Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Agent Relationship (a session at JRWC)

"Every agent lives in fear that they'll reject the next Harry Potter." - Arielle Eckstut

Finally I get to the end of the list, the only James River Writers Conference session I have yet to comment on: The Agent Relationship.  I confess to dragging my heels a little on this one, not because it was a bad session (it wasn't, not at all) but rather because I'm still not sure where I stand on the subject.  Personally, I've been either turned down or ignored by 69 agents.  While common wisdom (at least among agents and those who've made it through their gates) seems to say that if I were to just write better it wouldn't happen, both a large group of the rejection notices and a sizable number of actual cases tell me that it's a very subjective process.  When Harry Potter took five years before an agent finally did his daughter a favor and dug it out of a slush pile, and The Help was rejected 60 times, and I have enough of these stories to fill several blog posts, who in their right minds would consider these folks qualified to serve as gatekeepers for the publishing industry?  The Big 6 do; not a one of them accepts unagented submissions. 

More and more authors these days, meanwhile, are finding success in bypassing the matter entirely and going either small pub (as have I) or self-pub, thus proving that The Agent Relationship isn't as requisite as it seems. 

Can you see, then, the source of my internal conflict?  I went into this session thinking how great the information I gained from it would be, and ended the session thinking how great the information I'd gained from it was.  Now, just a few weeks after the conference, my notes on the session seem largely irrelevant.  That said, there are plenty of people out there who desire a Big 6 publishing contract, and I acquiesce to the assertion that if my own career follows a path I hope it does, at some point I'll need an agent if for no other reason than to decipher what's involved in movie rights and international reprinting rights.  Thus, I bring you: the session.

Kris Spisak, a well-known writing teacher and author and a member of the JRW board, moderated.  Two agents, Arielle Eckstut and Becca Stumpf, served as the panel in the absence of one agent who had a family emergency and couldn't make the conference.  We can always wonder what the third panel member would've brought to the session, but as it was the combination of Eckstut and Stumpf was brilliant.  Eckstut has her hand in many efforts, but as an agent she only represents non-fiction.  Stumpf, meanwhile, primarily represents fiction.  The two sides of the writing puzzle are very different in terms of approaching an agent, and it showed in their comments and responses. 

What is life as an agent like?  It's a very wide-ranging job, according to Eckstut; it's like a "continued liberal arts education."  If a never-ending process of determining what is selling currently on the market, extrapolating that to what will be selling when current manuscripts make it to market, and trying to sell publishers on the manuscripts in your "inventory" appeals to you, you might be an agent. 

At the same time, agents have a pile of queries to navigate.  Both agents on the panel agreed that queries typically are read in the evenings and on weekends, due to the massive time demands involved in serving their existing clients. 

What, then, makes for a good query?  First the panel mentioned a few things that make a bad query, the "automatic turn-offs."  Letters without the agent's name, or with the name misspelled (and let's face it, both Eckstut and Stumpf are fairly easy to misspell) were right at the top.  Queries addressing a genre the agent doesn't represent were also an automatic turn-off, one that even makes some agents angry.  "Eighty to ninety percent of queries are for books I do not represent," said Eckstut, a statistic that clarifies why an agent would consider misplaced queries an annoying waste of her time.  Finally, Stumpf pointed out that having the number of words in the manuscript at the start of the query was a turn-off.  Queries, she said, should follow the order "the hook, the book, and the cook," meaning that the first paragraph should draw the agent in as a reader, followed by a second paragraph with all the numbers and statistics about the book, and a third paragraph about who the author is.

What should a query be?  "Query letters should be professional and creative and to the point," Stumpf said.  They should establish a connection to the agent.  Eckstut pointed out that, from an agent's perspective, "Getting involved with an agent is like getting married." 

Titles are important, both agents confirmed.  Both said that every time they've seen a dreadful title in a query letter, the writing has been bad. 

Previous publications listed in a query letter?  Sure, both agents said, but only if they apply to the currently-queried genre.  If you've written articles for a magazine, Stumpf said, that fact shouldn't go in a fiction query letter unless the articles were fiction, themselves.  

Should you have a finished manuscript before approaching an agent?  Depends on the genre, apparently.  Stumpf unequivocally said yes, in her world of representing fiction, every query should have a finished manuscript behind it.  Eckstut said no; in the non-fiction world, "publishers live off the idea of hope on what your manuscript may be some day," and thus it's best to approach the agent with an outline and a chapter or two of your best work.  Building on the idea of hope is important enough, in fact, that it can play against the author to have a completed non-fiction manuscript, as that removes the mystery and reveals the book for what it is. 

Eckstut's view of a good query letter was also a little different from Stumpf's.  In the non-fiction world, the "cook," or author, is more important than the book--at least, it is in query letters.  It's more important to be able to specify a platform (member of such and such groups, having spoken in front of audiences of so many people, having a Twitter following of so many thousand people, etc.) than to spell out an interesting series of chapters.  The non-fiction author also has to be able to very accurately portray the competitive landscape for his book, and describe where his work fits into that field (as opposed to fiction books like mine, where I say something along the lines of "it's a book with a god and a dragon.  People who like to read about gods and dragons will read my book.").

Both agents described their views on their role as gatekeepers similarly.  "We are no worse critics than any average reader in the bookstore," Eckstut said.  Hearing them describe their approaches, I agree that assertion is accurate, at least if I'm to be considered an average reader when I walk into the bookstore.  When I shop for non-fiction, it is a competitive thing where I pick the book that most fits my need.  When I shop for fiction, on the other hand, I'll often buy two or three books where the title and the synopsis on the back interest me.

Both agents also pointed out that they'll research authors who have caught their interest with query letters.  It's for that reason, Stumpf said, that writers should avoid posting snarky stuff online.  She'll go into blogs and Facebook pages, and she views unprofessionalism there as a possible red flag regarding future dealings with the author.  Nuff said, though I admit that my own blog lost a few prior posts that evening.  It wasn't that I thought they were particularly snarky; it was more that someone else, thinking like an agent, might think that.  No point taking risks, right? 

That concern over professionalism, though, also resonated in her response to the moderator's question regarding what to ask the agent once an offer of representation is made.  Eckstut said, "You have to think of yourself in a power position."  No questions, then, are off the table.  Stumpf shrank back from such a bold statement, though, stating that some questions just shouldn't be asked.  She didn't go into specifics, but instead pointed out that a writer is assumed to have a handle on the basics of writing and publishing, and so questions about those most fundamental issues can raise a red flag in the agent's mind. 

What is an author to do when she gets multiple indications of interest or offers of representation?  I dismissed the question as fairly unlikely to happen to a newb author, and then ironically faced the situation personally a week later.  Meanwhile, the two agents had differing views.  Eckstut said that indications of interest (such as "I'd like to see the manuscript") should be communicated with other agents so that everybody has an opportunity to give the work the consideration it's due.  Stumpf disagreed, saying that she only wanted to know if other offers were on the table.  The bottom line was consistent, though--it's okay to query multiple agents at once, but it's considered professional to let agents who are considering the manuscript know when the work is about to be taken off the market. 

All in all, this turned out to be the great session I had thought it would be. Those who weren't there missed many revelations, as well as the opportunity to see me proclaim to the world that I have, in fact, written the next Harry Potter. 

Yes, I can be snarky sometimes.

Have a great day!



  1. Excellent piece, Stephen. I shared and tweeted. Plus, I'll take it to my writing groups this week.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks Stephen! I'm interested in submitting to Becca Stumpf at some point, so this was an interesting read. ;D