Thursday, February 3, 2011

Querying for agents is a lot like fly fishing

With all the advice books, blogs, workshops, and worry about getting it right when you query a literary agent, it's no wonder the process is nerve-wracking.

I sent out a few queries for my current novel project, Consequence, in November ... hoping to beat the holiday exodus from the World of Publishing (and pretty much everything else, excepting retail). I got some encouraging responses, but no offers of representation. I figured after the turn of the year would be a good time to query a few more carefully considered and selected prospective agents.

That's when I ran into an author friend in the hot tub at the YMCA. "I'd wait until February," he warned me. "It takes a month for these guys to get their desks cleared after Christmas." In the hot tub, right? When you least expect it, there's some new theory about getting it right to get anxious about.

I waited until February.

It's something between wondrous and dispiriting how much time this querying business takes. I like to write fiction, that's fun. Work, but fun work. Finding an agent is strictly business. For me, and for the agents. I mean, think about it...

These people get 15,000 solicitations a year from authors they've never heard of. On average, each inquiring author has a snowball's chance in hell of helping the agent make a living (in case this little corner of the publishing world is unfamiliar, agents work on commission -- whether they sell determines whether they eat). An agent's side-job is to figure out which half-dozen of those 15,000 inquiries are the snowballs that aren't going to melt. It's a side-job because their real job is to take care of the authors they already represent. If an agent isn't able to sift the query wheat from the query chaff efficiently, she's toast.

So from an author's perspective, getting that query right is paramount. Figure you've got fifteen seconds to make a first impression; a minute, maybe two to get past an agent's defensive predisposition to say "nope"; and then -- well, then your material better be pretty bloody compelling or it's off to the form-rejection pile you go.

Here's the thing though: there's no one way to get it right.

One of the first things you need to convey during that first fifteen seconds of agent-attention is that you are troubling the very busy agent only because, through diligent research, you have specially chosen them from among the hundreds of literary agents listed in each of a half-dozen published guides ... and you chose them, specially, because they are perfectly suited to represent your book.

That means you've got to do that diligent research before you pick the agents you intend to query. Better block out a big chunk of hours for that step. Reading the guides, checking the web sites, tracking agent and and other industry blogs, looking at forums in which authors testify to their experience with agents, good and bad.

So now you think you know who to query. At this point, it dawns on you that each agent has a slightly different spin on how s/he want to hear from you. And -- unless your name is familiar to your prospective agents because you're a regular guest on Oprah -- you'd better pay attention.

Some want just a letter, and they want it written just so. Some want that just-so letter and a synopsis. Some want a slightly different sort of letter, a synopsis, and ten pages. Some want the letter and fifty pages. Some want three chapters with their just-so letter. Some want you to query via postal mail. Some only accept e-mail queries. Some have their agency web sites set up to accept submissions directly via a form and/or upload of materials formatted particularly to that agency's requirements.

Querying several agents? A half-dozen even? More? (Better not be too many more, or it'll be obvious you're taking a shotgun approach, which is very unpopular with shotgun targets.) However many agents you're querying, don't mix them up. Don't follow Agent A's guidelines when querying Agent B. Don't send Agent C's materials to Agent D. Don't address your query to Agent Smith when you're writing to Agent Jones. Don't even think about taking a shortcut and addressing everyone as "Dear Agent" ... that's a shotgun-approach giveaway, and a quick shortcut to the circular file.

In general, there are no second acts in the life of a querying author. If you blow it, you lose your chance -- next time you get to query somebody else, never mind that the agent whose query you blew would have been perfect. C'est la guerre.

One of the agents I queried this week has one of those submit-via-website setups. It looks to me like a really fine agency, the agent represents an author whose work is enough like mine (without being too close a relative) that it seems reasonable to expect she'd have an interest in Consequence. And the way one is to submit a query letter, synopsis, and the initial pages of one's manuscript is quite particular: all in one file, using one of several permitted formats.

Well, okay. That's not so hard. Hey, I'm a professional IT dude, I can run a word processor.

