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Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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Ask an Agent: Reader Q&A

by Natalie Collins

Because I have spent the past three years compiling information on and researching agents, unpublished authors often write to me with questions about agents, how agents work, and which agents to query for their particular genre. This FAQ is a compilation of several columns written for Writing-World.com, in which agents answer readers' questions about getting published.

Agent: William Contardi

William Contardi worked as an editor for ten years then joined Warner Brothers as vice president of literary affairs, buying books to make into movies. For the past eleven years he has worked as a literary agent at William Morris Agency in New York representing the dramatic rights for books. In April he joined Brandt & Hochman as a literary agent, representing writers for publication.

If an editor with a commitment to your book leaves the publisher, what can the agent do to assure the book's publication? What is the agent's responsibility in this situation? Relative to this issue, what can and should be included in the agent-author contract?

If an editor leaves, an agent's job is to make sure the author has a new editor assigned who is a good match for the author and the project; who has some clout or appropriate knowledge of the subject matter; who knows how to make the house work for the book in an appropriate manner; and who has good rapport with the author. Then because this editor has inherited rather than actually chosen the book, the agent needs to hover about a bit more actively to make sure all these things are going well. If, somehow, after the new editor is assigned and we have identified what stage of publishing this book is at, and what now needs to be done by the new editor, the editor acts like it is their misfortune to have the book, the agent could step in to talk with executives and try to get the book reassigned. Sometimes the new editor is actually more aggressive and more exciting than the original editor!

The agent's job is to monitor and follow up with the publishing house so that the simple fact of reassignment of the book does not cause the book to fall through cracks. I do not believe that an inherited book is always a disaster. Sometimes it enables us to meet a new editor and start a good new relationship, and the best way for the editor to prove himself a good guy to work with is with a book already on the list.

Can you give us your take on what publishers are looking for today?

Nothing has really changed to my mind. Good storytelling. Strong narrative drive. And the old maxim still holds: it is easier to sell a first novel than it is to sell a second if the first has not performed that well.

When you open an envelope and pull out a query, what really turns you off and makes you want to toss it in the basket? What draws you into a query and makes you want to read more? Do author credentials count?

It is difficult to follow up on a letter that does not read clearly in its synopsis and bio. Best to have a healthy balance of personality and professionalism in the tone. A clear and thorough (but not lengthy) synopsis and author bio and any credentials are essential.

Because I spend much of my business time speaking to groups, I have the opportunity to sell my book directly. I like this arrangement because I know whom to blame if sales don't go well. What can you offer me that I'm not doing or can't do myself?

Sales are a substantial part of the publishing equation, but equally important are publicity, editorial, marketing, promotion, and cover copy/packaging. What an agent offers is the expertise and contacts and experience in all these areas, beyond sales, that figure into the best possible publication.

Agent: Simon Lipskar

Do agents really take on new authors?

Since the questions I've been asked have seemed to imply that the questioners don't believe that agents take on new authors, my most compelling biographical facts are the debut novels I've sold that are due to come out in the next year. Keep your eyes out for three wonderful new novelists I represent: Jennifer Donnelly, whose sweeping epic The Tea Rose is due out from St. Martin's in September (already garnering rave reviews from the trade magazines, glowing blurbs from notable authors Frank McCourt and Simon Winchester and inclusion in the September/October Booksense 76 list), Michael Gruber, whose brilliant, sophisticated and terrifying thriller Tropic of Night will be published by William Morrow in March, and C.W. Tooke, whose Ballpark Blues -- the best piece of baseball fiction I've read since W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (the basis for the movie Field of Dreams) -- will come out from Doubleday in April. All three have the potential to be major breakout debuts.

As an agent, I represent fiction of all stripes from the literary to the commercial (no genre romance, horror, or sci-fi, though), as well as narrative nonfiction in the categories of memoir, biography, history, current affairs, sports, travel, journalism and science.

In considering a query, does it matter to you if an author has a previous fiction publication?

The reality is that most authors whose published works are of enough significance to bear upon the decision to take on an author approach agents through means other than the standard query. Which is a long-winded way of saying, no, it really doesn't matter if a query letter has a long list of publication credits. Certainly biographical data helps, particularly if it includes publication of short stories, awards or degrees in creative writing (to give three examples), but what I'm looking for in a query is a book to fall in love with -- whether the author is unpublished or not is not the heart of the matter.

I'd like to know how to decide which agent within the agency to query and whether it's okay to query additional agents if you get turned down--in other words, if Al Zuckerman rejects me, is that his personal decision or the agency's "official" decision. Also, if an agent gets a query that's not right for him but sounds promising, will he pass it on to his colleague down the hall or just reject it out of hand? Do agents within a big agency feel like independents or part of a team?

