An Interview with an Agent... (III)

I wrote furiously through the whole thing, but please understand that I didn't catch every word, so this is more the "flavor" of the answers than exact quotes. My comments are in [brackets]. Any errors are mine alone :)

A committee came up with the first set of questions. See Part VI and following for audience questions. Beth Brownwater led the meeting.

Q: First, explain why an author should hire an agent.

SB: Being an agent is a very subjective business. You can't represent something you don't love. There's a huge difference between agenting for fiction versus non-fiction. It's easier to sell non-fiction. You have to have an agent if you think your book should go to a big publishing house in New York. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, it's necessary. At any given time, six million people think they are publishable authors; however, there are only 175,000 new titles a year. [YT -- 175K titles? I can't have heard that right.] You could send your book to a small publishing house, without using an agent.

AK: Check out the Writer's Market books. If a publishing house states it only accepts agented works, don't bother submitting a manuscript on your own. Agents do the dirty work.

SB: Publishing books involves a lot of business work. An agent can see the bigger picture of what an author could be doing for him/herself, as a business. It can be very hard to find a match with a good agent.

Q: What's a typical week like for you?

AK: I don't have a typical day! Monday, I try not to answer the phone. I get 60-100 e-mails a day, and I have lots of reading to do. I have a first reader to help. Once we accept the manuscript, I always do the final reading before we start submitting the book. I talk to the editor before I submit a book.

SB: There is no typical week. I have about twenty clients, of whom 13-14 are really active right now. I have projects at every stage. I talk to my clients, editors of works in progress, editors who might be interested in projects. E-mail is great. No more postage. [YT -- she flashed this huge grin at this point.] I follow up on submissions. You have to get the book to the right editor. You only have one shot. You need a killer cover letter for fiction. I need to make sure I have a good handle on my authors' bios for when I'm talking to editors. For one of my writers, I'm prescreening publicists, because there's potential for the book to be really big. I do a ton of little bitty detail work.

Q: What makes you more likely to take on a book?

SB: First I would like to say, don't be insulted by a form rejection letter. I tried to personally answer my submissions for years, but I finally got smart. I don't have time. I'm looking at 60-100 manuscripts per week. More than anything, what I'm looking for are smart writers. A good hook is good, but it's not enough. The writing's gotta hold up. I sometimes get a letter with a good hook, but the writing has nothing to do with what was in the quety letter. I love humor. Especially in mysteries. For nonfiction, the platform is very important. You have to have some expertise, credentials. Does everyone know what a platform is? A platform means you're already out speaking to an audience. Professors. Journalists. Business books especially. Be out there as a consultant, in front of large audiences. The exception would be memoirs.

AK: I do love humor. If you put a hook in, I want a synopsis in the query letter. The synopsis is very important. If you hook me with humor, I read the synopsis, and it's boring, I won't ask for more. Keep the momentum up in the book.

Q: What gets included in query letters that turns you off?

AK: When the query letter is so rigid, I can't tell what the writing style will be like. A formal query letter is okay, but I want to see your personality in your query letter.

SB: If you e-mail your query letter and then send an attachment without being asked! Or if you include an elaborate picture in the body of the e-mail. I won't open it; it's presumptuous. I don't like arrogance. You should be confident, not arrogant. That's fiction. For non-fiction, I want something about your credentials. Say something about yourself. You have to fit this all on one page. It's covering a lot. Your query letter is your first sample of writing, so the writing has to be good. Let me know if you've had a story published here or there, if you're part of PPWC or a critique group. If you have a related degree. I want background. If it's nonfiction, you have to talk about your credentials in your query letter. Don't be vague. Don't write sentences implying something. If you've been previously published, don't say, "it sold well," give numbers. Don't take offense at this, but if you're self-published, don't say you're a published author. Be completely upfront and honest.

AK: For e-mails, don't send the same e-mail to fifty of us. They just get deleted.

SB: Hear, hear. Have you heard about "Scriptblaster"? Don't do it. They send submissions to 3000+ agents. Why would I respond? I have no interest and no time to respond to that kind of submission. I auto-delete them.

Q: Apparently, there's a new trend of sending 3-5 pages with a query letter, even if you haven't been asked. What do you think about that?

SB: I actually don't feel strongly about this. If someone sticks pages in, I don't care, I'll read them. (They have to be in the body of the e-mail, not an attachment, if it's an electronic submission.) Now, some agents, that would be the kiss of death. Five pages is too many; don't send more than three. Mostly I won't get past the end of page one.

AK: I don't mind. One to three pages is good. If I read the first page and I don't like it, I won't ask for more. I'll stop reading at the first page, either way.