SFWC: The Fiction Agents

I won’t list them all here, but my first session at SFWC this year was a panel in which the fiction agents at the conference introduced themselves and answered questions about what agents look for. I’m posting the questions and answers below.

What is the #1 query mistake?

Of course they couldn’t keep it to just one. But here are a few:
1. The authors query before they’re ready to publish (that is, before the manuscript is the best it can be)
2. The authors don’t research the agent and so query something (a genre) the agent doesn’t rep
3. Typos
4. Gimmicks—better to be straightforward and brief
5. Querying multiple agents at one agency

And here’s what you want to do: put your hook—whatever makes your book unique—out front in the query.

What does an agent do for an author?

The general answer is that an agent can take care of the business side of things, giving the author the time and opportunity to be creative and actually write. An agent will fight for you, and gets rejected with you, so that as an author you’re not taking it alone. Agents act as middle men and can get you in the door at publishing houses. They can help you keep up with publishing trends, and can advise you and help manage your career. So that you’re not having to do it all on your own.

What do agents look for?

The usual:
1. A killer story they can sell
2. Good grammar
3. An author who is willing to listen to advice and opinions, and to the agent’s experience
4. Someone with more than one book in them
5. A writer willing to collaborate
6. Someone with an established platform or proven track record
7. Someone with initiative who is willing to help market the book
8. Someone who is committed and takes their writing seriously

And what they don’t want are narcissists or crazy people, writers who think their work is perfect just as it is.

Where do agents look online when “researching” a potential client?

They’ll often Google first, or look for you on Twitter. Then all the usual hot spots: Facebook author page, blog, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Goodreads . . .

Do agents read their own queries?

Most have assistants or interns that weed queries out based on a set of criteria the agent has given him/her.

And this reminder when researching a potential literary agent: look at the dates from any interviews or articles. Something from a couple years ago may no longer be relevant. (If, in 2009, the agent said she was looking for “zombie stories,” she probably has moved on by now.)

I hope if any of you are thinking about querying agents, these points help you plan! More from the conference after I’ve managed to get some sleep . . .

Setting Myself Up

I just sent an e-mail off to Zero Gravity Management. They had asked to read 20 August back in September and their note said to give them 90 days before querying about the status. It also said they don’t bother to send rejections because they’re too busy. Once again, no news is bad news, and I’m inviting disappointment just by asking, but . . . I’d rather know flat out.

I’ve got scripts out with other managers and agencies as well, and the longer the crickets chirp, the less likely I am to hear good news. At least, that’s been my experience thus far. But again, I’d just like to hear one way or another.

Well, I say that, but then again sometimes I’ve received a rejection for something I’d forgotten I’d ever sent, and then I’m stung because it’s an unexpected dismissal. If I’ve forgotten you, please don’t suddenly send me a note saying you don’t like my script or don’t see me as a “fit” or whatever. I was quite happy not knowing.

On the up side, I do have people telling me they’re interested in my work. They want to make my movies. But in an industry where talk is cheap—and I do believe these people are sincere, but . . . “want to” and “can” are not the same thing—until it’s on paper and signed, I have a hard time getting excited.

But I shouldn’t be cynical. Really, I’m trying to stay positive and look at the up sides in everything. I believe if I send out positive energy, good things will come back to me. And maybe that’s naive, but it doesn’t hurt anything to be optimistic and sure makes life a lot more pleasant.

So I’ve set myself up for disappointment, but if I’m already expecting the worst . . . ::shrug:: One of these days instead of disappointment (or at the very least instead of meeting my low expectations), maybe I’ll get a pleasant surprise!

Freelance Editor? Yes or No?

At the San Francisco Writers Conference, there was a small herd of freelance editors on offer—you could meet with one that handled your genre and he or she would give you feedback on, say, the first page of your manuscript. I did meet with one, though I didn’t have a page to show her. Mostly I was curious. I practiced my pitch on her (she liked the idea for my book, said it sounded very unique, not like anything she’d heard before) and asked her what genre she thought it might be, based on the description. (The seeming consensus over the whole of the weekend, with my asking various editors about genre, is that K-Pro is paranormal and/or fantasy but maybe not kissy enough for romance, and so: paranormal women’s lit or fantasy women’s lit . . . If there is such a thing.)

