Page 3 of Literary Agents Answer Your Questions
The Literary Agent Q&A is hosted by the authors of The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them ,
The Publishing Primer: A Blueprint for an Author's Success
and the novel, Over Time, Love, Money, and Football: All the Important Things in Life.
QUESTION: I have posted my query letter for suggestions, but the advice I receive seems contradictory. I need to know, from an agent's standpoint, what should and what should not be included in a query letter. How much should be included? What makes some queries rise above the others? I realize the answers to these questions will probably vary depending on the agent asked, but there should be some common ground.
Peter Rubie’s answer: I think you need to try and consider the purpose of a query letter. It's a worm dangling in the water, while big fish that I am (ha!), I'm swimming by minding my own business not particularly interested in eating until I see this attractive, wriggling, juicy worm I just have to investigate.
To return to something I mentioned earlier: writing is NOT ABOUT WORDS ON THE PAGE. That's just technique. And you need as much technique as you have ideas that need expression. WRITING IS ABOUT THINKING.
So what we are looking for in a query letter is an interesting idea, presented in an interesting way. I always tell my interns and junior staff that the best way to go through the unsolicited queries (what some call "slush) is to think about being in a bar full of people. (They're all single so they get this analogy better than old married codgers like me.) A lot of people will sidle up to you and start a conversation. Some you won't want to give the time of day to, some will catch your interest and you'll figure, "This person seems interesting. I'll stay a few more minutes and see what else they have to say." And sometimes you'll come across someone who is just so charismatic and interesting that you'll think, "Wow, this person's really cool!" and end spending the evening hanging out together.
Some agents like cute in queries. (Pink ribbons, little models, weird-ass fonts, stuff like that.) Personally I don't. I believe that the advice I was given as a young journalist is the best way through: If something interesting happened to you (you met someone, or saw something that interested you) you wouldn't tell your mom in a letter, "It was a dark and stormy night . . ." You'd say: "Guess what happened to me today: I met this guy and such and such happened, Or, I saw this amazing thing . . ."
So I think agents are looking for some variation of these things in queries. I should add that succinct, and evocative, and intriguing are adjectives you might want to bear in mind when writing your query letter.
It's a vague answer I know, but people have written books on this topic. Katherine Sands, Making the Perfect Pitch who is here soon, in particular.
QUESTION: I had novels published through XXXX publisher, a vanity publisher, and got out of my contracts with them. I would like to resubmit these novels under new titles in hopes of having them legitimately published. Is this possible? Also will literary agents reject new works based on the fact I previously published a book with a vanity POD?
Jean Naggar’s answer: It is certainly no endorsement. I would make some changes (improvements?!) to the novels, change the titles, and resubmit to agents as manuscripts, after querying the agents, of course. Then your writing can stand or fall on its own merit, not shadowed by the feeling that it was once a vanity publication. If an agent expresses interest, it would, of course, then be essential to let the agent know the details.
I would also suggest deciding which of the novels is particularly timely and successful in your own eyes, and start with that one, rather than deluging the agent with a query outlining several unpublished novels. I always take that sort of letter as a warning signal to steer clear of the situation. Once an agent has committed to the material, has been advised of its former life and has not responded negatively to the information, you can then mention that you have other unpublished work that the agent might like to hear about.
QUESTION: I read somewhere that every author should have 2 books published before looking for an agent is that true?
Peter Rubie’s answer: No. In fact, it's sometimes easier to sell a newcomer, because if you have two published books under your belt and your sales figures are weak, it can be tough getting you a new deal. The so-called "tyranny of the till" (that is, the electronic record of how well your books sold last time that bookstore keep for two years or so) will dictate how many copies of a particular book a bookstore will order based on that author's last sales.
QUESTION: Can I send a query for a new MS to agents who have sent a rejection letter on a past MS or am I unofficially 'banned' from trying ever again? As an agent, would it anger you that a writer 'doesn't get the hint'? I'd hate to think that I might have to lower my standards if my top choice agents aren't available in the future.
Peter Rubie’s answer: Truth to tell, it all depends on the rejection letter. If it's: "Here's two rejections letters, one for the book you've just sent me, and another for the one you're thinking of sending me next," I'd say, forget that person. Otherwise, if it's a new project, submit away. Everyone, learns and grows we hope, so perhaps THIS one will be THE one that gets you your shot at the brass ring. But if an agent says you do a particular thing in your writing that they don't like, don't do it in the next book you submit to that person. What we really hate is someone who argues with us that despite what we suggest, you're right. If you're not published you're not the best judge of your own work, and regardless of whether you're "right" or not, if the agent doesn't like something, don't irritate them by doing it again. I mean, would you like it if someone did something that they knew aggravated you?
So What does an agent do all day? Find out