Friday, July 20, 2007

Loser Agents

I posted some of this as a comment over at Pubrants , but I want to mention it here as well.

A loser agent is worse than no agent.

I'm not talking about bad agents here, the evil predators who want your money and are just a scam in disguise. I'm talking about the agent who would really love to sell your book - but just because she calls herself a literary agent doesn't mean she is one.

Rachel Vader, an agent with Folio Literary Management, talks a little bit about it here. Your agent needs to be legit. I admit that I can't give you a tremendous amount of intel about what goes on at a literary agency, having never worked at one, but I can tell you some things from an editorial perspective.

Your agent needs to know editors. She needs to know what editors are looking for. She needs to have a relationship with them. She needs to have made previous sales that are decent enough so that when she calls up my boss and says, "I have a YA vampire novel that I think is just up your alley" he will take her seriously and ask her to send it over and have me read it. Because he trusts her judgment and knows that she doesn't usually waste his (or my) time. She needs to be a decent negotiator. When we send her your contracts, she is the one who looks it over and tries to get the best deal for you. I'm not going to lie to you - when we write our contracts, we're trying to get the best deal for the publishing house. We want to be fair to you, no question, but we want to get the most we can. Your agent has to be the advocate who speaks fluent contractese (and believe me, it is a language all of its own) and translates that into how much money and subsidiary rights she can get for you.

That's only a fraction of what your agent needs to be able to do for you.

There are loser agents who troll for naive and eager newbie writers. They show up at SCBWI conferences and give you their card and enthusiastically praise your writing, and bam! you have an agent. They do this not because they are trying to scam you, but because they are loser agents, and they want to build their author base, and they figure, if they sign up enough of you, one of you might make it to the big time for them. What they neglect to tell you is that for all the good they can do for you, you might as well be making it to the big time on your own. They are desperate for new talent, but they can't provide the support and backing that your novel deserves. Loser agents can't do any of the aforementioned things that an agent should be doing for you. They don't have the experience, the contacts, the know-how.

(If you're wondering how anyone gets all experience and know-how to get started in the first place, the answer is, of course, by starting as a junior/assistant lit agent and working their way up. Not by putting out the welcome mat and shiny window sign declaring themselves to be an agent.)

I hate the loser agents sometimes more than I hate the evil agents (okay, I hate them, too.) But loser agents are just not fair to you. You wrote a book. You put your sweat and blood and time and energy into it. And then an agent signs you, and you get all excited, thinking that the horrible submissions process is finally over (on your side, anyway.) Only, your agent is a loser, and instead of spending the energy to find an agent who will actually take your book where it can shine, you're in the hands of someone with as many publishing connections as you have. They're not doing anything illegal. But it's still not fair to dupe you like that.

Reading the slush pile, when I hit on a query letter from a so-called "agent," I always have to fight the urge to track down the author's contact info and send them a letter telling them to drop their loser agent like a hot potato. An agent who submits to slush is worse than no agent at all. If you submit to slush by yourself, you have a 1 in 50billion chance of catching my interest. If your agent submits to the slush, as soon as I see that it's a loser agent, it goes in the trash. Seriously. You can submit to the slush pile yourself. You don't need an agent to do that for you. It doesn't make you look good - it just makes you look duped.

I once did some freelance work for a literary agent. The MSs weren't very good, but I did the best I could to give them constructive critique. Afterwards, the agent said to me, "I've never submitted a children's book before - do you have any tips for me?" It threw up every red flag that I had. Even though she was a paying customer, I never did any more work for her. It just felt wrong.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Stamp Story

Never do this:

Dear Editor,

I recently mailed you a query letter regarding an MS I had completed _______________, for which I enclosed a SASE. It has just come to my attention that my secretary (me) forgot to put a stamp on the camp. Please find enclosed appropriate postage.

And enclosed is a stamp.

Um. That’s very nice. But I am not going to label this stamp with the MS title and leave it on my desk until the MS shows up. Especially because there is a good chance that I already read the query letter, found the stampless SASE and trashed it.

If you realize you’ve done something like this, don’t send me postage. Just resubmit the MS.

Oh well. Free stamp for me, I guess.

Friday, July 6, 2007

It's Not the Thought That Counts

Here’s a tip: don’t write a message, write a story.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many queries I read that say something like “this book will teach children about the importance and value of sharing” or “the importance of multiculturalism will come clear in this picture book” or “each book in my series teaches another valuable lesson like if at first you don’t succeed try try again.”

Seriously, when I read that, I mentally recoil and have absolutely no interest in your story whatsoever.

I don’t want a message. I don’t want a picture book which will relay a nice idea. I don't want a preachy moralistic tale.

I want a great story. I want a funny text. I want something sweet that will bring tears to my eyes.

I want a story that moves me.

If there’s a message buried somewhere in there, well that’s great. There’s a message buried somewhere in every story we write and publish, because that’s why we write. We write to tell stories, to get ideas across.

If you are a passionate, dedicated writer, I suspect that there is a message of some sort in your work.

But don’t tell me about it. Don’t set out to write a story about multiculturalism or sharing or being nice to others that is really a thinly veiled vehicle for a cause. Don’t send it to me, and don’t write it, and most importantly of all, don’t tell me about it.

I’m not looking to publish causes and messages. I’m looking to publish great stories.

Tell me about the story.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Blogging From the Slush Pile

I’m having a bit of a slow day, so I’m attacking the ginourmous pile of slush next to my desk. Here are some reactions to actual things in slush letters.

Things not to put in your query:

1. The line “give it a read, and I think we’ll do business.” I can’t speak for all editors everywhere, but I hate smarmy, self-assured ego. Self-confidence, yes. Smarmy ego, no.

