What agents like and don’t like by Lucy Balch

One of the things I did at the Virginia Festival of the Book this past Saturday was attend a free agents’ roundtable discussion. It was very enlightening, and I’d like to share the notes I took with you.

There were four agents: Simon Lipskar of Writers House, Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency, Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Erin L. Cox of Rob Weisbach Creative Management.

Some of what I share might be obvious, but if someone gets even one jewel out of the tidbits of information, this blog will have served its purpose.

One of the topics was query letters. Each agent had a slightly different take on them, but they all said that they like to hear a writer’s voice in the letter. Simon Lipskar went so far as to say that traditional query letters bore him. He wants the writer’s voice to “jump off the page,” which means that the letter cannot succeed if it is following a generic formula.
Jenny Bent said that, while some agents hate gimmicks, she rather likes them. She once accepted a client who wrote his query letter in the voice of one of his characters.
Laura Rennert wants to know who, what, how and why should I care? She likes to know the story behind the story, and if you have credentials to go with your story, be sure to share them with her. For example, if the private investigator in your story solves the crime in an unusual way, let her know. What makes your book stand out?
Erin Cox appreciates the one-line pitch, since she has an advertising background.

All the agents agreed that submission guidelines need to be researched and followed. Know which agencies represent which genres, and know which agent in the agency to submit to, as well as the correct format for submission. For example, Simon Lipskar wants queries to be e-mailed, and they need to take up no more than one page, if printed out.

So what happens once that stellar query letter has hooked an agent? The writer needs to be prepared to answer the question, Is this agent right for me? The answer to that question can be found by answering, Is this agent expressing a genuine interest in my work? Is this agent from a qualified agency? And is this agent successful?
A good way to find out about an agent’s record is to subscribe to the Publishers Market Place (www.publishersmarketplace.com). It costs $20 per month, but it’s a worthwhile investment while you are searching for an agent.
It’s also good for unagented writers to have a list of questions prepared ahead of time, based on what they know about themselves. It will be an uncomfortable partnership up front if the agent likes to work over the phone, but the writer prefers to correspond via e-mail; Or, if the agent likes a strong hands-on approach, but the writer wants more space. It’s good to find out the style of an agent, to see if their style of working is a good match. And, of course, never accept an agent who is asking for money. No reputable agent will ever take money from a writer directly. Visit the Association of Authors’ Representatives website (www.aaronline.org) to review the canon of ethics for agents.

Finally, a list of things that writers should never do:
1) Never “drop in” to an agency, even when you are signed with them. Your agent is a very busy person (hopefully) and will not appreciate it.
2) Never tell an agent that your book “has good movie potential,” or that your husband/wife/mother/sister, etc. loved it. Let the agent be the judge of its lovability.
3) Don’t be too humble. If an established, well-known writer has endorsed your book, tell the agent! They like to know such things. (A running joke at the roundtable was that if anyone in the room knows Oprah, tell them. Immediately.)
4) Don’t think of writing as a hobby. Writing is a job. Take it seriously.
5) Never send a query if you do not have the completed and polished manuscript to back it up.
6) Never send your manuscript to a second agent if you have promised exclusivity to the first agent. Agents move in a small world, and word gets out. A writer does not want to build a reputation as a liar.

The relationship between writer and agent is similar to a marriage. While many agents are reputable, a writer hopes to sign with the agent that is truly the best match. So, writers, do your homework and have your list of questions ready. And write the best book you can, of course!

Lucy Balch
Author of Love Trumps Logic
Available on Amazon.com and http://www.secondwindpublishing.com


Filed under writing

4 responses to “What agents like and don’t like by Lucy Balch

  1. Interesting stuff, but from what I’ve heard, most query letters are opened and read by assistants who give them about 15 seconds of their time. Might be more to the point to know what things get a query thrown directly into the discard pile before they even hit an agent’s desk. That’s a mystery in itself, and perhaps there is a plot in there…

  2. christinehusom

    What if we tell them a lot of others have told us our books would make great movies? Just kidding. Great points–you learned a lot!

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