Making Agents Happy

Dabney A couple weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Fairbanks chapter of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, and it was at least as awesome as ever. Our guest this month was Elisabeth B. Dabney, our friendly neighborhood literary agent. Chapter members asked questions in advance and she was kind enough to answer them for us, as well as to field any questions we had at the moment. Most of what was covered was stuff I already knew, but there was one point that came up at least three times. (I have the copious notes to prove it.) This point was most succinctly addressed after the following question:

What can we as writers do to make agents happy?

And boy did Ms. Dabney look happy to hear such a question. She gave the following three suggestions (each of which had been hinted at multiple times before).

Polish, Polish, Polish. Don’t submit something that isn’t as ready to roll as you can possibly get it. It’s going to have to be polished before it gets published anyway, so why not save everyone else the time and effort of having to tell you to polish it? Just do it anyway. You’ll seem more professional, you’re more likely to grab an agent’s attention in the first place, and you’ll experience fewer hiccups on the road to publication. So gloss up everything that anyone outside of your friends-and-family circle is going to see: the query (and everything else in the submission packet), your author platform, the manuscript itself, anything. Grab a rag and make that baby shine.

Do Your Homework. The need for research doesn’t end when you’ve finished your manuscript. It just moves into a new playing field. Agents are a myriad crowd, each with their own particular tastes on what they represent, how they represent it, and how they want you to get in touch with them. Find out who represents your kind of manuscript, and then dig deeper. Look at the titles they’ve put out recently and compare them to your own work. Check into what they look for in their submission packets. Do they accept paper submissions, or strictly electronic? Do they want sample chapters? A manuscript summary? You need to know all of this before you submit.

Follow Guidelines. If you’ve done your homework, you know exactly what this agent is interested in, the sorts of stories and authors s/he represents, what is required in the submission packet, etc. If you know all that, why in the world would you completely disregard it and send whatever the heck you want, however the heck you feel like? If they ask for a query in iambic pentameter, a picture of a labradoodle, and first 2 1/3 pages along with a hot pink SASE, you darned well give it to them. You don’t know better. Stifle that urge and follow the guidelines.

It really comes down to being considerate of an agent’s time. We writers put a lot of time into our manuscripts. Agents know that. But sometimes writers forget how much time agents put into their own work. Sending sub par work that needs a ton of clean up, even if they’re interested in it, eats up their time. Filling their inboxes with queries for your romantic space thriller when they only represent picture books on Gothic architecture eats up their time. And they don’t have a lot of time to fling around, so don’t get mad when your full manuscript they didn’t ask for gets pitched into the trash instead of to a publisher.

A quick quote from Ms. Dabney: “I would say, for every ten queries I get, I reject nine of them… It’s really dependent on what the agent knows they can sell for you.” Agents search for the perfect fit because they don’t want to waste your time or their own. Why wouldn’t you do the same?

PS- Next week, I’ll post all the other little sundries we talked about during the meeting. It’s just an awful lot to try and put in one post. Until then, don’t forget that Camp NaNoWriMo starts up July 1st. IT’S TOMORROW AHHHH! I’m so not ready. Not a single oreo in the house…


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