What I Learned In An Agent’s Inbox

This week I’ve been playing agent. And while I often fancy myself a secret agent, in this case I mean literary agent.  As one of the mentors for PitchWars my inbox has filled with a slew of queries and opening pages sent by writers looking to be chosen for a full manuscript critique and coaching throughout the agent round of the contest.

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This is my second year as a mentor and the things I saw and learned last year are even more pronounced this go around, as entries topped 2,700. I thought I’d blog about my selection process today, because I suspect it’s similar to that of an agent (or an editor) reading submissions and I know being on this side of the desk has given me a new appreciation for the combination of preparedness and luck that goes into moving forward in this business.

Here’s my handy-dandy 5-step selection process:

Step 1: Do I love the concept?

Yup. This business functions on subjectivity. Kinda sucks, since that’s not something writers can control. There are some story ideas I’ll just have a harder time connecting with because of who I am and what I like, though I try not to summarily judge. I know I tend to not appreciate fantasy, even though my top-five-of-all-time list includes Harry Potter. As a mom, I’m squeamish about stories where kids die, yet The Fault in Our Stars was one of my favorite books last year. However, I can say for certain that I need a ton of voice and I’d prefer a dose of humor, so I find myself sitting up more when a query has both. That’s just me, and what I like to read. This is why it always helps to pay attention when agents post wish lists. If they say they don’t like horror or mystery or romance (heathens!), believe them. If you can’t find their wish list, search QueryTracker  for their client list and see what those books have in common (focus on the early offerings of each author since one of those is likely the book the agent signed them for).

Step 2: Is it marketable?

I’m lucky. For this contest, I only have to know what a specific group of agent judges are looking for. Agents, on the other hand, have to know what every editor is looking for, what’s trending in the marketplace, what has sold but hasn’t yet published, and what’s not selling at all. I’ll only be paying attention to the participating agents’ wish lists and also to whether the manuscript is something that could be unique to the marketplace. I think about this before I read any of the writing, because, with rare exceptions, a beautifully written book with an unmarketable concept is still one tough sell.

Step 3: Is the writing good?

Notice I didn’t say, “Is the writing great?” As a mentor, I don’t mind at all if the story is starting in the wrong place or if there are some issues with the opening pages. If the voice is there and the writing itself is good, I’m all in. Agents don’t have that luxury. They’re not signing on to be your writing coach. They’re there to sell your manuscript. Of course, many agents are editorial and like to work with their clients on revisions before it goes out on submission to editors, but writers should never assume they can send anything less than perfect with the hope that, “once I sign, my agent will help me polish it.” When you’re facing odds like the ones that exist in an agent’s inbox, you can’t get away with that. Agents don’t need a project, they need a professional. Which leads me to…

Step 4: Is this person a professional?

I made a TON of newbie mistakes when I was querying. A TON. But I also spent a huge amount of time researching, reading blog posts, going to conferences, and learning about the industry. I still do, and I always will.  I understand now why there is a “standard” approach to queries, because it really does help weed out those who don’t know it from those who have clearly put time and effort into perfecting it. It’s one easy way for agents to see whether you’ve done your homework. Of course, writing is a creative field and you only get one chance to make a first impression, so I understand the temptation to show off that creativity in a query. It could even work for some. Somewhere out there could be queries in verse, queries with animated gifs, and queries written in first person “by” the main character that landed their authors an agent. But I always think back to a college marketing internship I did at Disney World. One day the director of human resources gave us a presentation that included a display of all the “out-of-the-box” resumes the company received from people wanting to be Disney Imagineers. Perhaps I should say “in-the-box” because one of them was an actual boxed Ken doll where the packaging listed all the attributes this particular applicant possessed.  It was not presented as a success story. Let your creativity shine in your writing; let your query speak to the business side of you. Agents need to know you can handle yourself with ease in both arenas because they’re staking their own reputation on your ability to conduct yourself professionally with the editors they sell your work to, and, down the line, with your fans and critics. However, don’t mistake “overly professional” for “void of personality.” A little bit of friendly personalization goes a looooooooong way. When someone took the time to write, “I’m pitching you because I read your interview with your tween self on your website, and I’m also someone who likes to talk to myself, so I thought perhaps we’d work well together,” that put a smile on my face as I dove into the rest of the query. Trust me. You want someone reading your query who’s already smiling.