There's no hard and fast rule. I often refer high quality queries to other agents at my office, if the book doesn't feel like it would be right for me, and my colleagues do the same. That said, a pass from one agent is not a "house" pass, at least at Writers House. We don't keep a master log of all submissions -- who has the time, given that we receive thousands upon thousands of queries every year? One absolute no-no is to query two agents at one agency simultaneously, however. When the receptionist at Writers House sorts the mail, he will alert us to the fact that multiple copies of a query seem to have arrived, and this invariably leads to swift rejection. Look, the fact is that judging the saleability and aesthetic worth of a novel are totally subjective criteria, and I might love a book my colleague hates, and vice versa. As long as you're considerate of our professional relationships (after all, we're all friends as well as colleagues), sensitive resubmission to another agent is probably okay. As for the last part of the question, at Writers House, agents in essence all operate independent businesses, but we tend to feel like we work together nonetheless. I can't speak for the other major multi-agent houses such as ICM and William Morris, but here at Writers House, we are very supportive of one another's work.

What excites you in a query (other than the book itself, of course); is it the bio, the market info, the fact that I've researched you a little, the writing style of the letter, or what?

This is, alas, another of those philosophical imponderables, along the lines of "Why do authors without talent make millions?" Reading a query, particularly for a novel, is like going on a date. Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another? Who knows? With nonfiction, things are quite different, as the appropriateness of the author to address the topic, the marketability of the subject, etc. are in many ways the primary concerns. But with novels, I believe you should think of queries in the following terms. If you want an agent to believe that your novel is wonderful and that you are a wonderful writer, than you have to write a wonderful letter. Period. I really don't buy the old saw that it's easier to write a novel than a letter describing it. After all, I know that I'm not a "great" writer and yet I write "queries" in the form of pitch letters to editors every day. Pitches and queries are clearly a lesser art form, so, by definition, if you're a first-rate writer, you should be able to craft a pitch that will make me salivate. I can tell you that I often know that I'll take on a writer from the query alone -- the book only ratifies what I already knew from reading one page of prose.

Regarding the needs of publishers today, which do you think matters more, marketability and timeliness of genre/topic, or technical excellence and skilled story telling?

I don't think there's an either/or answer to this question. The reality is that the market for new fiction is horrendous. Of course, editors are looking for new writers, but the hurdles editors have to leap to acquire unpublished authors are nearly impossible to scale -- editors need both a highly marketable as well as a brilliantly executed novel in order to acquire it. "Marketability" certainly helps -- it is, in point of fact, essential. But so is the ability to write sentences of vibrancy, vitality and power, as is masterful storytelling. I'd argue that, in a sense, great writing and great storytelling are what make for a marketable novel. Timeliness is a tricky subject with novels -- what's timely at one moment feels dated the next, and experience has shown that successful books create their own timeliness rather than the other way around, if that makes any sense.

Agent: Jeff Kleinman

Jeff Kleinman is an agent with Graybill and English, LLC. Kleinman graduated with a BA with High Distinction from the University of Virginia. He has an MA from the University of Chicago in Italian language and literature, and his JD from Case Western Reserve University. After graduating from the University of Virginia, he lived in Italy for about three years, studying the Italian Renaissance. Previously an associate at the art and literary law firm of Kaufman & Silverberg in Washington, DC., he is now of counsel to Graybill & English.

I just got a call from an agent who says she'd love to represent me, but that she doesn't use a contract. Should I be concerned?

Many agents, actually, don't use contracts--they still function on the old handshake system. These days, though, it doesn't make a lot of sense to not have anything in writing memorializing your understanding with the agent. So if your agent is not one to use agreements, I suggest sending him/her a simple letter setting out your understanding of your relationship, a la:

Dear Agent:

I'm delighted that we're going to be working together on my book, ___. I just wanted to confirm my understanding of how we'll be working. (Summary of working agreement). If you have any questions, or if my understanding is incorrect, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Writer

I was just browsing through the online writers market, looking for magazines to take my short fiction pieces. I clicked on Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, and both say they don't take unagented short stories. Okay, then I read that agents don't like taking clients with short stories because their commissions are too small, and only their regular clients can submit short stories to them for magazines. So, here we go again, you can't submit without an agent, and an agent won't take you if you write short stories. What do I do?

If I were a writer without an agent, I think I'd try to really build up my credentials with other (national) magazines first; and maybe pitch those magazines a nonfiction idea. The problem with this business, certainly, is that it is a fairly closed world--but hard work and perseverance do pay off!

A lot of us want an agent as a means to an end. What we really want is to get published, and in the best of all worlds, get paid enough so we can keep writing. So my main question is how can we tell before we sign on the dotted line if a particular agent can get the job done? And vice versa, how can an agent tell from just a cover letter, a synopsis and a chapter or two if a writer has what it takes to sell? I mean, when you're slogging through yet another book proposal, what is it that shouts "This is it!"

You can't. You can only assess the agent's track record and enthusiasm for the project. In many cases, it's not the agent, it's the project--so I'd suggest really making the project the best it can possibly be. I know you've heard that a billion times before, but the fact is that very few submissions that hit my desk have the "right" combination of factors--author with good credentials; compelling, unique story; well-defined market; and most of all, fabulously strong, wonderful writing.

