Pub Rants

Category: Agents/Agenting

Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.

Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball. 

More Agents Agenting

Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021. 

Agents Acting More Like Editors

A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition. 

This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid. 

Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility

In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.

The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat

In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential. 

The Taskmaster That Is Email

The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload. 

Going Indie

Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain. 

Publisher Payment Mandate

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not. 

The Great Contract Slow Down

Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?

The Great Publishing Contraction

Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career. 

The Great Submission Influx

Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.

The Death of Editor Autonomy

Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells. 

Blockbuster Mentality

In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.

The Death of The Mass-Market Format

Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.

The Change That Hasn’t Happened

Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not. 

So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?

Answer: Without a doubt. 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Ten Tips for Virtual or In-Person Pitching

The writing world is transitioning back to in-person conferences, and we couldn’t be more excited! But the unexpected benefits of virtual events means they’re probably here to stay. Whether you’ll soon be pitching in-person or over Zoom, here are ten tips to help you present as professional, knowledgeable, and ready to take on the publishing industry.

1. Practice.

Run through your pitch a few times in front of the mirror (if you’ll be pitching in person) or in front of your computer with your camera on (if you’ll be pitching virtually). You can even record yourself and play back your practice pitches until you feel like you’re nailing it. If you’re super nervous, start by pitching to a sweet-faced stuffie or your least judgy-looking pet. Work up to your friends and family. But know that you’re going to get the best feedback from other writers. They can give you tips on the pitch itself as well as on your delivery, so when you’re ready, ask your critique group if you can practice on them. (See #6 below for another practice tip.)

2. Avoid reading off a piece of paper.

Have you ever attended a lecture or keynote where the speaker read word-for-word off their PowerPoint slides or note cards? Of course you have. Everyone has. It’s a little monotonous, right? The speaker’s lack of interaction with the audience is awkward and yawn inducing. The same can be true of a pitch appointment. Reading the agent your query letter or synopsis isn’t your best move, and there are several reasons why. First, imagine what the agent or editor will be looking at while you read: the top of your head. Second, it can be difficult to hear you if you’re aiming your voice at the paper in front of you, especially in a crowded pitch room. If you’re pitching on Zoom and reading off your screen, speaking right into your mic, that’s not as bad, but your reading-aloud voice might still be a little flat. Which leads me to the third and most important thing: a verbal pitch should be an engaging conversation starter. As such, it should be shorter than your query letter’s pitch paragraphs. Therefore…

3. Avoid talking the whole time.

Pitch appointments average eight to ten minutes, and those minutes go by fast. The best pitch appointments for both the writer and the agent are those that turn into personable dialogues about the book, comparable titles, and the writer’s inspiration, journey, and career goals. Yet my colleagues and I have taken tons of pitch appointments over the years that end with the writer still talking—either because they haven’t practiced their pitch and are kind of wandering through a vague recounting of their story’s events, or because they’re still explaining their backstory, world building, or themes. There’s just not time during the average pitch appointment for that kind of elucidation. Therefore…

4. Encapsulate your premise or concept.

Lead with your story’s title, genre, word count, and character- or concept-based “person with a problem” proposition. You can expand a little, but not as much as your query letter does. Then give the agent an opportunity to ask you questions…or better yet, to just go ahead and request your manuscript.

5. Make eye contact.

Whether in person or on screen, eye contact conveys confidence and commands the attention of the listener. Without it, it’s easier for the listener to zone out.

6. Avoid memorizing your written pitch.

Maybe you’re making stellar eye contact and not reading off a piece of paper. That’s good! But the word-for-word recitation of a memorized pitch also risks being humdrum—especially when the writer forgets to breathe. And let me tell you, pitch memorizers are the most likely to forget to breathe! You’re much better off knowing what you want to say and then letting it come out naturally and personably in the moment. How do you practice that? Here’s something a writer friend of mine did: Write “tell me about your book” on a dozen notecards or stickies and have a friend post them around your world (on your toothpaste, washing machine, fridge, rearview mirror, TV remote). Whenever you come across one, pretend it’s an agent or editor at a conference, and right then and there, deliver your pitch impromptu style.

7. Have paper and pen ready.

Unless your project is too far afield from what the agent is currently looking to represent, the agent is probably going to ask you for sample pages. That’s the only way they can assess whether the idea you pitched is executed well and ready for representation. So be ready to write down (a) what they want you to send (pages, chapters, full manuscript) and (b) how they want you to send it. This is especially important during virtual pitches. In person, an agent can hand you their business card. But over Zoom, you’ll need to be sure to write down their email address or the link to their submissions portal or online query form. When I’m taking virtual pitches, I post these things to the private chat window, so besides paper and pen, also have a document already open on your computer where you can copy-paste. What often happens is that the writer is so flustered by the request that they end up scrambling for something to write with and on…and then later, they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. So they contact the event organizers, who then have to get in touch with the agent, who then has to reiterate the request, which then has to be re-communicated to the writer. Best practice? Expect a request, stay calm and collected when it comes, and have pen and paper (or an open document) ready.

