I was walking to the grocery store yesterday when a white, unmarked van pulled up next to me. Two men–I think they were men–in ski masks spilled out of it, jammed a bag over my head, and flung me into the back. Someone honked, telling them to hurry up.
They drove. It was silent in the back. The minutes ticked by like so many marbles rolling off the table.
Then finally, she spoke:
"I got your questions," she said.
"Who? What?" I said.
"I got your questions. Here."
A slip of paper fell into my hands. She banged on the van's wall, and the van screeched to a stop. I was kicked unceremoniously from the van, clutching the paper in my hand, too blinded by sunlight to see who this… this agent was.
I unfolded the paper. There were questions, questions I had written down but had yet to send out, jotted down on it. And beneath the questions… answers. Answers unlike any an agent had ever given before…
Welcome to Agent Anonymous, where literary agents give us a peek into their real work lives. No bullshit, no banal generalities, no faux-positivite blog posts. Just honest, opinionated, occasionally feisty responses and/or retorts to our burning desire to know more about the world of the literary agent.
This, dear writers, is the real deal. Let us begin:
How do you start your day? I mean, should I submit my manuscripts at midnight so they’re at the top of your inbox because the first thing you do is read submissions… or do you have to get through the obligatory “agent pillow fight” every morning first?
Queries definitely don't come first. Sorry. It sucks, but it's true. First come current clients. Of course, that is, if you already have a client list. New agents work differently, and many of them are still assisting other agents, and so even for them it seems unlikely that the first priority will be the submissions. There are a lot of them, and they are hard to get through quickly, unless you're an asshole, in which case it's really easy to get through a bunch quickly. Basically, unless you know the agent is new and starting out and eager to build a client list, it probably doesn't matter when you send your submission. They're all there, if you've sent to the right email, and in my experience you just start from the bottom (people who've submitted a month ago or more) and move up from there.
The “slush pile” is deceptive in how specific it poses to be, but really there’s no measure of “slush”. How high does it go? How deep? What creatures lurk in its gooey center? What are the chances that my manuscript will wander in and never come out again?
The slush pile is essentially a mountain of 1s and 0s that through a process not very well understood by me become letters and words that graphically appear on a screen in a certain email account, and thus the slush pile is indeed far more philosophical and complex a concept than we usually allow it to be. Except if you're still taking paper submissions, which few agents, editors, or literary magazines (other than The Sun, what's with that, The Sun?) do.
It goes exactly as high and as deep as an agent lets it. Depends on whether the agent has an assistant to go through it. Depends on whether the agent gives a damn about anything that hasn't been recommended. Depends depends depends.
The slush pile is a mountain of gold and shit that a dragon sleeps on. Occasionally the dragon shuffles through to find the real gold and throw out the shit.
OK, no bullshit. I misspelled one thing in my query. I’m doomed, right?
No bullshit – probably not. Because, no bullshit, query letters are often skimmed. If they're too long, if they're not interesting or well-written or have wonky fonts and colors or quotation marks or a super long synopsis that doesn't make me excited to read them, I'll skip down to the writing sample. Typos happen.
What if that thing was your name?
Hoo boy, then yeah, probably straight to the "Rejected" folder. Mostly because then the assumption is that you're sending out three thousand queries into a void and not paying attention to individual agents' wants and needs regarding their submission guidelines and such.
Then again, we may not notice because we skimmed past the salutation…
Lots of agents seem to also be authors now. Is that like sketch as hell or what? Do they rep themselves? Was it all a “game” they were playing to get in good with a publishing crew?
Honestly? I know several of these, and I'm one of them (not agented, but an assistant to an agent with a promise of junior-agentship within the next year) and I don't know the answer. Here's what I do know: authors definitely do NOT rep themselves. Being in with the publishing/agenting crowd is, of course, helpful in gaining representation (IF YOU ARE A GOOD WRITER. IF YOU ARE A SHIT WRITER YOU'RE JUST GOING TO MAKE EVERYONE FEEL REALLY AWKWARD ABOUT REJECTING YOU, ESPECIALLY IF YOU'RE SUBMITTING TO AGENT FRIENDS OR AGENT FRIENDS OF FRIENDS) so I'm sure there are some who do it for that mercenary reason.
Having said that, though, I don't know that it's so deliberate or planned on. Agents at least start out from the place of really, really, really caring about literature, about stories, about whatever genre or style they represent. They want to get good work out into the world. They believe in their clients. If they didn't, they wouldn't be able to sell those authors' work.
So if you know an agent who's an author, check out who they represent and what they've sold. If they're not selling, don't submit to them. Not worth it, really. But that goes for any agent, whether they're authors, birthday party magicians, or D&D players on the side.
So there you have it! If you have questions that you want answered, put them in the comments below–OR if you're an agent wanting to get "real" with the writing world, contact me via Twitter and we can work something out.