Thursday, March 05, 2009

Breaking Protocol

My question is this: say there's a real swanky high powered agent who doesn't accept queries (Binky Urban or the like), however you've actually got something that fits with his/her interests. Say also it's backed with the endorsement of someone equally high powered from the artist's end, someone along the lines of a Cormac McCarthy. What would be the protocol of just sending a note about the situation versus a full fledged query? The easy answer, but not always applicable, might be just have the super-author give the agent a heads up. But in reality, an author like that can't really be expected to run administrative errands for an unknown, especially if they already did you the enormous favor of reading the manuscript in question. So, what do you think: totally out of bounds, a small but potentially fruitful risk, or no big deal--go for it?

My answer to this is seemingly simple, and that’s go for it. I’m a big fan of breaking the rules within reason because you truly never know until you try. That being said, I do have some tips and some insider thoughts on the entire subject of querying when an agent clearly states she doesn’t take queries.

1. Send a query, not a short note simply asking if you can approach. If you plan on querying then you need to go all-out and query. If you’re going to take up an agent’s time sending correspondence she doesn’t want in the first place, then make sure you don’t take up more of her time by making it two emails or letters instead of one. So write up the best dang query you can, including all of the information you want to include, and get it in the mail.

2. Don’t expect an answer. Many agents these days will only respond if interested. If you plan on querying any agent, big or small, who says they aren’t accepting queries, then you shouldn’t expect any answer at all and, frankly, have no right to get upset when you don’t get one. Let’s face it, I might be telling you to go for it, but the truth is that you might just be simply irritating someone.

3. Be aware of what agents see every day. Congratulations on receiving an impressive endorsement and I certainly don’t want to take any of the joy of that away from you. However, agents see impressive endorsements in query letters on a daily basis. What wows us isn’t an endorsement, but the work itself. What might get us to read it faster is if one of our clients calls and specifically recommends a writer. An endorsement, while great, isn’t uncommon.

4. Don’t get caught up on the hype. There are hundreds of amazing agents out there selling big-name and small-name authors. Certain agents have made names for themselves in the author community, while others, repping equally big names, have been able to stay relatively anonymous. Don’t search for an agent you want everyone to know you have; instead, make sure you find the agent that works the best for you and your work.

5. Good luck and query widely.



Eric said...

While my gut instinct also is to go for it, I'd read the agent's personal or company website before doing so; ICM clearly states on their website that they won't even look at unsolicited materials and will return (or possibly destroy) them without making copies. If there's a chance of being read by a high-powered agent like that, that's great, but why spend the time and postage to have someone else throw your query away for you?

I figure if you've gotten a well-known author to invest the time to read and critique your novel, it's not too much to ask them to give their agent a call on your behalf.

Jessica, what do you think? Is there ever a time when "we won't read your query" means "we probably won't read your query"?

ryan field said...

I agree with Eric. It was my first thought while reading the post. I sometimes recommend writers to my agent, but not very often. And then only after I've worked with them personally on an anthology I've edited, or something similar, where I get to know them fairly well.

And if I believed in a writer enough to write an endorsement for their query, I certainly wouldn't have a problem making the recommendation in person.

Anna Claire said...

And really, it seems to me that if you're an unknown that somehow manages to snag Big Super Agent, how much personal attention are you really going to get from someone who already reps Nora Roberts or whomever? Personally, I'd rather be accepted by a smaller, reputable agency with a great track record (and there are many of these out there) and get a little bit more personal attention than be the microscopic fish in the enormous pond.

Traci said...

Good advice. Glad that agents care more about the work than endorsements. Also, I agree that there are ways to be agressive without stepping on toes. It's really just good business practice not to alienate anyone. :-)

Haste yee back ;-) said...

"Swanky high power agent!"

What is that? 40-50,000 watts sitting atop Trump Towers?

Me? I want an agent what tames and eats hairy butted swamp critters, wild-eyed, mud encrusted, swattin,' screamin' type!

Haste yee back ;-)

Dawn said...

Amazing post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Once again your advice is both simple and profound. Not to mention right on. You are always such a font of clear and concise advice. Thank you. We are fortunate to have you.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Readers don't care who your agent is--they just want a good book. I'm struggling with that myself, trying to decide if I should go after "big-name" agents or agencies or the quieter ones who may work harder on my behalf.

In my fantasy, they're both fighting over me and I get to decide who I want. LOL
Q: Is it better to be the small fish/big pond or vice-versa?
Trouble is, you never know till you sign the dotted line...Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I have a related question about breaking the rules...

Say an agent asked you for a full MS, and you sent him/her your best work. Then, a few days later, one of your test readers finishes your book and has some pretty insightful comments that lead to some nice changes that strengthen the work...nothing major, but it does make it better.

Is it bad form to ask the agent if they want the updated copy?

Heidi Willis said...

An excellent and timely post. I just found two agencies that (while not particularly swanky or high powered) seem perfect for my book, but don't accept queries from writers who aren't commercially published already. My tendency is to say, "What can it hurt?"

And Eric - ICM may say on its website it doesn't take unsolicited materials, but many of their individual agents do take unsolicited queries.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I wonder: Are agents even necessary for unknown writers anymore?

