Literary Agents Tell All at Boston Conference

I just returned from Muse & the Marketplace, which is a writers conference held in downtown Boston. The event seemed to be a big success and I gave two presentations—one on query letters to agents, and another on nonfiction book proposals.
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I just returned from Muse & the Marketplace, which is a writers conference held in downtown Boston. The event seemed to be a big success and I gave two presentations—one on query letters to agents, and another on nonfiction book proposals.

ALSO—I sat in on an agent panel and listened to four agents share all kinds of good tips and secrets. The four reps were:

1. Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary + Media
2. Rob McQuilkin of Lippencott Massie McQuilkin
3. Elisabeth Weed of Weed Literary
4. Lane Zachary of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth

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Here is what they shared. Everything
below is paraphrased.

ON SUBMISSIONS AND QUERIES:

MG: When you contact an agent with a query, if you can mention other books that the agent has repped (for example, because you repped X, I think you will like my Y), that still really works.

LZ: Mentioning that you have an MFA is impressive and can help, but doesn’t make too much of a difference in the long run, because it’s all a matter of whether the writer can write.

MG: When looking at a query, agents are looking for something that helps them pull your letter out of the pile and say “This person has some legitimacy.”

LZ: The query letter is “a couple of sparkling paragraphs about what you’re writing.” She often sees query letters with superfluous detail in them—namely about the author’s life (“I ski … I hunt.”) If she sees superfluous detail in the letter, she assumes that the manuscript will have too much fat on it, as well.

RM: Simultaneous submissions are normal and assumed. In other words, it is safe and healthy to submit your work to several agents at once.

MG: Submitting to agents and editors at the same time is counter productive because if you were to get an agent, she won’t know who you’ve submitted to and received rejections from. This makes her job harder.

LZ: If she passes on an idea but thinks another agent at the agency will find it interesting, she will always pass it on.


ON SHORT STORIES:

RM: One of the best and most common ways to sell a collection of short stories is to repurpose them into a novel, or sell the collection as one part of a two-part deal, with the second book being an actual novel.

LZ: Short story collections do sell, but they do so very rarely.

Editor's Note: The thing that I noticed about short story collection success tales were that they all came around in strange ways. For example, the first success story an agent related was how a woman traveled all the way from India to attend an American writers conference and met an agent personally. The other success story told of an intern that worked at an agency where the intern said “Hey, I’ve got some short stories.” What to notice here is that neither one of these two examples came about through a cold query submission.

I found it odd to hear two success stories like that when almost no agents accept queries for short story collections. So it was not surprising to hear that neither were through queries. They were both somewhat special circumstances.

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ON CHOOSING AN AGENT:

RM: There are distinct benefits to working with a young and hungry agent. Namely, they will be able to spend more time helping you polish your work before it gets sent out. A younger agent may have more time to help you.

EW: It makes no difference whether you go with a big or small agency. She’s worked at both, and finds very little difference. It's all about the agent's ability, not the size of the agency.


ON OTHER TOPICS:

MG: The state of the publishing industry has meant that the market is surprising. By that, she means that she will have an expectation regarding what a publisher will pay for a book, but the publisher is usually not offering the expected number. They’re either offering higher or lowering than first expected. In other words, the down economy is throwing things into a shift, but it's not always bad.

LZ: Agents are always on the hunt for new great writers and they read lots of publications. They read literary journals to find amazing talent. But they also ready magazines. She recently took on an author after reading a piece by the writer in Backpacker Magazine. The lesson here is that building credits is a good idea.

MG: She handles more clients than people may think. It’s because fiction takes so long to write and polish that it’s often 2–3 years between projects. It’s her job to keep track of what’s in progress, what needs a little more work before making the editor rounds, and what is good to go out right now.

MG: Finding an agent is like looking for a job. Writers should be professional. Both sides should ask questions of one another before contracts are signed.

Editor's Note: The agents were asked if they read Scribd, a site where people can post their writing. (Questions about these sites can up now and again at conferences.) All four agents said no, and then seemed to have somewhat negative opinions of posting stuff online. Rob said he doesn’t want to find secondhand material. Mollie said she is wary of anyone who has posted too much of the work online.

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Me (Chuck Sambuchino) teaching
at the conference. I gave
two presentations
one on queries to
agents, and another on nonfiction
book proposals.


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