But when you take three documents you've developed and formatted and paginated separately, and mash them all together, what you end up with can look a little dicey. Query letter, synopsis, mss. pages. In that order, page one of your mss. is page four or five of the all-in-one document. And don't you really want the header on the synopsis pages to indicate clearly that this is synopsis, differentiating the synopsis from the mss. pages?

Well, yes, you do. Remember, fifteen seconds. The easier I make it for this agent to see what I'm sending, the better a chance she can take it in without becoming irritated. Don't irritate the agents. That's a no-brainer, right?

Modern word processors allow one to divide a document into sections, set up headers in a document to change from section to section, and restart pagination from whatever number you like in each section. I know that. I just haven't done it for about ten years. So: off to the help screens.

The whole operation kind of reminds me of fly-fishing. Not that I know very much about fly-fishing. In fact, most of what I know about fly-fishing I learned from reading John McPhee in The New Yorker on the topic of fly-fishing for shad. But all that business about understanding what fish you're fishing for; what that fish is striking at on a given day in a given season; tying the fly just right; casting to land the fly in the right spot; angling the fly onto the water from just the right angle; drawing it through the current at just the right speed ... it takes a true neurotic. Just like querying agents.

I caught a couple of trout one time (see photo). It was up in Montana, at a spot a former employer (and former Montanan) told me about when I up and quit on him so I could drive across the continent in a VW Van whose engine I'd rebuilt with my own two hands. You can still see the scars. On my hands, I mean, not on the continent. From the rebuild.

Anyway, I got up really early that morning, and fished my little heart out. I was traveling with a couple of really good friends. While I fished, they slept. I had to wake them up to get one of them take a photo from his sleeping bag (hence the camera's tilt). Then I gutted the fish and fried them up for breakfast. They were delicious, but if that were the only reason I'd driven to Montana it'd be fair to say I'd gone a bit over the top. For that reason and others I bought a pair of cowboy boots in Billings, but that's a different story.

Anyhoo ... let's get one thing clear.

If I were a literary agent, I'd be just as strict and fussy as the very strictest and fussiest of them all. I write fiction, and I don't (yet) make a living at it. So I know what it's like to have to hoard one's minutes and hours in order to spend them on the thing you most love to do. That's got to be what it's like to be an agent. I mean, if you didn't love agenting, how the heck could you justify reading fifteen thousand queries a year???

Thanks to John and Eric for not biting my head off when I knocked on the tent flap to show off my catch.


  1. Steve, you do know you look like an Ambercrombie model in that photo?
    I think the solution to all of this is that YOU need to go into the literary agent business.
    (You can use that photo in your advertising).

  2. It's the hair that I like about that photo. Anyhoo, for myself, I've pretty much given up on that depth of research/agent. I know I have a good pitch: I only e-mail, and I'll follow their guidelines. I don't know whether the % goes up or down if you query 30 that way, or 15 more tailored. I think ultimately the way you're most likely to get an agent is a friend who has one recommending you to them so they actually pay attention to your manuscript enough to get through it - there's a reason why a lot of trash comes out and the back said "worked at the New Yorker" or the like = connections. I think of it more as fly-fishing into the void.

  3. The essence of what I tried to say (after first flattering you for that GREAT photo) was that the right time to query an agent is when you feel you can put your best foot forward. Everybody has cycles. There are days where you will do a better job of putting CONSEQUENCE in a light likely to have it picked up. There is no rule about the agent's themselves. You have no idea what they ate for breakfast and wehter or not it is good or bad for you. But you do know how you feel. Catch the wave. And make sure you have the right bait. Enough contradicting water metaphors. Good luck.


  4. I always figured the best time to query an agent was just after saving them from a horrible death, assuming it wasn't self-inflicted. Everything else is a crap shoot.

  5. I think the best time to query an agent is when Saturn is in Mars. Unless the agent's first and last names have the same number of characters, in which case you need to wait until the moon lines up with Jupiter.

  6. Another writer friend who got an agent last year (to rep his young adult novel) claimed he emailed every agent he could find.