Step 5: Do I love the concept?

Why yes, this was step one. It will also be my last step, because it’s the true litmus test. If I get that fluttery stomach excitement, that gut feeling of “I really need to read more of this!” I’ll know I have my selection.

Sadly, along with the thrill of playing agent, comes the icky feeling of having to choose only one at the expense of others. I won’t lie: it stinks. But what it doesn’t mean is that there weren’t others that were equally deserving. To that, I’ll say this:

Someone gave me great advice when I was at a low point in the query process. She instructed me to go to a bookstore and select a book. Huh? I dutifully followed orders (I mean, this wasn’t exactly a hardship). When I checked in with her afterwards she asked me why I’d picked the book I had and I told her my reasons. Then she asked me what was wrong with the books I hadn’t picked.

Oh.

Because the answer, of course, was, “Nothing.” They were quality books, good enough to be published in a tough marketplace, and likely full of lovely characters and stories. The one I bought was the one that grabbed my attention that particular day, whereas on a different day, it might have been another on the shelf above or the shelf below. So if you’ve applied for a PitchWars mentor, or you’re querying agents, or you’re out on submission with editors, it helps to remember that so much of this business is a combination of “luck meets preparation.” Learn as much as you can, so you can do everything in your control to tip the scales in your favor, but recognize that it may just be a matter of “right place at the right time,” too. If you keep putting yourself in the right place, sooner or later, it will also be the right time!

24 comments

  1. Thank you for this – very interesting. If I’m honest, however, the thing that I struggle with more than anything else in my writing is this whole ‘voice’ concept. I know what it is – kind of. I think everything I’ve written does have a ‘voice’ because everything does – but it might not be clear or compelling or individual enought? And yet, of all the comments and criticisms I’ve every had about anything I’ve written, voice has never been mentioned. Does that mean it’s good? I worry because if it’s something I can’t fully identify, how can I improve it?

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  2. Wonderfully insightful! The five criteria are all great, but perhaps most telling of all– and a test that we can all try for ourselves– is going to the store to pick out a book and asking ourselves the same questions you did. Thanks for writing this!

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  3. Thanks, Jen. That was a great post. And so very true, especially the part about buying a book at the store. We all follow the same selection process, so it makes sense to apply the same process while writing a book. I loved the last sentence – If you keep putting yourself in the right place, sooner or later, it will also be the right time! It’s nice to hear something encouraging like that. Thanks 🙂

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  4. Great post, thanks Jen! Great to know what happens behind the scenes at Pitch Wars, and that writers can think like agents. And so true about the concept, and the right place at the right time.

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  5. THanks for the great post, Jen. It’s really good to remember how subjective this business is and that you just have to find the right fit for your work in terms of agents and publishers.

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  6. Insightful and encouraging! The whole query process can boggle the mind, but you’re right to say that subjectivity is a huge part of it. I recently saw a comment from a writer online that said she queried 4 agents and when they all rejected she decided to self publish. Now, everyone has their own path and needs to make that determination themselves, but four agents isn’t very many. Maybe that person didn’t want to pursue traditional publishing at all and gave it a half-effort, who knows. But four agents can have widely differing views, preferences, and then factor in mood, specifics of the query, etc. It could be the query is weak and is not getting a response.

    The bookstore example is a good one. A very good way to tangibly get how subjective this process is.

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    1. Agreed, Stephanie. My query list was, let’s just say, longer, and I often got encouraging but conflicting comments from requesting agents that really demonstrated that every reader brings something of their own to a read. That’s not good or bad, it just is. But hopefully she had success sell publishing!

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  7. This is my first time entering PitchWars and it’s been a little stressful! Thank you for putting things in perspective in your encouraging post.

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