Agent Anonymous #5

It started with a map folded into a case history book on onychomycosis that a librarian toting a fake mustache on her upper lip gave me after I asked if there was a copy of "Infinite Jest" available to check out. The map, after I exposed it to noon sunlight while sipping a gin and tonic on a rooftop, took me on a wild tour of the American East Coast, where I eventually battled a gang of murderous furries who called themselves the Otter Lords in a Cape Cod light house. On their leader's body I found another map, which took me on a wild goose chase–literally, and in case you were wondering, geese are fast–until I saw the goose with a note wrapped around its neck. Try as I might, I couldn't catch it before it flew away, so I returned home defeated, only to find a pineapple waiting on my porch. Slicing it open, I discovered inside not the delectible juicy goodness of pineapple fruit, but a bunch of frikkin' glitter that got everywhere and that I'm still cleaning up, as well as a note that, on one side, read NEXT TIME CATCH THE GOOSE and on the other side had… YES! More agent questions answered!

 

Welcome to the 5th installment of Agent Anonymous! We've taken a small break, but we're back! (Unless I end up having to go on another hunt for another agent ready to dish. Agents are flighty, you know.) Whatever the case, here's another five blunt questions answered so bluntly by agents they fear for their jobs! LET'S DIG IN!

 

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What are some query deal breakers? Like, besides writing it in Comic Sans or telling you how much of a bestseller a book is going to be.


What are you talking about? Comic Sans is totally fine.


Actually, yeah, no, it's SO NOT FINE. I want to strangle the person who invented the font. Anywho. Other than telling me that your book is going to be a bestseller or writing in Comic Sans, query deal breakers can be any or all of the following: a) sending in a genre that makes it clear you've done no research on the agent whatsoever; b) sending a query without an agent's name in it, making it clear that it's an email blasted out to a bunch of bcc'd people all at once; c) describing yourself, your personal life, and how you've always wanted to be a writer instead of actually querying with anything (and if you're querying a memoir and telling me about yourself is important, make it interesting – make it a story. Memoirs are and should still be stories, with an arc and a reason for the reader to care about the protagonist, which in this case is you).

 

Is there a secret agent forum out there somewhere, where agents gossip about queries and say, “Oh god so-and-so submitted this manuscript and I was like woah.” “Yeah he sent it to me too! Can you believe that guy?” “Now let us put him on the agent blacklist, and forever exile him to the world of kindle publishing.” *maniacal laughter ensues*


…nope. Actually, agents are pretty discrete. Besides yours truly, of course. I mean, agents might gossip about a kind of query they got, but usually not with other agents, just with friends or an editor or client, and would never mention the name of the book or the person. As bitter as agents can get at times, they still respect writers; otherwise they wouldn't still be in the biz.

 

Any good agent rivalries out there? One agency backstabbing another and swooping in and kidnapping Neil Gaiman or something?


I don't think there's any explicit rivalry. It's very rare that there's a fight over a manuscript between agencies. Also, are you kidding? Neil Gaiman's agent is one of the strongest out there. I've met her (and him because of her – not that he remembered me from the two signings I went to with him, but you know, whatever, he's a rock star now basically *isn't at all hurt*) so I should know. Agents leave agencies to start their own businesses quite often, which means they take their clients with them usually, but that isn't really seen as backstabbing as far as I can tell. Of course there's occasional drama – it's a small world, or it is in the New York City area – so everyone knows everyone, but the drama is usually personal, not professional. 

 

Do agents acquire “fixer-upper” manuscripts—ones that clearly have potential and need some tweaking? If so, about how much time/work is the maximum an agent will consider? Specifically, I had an agent tell me my manuscript had a lot of passive voice in it, and I was able to comb through the thing and fix the incidences of passive voice in a couple hours, which made the critique seem somewhat flippant given it was an easy fix.


It really depends on the agent. Sometimes, if someone sees an idea or concept or story that is simply brilliant and too good to pass up even if the writing isn't quite there yet, they'll acquire it, and it'll end up selling. Sometimes perfectly clean books without a single typo will get published but will garner zero interest. Agents need to know what sells, but they also need to go on the samples they've got in front of them. If an agent told you there was a lot of passive voice, they didn't think or know that it would be so easy for you to fix – or they simply didn't connect with the voice and writing and that's just what stuck out the most. The important thing to remember is that agents' opinions are usually the opinion of one person, often an assistant or even intern, though sometimes the actual agent. So yes, fixer-uppers happen, but I think they're a LOT rarer now than they used to be, because agents are aplenty and they're competitive and need to try to get the best books they can get and believe in. An example I have for how much time/work would go into a fixer upper: a manuscript with a baller voice, a powerful ending, but including an element that simply won't be allowed to sell was asked to be changed so that that element wouldn't be there. The author fixed and changed and worked and has sent the new version – that doesn't mean the author will get signed. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. It depends on how well the editing was done, whether the author listened to the agent's instructions, whether it is as compelling now as it was the first time around… so basically, it's a crap-shoot. Even if you fix a novel to an agent's specifications, they won't necessarily go for it because there was something undefinable about it that they simply didn't mesh with. 

 

There is a twitter push for #WeNeedDiverBooks. Is there any dialogue within agencies happening to acquire diverse works?


Duh. But let's remember that it's business, eh? It's less of #WeNeedDiverseBooks (not DiverBooks, though those could be cool) and more of, Wow, look, this Jamaican-Indian-Indonesian-Korean author wrote this beautiful thing, let's snatch her up! Or, whoa, look at this memoir by this Muslim with one leg who's also gay and happens to be super good looking, let's take this before anyone else can. I'm being a bit cynical, and I'm sure there are some agents in the industry who genuinely, truly, absolutely care about diversity in books; but unfortunately, they're thinking with their hearts and minds and not their bottom lines, and at the end of the day, no matter how many diversity points a writer gets, if they're bad writers, they won't sell. So there's this weird balancing act happening where mentioning that you're a queer person of color and a trauma survivor will probably get your query read with more eagerness (because think of the interviews and the admiring review in the Times!) but if you can't write or you've made the faux pas above, you won't get asked for more material. And it's a shitty situation to be in, knowing and wanting more diverse writers to submit their work, but also knowing that they're being tokenized at the same time. It's a shitty thing to be aware of and to need to go through. One method I use is to often skip the query and go right to the written material and only then, if I like the writing, go back to the query and see what the author's about. But I'm also weird, so don't think that you shouldn't be writing star-quality query letters!

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