8. Respect agents’ social-media boundaries.

In our more virtual world, it seems professional boundaries have become a bit more blurred. Resist the urge to slide into an agent’s direct messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., whether to pitch them, send links to your content, or follow up on a pitch or other submitted materials. It’s simply not professional, and frankly, it feels a bit off. I don’t know a single agent who has ever been impressed by a writer who doesn’t follow the submission guidelines outlined on their websites. So unless an agent explicitly invites professional interactions via their personal media, it’s best not to go there.

9. Remember in-person hygiene.

This one’s a little uncomfortable to talk about, and you might be wondering if we need to talk about it at all. But every agent who’s ever taken in-person pitches has stories. Hey, I’m sure writers have stories about agents’ hygiene, too. No one wants that to be the thing they’re remembered for. So as we all return to in-person life, some grudgingly trading yoga pants and slippers for tailored slacks and hard-soled shoes, here are some tips. First, forego perfume or cologne the day of your pitch. A few years ago, Agent Kristin ended up sneezing and mopping her eyes all the way through a pitch appointment because she had an allergic reaction to whatever scent the writer was wearing. Second, slip some mints or hard candies into your conference bag. These aren’t just for your breath—they also help remedy anxious dry mouth in the moments before your appointment. To that point, have a bottle of water in your bag as well. Finally, I know several conference regulars who carry a little travel-sized deodorant or antiperspirant in their conference bags. Great to have on hand for pre-pitch anxiety, sure, but also for surviving long breakout sessions when the hotel air-conditioning is on the fritz. (Why is the hotel air-conditioning always on the fritz?) Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

10. Don’t be nervous.

Ha! Like it’s that easy, right? Of course there are nerves involved in pitching. The only way to combat the anxiety is to be practiced and prepared, and to keep signing up for pitch appointments every time you have the chance, both in person and online. Once you know what to expect, there will be fewer surprises, and you’ll be a pitching pro in no time.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

With so many stories emerging of agents behaving badly, if only there was a quick and easy way for aspiring writers to verify a literary agent’s legitimacy. What a boon for new writers navigating a complicated publishing landscape. In good news, there is. 

The job of a literary agent is an unusual one. This isn’t a profession that one learns by going to college (although almost all agents have college degrees and many might have attended a Publishing Institute program). This isn’t a profession where accreditation is required, such as passing the bar for attorneys (although many agents are also lawyers). Any person can literally hang out a shingle and claim they are a literary agent. Because of that, many Schmagents have lured in unsuspecting writers. However, there is an organization that does govern this profession: the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). 

Initially founded in 1991 under the name Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), this governing body was implemented to form bylaws and a canon of ethics that member agents are required to follow—thus creating a standard of working in the profession. Membership is by application only. An agent must fulfill the professional qualifications and submit letters of recommendation for entry. 

In 2020, AAR began the process of rebranding to the AALA (as there is a sister organization in the UK)—hence, both websites are currently active as the transition unfolds. This rebranding is reinvigorating the organization, which is now much more focused on agent education (via monthly programming), mentorship, and promoting diversity in our ranks. All very much needed and delightful to see. As a new-to-the-biz agent in 2002, one of my first goals was to fulfill the qualifications criteria so I could become a member. After all, I was a mostly unknown agent operating out of Denver. For me, AAR membership was a stamp of legitimacy to ease the minds of writers considering me when I offered representation. 

Currently, the AALA member directory is a tool that writers can use when doing agent research to verify an agent’s legitimacy. If an agent is a member, they do have to adhere to the AALA’s bylaws and canon of ethics or they will be asked to relinquish membership. 

Now, having said that, here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Not all legitimate agents are members of the AALA. Membership is by choice and not required.
  • Just because an agent is a member does not mean they are an agent with good negotiation skills or that they fulfill other criteria that I outline in my What Makes A Good Agent article series (see right side bar). There are many agents who qualify to be members but might fall under the heading of Hobbyist or turn out to be a Blindsider.
  • An agent who is a member might be a good agent but not a good agent for you. 

The existence of this organization, and searching through the membership profiles, is just one piece of the agent-search puzzle. It does not take the place of all the other research you should be doing on the agents you plan to query, which should include their sales record and current client list. Writers, good luck on your representation quest. 

New Year, New #MSWL

Oh, what a year. In the spirit of taking a (small) step forward, I’m not going to summarize the ways in which we’ve all been impacted by everything that happened in 2020, but as we approach the anniversary of, what I’ll kindly call, the big shut down, I’ve been re-thinking what types of projects I’d like to see in my inbox and what types of books I think editors will be looking to acquire in 2021. While thrillers will continue to be in demand, I do think both agents and editors will be on the lookout for diverse stories that build and fuel community as well as those that really dissect identity, family, and our place in the world.