All right, but here’s the thing. When, if ever, is it worth it to shell out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on a freelance editor?

The agents seemed to think it a good idea to have a freelance editor help you polish your manuscript and get it ready for submission. And of course the freelance (or “developmental”) editors think you should hire them! For nonfiction books, they can help organize the information, even help research the points, check facts, sort the end notes and citations. And for fiction they’ll help you suss out your plot and point out where your characters aren’t quite right or something.

Now I’ve worked as a development editor . . . Though that was for textbooks, which is a bit different. (Well, it’s nonfiction, anyway.) But let’s just say I’m pretty confident in my abilities to write relatively clearly and spell and punctuate properly most of the time. And yet I’m also aware that every writer is a bit myopic by nature when it comes to his or her own work, so there is definite value in having other eyes look over it. But how much is it worth?

Maybe if one of these editors could guarantee that an agent would sign me . . . Or if s/he had a fabulous track record of authors who’d gone on to be published . . .

But in any other case, I think that I could use beta readers and test readers to the same effect, and for a lot less money! I have done, in fact. And even Guy Kawasaki said in his keynote that you should “tap the crowd.” (But still hire a good copyeditor—which is somewhat different from a developmental editor.)

So I don’t know. The way the conference suggests things be done is: you write it, the freelance editor helps you rewrite it, then you send it to an agent who (if he or she signs you) will suggest even more edits, and if that agent gets publishers interested, the publishing house editors will probably want more edits . . . It’s just mind-spinning, to be told it should be perfect when you submit it, but then it will have to somehow be made “more perfect” as things go along.

Nowadays some agents offer “consulting” services similar to freelance editing, but only to clients they don’t sign (in order to avoid conflict of interest). I guess with all the changes to the industry, everyone is trying to keep their jobs by remaining valid in some way. Publishers can only afford to put out books that will sell lots of copies, preferably with minimal marketing and publicity, which cuts a lot of writers out of the equation; a mid-list author is now just lost money and wasted time to the publishing houses. This is why so many of them—and also so many agents—want authors to have already built up their fan bases before they’ll even consider taking them on.

But that’s another discussion for another day. As it is, I can’t afford to hire a freelance editor, so I’ll have to continue to rely on my fellow authors and friends to read my drafts and offer advice. On the whole, they’ve done right by me—and they’re a very supportive clan to boot! And they don’t usually cost me anything but a free copy of the finished product. So thanks, guys (& gals) for that.

The Pitching Session

So at SFWC they have an event called “Speed Dating with Agents.” It costs extra, but it gives you one-on-one face time with the agents at the conference so you can pitch your book(s) to them. Or, if you’re not ready for that, you can also just ask some questions.

If you sign up for SDwA, they put a colored sticker on your conference badge. There are four colors = four groups, and each group has a specific 45-minute period for their pitch session. Mine was 11:00 to 11:45. There’s no limit on how many agents you can talk to, aside from picking short lines, else you’ll spend all your time standing in line to chat with one agent. Some people see as many as seven, the average is probably around five, and I saw three—not because I ran out of time but because I ran out of people I wanted to speak to.

That may sound ludicrous, but two of the agents who supposedly cover my book’s genre had already rejected me via e-mail, so I assumed they wouldn’t want to hear the pitch in person.

Anyway. I’m not going to give names, but I’ll say the first agent I spoke to I did really like. And she flattered me by remembering she’d seen some pages from my book as part of a writing contest. “It won, didn’t it?” she asked. No . . . But I’m flattered she remembered it as “winning” or “a winner.” She was open to me sending her the first 10 pages and a synopsis. I hope she doesn’t revise her thinking about it being a winner when she reads them!

The second agent I also liked, but felt less connection with in a way. Like, I felt like her eyes might be glazing over when I gave her the quick version of my book’s story. After asking the word count, her concern was that the manuscript is too short. If it’s fantasy, she’d want it to be at least 75k words (it’s not nearly); if it’s a romance, it being on the short side might be fine. Thing is, if I were to market it as a romance, I’m not convinced romance readers wouldn’t be a little disappointed. There are many romantic elements, but nothing steamy. It might be what some would call a “sweet” romance? All about the attraction between two characters, not about any sex. And it’s second to the plot, I think, anyway. But this agent was also open to me sending her something, though it sounded as if she wanted to see it only once I’d decided which market and tailored the manuscript as such.

