"Take 10% of the time it took you to write your book, and apply that to getting a business partner, which is really what an agent is."
I attended the Writing For Change writers conference on Saturday, September 14th. It was a great conference covering all aspects of writing to be an agent for change, the publishing process, writing tips, and informational sessions with professionals.
I will be posting many posts from the conference. In this post I want to cover three questions posed to Laurie concerning the publishing process (specifically concerning query letters and agent representation), and her answers. (Please note, it was a semi-loud room, and I was writing very fast in my little notebook, so please understand I may not have written every word down 100% accurately. I have also edited some of the content down for brevity. Please also note I am also deliberately withholding some content to encourage you to attend the next conference in-person. If attendees reported literally everything from the conference, nobody would have any reason to go ^_-)
"Is it common for agents to like a full manuscript but wait until another agent makes an offer before doing the same?"
"No, it's so much easier to ask first than having to convince you when you have more than one agent wanting you."
"When querying, should you thank the agent for reading your previous, rejected query, to remind them of who you are, especially if there was something they liked about it? I assume they keep records with notes but they may just get way too many queries."
"No! Don't even mention it, because we read so many queries, I might not even remember your name. Absolutely do not mention that you were rejected. Because now it's like gee ... 'I rejected you before, do I want to read you again...?' Think of it like this. If someone says, 'Laurie, I heard you at Writing For Change and [...],' then I can't wait to read your manuscript. But if it's, 'Laurie, here's something that you rejected but I really worked on it hard,' then I'm like, 'hmm ... okay, I'll give it one page.' Or if it's, 'Hey Laurie, this is my second novel, you rejected my first one but said I showed promise,' I'm still like, 'hmm, well... maybe'. Do not mention that you were rejected."
Me: "Some agents disagree about the structure of the query letter. Some agents have said to put the pitch before the rest of the query. Many others say to put the summary, title, genre, word count information first. I don't know whom to listen to. What are your thoughts?"
Laurie: "I say, you have to give the agent some context. If you're just firehosing me, and I'm half-way through your query, and I have to go back and re-read it, I don't even know what it is. Is it fiction or non-fiction? What's the age group? If you give me one sentence stating the topic of the novel, the word count and the title before getting into your pitch, then all of that is just setting the table for me."
Me: "But some of the agents I have heard from are so respected..."
Laurie: "The thing is, no [agent] really cares. They really care about the writing. It's 90% the writing, 10% the query letter. But all unpublished authors are so freaked out about the query letter! They ask me questions like, how long should my manuscript be, how many chapters should it be, and what should my query letter say? And it's really the writing they should be focusing on."
Another Author Who Was Present During The Discussion: "I've heard that a query letter should be no more than 300 words."
Laurie: "Those things are really irrelevant because if you've blown me away with the first chapter or two or whatever I've asked for, then that's what matters."
Me: "But some agents have said to me that a query letter's pitch should be no more than 250 words..."
Laurie: "It's like what you hear from a critique group: 'Oh you should change this,' 'Oh you shouldn't change this,' 'You should expand this,' 'You should reduce this.' The buck stops with you, the author. You can take advice from anybody but you've got to say, in your gut, what feels right to you. If you want to go with one agent's advice, that's perfectly fine--"
Me: "It doesn't feel good to me, that's why I'm asking, because she disagrees with everybody..."
Laurie: "At the end of the day, you know yourself, your personality, what kind of agent you want to work with. Some agents are sharks, they're gonna get you the last nickel out of every deal they do for you. But, relationships are important, right? Is the editor gonna love that shark agent after they've just worked and worked and worked them to get everything to your advantage? Basic negotiating techniques, right? In business, are you going to give and take?
"Especially if you're a debut author, asking for everything and the moon is probably not in your best interest, because then you look like a difficult person. Most of the editors in New York are younger and living three to a studio apartment because it's so damn expensive. They also want [an agent] who's fun to work with. They want someone who's professional, so when you say, 'I want to have input into the cover design, input into major changes like character names or something similar,' you would never get final approval on that, especially if you're a debut author. Or even if you're a mid-list author, and aren't a best-selling author. You have to look at what your strengths are going into a negotiation.
"For query letters, it's ultimately up to you. You're the person in the middle, and you have to decide which advice you're going to listen to. It also depends. If you're querying an agent who has given specific guidelines for query letters, follow their guidelines. Pick the agent who works best for you. Do an analysis of yourself as a writer. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Do you need an agent who's also an editor for that final polishing round before they send it out? Do you need an agent who, if you're feeling neurotic and needy, you can call them up and chat until they calm you down? That's a different kind of agent. If you don't need any of that stuff, do you just want a salesperson to take your stuff and sell it? That's another kind of agent. When I talk to authors and they ask me those kind of things, it makes me happy because that person knows enough about themselves and the business to know what they're looking for as the best match for a business partner. Because, seriously, I feel that authors get too 'stars in their eyes -- gotta get an agent, so I'll get any agent. I'll take the first agent who offers to represent me.' You know? Have a file on your computer. If an agent calls and offers to represent you, say you will call them right back in 5 minutes, go get the file, and then ask the following questions, most important to you, pick maybe three:"
- Do you edit manuscripts before sending them out?
- How long do you wait from when you submit to an editor before following up?
- What would be the ideal client for you? (Find out some of the traits they like in their authors)
- Have you sold anything in my genre?
"When someone calls you and says, 'I love your writing, I want to represent you,' some authors get too excited. Take the emotion out of it, make a smart business decision. Take 10% of the time it took you to write your book, and apply that to getting a business partner, which is really what an agent is."
--Laurie McLean, September 14th, 2019, Writing For Change Conference, San Francisco, California