Seems to me all i ever hear about these days are writers who either self-published via POD on Amazon or sold manuscripts directly to small houses without an agent, and then if the books sell 10,000+ copies, the agents all come running to them. Kinda seems like a waste of time begging for an agent's attention if you haven't sold anything yet.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I respectfully disagree with Anon 3:12. Having an agent for an unknown writer is imperative. Self-publishing a book is fine if you don't mind being one in a sea of thousands of unknown writers. If you want a real shot at reaching anything other than the small houses, you need an agent. Even if you get published at a small house, it's nearly impossible to sell 10K copies of your book. Agents are the gatekeepers - they're trusted by editors and the bigger publishing houses. Having a reputable agent is the best way to get your foot in the literal and proverbial door. Plus, they're in your court, committed to your career, and can help you navigate your way through the mysterious world of publishing.

Word ver: abler - that's what an agent is!

Anonymous said...

i've been tracking Amazon book rank #s, and it does seem to me as though many of these smaller house books are running circles around offerings from traditional avenues. I'm talking major house offerings only 3 months from release date ranking at 400,000, while a small house book in the dame genre, also 3 months from release, is under 2000. Of course I realize that for the big house, not all sales are coming from Amazon, but still, that is such a huge difference it makes one wonder. may be the old stodgy houses don't know how to market on the web? I haven't been impressed by their performance of late.

Anonymous said...

I'm still trying to figure out what advantages DO the big houses have over small houses these days, in terms of distribution? do they have any? OK, so they can get your book in physical bookstores, but is that really an advantage anymore? the're all closing, and the pubs are not going to pay for a new book to have window space or even face out shelf space, so what's the point?. Most books bought these days are online. Hoping that someone wandering past a physical shelf will pick up your book and buy it? To me that seems silly and outdated. Seems smarter to TARGET a readership online--like a hunter with a gun as opposed to some boob sitting on the shore with a fishing line, waiting, waiting, waiting...That's what big houses mean for new authors. cast a line and hope. Because they don't promnote new writers. They rely on the big names to pay for the losses of new writers. So all the advantages that new writers tout the bigs as having--distribution, marketing--yeah, they have that--but they ain't giving it to you! It goes to the established authors. So for a NEW author, they don't offer much real advantage when it comes to selling books.

If I were a new writer, I'd give serious thought to signing with a small house over a big one. Because once you prove you can sell, your terms with the bigs will be much more favorable.

Anonymous said...

First off, I totally believe that sometimes rules are meant to be broken. I broke one and it led in a weird way to my agent and then to selling.

As far as distribution for large houses...I can only speak to what I know. I was recently in Mexico and while scouring all the stores at the airport, all of the paperbacks that were on the shelves were from one house. A big house. My house. Kinda made my day.

Anonymous said...

I think the "rules" are so much different now that you could be considered to be breaking the rules if your route into publishing is through an agent. The "traditional" (read "old")system just isn't that beneficial for first-time authors anymore, and I don't just mean the long waits and divided attention. I mean literally that their ability to sell and market your product is questionable. Particularly so if you're dealing with any kind of genre that isn't YA or paranormal romance--those look to be the main things that the contigent of blogging agents fueling the fires of the unrepped and unpublished know how to handle. But outside of those areas, I don't think it's accurate to say that literary agents are the predominant path to "traditional" big house publication anymore.

Elissa M said...

Yeah, all you anti-agent anonymous folks out there, go for it. I wish you the best. Honestly.

Me? No way am I dipping my toe in the shark infested waters of publishing without a good agent as my lifeguard and contract negotiator. There are way too many convoluted rights, payments, etc. for me to keep track of on my own.

Michael Edelson said...

I think people have to consider what their goals are when thinking about all this agent business.

Is your goal just to get published? Or to make it big? I may think I'd be happy just seeing my name on a book in a bookstore, but that's only natural at this point in my career, and it won't last. I don't just want to publish a book, I want to publish lots of books, maybe hundreds. I want to sell more books than anyone else and have movies made from all of them. I want the big names in fiction to curse me on the internet for stealing their business. I want to reach out to the hearts and minds of millions of readers and change people's lives for the better.

Lofty goals? Maybe, but to me they're the only ones worth having. To get there, I don't just need any agent, I need an agent that can get me where I need to go. And if I can't attract this person with book 1, I'll get them with book 2, or 3, or 4, or 5, etc. All the others will be published eventually anyway.

I went through the "I hate agents and the publishing industry" phase quite recently. It's just resentment and bitterness, and it's counter productive. I write because I love to write, I live in the worlds I create. All I ever wanted out of life was to write for a living, and all I have to do to ge there is write. That's not a bad deal.

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to agree with anon 7:36. The landscape of publishing is different now, and more and more authors are breaking in sans agent. I don't think it would hurt to have an agent though, unless you can't afford to part with that 15%.

Lorra said...

I queried a big time agent who wasn't taking queries. Why? Because, based on my research, she was a great fit for what I hope to accomplish as a writer.

Lo and behold: she wrote back a full-page (snail) letter explaining her reservations about the proposed project. When I wrote to her again, asking for clarification on some of her points (a huge no no when a writer gets an R), she wrote another full page letter explaining her reasoning.

I ended our exchange with a formal thank you note. But I can tell you, the first agent I will query with my current WIP is that agent. She is not only a respected and very successful member of the publishing community, she is, in my opion, the consummate professional.

Anonymous said...

Can you get published without an agent? might be waiting awhile though...and man, when you get your 25 page contract full of clauses and stuff....hope you know you're sh%^$^%t!

Anonymous said...

The defination of a "High Powered Agent" is the one that sell's YOUR book.

Anonymous said...

Go ahead and submit! All they can do is ignore you, which is what MOST agents do these days anyway.

Why do agents say they accept queries and then don't bother to reply? Worse, why do they ignore requested mss? If they're THAT busy, why don't they just close their doors for a few weeks or months to get caught up?