Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 3: Literary Agents, Part 1

One of the more enlivening scenes at any writer’s conference is the one in which writers go “speed dating” for literary agents. Agents queue up at tables, and writers form long and jittery lines before them. Some fraught volunteer at the back of the room rings a bell or strikes a gong, and the first in each line steps up to his respective table for a 120-second “elevator pitch” of his book. Then the gong rings again, and the next nervous writer steps up to the table.

At many of the conferences I’ve attended, the speed dating component doesn’t take place until the close of the conference, and quite a few writers spend the preceding days nervously gearing up for the big moment. (Hey, I get it—the whole thing looks terrifying.) It’s usually on one of the first days of the conference that somebody who’s distractedly contemplating his or her big pitch puts a hand up in a class I’m giving on, say, lyric poetry and asks, “so how do I get an agent for my epic fantasy novel?”

A response of “let’s hold that for the end” does not typically go over well. A general clamor announces itself in the room as other attendees get into the spirit of agency, and before we know it, we’re talking about contracts and pitching. So please consider today that moment of the Tiny Writers’ Conference. Let’s talk agenting. 

So how do you get an agent?

While the question above is typically what folks ask me, it really shouldn’t be the first question about selling a book. Really, the first question should be “what groundwork do I need before approaching an agent?” So let’s start with what you need to do before you’re ready to go looking for representation: you need to have a finished book. Finished finished. Done, cooked, sprinkled with parsley. You don’t want to try to sell an idea or an inchoate stew of a manuscript, but a book that’s ready for the market. Unless you’re a remarkably famous person, you’re unlikely to interest an agent in your concept alone, regardless of how good your work may eventually become. You’ve got to deliver the goods before you can ask someone to sell them.

It’s also a darned good idea to prepare a book proposal for your nonfiction work, and maybe even for your novel. If you need some tips on writing a proposal, Jane Friedman offers excellent advice here. Even if an agent doesn’t require a book proposal along with your submission, I’ve found doing the work of the book proposal to be enormously helpful in planning for marketing and publicity, as well as in thinking carefully about the audience for my work. Proposals aren’t fun to write or research, but they’re well worth the effort to prove that your book is a viable candidate for the market.

So let’s say your book is polished and perfect, and you’ve got a beautiful proposal ready for agents to look over. Now you’re ready to think about locating an agent in his or her natural habitat.

Writers’ conferences are great places to meet agents, and it’s no longer the case that the majority or even the best of the writers’ conferences are clustered around New York; there’s a conference close to everybody, whether you live in Kentucky or Hawaii or Wyoming. To get a sense of the wide range of conferences available to you as a writer, take a look at Writers’ Digest’s great postings and notes on writers’ conferences here to get some ideas about where you might like to go in the coming year.

But even as you think about snagging an agent at a conference, remember this: you’re typically meeting 4 or 5 agents at a given conference. Not each of them will even necessarily represent the kind of work you write. Maybe every one of them says a polite “no” to your project. It’s easy to feel discouraged by “no,” but a handful of rejections doesn’t negate the fact that there are hundreds of agents in the United States. So how to you reach everybody else?

You query them. Query letters are simply one-page letters in which you try to get an agent so interested in your writing, concept, and book project that he or she simply has to read your manuscript (or, more realistically, your first 50 pages). Querying agents has the significant advantage of being a task you can do from the privacy of your yoga pants and your living room couch; while it’s great to meet agents at conferences, many of us writer-types feel more comfortable making a case for ourselves on the page, not in person. But don’t get too comfortable as you prepare your query–take a look at this great advice from Agent Query as you prepare and polish (and re-polish!) your query letter.

Just as important as preparing a strong query is making sure you target the right agents. Please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t spam agents with your query. Instead, take the time to do your homework about which agents are both open to queries and interested in the kind of work you write. Every agent will have detailed information about his or her services readily available online; it’s no great challenge to find the info. Arm yourself with a simple Excel spreadsheet to organize what you find online.

How to begin sorting through the many agents out there? If you’re writing literary work, take a look at Poets & Writers’ database of literary agents. If you’re writing fiction, Writers’ Digest has you covered with another strong list.  Writing something else? Consider investing in a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly, which gives you access to online content that includes up-to-date information on sales of books to publishers (if you can see which agents are selling work similar to yours, you have a clear idea of whom to pitch).

Finally, as with any submission, follow guidelines if you want your work read.


Next week, I’ll talk about what working with a literary agent really means, and how to navigate the professional relationship between author and agent.

2 Replies to “Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 3: Literary Agents, Part 1”

  1. Great post, as usual. But I think it’s important for writers to understand another aspect of the agent-at-conference dynamic, which is that of the “false positive.” It’s a lot tougher for agents to say “no” to a query when it’s in a face-to-face situation, and some agents find it easier to tell an aspiring writer, “send me some chapters,” than it is to give an outright rejection when sitting across from someone. Writers should be careful not to interpret such a response as “the agent loves my idea!” While it’s better than a no, it’s often a strategy an agent uses for one of two purposes: first, to withhold judgment on a novel idea until she can see a sample of the writing; and second, to send a writer away encouraged—whether the agent is really interested in the book is another matter. If the writer gets a positive response to the chapters, only then should she consider the agent interested. I base this opinion on my experience at the last PNWA conference, during which I participated in agent speed dating. Never before had I seen so many excited writers, beaming that “OMG, she likes it” smile. If that many agents were really interested in that many queries, we’d be hip-deep in books. I personally went 5-for-5 in my agent meetings, which excited me, but later had me questioning the authenticity of their responses. And from these 5 I have received only one response to requested material, an empty envelope, which I had to assume was a rejection. Writers should understand that agents are not just lit lovers, but also businesspeople who have incredibly hectic schedules, and must find ways to manage the mountains of queries they receive. Here’s what agent Steve Laube has to say about meeting an agent at a conference. His blog is incredibly helpful to writers, btw: http://www.stevelaube.com/that-conference-appointment/

  2. You make good points here, Joe. I do think that most “send me pages” responses fit in the first of the two categories you name–the withholding of judgment until reading a sample. I don’t imagine too many agents have the time or other resources to say “sure, send me stuff!” if they don’t actually mean it. Reading submissions is an awful lot of work, of course, so I think expressions of interest should be taken as genuine. But, as you point out, interest does not necessarily generate a later contract.

    (And…and empty envelope? That’s so sad!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: