I am not an agent, I’ve never had an agent, nor have I ever personally known an agent. Why then, am I the one to write this article? Well, I’m probably not. Still, I’ve been walking this path for a while now and I have learned to use those senses located around my face. This article is what I’ve learned as I’ve traversed my chosen trail.
An agent is in the business of selling books to publishers. They are business people like every other business person out there. They contend with P&L’s, customers, contacts, inventory control, and all the rest. They are looking for authors, even aspiring authors, for without us they are unemployed.
We, the authors clacking away at our keyboards until the dawn lights the morning sky, are their inventory. It is their job and profession to see their inventory put into the hands of their clients, the publishers. The secret, as with any business, is to choose the correct inventory to sell to the correct client. The query letter is one method they use to locate that inventory.
Though not necessarily presented in the order of their thought processes, this is my understanding of when they receive your query, how they look at it.
Is the story within one they can sell? If their contacts weigh heavily toward romance publishers, sending a query touting a nonfiction book on the weaknesses in the Theory of Relativity is wasted on them. They may have no background in selling this type of book and they’ll most likely pass.
If they’ve just sold a similar book, they’ll probably not try to do it again as they’ve already pitched their contacts on the storyline.
If the story within is not interesting, they’ll pass. If this is your storyline is dull, overused, out of date, etc., the agent knows none of their contacts will buy the book from them.
If the story within is not unique, they'll probably pass. If your hero is named Luke and he’s an orphan living on a farm in some far, far away galaxy and he will soon discover he has the power to summon the forces of nature to his aid and… Well, it’s been done. You may have a slight chance if your work has a unique aspect to it, but save yourself the trouble and write a new story.
If your query is not professional in nature, it tells them you are not a professional. These guys are pros, and they want to surround themselves with like-minded individuals. Learn what each agents wishes to receive and give them that.
Their time is valuable and limited. Assuming your query even reaches their desk, you have maybe twenty seconds of their time available to you. If your query starts with, “I am so important to you,” or some such nonsense, you don’t even get the twenty. However, if you start with a good hook that catches their interest, you’ll get the extra ten seconds that previous blowhard squandered.
They look to the quality of your writing. They consider your query a sample of your writing skills and seek those who are well versed in the craft. Why would they try to sell inferior inventory? That is what you are if you have yet to learn how to write.
They do consider your provenance, if you will. Why are you the one to write this work? If you’ve not stepped into a classroom since you quit school in the seventh grade, they will not consider you the best source for recommending how to alter the educational landscape. If you write spy novels but have never seen the thin end of a pair of binoculars, you’ve probably chosen an incorrect genre. Write what you know. No, you need not have a writer’s pedigree, but you do need to exhibit knowledge of your subject matter, be it fiction or nonfiction.
They want to know why you chose them. If you’re querying every agent in the known universe, that’s fine from your perspective, but to them it’s a sure sign of your lack of professionalism. Query them for a reason and tell them why you did.
They do respect the recommendations from within their sphere. Wouldn’t you? They have clients and contacts they trust to know their desires and markets, and a confidant is their most efficient method of finding a new author. Try to get a recommendation. As difficult as that may be, it is your truest path to publication.
They want to know you’re in this as a career. They don’t earn as much money off a single book as they do a number of books. If they have your book published and twenty thousand copies are sold, how man dollars get into their pocket? How much do they earn if they sell twenty of your books at twenty thousand copies per? This is a business for them, even if it is not for you.
This is a subjective business and they will often pass on a manuscript for a reason as simple as it does not “call” to them. Sorry, guys, but life is unfair and so is the publishing world. That is why you query multiple agents.
If your query does not exemplify these qualities, I recommend you keep trying to improve your writing and querying skills.
I’d love for an agent to comment on this as to any errors in my thinking or omission in the list.
Until my next posting, kind readers, may all your books be best-sellers.
C. Patrick Schulze