I attended an agent workshop this weekend and listened to a panel discussion from 4 agents who offered advice on the do’s and don’t’s of agent-seeking. It seemed like common sense, but from the sorts of submissions they described (and get a lot of), it must not be obvious to everyone. Since a reminder won’t hurt, here’s some of things they stressed:
Research. The internet makes it easy to find out if the agent you’re submitting to is a Mr. or a Ms., and what kinds of submissions they do and don’t accept. Get it right.
Research some more and find good query samples, if your letter is not well-composed and grammatically correct, they probably won’t even read it.
Understand and follow their submission guidelines, do not imagine anyone will make an exception just for you.
Pick a genre for your work. Even as strange and combo-rific as you think your story is, decide where you would shelve it in a bookstore and then explain how what they represent is similar to what you’ve written. (If what they represent isn’t similar, you’re sending it to the wrong person.)
Make sure your fiction work is completed and well-proofread and revised. Don’t send an agent a rough draft. Have friends, relatives, or a dedicated critique group read your work; edit, revise, and take the time to craft a polished work.
Never, ever, ever send an agent a rough-draft Nanowrimo novel. Some agencies are starting to take longer holiday breaks just to ignore the ever-deepening slush piles created by the November madness. Don’t be that person. (You don’t have to take my word for, you can take Mur Lafferty’s, but she says the same thing.)
The agents had individual comments that were worth repeating as well:
Amy Rennert, of The Amy Rennert Agency, Inc., offered the bracing view that this is the best possible time to be a writer because (contrary to those lamenting the upheaval in the publishing world) writers have never had so many publishing options. She also recommended authors work to encourage their readership since most publishing houses do not spend as much on marketing as perhaps an author would like them to.
Gordon Warnock, from Andrea Hurst and Associates, recommended keeping query letters formal, and to tailor submissions to each agent. He also advised authors to list works they feel are comparable to their own when querying.
B.J. Robbins (B.J. Robbins Literary Agency) cautioned against confusing content with query (in particular, that writers should never open their letter to an agent with word count, or use redundant phrases like “my fiction novel”). Agents recieve so many queries that, Robbins warned, a weak query letter can convince them to stop reading before they even reach the bottom of the first page.
Ken Sherman, of Ken Sherman and Associates, encouraged writers to understand publishing rights and said to be wary of any contract using the phrase “industry standard.” While he supported authors’ abiding by submission guidelines, he also felt that success demanded a degree of creative persistence: “There are no rules,” he declared, “find a way.”
All four agreed that writers should take care not to contract with any agent who imposed reading – or other – fees upon their clientele. The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. provides listings of agents who have agreed to abide by the AAR’s canon of ethics (which includes not defrauding authors). They also advised aspiring authors to check out Publishers Lunch to learn more about the publishing industry.