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Researching Literary Agents

I wrote before about how writing a query letter to an agent is a confusing, frustrating thing.  Something I didn't really get into in that post, though, was the part where you have to research an agent.

The first problem is that query letters are hard, as I've already said.  A lot of the advice for query letters boils down to the following key points:

  • Read some books published by authors that the agent has represented, and use those as a guide to inform you if they're the right choice.
  • Try to come up with a good, quick marketing pitch for your query letter, like, "This book is Naked Came the Stranger meets A Million Little Pieces!"
  • And finally, customize your letter so that it is warm and inviting and shows a personal connection.

This results in a lot of sample "good" letters that could not possibly apply to over 99% of writers out there.

First of all, nobody can possibly have the time to read enough sample books represented by that one agent to know exactly how good of a fit they are - or at least, if you had that kind of time, then you wouldn't have much time to write.  The best you can hope for is to read excerpts of their work.  I imagine the goal here is just to get a general idea - you're probably looking for somebody who seems like at least a 60% match to your work.

Secondly, I get the need for marketing - I truly do - but why is it my job to come up with your sales pitch?  If I was that good at thinking of a clever little blurb that would sell my shit, I wouldn't go to somebody else and ask them to take a 20% cut of my profits.  I'd just come up with my clever little blurb and sell my shit.  The whole reason I'm coming to you is specifically because I'm bad at marketing and sales.

And finally, if I had a personal connection to an agent, then I wouldn't be writing a query letter now, would I?  The point of a letter is that I don't know any of these people and I'm trying to get my foot in the door.

But let's put all of that aside, because these are all symptomatic of the fact that I'm basically just a naive, under-experienced prick who's whining on the Internet.  If I'm bad at writing a query, then fine - I'm bad at writing a query.  But if I could write even just an average query letter - already a triumph - then maybe I'd have a shot if I could find the right agent, right?

And here's where things fall to crap. Researching agents is tough.  Really tough.  Even with the Internet.  The process goes like this:

First, you find yourself a nice repository of information.  Most likely you're going to go pick up a copy of the Writer's Market or maybe you'll browse AgentQuery.com or Publishers' Marketplace to get some ideas.  These are are good starting points because they have listings for hundreds - maybe even thousands - of agents.  And so you'll put together a list of agents who might be a good lead, because their listing says they represent "humor/satire."  And you're off and running with a list of over 100 agents - that's 100 opportunities!  It's incredible!

But now you need to filter out the bad leads.  The easiest thing is to go to each agent's (or agency's) website and read a bit more about them.  Of course, all of them are going to say the same things about how they're "committed to their writers" and whatnot - ultimately, they're still selling you on the idea of taking a cut of your profits, so they want to sound friendly and enticing, and of course all the business is frosted with a thick layer of gush.  That part's fine.

What's not fine is when you get to the Agent Bios page and you find out that the person who you were looking for is either:

a) Not accepting queries at this time;
b) Not interested in fiction;
c) Not interested in humor/satire; or
d) Not interested in electronic submissions.

The electronic submissions thing is not as bad, but still a pretty bad sign - I'll ramble about that another time.  But all the rest of those things?  That means that your original source was wrong.  This agent is a terrible lead.  So, you end up reading through all of the Agent Bios in hopes that somebody else at that agency actually meets a) through c), but alas - they do not.  So you've reached a dead end.

By the time you've finally looked through all 100 of your agents, you realize that you've only got about 15 actual leads, and none of them are especially strong.  They're all pretty soft - they mention humor as a possible interest, but not a particularly strong one, and their recent publishing history has been a bunch of courtroom thrillers or weepy chick lit.  You shrug and say, "Guess a soft lead is better than no lead," and you waste your time sending out letters to people who are far more likely than not to reject them.

Sometimes, you find an agent that you just don't understand.  Like a guy whose Agent Bio says that they are "especially interested in 1930s-era romance set in Ireland and featuring lesbian protagonists."  How marketable is that niche that you feel the need to point it out?  And what are you expecting us to do, exactly?  "Gee, guys, I just spent the last two years writing and re-writing this really close and personal tale about inner turmoil, but now that I see that you want 1930s-era gay Irish romance, I'll do one more rewrite."

And then sometimes you get agents that set up so many barriers to entry that you wonder why they even bothered in the first place.  These are people who will do things like:

a) Ask for exclusive consideration for up to 2 months while you've put in your request with them;
b) Demand additional information beyond industry standards - like additional writing samples or a mission statement or some other bullshit; or
c) Ask you to provide your submission materials in both hard copy AND soft copy AND fill out their online submission form.

So, again, you end up culling your list down even further, and suddenly you find out that you're back to square one.  A lot of times, it feels like the end result of your research is that there really aren't any agents who would be interested in your work.

Sigh.  Maybe I should self-publish.  Even though it kinda feels like it would be a badge of shame at this point.