Justin Wells, a junior agent with Corvisiero Literary Agency, spoke to the St. Louis Writers Guild via webinar on Jan. 6, 2018, about 'what it takes to find an agent.' The event -- SLWG's first official webinar workshop – took place before an overflow group of about fifty assembled at the Lodge Des Peres and viewers both on Facebook and a private web meeting.
The first step is to write a query letter, which is an agent’s first impression for most writers. “Many agents have different views on what they want you to include in query letters,” Wells said. “This includes personal preferences, what they've learned to accept over the years based on queries they've seen.”
Start the opening paragraph with a hook -- an attention-getting sentence or phrase that introduces the main character, the conflict, and what is at stake in the story. “Never go in saying 'I'm seeking representation for this novel and general information.' That information is important, but that's not how you lead. Jump straight into your story.”
The second paragraph provides further information about those topics. “Story paragraphs don't need to be very long, especially if the agent requires as synopsis,” Wells said. “I want to immediately dive into your book. Being overburdened with general information, I'll either get bored or not make it to the meat of the query letter. Start with the hook, and I'll scroll down to see the general information about the novel.” Add the general information such as title, genre, word count, and comparison titles in the third paragraph, and in the fourth paragraph, write a short assessment of your past writing credentials, including previous publication experience.
“If you are querying a novel that has been self-published, mention your sales and how long it has been selfed,” Wells instructed. “No matter which avenue you take for self-publishing, you always need to have numbers and some kind of base to back that up. Most editors look for very high sales numbers. If we try and sell [a previously self-published novel] to a Big Five publisher, we're going to want to see tens of thousands of sales for a self-published book.”
Authors must also take their self-published book off of Amazon and other publishing sites, because those rights will be re-sold to the new publisher by the agent. If writers are pitching previously published work, it is important to include who published it and why the separation happened. An agent cannot take on work that is still under contract. “Make sure to mention that it was previously published, and you don't have access to numbers but the rights were reverted back to you so there's no conflict in contract.”
If you don't have previous writing experience, the fourth paragraph is almost optional, but it's good to include any writing credits, including unrelated self-published work, short stories, professional writing, or other public works. “Any publishing experience you have... is a way to show that you can write about different fields and levels of writing. It’s something to include in the biography section of your query letter,” Wells said.
It is also a good idea to personalize your query for each agent, which can be done in many ways. If the agent is one you pitched to in person, remotely, or through social media, you can mention where you met. Another way to personalize is to investigate their sales and clients. Mentioning a client they represent who you enjoy or a book they sold that is similar to your title are also ways to prove you have done your research and are aware of the industry. You don't have to personalize a query letter, but it's a nice touch.
Research agents before querying
However, the query letter is not the only first step, according to Wells. “One of the main downfalls I see writers do is that they are focused too much on their query letter and not enough on research and finding the right agent for them.” It's important to find agents who are the best for you and your work, are actively seeking clients, and have a good reputation in the industry.
Querytracker.net is one of many places to research agents. The website shows what agents are looking, what agencies they work, if they accept email or snail mail, and feedback from other writers. While praising Querytracker as a resource, Wells warned writers to be careful with the comments section. It gives a good indication of how agents conduct their business, but it is also an open forum where writers angry about rejection letters or other issues can vent their frustrations. “Always remember that there are a lot of situations that would prompt someone to leave a negative comment, so always take it with a grain of salt”
When it comes to new agents, Writer's Digest's “Guide to Literary Agents” page is one of the best places to go. The site features reputable literary agents who are new to the scene and where they work. While there is a risk to engaging a new agent, there are benefits as well. Wells explains, “New agents are building their list and actively seeking clients. You run into a situation with older agents that have been working for a long time -- some might be seeking clients, but it’s a very small number and they're very specific.” New agents may not have the sales an older agent has, but researching the reputation of their agency and success of the senior agents will give you an idea of what to expect.
Another resource is the Publishers Marketplace. It requires a monthly fee to join, and is more helpful for researching agents who have multiple sales. It offers a deep look into the agents’ history, including sales, editors and houses they've worked with, and what they are presently looking for. “There are many avenues you can take with this website, not only [looking at] agents, but editors and publishers,” Wells said. “If you feel you need that initial research, it's definitely something you can look into.”
AgentQuery.com is another website with valuable information. It is similar to Querytracker, but without the ability for authors to comment. It focuses on general information to help you catch red flags and be sure the agents you query are reputable in the industry, but focuses mostly on well-established veteran agents. To research newer agents, WritersMarket.com – a part of Writers Digest – puts out new agents alerts regularly. Writer’s Digest also publishes print books every year, such as The Guide to Literary Agents 2018, which lists details about current literary agents.
Jane Friedman's blog is another good resource. Prominent in the publishing world, Friedman has articles that are helpful for new and experienced writers. How to Find a Literary Agent For Your Book is a particularly good article for writers looking for agents. Jane Friedman's Twitter account is also very helpful. Don't overlook social media
“Twitter is really your best friend as a writer,” Wells said. “You don't have to be incredibly active on Twitter, but as long as you have an account to take part in writing events and pitch events, it will be really helpful.” Pitch events on Twitter provide writers a chance to seek representation through social media.
