Friday, March 27, 2009

More on agents

What Is The Most Critical Mistake Writers Make When Approaching Literary Agents For Representation?

Agents we surveyed responded as follows:

Poor writing or poorly prepared contact letter 44%
Inappropriate subject or genre for that agent 22%
Author’s hype, ego, arrogance 18%
Uneducated about publishing process 16%
Lack of knowledge about the book’s competition 8%
No platform for nonfiction 6%

Poor writing or poorly prepared contact letter

It comes as a surprise that agents report they get so many weak query letters. A number of books have been written on the subject of crafting a query such as Making the Perfect Pitch by agent Katherine Sands. Numerous writers’ conferences also cover this topic in depth. A query letter isn’t really that complicated to compose—particularly compared to writing a 100,000 word novel.

Inappropriate subject or genre for that agent

The second most popular response to the question reflects that the writers don’t do their homework when selecting agents to contact. Sending a wonderful query about your, say, cookbook, to an editor that specializes in placing mystery fiction is simply a waste of everyone’s time. Reference books such as Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents point out very clearly what individual agents are looking for. Not that some of their preferences don’t seem odd, even a bit nonsensical. In one reference guide agent warned, “Don’t send me any right-wing Tom Clancy stuff.’’ Did this agent really mean to say he’d turn down the chance to earn 15% of the mega-royalties author Clancy has earned in his career?

Author hype, ego, arrogance

Agents report that creative people oftentimes have big egos. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Part of the problem stems from author’s awareness of how many other writers they are competing with for the agent’s attention. The temptation to use hyperbole to differentiate oneself can be overwhelming.

Of course, then some of the agents go on to contradict their colleagues by warning against over-selling and arrogance. “Trying to act more like a sales person, and not like a writer,” one agent said. “Hyping the agent. A straightforward recitation is much more effective.” But another one said the worst mistake was, “Not writing an engaging query.” “Writing dreary query letters describing the plot of the book.”

Now we’re starting to get confused. Do the agents want an exciting query, or that “straightforward recitation”?

Uneducated about publishing process

The author who is truly talented and dedicated to the craft of writing has a clear advantage right from the start; the overwhelming response from agents was that the quality of many submissions they receive is poor. The author who can articulate the market for his or her book is also way ahead. The author needs to think of himself as a small businessperson entering a new industry, not as a “literary artist.” They must be able to address the question, Who is going to buy your book and why? Authors who can show they will be helpful in selling the book once it is published are particularly sought after in today’s marketplace. Writers should not assume that an agent, or an editor at a publishing house, will automatically recognize who the target audience is for a book, or how large that audience might be.

Lack of knowledge about the book’s competition

The responses below point up something that many authors don’t even stop to consider what the competition for their book might be. They have no idea whether their book is really new and different (nonfiction) or whether it fits into a fiction category that is “hot.” Food product manufactures talk of the keen competition for shelf space at the grocery story. The same holds true in the bookstore shelves. Can you imagine where in the store your book might appear?

No platform for nonfiction

“Platform” is something everyone in the publishing industry is talking about these days—it should be nominated for the coveted “Industry Buzzword of the Year” award. Having a “platform” is one of the best means of getting your non-fiction book to the top of the agent’s to-do list. Platform simply means the built-in audience you have for your book, and the media exposure you can generate for your book, apart from the marketing done by the publishing house. If you can say, “I am a frequent guest on the _______” (nationally syndicated radio program). Or, “I publish an Internet newsletter that has 20,000 subscribers.” You are telling a publisher that a potential audience already exists for your book—lots of readers know who you are—and therefore you represent less of a risk to the publishing house, because awareness often translates into sales.

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