The brass ring

It’s always encouraging when a new author hits it big.

I got my daily Publishers Marketplace deal listing in e-mail today. There was a listing for an author named Amy Ewing who, with Charlie Olson, an agent at Inkwell Management, landed a three-book “major” deal at auction (In Publishers Marketplace code, a “major” deal is one of $500,000 or more). Also mentioned were foreign deals and movie rights.

I see things like this in the deals lists, and usually they involve an author with a track record (“author of the bestselling Crimson Weasel series”). I looked up Amy Ewing on Amazon. Nothing. So I sniffed around and found a blog where she posts, called Teen Writers Bloc. It didn’t take long to make sure it was the same one.

Here’s her latest post, dated May 11, 2012:

I think the most important thing I learned was DON’T GIVE UP. I’m not the only person who tried and failed with a first manuscript. And, as I’ve said before, it was pretty devastating. But I still had time. I had a whole two semesters to write something new, and I did, and what was the result? I just signed with an amazing agent, Charlie Olsen at Inkwell Management. Remember all that fear of “Dear Author” emails and crying into large glasses of wine? Well, I faced it, overcame it, and won. Two years ago, I would never have thought this possible.

So, really, it all came down to DON’T GIVE UP.

A month later, as Lighting McQueen would say, “Ka-Pow!”

“Don’t give up” indeed! There are other Amys out there showing that the brass ring is achievable. It’s a boost for me to read about each one of them.

The long, hard, slog

80,000 words is a lot of words. I’m up to 36,600 in Zorya now. My middle-grade book, Roger Mantis, is under 28,000 words in all, and had a much more linear plot structure. I finished that one in less than a month. I’ve been at Zorya since the middle of February, although to be sure there were a few long gaps where I didn’t get much done.

Writing for me is hard work (the term I usually use is “like crapping a pineapple.”)  I envy authors who just seem to be able to pour it out on the page. For me, it’s more like jumping across a river on rocks, hoping that the next one I jump to doesn’t roll over on me (plot hole!) or turn out to be an alligator (book-busting plot hole!) Dialogue seems to come more easily, but keeping the storyline working doesn’t.

Well, back to it.

Now get those queries out!

Once you’ve started collecting names and information, and organizing it for easy access, you can start getting queries out there.  I’m assuming you know how to write a good query (that’s a whole different lesson package, and one I’m probably not the best teacher for).

Every agent or publisher has their own quirks on what they want to see in a query, and how it should be presented.  Hopefully, this is clearly described somewhere on their website or another agent listing.  Don’t argue with them.  They want two chapters, send two.  Not three.  And always the first chapters–don’t skip around.  They want a synopsis, send one.  They want it in cuneiform on clay tablets, go with it.  I had one agent who wanted the query in big type because she had bad eyes.

Since my first rounds a few years back, things have changed a bit.  When I started, most agents didn’t like e-mail queries.  Now most of them do.  They’ll let you know their preferences.  Some agencies now have on-line forms to fill out and submit.  This is good news for authors because it makes things easier.  There’s a down side too, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Most e-mail queries involve actually putting everything (query, synopsis, sample chapters) into the body of the e-mail.  “Attachments” are a no-no, with very few exceptions.  It can be difficult to format everything in a single e-mail so it all looks good before you send it. If you’re not sure how it’s going to come out the other end, copy the e-mail and then send it to yourself as a test to see if it goes through okay.

Make folders in your e-mail program to store copies of the query, and any responses you might get.

Once you have a nice e-mail query formatted and edited, you can save it as “boilerplate” template to generate other queries by just copying it into the new e-mail and changing names, addresses, and maybe a few other details that “tune” the query to what you know about the agent.

Be careful when you do this!  It’s way too easy to accidentally fire off a query to Agent B with the name or address of Agent A still on it.  This will not make a good impression on Agent B.  I’ve never actually done this in an e-mail, but I’ve come pretty close.  I’m paranoid enough now that I don’t put the destination e-mail address in the “send to” box until I’m sure it’s triple-checked and ready to go.  No chance of hitting “send” when I meant to hit “paste” or something.

Some of the above applies to “hard copy” queries, too, which a few agents still ask for.  If you have a word processing template you use to print out query letters, be careful with names and addresses.  When I send snail mail queries, I put the query and sample pages flat in a nice 9×12 white business envelope (not the manila ones with the little claspy things).  I do this even for single-page queries.  It makes it easier to drop the self-addressed stamped envelope inside without having to fold it up in some weird way.

Most agents don’t mind if you query more than one at the same time, but keep the numbers down so you can keep track more easily.  Also, this allows some time to get some responses back before your next round.  I usually do about five or six at the most in any one shot, then let that simmer for a month.  Of course, if I spot some hot prospect in the meantime…

When you’ve sent it all out, then you wait.  And wait.

That brings me to that “down side” I brought up earlier.  Rejection can be discouraging.  Believe me, I know.  But worse is never hearing anything back.  I mentioned that a lot more agents are willing to take e-mail submissions now.  Unfortunately, this seems to be associated with a growing number of “you’ll hear from us if we’re interested” policies instead of an actual rejection note.

Some agents will at least put a specific time limit on it, anywhere from two to eight weeks: “If you don’t hear from us in eight weeks, assume we’re not interested.”  But others don’t even do that.  You might find a lot of queries on your list just “hanging fire.”  Did they pass on it?  Or like many agents, are they so loaded that they just can’t get to yours for a while?

I don’t like this.  How hard can it be to fire off a form e-mail?  All you’ve got to fill in is an address! But what are you going to do, right? For the time being, I’m putting an arbitrary eight weeks as the outside limit if it’s not specified by the agent.  Maybe I’ll get a pleasant surprise ten weeks out, but I’m not holding my breath.

