Writers can’t live in a vacuum. You have to know your industry: keep abreast of trends, understand how things operate and who the players are. Twitter can be a great resource for passive solicitation of the wisdom of literary agents. I follow more than a few myself. To an unpublished writer, an agent is a mythical figure; unicorn-like in elusiveness, keepers of the keys to the magical kingdom of the printed word (and the accompanying royalty cheques), their reputation for granting lifelong dreams rocketed to the heights of Midas or the Fairy Godmother by tales of the agent who plucked the hausfrau from obscurity and made her a million-dollar book deal. Yet the vast majority of agents are ordinary working folks like you and I, who need copious ventis to make it through the 9-to-5 slog. Still, they love reading and can be enchanted by a wonderful story as much as any person out there. One erroneous assumption I think a lot of beginners proceed under is that agents are embittered, failed authors predisposed to hate 99% of what they’re submitted. Gene Roddenberry once said that a TV producer would stand in the driving rain for days in exchange for one decent script to shoot, and the same mentality applies to agents. They want the next big thing as much as you want to be the next big thing. The difference is, they know the business. It’s their job.
Securing a literary agent really is like landing a job. It has to be a good fit for both of you. The agent isn’t just a one-off middleman who is sending your book to publishers for a cut of the profits, it’s someone with whom you’ll be forming a partnership, working with them for a long time to develop your career and hopefully carry you to that second, third, fourth book and far beyond. So I must admit I’m surprised to see agents complaining with resigned regularity about the same mistakes made by people who submit manuscripts and proposals to them. You have to think of your submission as a resume, and the agent as HR. They are getting thousands of applications a year, and there has to be a way to winnow that behemoth of an in-box as rapidly as possible, lest a plunge over the Cliffs of Insanity result. As the applicant, you have to do your damnedest to ensure there are as few reasons to toss yours from the pile as possible. And there are a few “don’ts” that no one who’s serious about writing professionally should ever succumb to, which I don’t believe you need to be a professional to figure out – they’re just common sense. I’m not an agent, I don’t have an agent, I don’t know any agents. But based on my observations, here are my Ten Things You Should Never Do When Pitching An Agent, and the reasons why they should be self-evident:
The first and most obvious, but again, you’d be surprised how many agents complain about this. Lying about yourself may work on the hot girl in the skinny jeans after she’s had a few tequila shots, but again, think of what you’re aiming for here – long-term relationship, not one-night stand. In the age of Google it’s even harder to get away with Catch Me If You Can-esque deceptions. If you’ve never been published, don’t claim otherwise. The agent will appreciate your honesty more than they will a couple of made up credits which they’ll be able to find out are B.S. in less time than it’s taking you to read this sentence. You won’t get away with it.
2. Exaggerate Your Awesomeness
“My mashup of The Da Vinci Code meets Spongebob Squarepants, which calls to mind the masterworks of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, is guaranteed to be an Oprah’s Book Club best-seller and a blockbuster motion picture.” Oh, where to start. Firstly, as far as I know Oprah isn’t doing her book club anymore, and it’s long been a rule among agents that dropping Her Highness’ name in a query is a trigger for an instant form rejection. Secondly, while it’s better to be proud of your work than to shuffle it forward reluctantly like Fluttershy begging for approval, humility over hyperbole is a safer bet. When you compare your book to literary big guns, you’re lining yourself up for a spectacular crash and burn. Don’t put yourself in their class until you’ve earned it. And don’t ever, ever, talk about sales potential or mention the dreaded Holly-word. That tells an agent you’re not really serious about writing, that you’re more interested in walking the red carpet with Angelina Jolie on your arm. (I think she’s taken, by the way.)
3. Submit Work That Isn’t Finished
What happens if you send in a query letter and a sample chapter and the agent bites? Do you really want to answer their request for a manuscript with “um, uh… it’s not quite… done yet.” If they want more, you should be able to send it immediately. Think of your book as a roast chicken – you would never dare serve it until it’s the right temperature, lest your guests die of salmonella poisoning. You don’t want your agent’s interest to suffer a similar fate.