2. The title page, table of contents, authors note, and first chapter of your novel. Okay, maybe that’s what some houses submissions guidelines request. Ours requests query letters. Other imprints here request the first ten pages, or something like that. It doesn’t take a brain to figure out that the title page, table of contents, and author’s note are not what is going to make me want your novel (see above, under “smarmy ego.” (Not that it matters, because this guy didn’t bother including an SASE, anyway. Trash!)

3. The line “I had a dream and upon awakening I wrote this story.” Doesn’t endear me to your work, and I really don’t care what the inspiration is for your story about ducklings.

4. In the vein of what I mentioned before, anything from a so-called agent that ends up in the slush pile. If it’s agented, it should go directly into the hands of an editor. When I get these, I always want to contact the author directly and tell him to drop the agent like a red-hot coal and find a real agent. This sort of agent is worse than not having any agent at all. (Something I want to talk about more, but for another time.)

5. A picture book MS that is written “with illustrations in mind (picture.)” And that means that after every line of text is another “(picture.)” Yes, I know that picture books are illustrated. Thanks for enlightening me on that one.

6. The name of an editor who no longer works at my company on your query. This editor left months and months ago. There are still queries arriving for her in our mail. It’s not like she would read them anyway, but still. If you’ve taken the time and energy to look up an editor’s name and title and address, maybe you should keep track of the fact that they’re no longer there. These things aren’t secrets. Lots of websites post changes in publishing personnel. I know, it’s not really a big deal. But it’s starting to get on my nerves. Do your damned homework.

7. Your SASE should be a normal, letter-sized envelope. The kind that an 8x11 piece of paper fits in when folded neatly into three. You know what? You want to use a larger envelope? Fine, that’s cool too. But don’t go smaller on me. I don’t get any kicks out of folding your rejection letter like it’s origami trying to get it to fit. If I have too much trouble getting your rejection into the envelope and closing it, I am going to toss the letter and the envelope both.

8. The line “books for young children should be extremely short-lived on shelves. A pending patent should alleviate that.” Seriously, I don’t know what that means, but I know that it means that any writer who wants their books to have a short shelf-life needs to find a new goal. Do you know what it means? What is she thinking? I honestly do not understand.

More as it comes.

*Note: Details have been changed, but the basic thought behind these lines are all true.

Agented Submissions: The Way It Works

Lindabudz asked:
What is the process for reviewing agented submissions at your house?

Presumably they are sent to a specific editor. Do assistants read them first? If so, do they have final say if it's a "no" or do they pass them all on to the editor with recommendations?

At the house where I work, when agented submissions come in, they are almost always passed to the editor’s assistant or the intern first. We read them. We try to read them all the way through, but our unofficial policy is that if we hit 50 pages and it’s still a chore to read, then we stop reading.

I usually try to read all the way through even if I’m not really engaged, to see if it gets better or if the ending makes it all worth it, or if the characters are great and it’s just the weak plot that needs work, or whatever.

After I’ve read it, I write a reader’s report for our editor. The RR is usually about 1-2 pages long, and gives a short plot summary, and then our reactions, good and bad, in detail. The RR talks about plot and voice and characters and dialogue and description – like a really detailed book review. I detail what exactly I liked and didn’t like.

And then I give the RR and the MS to my editor. Sometimes, when I pass it on, I’ll make a recommendation, either for or against. Sometimes I’ll tell my editor that I like it, but it needs work.

After that’s done, it’s in the editor’s hands - usually. My boss will definitely take my advice under advisement – that’s why I read it first, after all – but then he reviews it by himself. I’ve done the ground work – he can look at my RR and get a sense of the MS.

Once in a while, my boss will hand me an agented MS and tell me to read it, write him a report, and if I don’t like it, to reject it by myself. Usually, the ones that that happens with are ones from smaller agencies (and by smaller, I don’t mean smaller staffed, I mean less well known, less established), agencies that he doesn’t trust as much or have as good a relationship with. It’s one of the reasons that it’s important not just to have an agent, but to have a good agent – one who has a relationship with editors, someone who really knows what specific editors are looking for, so they trust their judgment and will pay closer personal attention to the MSs that they give them.

If the original editor likes the submission but thinks it might be better for someone else at the house, does he/she pass it along?

If something comes along and it’s not right for my editor or even my imprint, but it’s really great, my editor will happily pass it along to the editor or imprint that he thinks it might be better for.

However, that is not always the case. One of the editors in my imprint used to work at a different Big Name Publishing House, and he told me that that house was much more competitive, and if an editor found something that they thought was great but not for them, they would never, ever pass it on.

So I guess it varies by house.

Keep the questions coming!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

I really never thought I'd have to give advice on this.

I honestly never thought that this would be advice that I would give, but after slush letter #5 that made this mistake, I feel that I ought to bring it to your attention.

Writers. When you include your SASEs in your query letters, do us both a favor.

Address it to yourself.

Not to us.

I don’t need to get the rejection letter than I sent you.

You people think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. This is the fifth SASE I’ve gotten addressed to the publishing house, listing the person’s own address as the return address.

Don’t do it.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Things Not To Do

Okay, authors. A word of advice here.

When you are sending in a query letter about your book, the fact that you have two self-published books is NOT a positive credential for you. It does not say to me “Oh, look, she must be a serious writer if she’s self-published.” Instead, it says “She is impatient and would rather hold a bound book in her hands than do things right and do the work to get it legitimately published.”

And furthermore? If you mention that you are self-publishing your autobiography, entitled Authorsname: Strenth, Courage, and Spirit,” this will not impress the editor. Instead, it will make the editor break down in giggles.