Monday, June 01, 2009

What I learned at the conference will help you: Part I

I already knew, but had to learn again, that agents are humans. They are humans with overtaxed brains who get anywhere from 50 to 700 queries per week, who buy iPhones so that they can read your letter in subway on their way home, after spending 10-12 hours on everything else that agents have to do.

Therefore, if you plan to find an agent rather than self-publish your work, your query letter better sing. You already know that. You'd also better research the agent on and, so that you can find someone who is right for your work, and mention their work in your letter. Don't take shortcuts here, any more than you would stick any old key in the ignition of your car. Only one key is a useful fit.

  • Actually read the books you mention in the letter. One agent said she received a query from a writer that referenced a book that was not due to be released until next spring. Oops.
  • Follow the query formula: start with a concise opening that contains title, genre (i.e., where your book would be shelved at the store), and word count. Follow with a three-paragraph pitch that covers character, problem, and story question. Conclude with a bio.
  • "Lead with your best," said Jennifer DeChiara. If your work has won awards or been published in The New Yorker, go ahead and put it in the first line.
  • Proofread. Every last period should be perfect.
  • Use the agent's name in the salutation, and spell it correctly.
  • E-query a slew of agents at once and put them all in the "To" field. Agents know one another, and will ignore your letter but exchange amused e-mails among themselves all day.
  • Requery an agent, even if you have revised (unless the agent specifically invites you to in his or her rejection letter). Jenny Bent was the only agent who confessed to having a short term memory about these things.
  • Send cover art for your book with the letter, even if you are a graphic designer.
  • Tell any kind of lie or exaggeration in any shape or form in your letter. As Colleen Lindsay said, "We will Google the heck out of you." If you get caught in a lie, you're out.
  • Ignore submission guidelines.
The conference was fascinating, and I will post again in the coming days about how to make your publicity efforts sing, how the old stigma on self-publishing has finally worn off, what changes will improve your query and first manuscript pages the most, and more.