Friday, August 12, 2005

The Agents Speak

The agents’ panel at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is even more popular than the editors’ panel. This year’s group was New York –centric, with Michael Carlisle of Inkwell Management, Leslie Daniels of the Joy Harris Literary Agency, and Peter Steinberg of Regal Literary. B.J. Robbins, who has her own agency in Los Angeles, was the only West Coast representative.

Carlisle opened the panel by reading a truly atrocious query letter that was flowery and obtuse at the same time. His agency gets a batch of those kinds of letters each week he says. There are five commandments to getting an agent, said Carlisle.

1) Thou shalt be original
2) Thou shalt be smart
3) Thou shalt be resilient
4) Thou shalt ask questions
5) Thou shalt not pay reading fees

Carlisle and the other agents complained about mass mailings to agents, ones that begin, "Dear Mr. Agent." It’s important to research the kinds of books and authors an agent represents to find one that reflects your project.

“Every agent is limited by their taste,” said Daniels. “As you read books that you feel are aligned with your own tastes, look in the acknowledgements and find out who that agent is and query that agent.”

Just like everyone, agents like to know that their work is respected, that an aspiring author has done her research and knows something about the agency she is querying. Target the search; don’t blanket the market, said Robbins.

Well-written query letters are the key to capturing an agent’s attention, although Steinberg says he usually peruses them quickly and then turns to the manuscript. A letter should show that the writer’s work is going somewhere and the writer knows what she is doing.

“You’re inviting someone to jump on the bandwagon of your career and your work,” said Robbins. “I want to have the sense if I don’t jump on, Michael (Carlisle) is going to get it.”

Don’t come to her door to offer $10,000 for representation, which happened last week, said Robbins.

Carlisle emphasized the importance of having an original voice, or writing about material that hasn’t been flagellated to death.

“There are editors in this room, (referring to the lecture hall at Squaw Valley) publishers who flew out here. They’re looking to find new original writers. What we’re looking for is not something that has already been published.”

Steinberg has his own list of dos and don’ts:

1) Don’t send out work before its ready. A writer is only going to get one shot at an agent’s attention. “Agents are very busy. It’s very rare you’re going to consider something a second time.”
2) It’s a mistake to send to just one agent. “It doesn’t do you justice. Agents are busy. Months might go by before they can look at something.”
3) Don’t necessarily send it to the top agent in the agency. A younger, less experienced agent probably is more interested in finding new clients.
4) E-mail queries are a mistake. “There’s something to be said for hard copies. They take up space. You have to move it around. With e-mail you can delete it in a second. I can intend to get to it but then more e-mails come in and it gets lost. With a hard copy I have to kick it back. It’s there is front of you and you have to deal with it.” (Robbins did not agree with this; she does much of her work through e-mails, including accepting queries and sending proposals to editors)

Everyone hears how busy agents are, and the panelists talked a little about their responsibilities. Carlisle called himself a juggler. He’s always got a list of things to do and he tries to attend to the most critical, while not dropping the ball on other issues. He does a lot of troubleshooting. Recently, a client wrote a book but did not hold the copyright. The books printed in the U.S. reflected this, but the books printed in the UK said the copyright belonged to the author. Carlisle had to correct this problem.

Steinberg spends time trumpeting clients’ work. If one of his author gets a good review in Kirkus, he’ll call around to make sure people know.

All of the agents spent time talking about what they like and how they choose a new project. They all had eclectic tastes and sold a variety of books, from first-time novels to narrative non-fiction. Daniels said the hardest books to sell are second novels. With the first, the author has no track record. With the second, the publisher can see exactly how many novels sold. That’s why it’s critically important for first-time novelists to get as much attention as possible the first time out.

But it’s clear that an agent can be a writer’s true champion. Robbins said she has represented a alumnae from Squaw Valley for more than 10 years. She wrote 3 novels, 2 of which came extremely close to being published, but were never picked up. Just recently, Robbins sold the author's fourth novel, which will be the first to be published.

Said Steinberg: “It’s not as hard to sell as it is to write.”

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