That leaves the third agent. I didn’t pitch him my book. Instead, I wanted to pick his brain about the situation with my screenwriting. (This agent is known for his book-to-film work.) He was extremely helpful in outlining my rights as writer, and what’s more he told me to e-mail him when the screenplay I’m working on is done.

After that, I’ll admit I hesitated and considered trying those two agents who’d rejected me. But I try to make it a rule not to go where I’m not wanted. I know they say persistence pays off, but I don’t want to be a pest—pests get swatted.

Still and all, a useful experience. Though I worry that any pages I send will be turned down and I’ll be back where I started. But . . . Gotta try. Right?

What the Fiction Agents Said

So on Saturday at the San Francisco Writers Conference, there was a panel of literary agents that specialize in fiction discussing the industry and their roles and such. The participating agents were: Gordon Warnock, Kimberley Cameron, Liz Kracht, Rayhané Sanders, Ken Sherman, Becky Vinter, Nephele Tempest, Laurie McLean, Jill Marsal, and Taylor Martindale. The moderator was Chuck Sambuchino.

It was interesting to see the differences in the agents’ take on self-publishing. A lot of the panels and sessions at the conference were about e-books and self-publishing and self-promotion and marketing, etc. And then you get these agents who are like, “If you self-publish and don’t sell at least 50,000 copies, we won’t even look at you. I mean, you’ve pretty much proven that you weren’t salable to begin with.”

Now maybe what they meant was: If you self-publish a book and it doesn’t sell, don’t pitch that book to us because we aren’t going to want it either. But it wasn’t entirely clear in context. They could have just as easily meant if you self-publish anything and it doesn’t do huge numbers, they don’t want anything from you either. Ever. Unclear.

Also, the price point matters. If you self-publish a book but are giving it away or only selling it at $.99 then that counts less that having self-published and sold 50,000 copies at a regular market rate. So I guess there’s a metric for how impressed anyone is willing to be, or whether they can be bothered to form any kind of interest in you.

Another good thing to know: After the first paragraph (maybe two), the query letter starts to get skimmed rather than read. So put the important stuff up top if you want to hold the agent’s interest, and don’t make the letter very long. One agent said she likes it to fit entirely on her computer screen so she doesn’t have to scroll. Their easy-to-remember rule for the query format is “hook, book, cook.” It sounds like Seuss but what it means is: Hook the agent in the first paragraph (but don’t start with a rhetorical question), make the second paragraph about the book, and use the last paragraph to talk a very little about yourself (your publishing history, any relevant info that shows how you’re the right person to write the book).

After the panel I took an informal temperature of fellow fiction writers who’d attended, and I have to say a lot were somewhat jaded about the whole thing. Part of it was the conflicting information throughout the conference and across various sessions (but then again there’s no one way to success). And part of the feeling stemmed from these agents telling the writers, if backhandedly, that they [the agents] want to help writers, and yet somehow we’re mostly not good enough. And that anything we might try to do to help ourselves (like self-publishing) will only bring our downfalls.

I know that’s not really what was being said, or not said (at least, I hope that’s not how the agents actually feel), but that was still a bit of what the writers walked away with. The face of publishing is definitely changing, and everyone’s path to success is different. But wherever there is talent—even, one hopes, raw talent, though agents seem increasingly less interested in developing and polishing authors’ potentials (they say self-publishing authors are impatient, but they are clearly impatient in their own ways as well)—success will surely follow.

Plays & Agents

I’ve sent out a few queries to agents recently, and I got a nibble, which was encouraging. So I sent her “Warm Bodies” to read, and she liked it. Said she liked the “contemporary voice.” She said she hopes when I next have a full-length work, I’ll send it to her.

I’ll count this as progress. Alas, I tend to write short and sweet plays (my longest don’t run more than 50 pages, about an hour of show time with breaks and set changes), so I don’t know that I’ll ever have a full-length play to send her. It’s been suggested, of course, that I expand something I do have, but . . . While I’ve considered that, I sort of let the story dictate the length when I’m writing, and I’d hate to drag something out that doesn’t need it, just for the sake of length. When you start doing that, you end up with reviews saying the play “starts well but falls off in the middle” or something.

Still, it’s nice that she’s interested, and that she finds something worthwhile enough in my work to want to read more at some point.