How to Get an Agent’s Attention (SCWW Guest Post)

This is a guest post from Lisa Katzenberger,
on an agent panel at the
South Carolina Writers Workshop.



Eleven agents attended the 2009 SCWW conference and four participated in the panel discussion “What Gets Our Attention.” They didn’t mention fun things like serving them mashed potatoes in the buffet line or skywriting your query over lovely Myrtle Beach. Instead, they gave us simple advice, a great reminder that it’s not really rocket science. Here are the best nuggets from the session with agents Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary), Barbara Poelle (Irene Goodman Agency), Jenny Bent (The Bent Agency), and Scott Eagan (Greyhaus Literary).

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It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

Just like in The Godfather. At least in the publishing biz, you’re not going to wake up snuggling a horse’s head just because you queried an agent who doesn’t rep your genre. (Probably.) So, keep your business hat on when approaching agents and be professional.

  • They want to work with someone who understands the business and can represent their agency professionally.
  • Barbara reminded us that it’s called the publishing industry, not the publishing feelings. Agents understand that there’s a lot of emotion tied to the time and effort an author dedicated to their book. But you have to be able to separate that emotion when querying and see the business side of a decision.
  • Don’t be funny in a querydon’t pretend you’re writing as your main character. 
  • A query letter is a business lettera cover letter to apply for a job. Your resume? Well, that’s the manuscript.

Have a Unique Story

There are no new stories, just different ways to tell them. Make sure you know what’s special about your love story or cozy mystery that makes it stand out from all the rest.

  • Scott Eagan said he needs a book that’s more than just well-written. He needs a book with a unique twist.
  • Barbara Poelle encouraged writers to find a unique take on a formula that works.
  • Jeff Kleinman stressed how no one wants to read a book they’ve read before.
  • Jenny Bent wants to see your voice in your query letter. She looks for a great opening line and a story that really grabs her.

The Hook, The Book, and The Cook

Barbara Poelle used this catchy line to describe the three ingredients of your query letter. The hook is a one sentence description of what your book is about. Yes, one sentence. Check Publishers Lunch for examples of great loglines. The book: four or five sentences that give more detail about the story. The cook: brief information about you, the writer.

Love Is in the Air

Would you want to marry someone who’s kind of in love with you? Or someone who is head over heels crazy about you and will go to the ends of the earth to make you happy? Don’t be upset when an agent turns down your manuscript because they weren’t fully in love with it. You’re entering a long-term relationship with an agent, and just like a marriage, you want to find the partner who’s crazy about you.

  • Jeff Kleinman likes to follow this rule of thumb: “Only represent stuff you totally, absolutely love.”
  • Agents are reading submissions in their free time. They do this job because they love books, just like writers do.
  • Barbara will reject a book if she doesn’t feel she can be that author’s strongest advocate.
  • Query agents who represent authors you love to read. Chances are, they’ll dig your type of writing too.

So to get an agent’s attention, be professional in your query and unique with your story. Like a good cook who can rattle a recipe from memory, know your story’s ingredients when selling your book. And if an agent turns you down, don’t get discouraged. Remind yourself that you’re waiting for someone who loves your book as much as you do.

Guest blogger Lisa Katzenberger
runs the Fiction City Blog and
is also on Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “How to Get an Agent’s Attention (SCWW Guest Post)

  1. mbt shoes

    I queried Spiridon Agency in Jan/09, then in Apr/09, and just phoned to see if they ever received my letter. The phone number has apparently been disconnected and I had read somewhere else that they are no longer in business, so I guess it’s true

  2. Rebecca

    Last weekend’s SCWW conference was my third year in a row attending the annual meeting, and I found everyone (attendees and faculty/agents) as professional and warm as in previous years.

    One of my biggest "take-homes" this year was how approachable and friendly the faculty were in spite of the pressure of having literally hundreds of writers dissecting their every move. I admit, I was daunted at the prospect of meeting an agent with a certain online shark-toothed persona, but the reality is that nearly everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there and to meet writers of all levels of the craft.

    I understand that some agents were a bit more… direct, shall I say? than were others when it came to critiquing and reviewing the slush (fest).

    Dear AGENTS, take note: next time, at least dip that knife in sugar first, please!

    An unenthusiastic reaction to a writer’s heart-and-soul-plus-five-years-of-sweat is initially disappointing (i know, the understatement of the year). But these conferences should be more about networking and learning (be it the craft or the business) than ultimately about signing on that dotted line.

    Unfortunately, I missed the "What Gets Our Attention" session so the above recap is useful – thank you!

  3. Amy

    It’s all about perception, isn’t it? If this one writer felt that way, I have to wonder what made it that way for her and what others thought. I make my own decisions, but this certainly startled me.

    Thanks for responding.


  4. Chuck

    First off, I can tell you that agents absolutely go to conferences to find clients. In fact, Barbara Poelle was at SCWW and signed a client at the event this past weekend. I myself signed with an agent at a conference, and have spoke with others who have, too.

    I saw no one berating writers. Some agents are a bit rough around the edges and others are not.

  5. Amy

    A friend of mine was at this conference (really a friend, not me, I’m tethered to my kids and dogs as a single mom) and told me how rude most of the agents were, how they laughed out loud at novice writers, how she heard one say that agents have no intention of getting clients at conventions that they only go to hang out with each other, that they berated writers for asking questions and then smoked pot on the beach.


    Know what I told her?

    While agents are the gatekeepers for publishing, pretty much, they’re a dime a dozen, find others who don’t make the good ones look bad. I’ve had nice interactions with some of the ones she mentioned, but I do think that agents have a lot of power and power can go to one’s head. It happens not only to agents but doctors, lawyers and business people. It can happen to anyone.

    What baffles me is that agents make money by selling books that authors write. You’d think they’d realize that and at the very least, be kind and gracious.

    They exist because of us.


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