Before I became a professional gardener, I worked as an editor. These were good and not-so-good years in my life because though I worked with words, I wasn’t writing enough of my own. For awhile, I worked at a large internet retailer I won’t name. Let’s just say, they sold everything from A to Z. I was overwhelmed with work. The upshot was I wrote a ton of articles and reviews about music and videos and some books. But it wasn’t until I left that job and examined my life that I became a garden designer and returned to creative writing in a more serious way. Thank goodness I did because now I’m able to balance the two vocations I love.
Now, as I search for literary agents, I realize that I have some insights into an agent’s life from working as an editor. I created the content for part of the music division and was often approached by either freelance writers for work or artists for promotion. And so I can offer some ideas about what to remember when querying literary agents.
1. Just because you work in a creative field is no reason to be oddly creative in your query
In promoting their albums, musicians would send me not only the CD but magnets, bumper stickers, and letters in flowery fonts with bright colors and busy artwork. This didn’t impress me. What I wanted to hear was the music. And 99% of the time when I received a package like this, the music wasn’t very strong. So in approaching agents, I recommend erring on the side of being traditional and professional rather than trying to show off how creative you are. Let your art speak for itself.
2. Yes, an agent is always on the lookout for new talent but that doesn’t mean you should act like their next gift
I sometimes got notes with CDs from people claiming to have a “bestselling” album though there was no information as to where or how this happened. Public relations people, often the most inexperienced, would brag about their client, or the client themselves, about how I was lucky that their music had come across my desk. All this did was make me judge them as arrogant and self-centered instead of maybe being a brilliant musician.
3. Don’t take it personally if you never receive a reply
I used to be so busy my head would spin. I’d get 150 emails a day, just internally from fellow company employees. Every day I did a ton of work I never expected to do that day, stuff that wasn’t on my own to-do list. So remember, literary agents are busy. They’re already working with a group of authors who have a proven track record of producing quality work in a reliable fashion. They’re probably dealing with unexpected tasks and who knows what. Unsolicited queries come afterward. And when they have dozens they feel lukewarm about, they probably don’t have time to respond with a “thanks, but sorry” type of email.
4. Don’t expect editorial feedback on your work
The one time I did this, I got burned. A young woman artist whose debut landed on my desk, emailed me for feedback. I ignored it for awhile until her PR rep emailed me and said the artist would “love” to hear my thoughts on her work. She emailed me again. I wasn’t going to review the CD because I didn’t think it was very good. But I agreed to at least review it but not give her personal feedback. I wrote what I thought was a more than complimentary review of a weak album with just a couple of brief, light critical remarks. A few days later, I received the nastiest email, berating me for my criticisms. I was told I didn’t understand music. I didn’t understand what she was trying to do. Etc. Maybe I didn’t. But what I did know was I listened to dozens of albums a week and I knew a gem when I found one. Hers was not. But I was beat up because I engaged with this person. So if an agent is silent, it’s because giving editorial feedback can get into messy, emotional territory. Also, art can be a matter of taste and that agent’s taste may simply not match yours.
5. Agents yearn for undiscovered, talented, professional writers
When I was an editor, every once in awhile, I’d receive a simple promotional package of a CD with a short letter and a brief press release giving the most basic information about the artist. A biography, an origins story, and why they played the kind of music they did. If the letter began with a coherent sentence that used my name, understood who I was, and asked me to politely consider their album for promotion, I was 80% likely to give it a fair shake. Ultimately, I found a handful of unknown but extremely talented artists this way. They did their art professionally and assumed I did as well. A match made in heaven.
Do you have any insights into an agent’s workday? If so, let me know in the comments below!
Photo by J. Kelly Brito
I’ve been searching for representation for about a month now. Recently, one agent requested my full manuscript but passed on it. In her comments she mentioned the first chapters were slower than she preferred for the books on her list. (She represented grittier, faster paced novels than mine.) And she said her comments were, of course, “subjective.” I felt sad that she thought she needed to include that caveat. But I knew the underlying subtext. She was worried I’d defend myself immediately. But I don’t do that. I’ve worked as an editor. I know I don’t need to be defensive. I need to write a good story (though I appreciate her sensitivity). I actually welcome editorial feedback from agents. I appreciate it. I’m always ready to revise because I want my work to be better. And editorial feedback from agents is some of the most precious feedback out there.
Literary Agents Know Story Structure
Agents read dozens of manuscripts a year. They know issues of plot, character, setting, voice, etc. Conflict. Even if a story doesn’t match their list of titles, they know a strong story when they read one. So if an agent is willing to offer aI actually welcome editorial feedback from agents. I appreciate it. I’m always ready to revise because I want my work to be better. And editorial feedback from agents is some of the most precious feedback out there.particular comment about my book, I’m all ears. I’m not so wobbly that I’ll for sure change it, but if the comment touches on a doubt I have, it tells me the issue resonates in a more universal way. If more than one person thinks an aspect is weak that means it’s not a matter of taste, but a flaw that needs to be addressed.
A Comment Can Be Inspiring
That this agent who passed told me my book was “beautifully written,” made my day. I take her comment to be authentic since she has no investment in flattering me, especially since she ultimately passed on representing me. But that one positive note propelled me to go on. Okay, I thought, I know the writing’s strong. Mark that off in the plus column.
Of course, my writing ego doesn’t live or die depending on one agent’s thoughts. As my husband says, I should write the book that I want. But feedback from a person who sells books for a living holds more weight than the average reader, and helps me narrow my editorial focus.
Feedback Strengthens a Story
Since that agent’s comments came in a week or so ago, I’ve since revised my manuscript. In the past when I’d edited the book, I thought, “Wow, the danger really starts cooking on page 67.” I often wondered if I needed to move that danger up in the story. I decided to go for it. Now the main conflict starts earlier and a piece of essential back story is further on. My lesson learned is to be open to the feedback and think carefully about how it fits in to my overall vision. In this case, I believe it did. It helped me strengthen the story for the next agent who may request a full manuscript. And when that time comes, I’ll feel more confident when I send it off.