Carissa Taylor's blog (carissa-taylor.blogspot.com) has a good list of Twitter events and other resources. PitMad is the biggest yearly event, and a popular place for agents to find new projects and clients. Pitch Wars is a multi-month Twitter event where writers sign up, pitch, and hope to be brought on by mentors to help prepare their manuscript for an agent review round. At this point of Pitch Wars, agents read and comment on posts or request works from writers. “For Pitch Wars, they'll automatically request a full manuscript,” Wells said. “There's a lot of competition for agents to sign some of the people...Last year I requested to represent two authors, one of which I lost to Susie Townsend, which is not a bad agent to lose a client to! Lots of success in past years through pitch wars.”
Send query letters in batches
After the research is complete, it is time to send the query letter to agents. “You always want to personalize query letters,” Wells said. "But it's okay to copy/paste the body of the query in emails to multiple agents. Just make sure you change the names!”
It is a good strategy to send query letters out in batches because it can sometimes take a long time for agents to read through their inboxes full of queries. “I've gotten a lot of people who get really frustrated if I don't reply to queries in a week or two, and that's just not feasible,” Wells said. “I can spend five to six hours a day and not even get through a months' worth of queries. It's definitely a long process. You have to be patient.”
Some agents have a 'no reply means no' policy, meaning writers will never hear back about rejected queries. Others send form letter rejections. A form letter is a pre-written letter copy/pasted to writers with a small degree of personalization, which is what Wells does with his rejections. “If there's something blatantly obvious that needs to be changed in the pages or query letters, I'll note that, but I simply don't have time to do a personalized critique for every query letter,” Wells said. “I try to construct my form rejection in a way that the author can still gain something from it – information where they can find beta readers or critique partners so they can improve. I always want to make sure I'm providing something beneficial for them.”
Once you've caught the interest of an agent, they will request additional material from you, such as a partial or full manuscript. You could receive a personal or form rejection at this stage as well. If the work moves past the request stage and to an offer of representation, the agent will make an appointment to talk on the phone.
Preparing for “the call”
There are important things to consider when preparing for an agent phone call. “If you've received a request from an agent – an agent you really want to work with – you need to start doing a lot of research on the side,” Wells said. If a copy of the potential contract is not sent to you right away, make sure you ask for one to look over. Check the percentage of sales the agents would be getting. Most reputable agencies charge 15 percent of sales. “This is standard across pretty much all agencies,” Wells said. “Stay away from those who require money up front. Any reputable agent or agency will not get paid until you get paid.”
Also ask the agent for the contact information of one or two of their clients . Make sure to ask them about the agent’s communication style, any challenges they may have encountered, and other things you may experience if the agent represents you. “Agents should be happy to provide you emails of past clients. If an agent is not willing, there has to be a reason. It's a good way to weed out some concerning things about an agent.”
Ask about the agent's policy on representing future work. Authors often write in a variety of genres for many different audiences. Be up front with what future projects you hope to pursue. “I only represent certain age ranges,” Wells said. “I represent young adult and limited adult. If a client pitched me a young adult contemporary, then comes to me some time later wanting to publish an adult romance, I want to make sure I have a contemporary agent to refer them to. I never want to take on a project and not be able to fully help the author.”
Another important topic to discuss over the phone is what would happen if an agent leaves their agency. Most agency contracts state that if an agent leaves, their clients will pass to another agent within that agency. If no agent in the company decides to pick up that client, the agency can release the contract and the author is welcome to seek representation elsewhere. “You want to stay away from situations where you're stuck with one agency,” Wells said. “You always want to have some way out.” Most agencies will work those conditions into the contract. Agents might leave agencies for a variety of reasons. “Most of the time, separations are not caused by anything negative or bad. Usually it's an author or agent needing to go a different direction. There are situations where negative things lead to separation from an agent. That's a big reason why you want to make sure you're reading the contract and asking things you need to ask during the phone call.”
Most agent phone calls when offering representation last about an hour. Once you've had a phone call and done the research, you might have multiple offers on the table at once. This is the situation where the relationship starts coming into play. “If you found you really connected with certain agent during the phone call, that's something you want to take strongly into consideration,” Wells said. “When you sign with an agent, you are agreeing to work with them for the life of the work. It's a big commitment... so being able to connect and communicate well with an agent is something that's very important.”
Writers need to communicate with their agent not only as a business partner but also as a friend and collaborator. Many writers text with their agents daily, sharing details about their work and their lives. “That's one of the things that early on I decided was really important to me, personally,” Wells said. “You need to be able to go to your agent and say 'hey, I have this idea, what do you think?' and if the agent isn't willing to talk you through that, it's something you really need to take into consideration.” Any agent no matter how big or small should really be able to invest a lot of time into their clients, but remember there is still a line not to be crossed when it comes to personal matters and personal time. You can trust an agent with personal information and build a friendship, but remember to stay respectful. They are people, too. Remain open, but professional.
Finding the right agent for you is not an easy process. Constant research to find and assess agents who represent your project's genre and age group is a must. Patience and persistence are required, considering the volume of queries the average agent receives. Choosing an agent is a long-term commitment on the part of both the agent and the author, but don't get discouraged. “Search for an agent,” Wells said. “No matter how long you've been searching or how long you've been writing, there's always the possibility that an agent will love your work and want to sign.”
NOTE: If you have interest in reporting on workshops such as Justin Wells' webinar on agents or submitting other writing-related articles to the Scribe blog, contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.