Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My first meeting with an agent

No, I haven't actually landed an agent. Or finished my book. Or even written more than about 60 pages of my book...but I got the opportunity to sit down with real, live publishing agent and a few other aspiring writers at a literary luncheon in New Orleans, and it was truly enlightening. It helps to know what agents are looking for while I'm still in the writing process.

Frankly, much of what I learned from that agent can be found in this terriffic book I'm reading, called Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb. The first half is all about writing the book itself, written by Whitcomb, a published author. The second half is everything you need to know about getting an agent, getting published, etc., written by literary agent Rittenberg. It was good to know that what the book was telling me was much the same as what the real live agent told us. As a beginning (albeit unpublished) author, I would recommend this book highly. http://www.amazon.com/Your-First-Novel-Published-Achieving/dp/1582973881

For other aspiring authors out there, here are some of the nuts of wisdom I garnered from Mr. Real Live Agent:
--In the query letter, make sure you answer the question of "What is this book and why does it matter?"
--In the query letter, get to the point immediately. Be able to distill the description of your book into about 180-200 words. Formulate it like book descriptions you find on inside flaps of hardcover books and the backs of mass-market paperback books. This makes it easier for the agent to see how the book could sell to an audience. And don't give away everything in your description. The less you tell, the more people will get excited about it. In other words, don't spoil the ending.
--Be sure to include a brief sentence or two toward the end of the letter about your relevant credentials, like anything previously published, writing awards or MFAs, etc. Or if you're writing something on child psychology and you happen to be a child psychologist, better put that in there.
--It's not really a good idea to send out query letters from Nov-Jan because so many people are out of the office due to holiday stuff. Or even if they are in the office, their minds are on holiday stuff.
--A better time to query is July 4-Labor Day, when there's not much going on.
--Be sure to get an agent who actually works in NYC. There are some good agents who work other places, but a New York-based agent is more likely to have the contacts with editors that will increase your book's chances of getting bought.
--One of the best ways to find an agent is to go to a bookstore or library and look at books that are similar to the one you've written. Check the acknowledgements pages to see if the author thanks her agent, and copy the name down. Once you have a list, go to PublishersMarketplace.com, subscribe for a month ($20) and look up the contact info, etc., on these agents in order to query them.
--Do a blanket mailout to several agents at a time. Mr. Real Live Agent recommended sending a query letter and 50 pages of your manuscript. I thought 50 pages was a bit much, but I would think the best thing would be to follow the guidelines set down by the agent on what he wants to receive. But Mr. Real Live Agent also pointed out that it's the actual writing, not the query letter, that makes an agent want to represent you. He said that many authors' writing gets better after the first several pages. So...basically, I don't know. Every writer for herself.
--Make sure your novel is approximately the length of other books in your genre. Mr. Real Live Agent recommended at least 80,000 words. I'm not sure, but that's probably around 300 pages? The Your First Novel book has a great word/page ratio calculator, but I might be breaking some kind of copyright law if I include it here. So go buy the book and find out.
--Mr. Real Live Agent likes to be queried by e-mail with the book pages attached. But he is kind of a younger guy, and many agents say not to e-mail queries. But the worst they can do is just delete it, and maybe they'll read it and get interested before they stop themselves. Or you might just annoy them enough to make them hate you as an idiot who can't follow instructions. Me being the rule-follower I am, I'll probably just send my query and manuscript however the agent requests it.

Ok. That's what I learned this weekend. Oh, and I got a cookbook signed by Paula Deen, the star of the literary luncheon. She's completely amazing.

Happy Halloween!

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