4. Fail To Follow Submission Guidelines
Reputable agents will post what they are looking for in a submission in an easily findable format, usually on their website. Read it carefully and only send them what they’re asking for – no more, no less. This goes back to the principle of trying not to get automatically thrown out of the queue. Sending only what you feel like sending, or putting idiotic stuff in your query letter like “if you want to see more, you’ll have to agree to represent me,” creates the impression that you’re arrogant. Making a stupid mistake, like forgetting to attach a synopsis if it’s requested, shows that you’re careless. Publishing is a world with a lot of rules, and agents aren’t interested in working with people who can’t be bothered to follow them – no matter how good their book might be. On the other hand, providing exactly what’s asked for demonstrates a deep respect for the agent’s time. A lack of that respect leads to the next fatal mistake:
5. Submit To Agents Who Don’t Represent Your Genre
If you’re looking for a job as a plumber, you don’t send in your application for an IT position. Nor should you send your brilliant and insightful 300,000 word treatise on 14th Century Hungarian cabinet makers to a children’s lit agent. Again, reputable agents will let you know what they’re looking for, and most will also have a list of what they don’t want. Just do your homework and save yourself an automatic rejection. It’s all about showing you’re taking it seriously and not just spamming every agent who happens to be listed. Also, if an agent says they are currently closed to any and all queries, respect that request and leave them alone.
6. Call Or Otherwise Harass Them
Every agent’s website I’ve seen requests – no, beseeches – that you not call them. It literally is a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” trade. Take a lesson from high school dating and recognize that constant calling and emailing to request the status of your submission will not win the fair lady’s heart, but rather get you labeled a stalker. Remember that you’re not being ignored just because you haven’t heard anything in a few weeks. The agent wants to love your story and they’ll give you every chance to win them over. Give them the chance to come to it in their own time, when they’re in the right mood to be wowed. Forcing the issue doesn’t make you look persistent, it makes you irritating.
7. Pitch To Them On Twitter
As I mentioned earlier, lots of agents are on Twitter, and they are a great resource even if you don’t interact with them – just following will give you lots of links to blogs about writing, updates on upcoming conferences and the very pet peeves that have led to the creation of this list. Many of them do this because they like writers and they genuinely want to share their expertise as widely as possible. They recognize, though, that you can’t pitch a book in 140 characters, and therefore they politely ask that you don’t try. Actor Simon Pegg complains on his Twitter feed constantly about his stream being spammed with whiny pleas for follow-backs and retweets – imagine you’re an agent, all you want to do is tweet about the dinner you’ve just enjoyed and maybe find out who went home on Idol and you get inundated with book proposals. This is not to suggest you should refrain from tweeting to an agent at all – provided you’re discussing something interesting to them and it’s not a pitch, you’re likely to get a positive reply.
8. Use Bad Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation
We hold this truth to be the most self-evident. Agents aren’t going to represent someone who comes off as barely literate. Spell check exists for a reason. Run it over and over again, then read your submission backwards one word at a time so your brain doesn’t skip over errors because it’s putting the words into context. This rule also applies to knowing the format of a query letter. If you don’t, learn it and practice. Agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, while snarky, is a great resource for this. She’ll critique queries she finds interesting, and even if yours isn’t chosen to become her chum of the week you can learn a lot by the mistakes of others and the suggestions she offers to give your query more punch.
9. Badmouth Them On Social Media
This is the cyberspace equivalent of taking your ball and going home. There are a dozen reasons why an agent might not request to see anything further from you, and, assuming you’ve avoided items one through eight, I guarantee that not one of those reasons is because they have something against you personally. Rejection is frustrating, but it’s also part of the business, and you have to learn how to endure it without a hissy fit. Just accept your “no” and move on to the next agent. Don’t write a three-thousand word diatribe about how awful the agent is on your blog. The Internet is public, and forever, and agents network. They know each other. If the one that rejected you discovers your online screed of vindictive retribution, how long do you think it will take for the stench of your douchery to spread throughout the literary community? No one will want to look at anything a spiteful jackass has written even if you are the second coming of William Faulkner. Be nice, and if you have nothing nice to say, keep your own counsel – or, in other words, shut the hell up about it on Facebook.
10. Assume Landing An Agent Is A Ticket To Rowlingville
It can happen, but those phenomena are the exception, not the rule. Landing an agent doesn’t mean you’re set for life. As I said earlier, it’s just the next step in your career. You’re still a nobody and there is a lot to come – getting published, for one, and promoting the hell out of yourself to the point where you hope you will reach that critical mass and generate some positive word-of-mouth and strong sales. I recall reading that nobody attended J.K. Rowling’s first American bookstore appearance. If we’re honest with ourselves some part of us does really crave wide readership and praise, but overnight successes take years and years. If you truly love writing enough, then you shouldn’t need that stratospheric level of vindication to make it worth your while.
I can’t promise that this is a definitive list, nor can I assure anyone that obeying all 10 rules will guarantee you an acceptance. I prefer to approach it from the position of karma, or the golden rule – treat the agent as you would expect to be treated in return, and put out lots of positive energy, and you’re far more likely to get a nibble. Horror writer Edo van Belkom once told a class I was attending that in order to succeed in publishing, you need a combination of any two of the following three things: talent, luck and perserverance. Add to that a healthy dose of respect, humility and attention to detail, and logically, it’s just a matter of time.