Frankly, you'd really be surprised at how easy it is to tell, in about 90% of cases, that something will be difficult to sell. There's a certain page-turning assurance in the writing--when it's not there, it's really obvious that it's not there. The next eight percent of cases are the tough ones--they're the ones that I read, and read again, and mull over. The final two percent are the ones where I call the author hysterically, asking for more.

What do you do for a client after the publisher has accepted a book proposal? How involved are you in negotiation and promotion?

Regarding contract negotiation, it's part of the agent's job. Re: the rest, I tend to stay a bit more involved than many agents, I know--I ask that editors/authors "cc" me on correspondence. I participate in conference calls, talk with publicity, marketing, special sales, and continue to provide guidance to the authors during the entire process.

How do you deal with the expense of manuscript submission, as in do you charge those expenses back to the author, or do you simply chalk it up to the cost of doing business?

I keep a tally of all expenses, and try to deduct expenses from the advance. If there's no advance, or if the project doesn't sell, I bill the client for those expenses.

Prior to submitting a manuscript to a publisher, does it help if an author gets a couple of endorsement blurbs about their book from published authors they know?

Yes!!! The whole bookselling business is a sales game--so of course, the stronger you look out of the gate, the better!

Are you willing to help me build a career as opposed to merely selling this one book? And if so, what can you do for me?

That depends. Do you have more than one book in you? Do you want to do another book? Are you amenable to suggestions? Are you professional in your dealings with me? Do you want this book to succeed as badly as I do? Are you able to meet deadlines? I think every agent wants to be involved in a long-term position with clients that are successful and cooperative.

Agent: Jenny Bent

Jenny Bent is an excellent agent with a great reputation, and she is both professional and courteous. Bent has ten years of experience working in the publishing industry. Currently, she is a literary agent with the firm of Harvey Klinger, Inc., in New York City. Prior to becoming an agent, Ms. Bent worked at Rolling Stone and Ladies Home Journal magazines. She was also an editor at Cader Books, where she was responsible for books on pop culture and the media, including The People Magazine Entertainment Almanac. She was an agent with two other literary agencies before joining Harvey Klinger, Inc. She represents clients who write commercial and literary fiction as well as nonfiction on a variety of topics, including memoir, health, and women's issues.

Do you submit manuscripts individually to editors or would you lump mine in with a number of other authors for a particular editor?

I would never send more than one submission to one editor at a time. I think it would be too overwhelming. Also, I tend to focus on about one or two projects a month, so when I send something to an editor, that's the only thing I have to send that would be appropriate.

Do you contract per book or per year, and if you contract per book how long should I stay with you to sell my first one?

I contract per book. How long? Good question? I have submitted books all over town, been rejected everywhere, tried again six months later, and sold the book. So I guess you should stay for as long as you think I am enthusiastic and supportive of your writing. Also, with most of the authors I sign up, if I don't sell their first book, I'm usually happy to try to sell the second one.

Why do some agents ask for revisions before representation?

Because they think the project needs work before it is as marketable as it possibly can be. Often, when I ask for revisions, it has nothing to do with the quality of the work, and everything to do with the current climate and how I think I can best sell it.

Why--or why not--should I take your advice and write in another genre which may not be my forte or goal?

I don't think you should listen to anything your agent says unless you want to. If a suggestion makes sense, then do it. If it feels wrong to you, then don't. I never want to interfere with an author's creative process--if I try to fit them into the wrong slot, I think it will show in the quality of their writing and their output.

If my manuscript doesn't fit a specific genre, would you still be willing to submit it elsewhere?

I'm fairly wary of manuscripts which don't fit a specific genre, be it romance, sci fi, literary fiction, commercial women's fiction, narrative nonfiction, etc. If a book is wonderful it can transcend genre--but this is rare.

What one piece of advice would you offer a new writer who is constantly meeting with rejection.

That's a really hard one, because there are so many reasons why a writer might get rejections. I guess I would suggest maybe taking a writing course so that this writer can get feedback, not only on her or her writing, but his or her submission methods. Or go to a writer's conference, where they often offer this kind of advice as part of the fee you pay for attending.

Can you describe your "dream client?"

Honestly, I just like people to be nice. I've had a few clients who were unbelievably hostile and almost abusive, and needless to say, I don't work with anymore. Writing is a very hard and frustrating undertaking, but so is agenting, and we're all in it together, so I like clients who don't nag or whine, but are pleasant and professional. And I'm pleased to say that right now all of my clients fall into the latter category. If I'm considering a new client and it seems like he or she would be difficult to work with, I always pass on the project--even if I think it will make me money. Life's too short.

For more information on finding an agent, see Writing-World.com's Agent Links.

Copyright © 2002 Natalie R. Collins
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Natalie R. Collins is a writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience. She is the author of the novels, SisterWife, Twisted Sister, and Outer Darkness, and has won numerous awards for her writing of fiction and nonfiction. SisterWife was chosen in the top ten of the 2001 Annual Preditors and Editors Poll. She has worked in newspaper journalism, advertising, and served as an editor for the 2001 and 2002 Sundance Film Festivals. She has spent the past two years researching and compiling information on agents. Vist her website at http://www.nataliercollins.com/.

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