In all these “advice” posts, remember that I’m no expert.  I’ve never even had anything published by a major publisher.  I’m just putting down a bit of what I’ve been learning along the way.

Believe me, it’s more entertaining than my writing diary:  “1,229 words today.  Still trying to fill in that damn plot hole.  Found out bears can be nocturnal.  Whew.  Finished bear scene. Learned about Mouse Fishing.”

Stalking the Wild Agent

Once you have the name and basics on an agent, the next step is to find out every damn thing you can about this agent/agency (most of what follows applies to publishers, too, but I’ll just use “agent” here).

The main tool for this is the internet.

A good first start is a web page at the AbsoluteWrite website called “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check.”  Use their search function or the listing posts to find the thread for the agent you’re looking for.  Almost every agent has one.  This forum gathers writers and others from all over, who comment on their experiences with particular agents.  Moderators provide useful information on the agent like mailing addresses and the all-important agency website address.  Put this information in your chart, or other records.  The “Bewares” forum can give you a good idea of what it’s like to work with this agent, such as response times, how well she communicates, connections, and (once in a while) showstoppers that will lead you try the next name on your list.

If AbsoluteWrite doesn’t have a web address for the agent, try a Google search on their name (hoping it isn’t John Smith).  Some agents don’t have websites, but most do.

If you’ve paid for a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, they will not only have address and website information, but specific sales information on the agent. What they’ve sold, to who, and sometimes how much the author got paid (usually in general terms).  You can generate documents showing the agents with the most sales in your genre in case you want to hit them first.  Lots of useful things.

The agent’s own website should be your primary information source.  If you have information on the agent from other websites like Publishers Markeplace, but the agent’s website says something different, go with the agent’s website info.

A good agency website (they’re not all good) will tell you how to submit, what they’re looking for, and if they have more than one agent, which agent likes which material.  Take notes and bookmark things.  If you do a lot of copy/pasting from websites to a Word document like I did, make sure you use the “paste special” command and import all those fancy fonts and sizes as unformatted text, or your chart is going to end up looking like a circus poster.

Once you’ve exhausted your target agent’s website, broaden the search.  Google the agent.  This will often turn up useful information like interviews, blogs, and other things that will give you a better picture.  Links to these things can go in your chart, and if you find quotes that are helpful, put them there too.  An agent’s blog, if it’s current, can be an even better line on the agent than the agency website.  Here is where you’ll find pieces of the agent’s personality, and often the most recent information on submission requirements and needs.

Bottom line:  You want to end up knowing more about this agent than the agent’s mother does.  That machine in front of you gives you the power to do this.

Keep your eyes open as you do your research.  You’re very likely to find new agent names to put on your list as you go along.  The AbsoluteWrite “Bewares” board is especially good for this.  When you’re not researching a particular name there, just pull up their front page of new posts every day to see new agent threads (or old ones being bumped up) and take a look.

Next:  Now get those queries out!

“Okay, enough already on self-publishing. Now how do I find an agent, dammit?”

My personal opinion (probably widely shared) is that if we have a book to sell, getting a publishing contract with a big publisher is the preferred way to go.

There are publishers that will take unsolicited manuscripts directly from new authors, but not as many as publishers that will only look at agented material.  As you might imagine, the “no agent needed” publishers have slush piles that have mountain goats living on their slopes.  This gives them response times up to a year, sometimes combined with a request for exclusive submission of manuscripts.

So generally speaking, Step One for new authors is finding an agent.

Where?

When I started looking a few years back, obviously the internet was the first thing that came to mind.  The first useful place I found was Agentquery.com.  Enter your genre, and you will get a nice list of agents, most looking for material.  Querytracker.net is another good site.

Then the work really starts.  Right at the start I generated a nice little table in Microsoft Word with columns for agent names and other info, comments, submission instructions, and a last column to record when I sent something and what I heard back.  Each entry would have a live link to the agent’s website and address, along with other basic information.  The “comments” column had things like links to blogs the agent might have, interviews they’d done, and whether or not they liked cookies.  If I learned something useful, it went on the chart.

Here’s a shot of one page of one of my agent file documents.  The gray toning indicates a rejection so I can flip through the pages rapidly and see my general status.  The submission text is blue, and the rejection text is red.  I notice on this page that all the rejections are form rejections, the most common kind.  Any kind of personal rejection is rare.  Criticism and suggestions from agents are even rarer, and worth their weight in gold.

There are other websites like Publishers Marketplace which are very useful to find agents, but to get full advantage, PM has a $20 a month subscription rate.  The good news is that’s pretty cheap, and the better news is that the subscription is month-to-month so you don’t have to commit to a year’s worth.  The free version has good information too, but leaves a lot out.

Other ways to locate agent names:  go to the bookstore and/or library and find books like the one you’ve written.  Note the authors.  You can find some websites that will tell you who an author’s agent is (Querytracker has one).  Failing that, Google the author’s name and the words “agent” or “literary agency.”  Odds are good you’ll land something that tells you who the agent is.

Conferences are great places to find agents and publishers.  If you meet an agent at one of these things, sometimes that will get you a little higher on the list if you mention it in a query to that agent.  The bad news is that most of the conferences probably aren’t going to be where you live, and generally they cost an arm and a leg to attend (a few hundred dollars just for admission, not counting hotels and other things).

I went to one of these early on.  It was a good experience, but nothing there ended up with a useful connection.  Of course, my early queries weren’t that good since I still had a lot to learn.  Maybe a year or so later I would have gotten better results, but I haven’t attended one since due to the cost.

So now you’ve got a name to pop into that first column.  Now what?

Next:  Stalking the Wild Agent