Blogger: Wendy Lawton
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog about the the best time to submit a query. The upshot? It is impossible to gauge the perfect time to submit. One of the commenters, Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild, wrote: “I find it is very difficult to determine what an agent sincerely wants. Most of the agent write-ups are very general. And in my own excitement I think that could be me they are looking for. It might not hurt an agent to say though they certainly have an interest in many fields their highest level of enthusiasm is in… ”
Hmmm. You mean we are not specific enough when we say what we’re looking for? I told Jacqueline that the answer to her comment deserved a whole blog post, so here goes. . .
Let’s talk fiction. Here’s why an agent is so wiggly when he/she gives a list of the types of novels he/she is willing to consider:
- We’ll know it when we see it. I know, you hate this answer. Unfortunately, it’s the best way to describe this once-in-a-lifetime, comet-like, miracle of a book. Some books defy description. This is often the book that defines a whole new category or the book that melds two previously distinct categories. How else would we request this book? “I’m interested in the book that goes where no book has gone before.” (We’d get every crazy book that belongs nowhere on the shelf.) “I’m interested in the book that breaks all the rules.” (We’d end up with a book that eschews capitalization and is only 10,000 words.) “I want a book that knocks my socks off.” (The problem with this kind of description is that the writer can’t possibly know what will knock off an agent’s foot-warmers.) The truth is: I’ll only recognize this book when I read it. An agent can’t be more specific than that. Finding this book is like winning the lottery– same kind of odds, same kind of ability to make it happen.
- What does this kind of description mean for the agent? We’re going to have to read every kind of submission if we are open for that “one.”
- What are the chances of having this “miraculous” book? Probably one in a million.
- If I do have that one in a million book that the agent loves, what are the chances it will be a commercial hit? Probably one in a million. Just because it is the book the agent has been seeking all his life doesn’t mean it is the book the market has been seeking.
- Upshot– What does it mean for the writer? The agent is saying, go for it. Try me– you might very well be the one to knock my socks off.
- The market is ever changing. An agent may say she is seeking a writer of, say, sixties-era fiction. You say to yourself, “I’m a former flower-child. I could write that.” You get to work and a year later you finish the manuscript and submit a query to that agent. She gets back to you, saying, “While I like your writing, we’ve found that the sixties-era just doesn’t work these days.” What?!? You wrote the book specifically to meet her stated need.
- Upshot– What does it mean for the writer? When an agent cites a specific want, it may only be good for that day. That agent talked to an editor who was looking for one specific book. That need could have been filled the next day. Specific wants have a short shelf life– an expiration date.
- You can’t write to catch the market– it’s running faster than you’ll ever be able to write.
- Sometimes we respond with the books we love. Listen closely to the question that’s being asked. Sometimes on a panel the moderator will ask a group of agents, “What kind of books do you love?” or “Name a recent book that you couldn’t put down.” The agents will wax on about books they’re crazy about and writers take copious notes.
- Upshot– What does it mean for the writer? It might mean something if that agent represents the kind of books he likes to read.
- Or it might mean nothing because an agent may not be able to sell the kinds of books he loves. (Example: an agent in the CBA market who reads and loves SciFi.)
- Sometimes we respond with the books we can sell. Again, listen closely to the question. I may love complicated women’s fiction but I know I can sell a novelist who is willing to write excellent category romance and grow their career that way. So I may say, I’m looking for romance writers, contemporary romantic suspense, historical romantic suspense, etc. You know I’m giving you a list based upon what I can sell.
- Sometimes we just list what we don’t represent. This is a lot easier and is usually a list you can take to the bank. If I say I don’t represent SciFi– that’s pretty clear. When we list what we don’t want to see it probably wouldn’t change even if that genre became hot. Take SciFi for instance– even if it became the hottest genre of all, I could not pick out the finest manuscripts and become an important agent in the genre because I have no experience with it and have not read enough to know what’s new and what’s tired.
So we remain wiggly and nonspecific. But that’s good news for writers because unless we say we don’t represent a certain genre, the door is pretty much open.
Your turn. How closely do you follow an agents likes and dislikes. When you go to a writer’s conference do you study these for each agent and editor? What do you wish we would say?
How do we know what kind of books a literary agent represents? Click to Tweet
“We’ll know it when we see it.” Literary agent @wendylawton explains. Click to Tweet
How can a writer figure out which agent likes which kinds of books? Click to Tweet