One of the best (and most entertaining) panels at #LTUE2016 was given by the lovely and vivacious Alyson Peterson, the author of Ian Quicksilver: The Warrior’s Return. As both a published author and former agent slush pile reader, she was a wealth of information on how to find the perfect agent and not get on his or her black list. Also, she was funny as meth cats humping.
How to Attract (or Piss Off) Your Dream Agent
Let’s start with a little math. I know, for writerly people that’s one of the dirtiest four-letter words, but hear me out: you need to know what you’re up against when you are looking to land an agent.
Fact #1 – Agents are BUSY, son.
An average agency gets around 500 query letters every two weeks. Those poor agents are doing their best to eliminate as many of these queries as possible from their desk, and that means that a little mistake can be the reason you disappear from their stack.
Fact #2 – Homework matters.
Out of those 500 query letters, between 280-300 get rejected outright. OUTRIGHT, YA HEAR?? Why? Well, because people are doing one of four things wrong:
- Writers have addressed their query to “Dear sir or madam” or generally look like a bonehead because they have no idea who they want to be their agent.
- Writers have done NO HOMEWORK and the agent they are querying isn’t interested in what they write.
- Writers have sent a mass email out to every agent they can get an email for and it makes them look like an obnoxious, lazy jerk.
- They have a bad query.
Fact #3 – Your query letter will make or break you.
Out of the 200 or so queries that don’t get rejected outright, another 100 get rejected because the query itself just isn’t very good. To avoid the slush pile, you first of all need to know what a query is and is not.
QUERY – Three paragraphs, beginning to end of your story in a direct cause-effect format. Also, a proof as to why they MUST read your book. This is a sales pitch. You need to make them so excited to read your book that they stop reading the query in the middle and just hop right onto page 1. According to Alyson, this is a “snappy, smart letter with an obvious plot which is interesting.” It should also be polite.
NOT A QUERY – Random bullying. A meandering summary full of typos and personal interjection. A letter with no point.
Now that you know what you’re talking about, here are some ways to NEVER START YOUR QUERY SYNOPSIS:
- “A coming-of-age tale….”
- “In a world where a Harry-Potter-like protagonist…”
- “_________ was just a normal guy until his world was changed forever by _______.”
- “A fantastic tale of (insert abstract noun, i.e. “adventure” “love” “hemmorhoidal discomfort”)…”
- Don’t write your synopsis from your antagonist’s point of view. She said it’s a bad idea.
- Explain that the agent will love it because your mom/critique group/dentist did.
Here are some things to ALWAYS INCLUDE IN YOUR QUERY:
- The correct name. Do your homework and know who your query is going to and that they want your fiction.
- A tight, concise summary of your book that is well written with no typos or grammar issues.
- Gracious language. Always thank that reader for their time. They’re busy, so appreciate them for looking at your work.
Here are some things to CONSIDER INCLUDING IN YOUR QUERY:
- Credentials. If you come from a great school or won some awards, that’s a good idea to include. Just make sure you don’t sound like a pretentious ass.
- Twitter stalking. No, don’t mention to your potential agent that you liked the color of their lipstick in their last selfie. Creeper. But, if they are involved in a talent-attracting hashtag like #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List), #PITMAD, or #PITCHMAD, that’s a good source to cite for why they should read your query. A sample might be something like:
“I recently saw on #MSWL that you were looking for YA Horror to represent. My novel “Blackbeard’s Daughter,” may be exactly the kind of thing you are requesting.”
Fact #4 – It’s hard to get an agent
Out of the remaining hundred or so queries that are snappy, interesting, and respectful, around 75 get full requests. This means that:
- You are selling something the agent is buying.
- You have a good query.
- You have an interesting and compelling idea.
- Your writing is good enough that the agent wants to see a whole manuscript.
About 25 of the remaining get partial requests. This means one of four things:
- You have a high-concept idea (really interesting and compelling), but your query is rough.
- The genre you write is close to what the agent wants, but isn’t quite.
- You show promise as a writer, but you might not be there yet.
- Your idea is okay, but your writing is amazing.
Whatever you do, don’t give up here! If they’ve asked for a partial, really polish that baby up until you can see your reflection in it. This is your chance to prove to the agent that you are up to the task and can take a little direction.
Fact #5 – It’s REALLY HARD to get an agent
Now, an average agent has whittled that list of 500 queries down to how many? Three. And from that stack, the slush readers will pitch those three and the agency will choose one. That’s about .66% of the people who originally queried. Alyson said:
“In a room of 100, it’s like someone’s leg just got themselves an agent.”
But, never fear. It’s not impossible. It’s all about playing the odds. And, Alyson had a great suggestion for how to methodically find an agent that works for you.
Week 1 – Send out 10 queries. Wait two weeks.
Week 2 – Send out 10 queries. Wait two weeks.
Week 3 – You should be getting some of your Week 1 queries back by now. See what the agencies said. If you got a form rejection, maybe you need to tweak your query so that the synopsis is snappier. Send out 10 queries with your new letter. Wait two weeks.
Week 4 – You should be getting more queries back. If you start seeing a trend away from form letter rejections, you’re on the right path to a good query. It means that your idea is good and agents don’t want to reject you outright. Keep tweaking your query. Send out 10 queries with your new-new letter. Wait two weeks.
Week 5 – Continue ad infinitum.
You may be tempted to requery the same agency with a book. DON’T. If they don’t respond in two weeks, gently remind them that you exist. But, if they say no, let it go! Sending in query after query on the same book may get you blackballed from the agency permanently.
Fact #6 – You’ll be happier if you find the RIGHT agent for you.
There are lots of agencies out there and they’re not all for everyone. A large agency will have more distribution capabilities, but they may not be able to give you the kind of flexibility and personal touch of a smaller agency. You need to ask yourself:
- What kind of relationship do I want with my agent?
- Do I want an agent for this book or for my whole career?
- What is the reputation of my agency?
These are VITAL questions, and need to be sorted out up front. Go online and follow potential agents on Twitter or Facebook. Get to know their style and reputation. Also, check out Queryshark.com to identify predator agencies and find honest information about how different agencies are seen in the industry.
Fact #7 – There’s more to writing than finding an agent.
Just because you have an agent, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. The fact is, agents invest in writers that they think will make them money. It’s not personal, it’s just business. You CAN and WILL get dropped from an agency for a number of reasons:
- If you write a good book and then don’t write another book to follow it up within a year or so. Alyson writes a book in 3 months, edits it in 3 months, and polishes it in 3 months. It’s a good schedule if you want to keep putting out work. Remember, you need to have 6 books in circulation in order to be self-sustaining. You can’t eat if you don’t publish.
- If you write an okay book and you have a hands-off agency that sees you as mostly just a number.
- If you act like a diva and refuse to change or alter your book due to “inspiration” or “creative honesty.” Your agent knows how to sell a book, and they’re trying to give your book the best shot it has. Listen to them.
- If you are a jerk. No one wants to work for a jerk.
- If you don’t continue to hone your craft. It’s your job to treat writing as a job. Just because you land an agent doesn’t mean you’re done putting in the time to become better. Suck it up, buttercup. Keep learning and growing.
For more great stuff from Alyson Peterson, check out her website at AlysonPeterson.com. Also, check out all the great panels you missed at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writing Conference.
Willow Dawn Becker is an author, voice personality, marketing maven, and entrepreneur. She co-founded Weird Little Worlds Press in 2020 despite a raging pandemic and huge personal losses. Her work can be found at Black Fox Literary Magazine and Space and Time Magazine. She lives in Utah with her family and pug-huahua, Indiana Bones.