborated on a screenplay with someone I’ll call Petunia Pig for the purposes of this anecdote. At first, we met with astounding luck: the extraordinarily successful producer Scott Rudin wanted to buy the script and make the movie! Mr. Rudin took us out to lunch. He was warm, friendly, and funny – just the opposite of what his reputation suggests, and all signs pointed toward a deal. After Petunia and I did the “We’re In the Money” dance, we approached one of the top film agents in New York. The stately, elegant agent couldn’t have been more gracious; she met with us and gave us advice and implied that she’d take us on as clients.
But no more than five business days later, the whole thing – both the deal and the representation - went spectacularly down in flames reminiscent of the Hindenburg. Why? Because the Pig insisted – insanely – clinically insanely – on calling Scott Rudin’s office five, six, seven times a day leaving frantic messages that had no basis in reality. She did the same to the agent, who quickly dropped us. So much for our deal.
I have not spoken with Ms. Pig for 27 years. If she had only shut her fucking snout and refrained from machine-gunning those phone lines, I might have become a successful screenwriter. (Note: the script did sell in the end, after Petunia thoughtfully removed my name from the byline and submitted it as entirely her own; that’s a whole other story of greed, stupidity, and a borderline personality that crossed the border into psychosis. It might go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the movie never got made.)
The take-away couldn't be clearer: Call once. If you don't get an answer, wait for a week before calling again. The same applies to emails. If you act like a pest, you'll be treated like a pest, so don't come cryin' to me when your new agent drops you for being a nag.
Don't Be Impatient - Give Your Agent Time
You cannot expect that your new agent will elevate you to the top of the client list when he or she agrees to represent you. If the agency is large, you might find yourself handed off to an underling. Do not take it personally.
Editors sometimes take forever to read a manuscript, especially by an unproven author. Let your agent handle it. Do not - do not - go behind your agent's back and contact any editors on your own. That would be impossibly rude and would certainly lead to your being dropped by your new-found agent.
Let me repeat: do not under any circumstances call or write to the editor to whom your agent has sent your manuscript. Let your agent handle all communications with that editor. The less you're involved in those transactions, the better off you'll be. Even after you get someone to agree to publish your work, it's a good idea to avoid discussing with your editor anything having to do with money. As my agent, the incomparable Edward Hibbert, advised me once, "If the subject of money comes up, just look at your hands and examine your nails and tell them to call me about it."
Still another agent I spoke with told me about some creeps he once represented. He’d worked hard to get them their first book deals, but the minute they got them they turned around and ditched the agent, saying “Well, since I figure all my subsequent books are going to be with the same publisher, I decided to no longer have an agent and to just let my lawyer negotiate my contracts from now on.”
The rats! From the agent's point of view, and from any decent client’s as well, literary representation is an ongoing relationship in which agents manage and guide their writers’ careers and negotiate with publishers to get them better and better advances for each book they write. “When we discover a great new writer, it's not a one-shot deal,” the agent went on to say. Giving an agent the bum's rush after making your first deal simply isn't an acceptable way to treat someone who has just spent months finding a good home for your first book.
Do you have any other helpful tips to share? Got any horror stories? I look forward to hearing from you. Next month: "What To Do (and Not To Do) When Working With an Editor."
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