I keep reading about romance authors who wake up one morning with nothing to read and write their first novel. I hear about folks who, not finding a book that has all the elements they like best, sit down one afternoon and pen a tome with perfect internal and external plot.
I, on the other hand, wrote something like fourteen drafts of a prologue and still was doubtful that I had nailed it. I understand the concept of POV and still find that my hero carries a hand mirror in his hip pocket so that he can admire his face, muscles and luxurious hair. I find that my characters often run away with the story, despite my best intentions. And if certain contest judges are to be believed, I shouldn’t quit my day job.
Yet, like all aspiring authors — those with muses on their shoulders and those with baby drool down their back — I long for the day when I will be published. And unlike many writers out there, I am just anal enough to plan that day with the precision of a major military offensive. I take the Boy Scout motto literally. Be prepared.
Approaching a writing career is really no different than approaching any other career. Certainly there is an element of talent involved (ok, a lot of talent involved), but talent alone will not promote you from writer to author. This is a business like any other business, and there are standard operating procedures that must be followed. And to follow them you must first understand them. And, face it, that is not always an easy task.
Fortunately, we do not have to do this alone. There is someone out there with the business expertise, the moxie and frankly, the time to market our work and sort through the minutia, allowing us to do what we supposedly do best — write. These savvy soldiers are there to run interference between writers and publishers. They are called Literary Agents.
Now you have to understand that while these soldiers seem to be abundant, they are, in fact, very rare. Oh, there are those who wear the insignia and know the secret handshake. These imitators can look very much like the real thing. Many writers have been fooled by their unsolicited battle cry, “With some help from our editing service, I know we can sell your work.”
In truth, sighting a bona fide author’s representative can be a rare thing. Once sighted, these skittish strategic planners are often identified by their defensive maneuvering and their retreating battle cry, “I regret to say that I do not feel the enthusiasm I require to offer representation.”
But with proper recruitment and sensitive handling, it is possible to establish a successful relationship with these allusive creatures. But before beginning the search, there are a few tidbits you ought to consider.
Making a List and Sorting it Twice
There are a lot of agents out there. Some, as I’ve mentioned before, are only imposters, looking for weak and gullible writers. Others are at the top of their game and represent folks like Nora Roberts or Mary Higgins Clark. Believe me, they are not interested in new relationships. Their bread is already well buttered.
Fortunately, after those have been sorted out, there are still author’s representatives out there who are good at what they do and interested in representing new talent. But not all of them are right for every writer. And it’s your job to sift through the lot and find the ones that seem perfect for you.
To start with, you have to find them. There are many sources out there that list literary agencies. These books are often updated annually, so it is important to use up-to-date editions. RWA’s Romance Writers’ Report also has agent listings and there are numerous web sites with agent information. Please be aware that these sources are only as good as the information (often provided by the agents themselves) in them. In my opinion, they are only the first step in identifying potential agents, and should be used in conjunction with each other and with other research.
Once you have the sources in front of you, you need to establish the criteria by which you will select your list of possible candidates. What exactly do you want in an agent? Although some of what you want will be uniquely different from what another writer might desire, there are certain things that are commonalities for us all.
First, you want an agent who represents romance. I realize this seems like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but ask any agent and they will regale you with stories of manuscripts they have received for genres they do not represent.
Second, you need to think about where the agent is located. With the information highway growing everyday, location is probably not as big an issue as it was several years ago. Still as my daddy always says, “If you want to play with the big dogs, you better be in their back yard.” And face it, in publishing, New York City is the place to be. So having an agent close to the city is a plus.
It is not, however, the only way to go. An agent in your home state might be a good thing, especially if you reside far from the East Coast and actually want to see him or her occasionally. And if you think you’d like to be a screen writer someday, having an agent in LA has appeal. So weigh these things personally, but remember, location does count.
Third, you want an agent with legitimacy. There are several ways to check this. The easiest is to see if an agent you’re considering is a member of the Association of Author’s Representatives. Their website has a list of all their members. Membership in this organization is not a guarantee that the agent is legitimate, but you can feel a lot more comfortable about it. However, non-membership is not necessarily the kiss of death. You just need to find out why.
A second check on legitimacy is to look at agent complaint lists. There are several web sites that maintain this information and the RWA also has a list. If an agent is on any of these lists, it’s worth checking into before proceeding any farther.
Fourth, it’s important to find out who these agents represent. Do they represent others in your sub-genre? Do their authors’ styles, settings or tones match yours? Agents are like all of us, they have personal likes and dislikes when it comes to books. It is important to find an agent predisposed to like what you write.
And finally, pay attention to what their policies are, particularly with regard to reading fees, office expenses, and the like. An agent works for you and while certain expenses are probably acceptable, excessive ones are not.
Not all agents you identify as possibilities will have all the criteria you want. So the next step is to rank them. To do this you can give a numeric value (I warned you I was anal) to each of the criteria you’ve chosen and then add up the totals for each of your prospective agents. Assign values equivalent to how important you think the criteria is. For instance if location is more important to you than AAR membership, good location might get two points, while AAR membership only rates a point. Negative things like fees can be ranked as -1.
