Thursday, August 15, 2013

Any Questions?

It's been said a thousand times, but the publishing industry sloooooooows during the summer months. This happens for obvious reasons (vacation time) and less-obvious-to-the-public reasons (editors are preparing for their upcoming fall and winter launches and catching up on material sent to them in the spring).

As an agent, I read submissions and queries as I receive them. I don't have to worry about "launch" and I don't have to wait until my superiors return from vacation before I can take on a new project. It also helps that my editorial deadlines are self-imposed. This means I spend most of my summers preparing clients' work for fall submissions, catching up on queries, touching base with editors on existing projects, and traveling to conferences.

The most recent conference I attended was from the comfort of my own home (well, a Starbucks) and it was the free online conference, WriteOnCon (which is wonderful, and did I mention free?). I did a live chat with a few other agents in which we answered questions specifically about querying. Writers always have many, many questions about querying to the point where I just want to hug them. But since I can't do that through the internet, I try my best to answer their questions. 

The questions during WriteOnCon could have been direct quotes from the questions I receive at every conference I attend in person. Most of them are fantastic and smart, and I don't mind answering them 50 different times because every single time is important.

Questions like:
"How important is my author bio?"
"Should we use comp titles?"
"How long should a query be?"
"Can we send a previously rejected query after a major revision?"

... and other good questions that pertain to querying in general - as a process, as part of the business, as a necessary step toward reaching a larger goal.

There are other questions that always come up though - whether in Q&A sessions at conferences or in #askagent chats on Twitter - that only tell an agent the writer is at best, uninformed, and at worst, desperately unprofessional. These questions are rarely questions at all. They are masks to hide their pitches behind.

Here are questions to reconsider before asking an agent during a Q&A session:

What is the market like for [insert genre/style here]? 
Unless the topic of the Q&A session is specifically about the state of the market - which would be rare in circumstances involving unpublished/unagented writers - do not ask this question. We all know what you're really asking, and if we represent your genre, you can query us. Questions about the market for a specific genre tell me you don't actually care about the answer. You just want to know that there's a market for your book. That tells an agent you're writing (and querying) for the wrong reasons. If the answer to that question is "the market is dead," does that mean you're going to stop writing? If so, what happens if I sign you as a client but we have trouble selling your first book? I wouldn't want to work with an author who gives up that easily or is unwilling to write another book. Also, it tells me you're not reading in the genre in which you're hoping to contribute. You should already be aware of what's been published and the general trends in the genre you're writing.

What are you looking for right now?
This question is asking the agent what they represent, which is something that will vary among agents and is another sneaky way to finding out if the agent represents your book. Do your research on where/whom to query, but panels are not the place to ask for specifics you can easily Google. It's your chance to get insider knowledge that isn't on their websites and Twitter feeds. 

Are you looking for new writers?/Do you work with debut authors?
99.9% of the time the answer to question is an all-caps YES. Agents close to queries sometimes for various reasons, and if that's the case it'll say so on their websites/Twitter pages (aka, the things you should be checking before you query anyway). If you're still unsure, just try anyway. Worst that happens is an auto-response that says no, or you just don't hear from them. The point is, it's not a question to ask during a Q&A. It's an agent's JOB to find new authors. If you're querying us at all, chances are you are a debut author. I can't think of any agent who's ever said "I only work with published authors." If an author is already widely published, it's likely they have an agent already too. So... YES, we want new authors.

Is this something you would like?/Can I send this to you?
This question is one I usually receive after I do a critique. At conferences, part of the draw for authors to attend is getting a one-on-one session with an agent and getting personal feedback on their pages. Once the 10, 15, or 20 minute conversation is over, I always ask "do you have any other questions for me?" And sadly, from at least one person, that question will be whether I want to represent the manuscript based on the opening pages I just read. No. The answer is no. Even if it's a genre I love and my critique was entirely made of praise, that was not the point of meeting with me. If there are no questions about the critique itself, or larger industry-related questions, then just say "Nope. No questions. Thanks!" (And then query me after you revise.)

I understand frustration with rejection and feeling like any chance you get to speak directly to an agent should be used to sell your book. Professionalism is about curbing that impulse and thinking before you act. Agents experience rejection all the time, but if I'm at a cocktail party I don't pitch books to editors. I get to know them, get a feeling about their taste, and then we either set up a lunch or I'll send a follow-up email to pitch books to them. Think of conferences and Twitter as the cocktail party; your query is the lunch date.

If you're interested in other query-centric discussions on this blog, feel free to read these as well:



4 comments:

  1. Great post! I did tons of research before querying and I read agent/agency blogs as well as follow industry professionals on Twitter. I rarely come across a question I can't answer with a little more research. Thanks again--I love getting an agent's perspective on these things!

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  2. I've seen several conference panels hijacked by people pitching their book, even more directly than the questions you highlighted. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't witnessed it myself. If the audience is cringing, not a good sign.

    At my first conference, I had a very specific genre question I wanted to ask, and I wasn't sure who to ask. After a session was over I went up to the presenting agent and asked her. She was very gracious with a response that helped me. I think that is appropriate, you want to keep a session or panel discussion general enough so everyone can benefit.

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