The Dark Side of Homecoming. And the secrets it reveals.  I’m not talking about a big city corporate lawyer who inherits her great aunt’s estate and finds love along the way (although I have a soft spot for those stories, too). I’m interested in the tension that arises from being forced to confront your decisions to leave the place you were born and the desperate acts that come from being forced to return. I’m fascinated by the dark side and tension of identity building. What does it look like when you have to come back to a place to lay something to rest – especially if that place has a hold over you? What about when you have to confront the darker side of your cultural identity – be it myths or legends that turn out, somehow, to be real or the xenophobia you were raised with that you now have to confront?

Epic Sister/Friendship Stories.  I devoured Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and have been hiding from my family binging Firefly Lane.  There’s something about the bond of friendship and sisterhood that continues to fascinate me.  Friends have been a lifeline during these quarantine months and since I don’t have a sister, I’m always intrigued by what that would be like.  I am drawn to the extremes of these relationships – the dark corners that break our hearts and the love that mends them. Female friendships are one of the most important and often overlooked relationships out there, so I’m particularly interested in what happens when they end. The loss of a dear friend is a kind of orphaning and it is an area that again drives people to interesting extremes.  I’d love to find a Reconstructing Amelia among friends or sisters.

Food as a road to identity and community.  2020 had me thinking about food a lot. As I tried to control my reality by preparing heartening food for my family, I was also conscious that many didn’t have that same privilege. So much about food is tied to one’s sense of identity, feeling of home and sense of community. I would love to find a story about a community brought together by a local chef or restaurant – be it the community at large or the community a place like that creates for its patrons and staff. I’m also interested in stories about how food creates a home for someone. Whether it’s someone coming back to their roots, learning traditional recipes to reconnect to or learn about their history, or a kitchen of women who find solace and escape in the food they prepare and the restaurant they run, I’m interested in how people come to connect to food and how food connects us to who we are.

Thrillers. I am still in search of twisty stories where secrets are revealed and relationships are tested.  If it happens to be set on a creepy island or in a closed community a la The Guest List, all the better.  Stories where all things buried finally bubble over are deeply engrossing – especially when they involve giving a big middle finger to systems of oppression along the way. I’m thinking of The Other Black Girl or The Other Me as examples.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dan Zen

Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?

The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned. 

As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.

The Schmagent

This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit.  In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do. 

The Hobbyist

This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers. 

The Greenie

Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.

Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers. 

For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place where they will receive guidance from a more seasoned agent. 

The Blindsider

This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership. 

Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful. 

As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.

One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception but with one big surprise in the data. And it’s all about queries and the possible impact of Covid.

4 : Number of agents at NLA (same as in 2019)

1 : Number of agents who made the Publishers Weekly Star Watch Finalists List. Congrats Quressa!

13,561 : Queries read and responded to. QueryManager gives us an exact number now. As a team, agents were closed to queries for 27% of the year, including for 8 months for Kristin, but we also think it’s because fewer writers queried in the time of Covid, so this is down from 14,000+ in 2019.

430 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (up from 354 in 2019, as we had more time stuck at home to read): 71 requests for Kristin, 173 requests for Danielle, 77 requests for Quressa, 109 requests for Joanna.

106 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (down from 127 in 2019, which might mean fewer folks have work out there on submission).

13 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (1 for Kristin, 4 for Danielle, 4 for Quressa, 4 for Joanna). Four was the magic number for everyone except me, and this is down by only 1 from 2019, so go NLA team!

39 : Number of book deals done (16 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle with 1 debut, 11 for Quressa with 2 debuts, 7 for Joanna with 4 debuts). Way up from 26 in 2019.

2 : Number of debut New York Times bestsellers (1 for Quressa and 1 for Joanna, whose client debuted in the #1 position on the list!).

48 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 45 in 2019).

8 : TV and major motion picture deals (6 for Kristin, 1 for Quressa, 1 for Joanna). Down from 11 in 2019.

41 : Books released in 2020 (down from 45 in 2019).

70 : Foreign-rights deals done (54 for Kristin, 7 for Danielle, 9 for Quressa). Down from 106 in 2019. Thanks, Covid.

0 : Physical Conferences attended. Thanks, Covid. 

2 : Virtual Conferences attended by Kristin (both Denver-based: Lighthouse Writers LitFest and the inaugural Margins Conference). 

102 : Physical holiday cards sent (down from 180 in 2019 as we only sent to clients during this Covid year).

837 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down by one from 838 in 2019).

Not telling it’s so embarrassing : homemade eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because I wasn’t popping out to Starbucks.

