How to Get an Agent's Attention

Eleven agents attended the South Carolina Writers Workshop 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.
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Eleven agents attended theSouth Carolina Writers Workshop conferenceand 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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Guest column by Lisa Katzenberger, events
coordinator for StoryStudio Chicago. StoryStudio
Chicago is hosting its annual Writers Retreat at
the famous Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Ill.
from July 16-18. Class sessions focus on craft and
getting deeper into characters and stories. There
are accommodations on the site's five acres for
up to 11 “overnighters” and 9 "day trippers." All
meals/materials provided. See the SSC website for all info.

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 query -- don’t pretend you’re writing as your main character. 
  • A query letter is a business letter – a 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 COOKBarbara 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.

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The quickest way to get an agent's attention
is a professional submission. That's why you
need Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed.

It has dozens of query letter examples (novels,
nonfiction, short stories, kids books and more).