When values are totaled for each potential agent, you should wind up with a ranked list. Which means you’re ready for the next step.
Baiting the Hook
Okay, so you have a list. What the heck do you do with it? The first step is to split the list into two or three groups. Start with the highest ranking group and target them for your first round of query letters.
The query letter is one of the most dreaded entities a writer faces. It comes in second, right after?the synopsis. Fortunately, the paranoia is over-rated. A query letter is basically a marketing tool. And like most things, it can be broken down into several simple parts.
The first is the “lets talk about you paragraph.” It’s your chance to show the agent why you picked their agency. I can’t emphasize enough how important this section is. This paragraph lets an agent know that you know who they are. It shows them you’ve done your homework. This is the place to mention the authors they represent, especially those that write in your sub-genre or ones you particularly like.
The second section, the “let me tell you about my book” paragraphs, should be a back cover version of your manuscript, complete with ending. This section should only be two or three paragraphs (even for a 100,000 historical) and should leave the agent wanting to read the book.
The third section of the query letter is the “let’s talk about me paragraph”. This is your opportunity to promote yourself. This short bio should contain any writing credentials you have, as well as any information that uniquely qualified you to write the book you wrote. If the book’s heroine is an attorney and so are you, that’s relevant. If the book is set in 14th century Scotland, your career as a lobbyist is probably not worth mentioning.
Finally, the last section is simply a restatement of what you want and an offer to provide a partial or manuscript on request. And of course a great big thank you for reading all the way to the end of the query letter.
The letter itself should be no longer than two pages. One page is even better, but when it includes the query synopsis, I think two is acceptable. The letter should be printed on quality letterhead and be typo free. You are setting the tone here for the quality of your work, so take the extra time to check commas and run spell check.
Now that the letter is perfect, you’re ready to send it to the first candidates on your list.
Hurry Up And Wait
Once the letters have slid through the mail slot, you’re going to have a little time on your hands. Probably not a bad idea at this point to start work on that next WIP. In addition, it won’t hurt to set up a tracking system. (I know.., I know?) A simple chart will do. You will want a row for each agent with column headings for: date you sent your query, date they responded, what they responded, and what follow-up was required.
Hopefully, if you go all the way, you’ll have columns for the dates partials and manuscripts were sent, too. (And maybe even a signing date.) Keep this chart even after you find an agent. You never know when you might need to look again and knowing who you’ve already talked to could be very useful.
Thank You, but?
Unfortunately, no matter what the quality of your work, you are going to get a few rejection letters. But these can be quite telling. Rejections fall into three categories.
The first one is the basic battle cry mentioned earlier. It will be a form letter, probably not even addressed to you. And it will almost certainly refer to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the agent in some way. These are the letters you place neatly in your rejection file to keep for the IRS. Sort of a “would-I-subject-myself-to-this-kind-of-thing-on-a-regular-basis-if-this-were-just-a-hobby?” thing.
The second type of rejection you’ll receive is the one where enthusiasm (or lack of it) is mentioned, but they actually use your name and your manuscript title in the letter. If that’s as far as it goes, you can add it to the ‘R’ file, think how nice it is that they’ve mastered the merge function of their software, and move on. But, if the agency has taken the time to offer you additional personalized information, then you need to write a thank you note. Why? Because they took time out of an overwhelmingly busy day to offer you some small kernel of wisdom. Take or leave the info, but always say thank you for it.
The third category of rejection is euphemistically called positive rejection. To me that’s an oxymoron, but then I’ve never taken criticism well. The idea here is that the rejection contains positive information about what you can do to improve the manuscript with an eye to resubmitting it. This would also include a response with a straight rejection and a request to see what else you’ve written. These letters require a thank you whether you resubmit or not. You never know when you might choose to submit again and believe me little courtesies count.
If, at the end of the day, all your first round choices pass, then it’s on to the second tier and a repeat of the entire process.
On The Line
Of course the whole idea here is to avoid that rejection letter altogether and receive a request for a partial or even better the entire manuscript. Now each of these levels offers another opportunity for one of the dreaded three. And the response to these is basically the same as it was with a query. File and send thank-yous when appropriate.
As an aside, you will hear conflicting opinions about whether to send a partial with your query. Based on my own experience, I would suggest that, unless an agent has told you herself that she’d like a partial up front, you only send a query initially. It’s expensive and, unfortunately in most cases, a waste of your effort.
Will You be Mine?
Okay, let’s assume you have actually enticed an agent into making an offer for representation. After, you stop screaming and pinching yourself, it’s time to start thinking again about what it is you want from an agent.
It’s important that you ask the right questions. There are numerous books that have chapters dedicated to choosing an agent. AAR also has a list of questions you might want to ask. All I’m saying here is that you are making one of the biggest decisions of your career. Do your homework. Study the contract, if there is one. Check things like the out clause, subsidiary rights, and expense clauses. Don’t be afraid to suggest changes if there is something you aren’t comfortable with.
An agent can be the most valuable tool you have in successfully marketing you works and building your career. And although sometimes it may seem that getting the air conditioning contract for you know where would be easier than finding a qualified, enthusiastic agent to represent you. It can be done. It’s just a matter of planning your assault carefully and, well “you know” finishing the book.