Lots : Late nights reading on my living-room chaise and missing my dear, dear Chutney. Reading full manuscripts is just not the same without her.  

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Clint Budd

(Just a note, this article was featured in our November 2020 Newsletter. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

305 = The number of days from when I submitted a client manuscript to when I received the response from the editor. 

Ten months. That’s a long time. You’d think I’d be upset or frustrated, but honestly, this is a love letter to that editor—and you know who you are. 

During this crazy Covid year, I’m sending this heartfelt acknowledgement into the world to her. That response, regardless of how late it arrived, is a gift that I can give to my author client. It’s the gift of closure—an assurance that my author’s novel was read and considered. All during a time when editors are scraping together time to work between juggling family, kids, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, sick parents or relatives, and who knows what else. 

So thank you, dear editor. Most sincerely. Your response was just lovely to have—even though it was a pass.

Most editors who flubbed a submission would slink into the night, never responding. I would have sighed and added them to my “do not submit” list. (And yes, agents have a black-hole list, and once you’re on it, editors, it’s hard to gain our trust again.)

To editors who might be reading this and might have a similar situation hiding in your submission closet—bite the bullet and send that letter to the agent. We will greatly respect you for doing it. Just trust me on this. 

Junior editors, the best advice I can give to you is this: don’t ghost agents. Always respond. Even if the note is short and sweet. We’ll get it. As an established agent, I truly enjoy trying out submissions to newer editors who are looking to make their name and reputation. But I’m also finding that ghosting is happening more and more, and that some editors just don’t respond at all.

It’s going to be hard to land the good stuff, the next New York Times bestselling client, if you’re on agents’ “no send” lists.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: One Way Stock

Books That Go Bump in the Night

(Just a note, this article was featured in our October 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Happy October, Friends! This has always been my favorite time of year. I love sweaters and scarves and fall leaves and pumpkin spice. I love the chill in the air…but what I love even more is a good chill down my spine. So horror writers? To celebrate this most wonderful time of the year, this one’s for you: here are three things we at NLA look for in horror submissions.

Literary or upmarket prose. We’re unlikely to request anything that leans too heavily on cheap scares, gratuitous violence, or gore porn. But send us a more cerebral, psychologically challenging work that demonstrates the tense, suspenseful, unsettling, atmospheric slow-burn of masterful horror writing, and you’ll definitely get our attention. Read 100 reviews or blurbs for bestselling horror novels and count how many times the words “tension” and “suspense” are used. So much of a writer’s ability to bring tension and suspense to the page lives in their writing style and voice. In the horror space, we’d love to see the next big crossover project—the one publishers are going to release in hardcover, the one booksellers are going to set out on their front-of-store displays because the writing is so artful it has the potential to capture readers who “don’t read horror” as well as those who do. 

Premise. There’s no shortage of gorgeous, voicey prose in the slush pile, but a solid, unique, fresh, high-concept premise? That’s rare. This is where being well-read in your genre is so important. Know what’s already been done and by whom. A query that hits me with a premise I’ve never encountered, one that makes me think how in the world is the writer going to pull that off?—you can bet a query like that is going to get me to read the sample pages. Many a horror premise is often built on a corporeal fear that, when confronted, leads to some sort of psychological disintegration: being buried alive, abducted, trapped, imprisoned, or tortured; being accused of something you’re innocent of; getting lost; being chased; encountering any supernatural beast or force…the list goes on. Plenty of great horror plays on more than one type of fear. But premise can also be built on a real horror, like slavery, say, and then amplified or twisted in some way. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation explores an alternate post-Civil War world in which slavery has been abolished—but when the dead soldiers rise up off the battlefield as zombies, the new American government forces former slaves to train as zombie fighters, claiming they have a natural immunity to zombie bites (which everyone knows is a lie). So Dread Nation offers us the horror of both a real and an imagined-but-plausible injustice to grapple with, as well as the external threat of zombies. Rather brilliant.

Plot. It’s such a disappointment for an agency reader to get halfway through a manuscript that’s artfully written and that promises a cool, unique premise, only to realize the author is a little lost in the weeds when it comes to plot and structure. Plot is hard, but I firmly believe that anyone who devotes themselves to learning it, can. Start with Story Genius by Lisa Cron and Anatomy of Story by John Truby. For horror specifically, have you honored your contract with your readers by building speculative elements and conflicts that are uniquely creeptastic but that don’t strain their willingness to suspend their disbelief? Have you avoided falling back on deus ex machina? Have you developed complex characters in physical and/or psychological distress—or have you made the threat of that distress terrifyingly palpable for readers?

Prose. Premise. Plot. Any manuscript, regardless of genre, that delivers all three is definitely a manuscript we want to see. Happy Halloween!

Creative Commons Credit: Kamaljith K V

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt