When I asked on Twitter what questions people would like an article about agents to address, there were a bunch that didn’t fit into the post I was writing, which you can find at BTS Book Reviews blog. Thus, as promised, I’m answering them over here on my own blog. If you have a question that isn’t answered in the “All About Agents” article or this Q&A (that is not “would you read my book”), feel free to ask it here and I’ll do my best to answer.
Q. Assuming the writing is good, what is the difference between a partial that grabs you and one that doesn’t? (Since this is similar to the question “How can an agent tell if said ms has potential?” I’m combining the answers here.)
A. Here’s the thing—we’re not just looking for something with potential. Many writers have potential. We’re looking for someone who’s achieved their potential. We want someone who blows us away and keeps reading late into the night or makes us miss subway stops because we’re so absorbed. We want a manuscript that we can’t help but pitch to friends and family as well as editors. In short, we want something that excites us and that we can truly champion. You don’t want an agent who’s ambivalent to your work or on the fence about it. You want someone who’s thrilled to be working with you and who will keep on even when those inevitable rejections come in. (In my 22 years in the business, I’ve never had a work that everyone wanted. Never.)
The difference between what grabs me and what doesn’t is not easy to articulate. The novels I fall in love with spark something in me. They make a connection; they’re original; they have a wonderful, unique voice. Voice, in fact, is often what makes something stand head and shoulders above the rest. That said, just because I don’t connect with a work strongly enough to take it on doesn’t mean it’s not ready for prime time. It only means that I’m not the right agent for it.
Q. What are you hoping to see when you ask for revisions and offer to take another look?
A. When I ask for revisions, it’s because I see a spark. I’ve made that connection, but the work is still far enough from being ready that I’m not sure if the writer isn’t there yet or if the manuscript just needs another pass. Seeing the work again after revision will answer that for me. It may be that the pacing was too slow previously…or the main character was too distant or tangential to the action…or that the storyline itself wasn’t strong enough regardless of the intriguing set-up… Having the author tackle a revision lets me know that they’re open to critique and putting in the work necessary. The outcome of the revision itself demonstrates how well the author applies notes and whether he or she can bring this particular manuscript up to the level it needs to be to stand out.
Q. I’d love advice about the comparison in the query–ie “Fans of __ will love my book.” “I’m __ meets __.” Should we do this?
A. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that you hope that your work will appeal to the same audience as that of Author X. Unfortunately, I’ve seen people phrase it poorly too many times so that it comes across sounding like, “Move over Stephen King, I’ll take it from here.” It takes the right blend of confidence and humility to say it the way you intend it to come across. Likewise, describing your work as this meets that is fine as long as it really highlights your concept for the agent or editor with whom you’re corresponding. I describe my Vamped young adult series as Clueless meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think/hope that the person I’m talking with immediately sees Cher Horowitz with fangs. At the very least, they’ll know that it’s a snarky, fashion-conscious vampire series. I scratch my head, though, when I hear something like this is the Jack Kerouac, Peter Straub and Jude Deveraux all rolled into one. My response to that is…huh?
In other words, it can be a useful tool if done right, but I highly recommend running comparisons by critique partners and others you work with to be sure you’ve struck the right notes.
Q. What working relationship do you look for outside of contract with a client? Level of professionalism?
I’m not sure whether the person asking the question meant “contract” or “contact” here, but I get the spirit of the question. What I look for is someone who’s going to be a publishing partner. In other words, someone who’s willing to invest the same amount of effort in his/her career as I am. If I comment on a manuscript or proposal, I want to know those comments are well-received, even if the author may not agree with everything I have to say. I look for someone who’s personable and plays well with others. Publishing is such a village that it’s important to prop each other up and promote each other rather than tear down. I want someone who’s professional and communicative, who asks the questions that need to be asks and who keeps me on the loop on their end of things. Also, someone who’s reliable with deadlines and with the quality of his or her work.
Q. If a book by a debut author is the first in a series, do you want that mentioned in query? Or treat it as a standalone?
A. Yes, if a book is part of a series, I want to know it. When advice says don’t pitch more than one project at once, it’s not saying pretend you don’t have a series (although you don’t want to tell us you have a ten-book arc necessarily). It’s saying don’t pitch two or three different series or genres at a time.
Q. Do agents look for something that will sell immediately? Or are they willing to work with an author at revisions to make a future sale?
A. When an agent takes someone on, they’re making an investment in the writer’s career. They don’t necessarily expect that a book will sell instantly. Responses can take months. And most of us do work editorially with authors to make the work as strong as it can possibly be prior to submission, which involves time before the book ever goes out to editors. A work doesn’t have to be perfect before we’ll take it on, but it does have to be really close. Unfortunately, agents don’t have the time to nurture a diamond in the rough. There are a lot of good writers out there. It’s not our job to train them up into great writers. It’s our job to sell their work and help them succeed once they get there.
Q. When querying, what time(s) of the year are the best to do so? Or, when is NOT a good time of the year to query you?
A. Conventional wisdom is that you don’t send submissions out at the end of the year (say between Thanksgiving and New Years) because agents and editors are burnt out and just trying to wrap up all their current projects before the end of the year. There’s some wisdom to this, but I’ve sent submissions out during this time and made some great sales. I think the answer here is “it depends.” The best way to be sure you’re querying at a good time (or at least not at a bad one) is to check the agency or publisher’s guidelines to see if there’s any window when they’re open or closed to submissions and make sure you don’t submit at a time when they’re not reviewing queries.
Q. If a project originally rejected is revised and mostly rewritten, does it count as a new book/okay to query again?
A. If you received an encouraging response and your book has been significantly revised or rewritten, then it’s absolutely okay to query again. If you haven’t, it probably means the book wasn’t right for that particular agent. However, the worst they can say is “no” to a new query, so I don’t think it hurts to try. That’s my two cents, of course, and if an agency’s guidelines say differently, then following them would be the way to go.