Agents and the art of the query

Cathy and I are back from the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s 2022 AWP Conference & Bookfair, held this year on March 23-26 in Philadelphia. We had a blast. Talked into the wee hours of the night, caught up on every aspect of our lives, imbibed an impressive amount of wine—as well as a few martinis.

We also attended some amazing panel discussions in a conference that convened more than 7,000 publishing professionals. We’ll be sharing some of what we learned in a series of posts. There’s no way we could cram it all into one. Panel topics ranged from explorations of voice and point of view in narrative to nailing your first book deal to the role of feedback. And so much more.

First up, we attended a panel titled “Call Your Agent: Finding Representation for Your Writing.” This extremely helpful panel gave some great tips for authors looking for representation for their books. Agents on the panel included:

  • Dana Murphy – The Book Group (handles Y/A, adult, nonfiction)
  • Annie Hwang – Ayesha Pande Literary (handles literary fiction “with teeth” and mission-driven nonfiction)
  • Stephanie Bellman – Trellis Literary Agency – (new agency, handles adult fiction)
  • Duvall Osteen – Aragi Inc. (handles literary fiction, humor, and narrative nonfiction)

Bullets below are not attributed to any particular agent but are a collection of quotes from all of the above. These are the questions anyone querying needs to ask, with answers straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. 

What should authors look for in an agent?

  • Someone you can trust editorially, who will commit to you in all stages of your career. Someone you can get both good and bad news from.
  • Someone who will be your biggest fan, but not a blind one. An agent translates the industry for you. What did that publisher mean?
  • An agent’s job is to know things you don’t.

What are agents looking for?

  • Duvall: I’m looking for a big, loud voice in a novel, a person I’ve not heard before. Less plot, more VOICE.
  • Comparative titles, query letter are important, but sample pages are the most important. It’s an extremely crowded marketplace. We see all the challenges a book might face upfront. Something very fresh and inventive is crucial—a new narrator, new setting, new storyline—all facilitate getting your book seen and read.

How to find an agent: 

  • Look at your favorite books and read the acknowledgements to see if an agent is thanked. 
  • Do your homework. Research agents to find out why they’d be right for you. What have they represented? Why would you fit on their list? 
  • Follow agents who seem like a good fit for your book on social media. You’ll learn when they’re open to queries and what they’re seeking at any given moment.

On the all-important query letter:

  • An effective query letter has three parts: Hook, Look, and Books. The hook gets the agent’s interest, the look encourages them to read on, and books refer to comparative published titles.
  • Look at the agency’s website for submission guidelines: formatting, page count, etc., and follow them! 
  • The VOICE of a writer is the most important thing in a query. Match the tone and voice of the query letter to the tone and voice of your book. 
  • Keep your query brief. Agents read queries quickly. They’re looking for what’s jumping out at them and feels different.
  • If you’ve heard nothing in six to eight weeks, send your query again.

A footnote on comparative titles:

  • Always include comparative titles. This shows respect for both your work and the agent’s time. Comparing your book to others shows you are thoughtful about your work in the context of the marketplace.
    • Comparative titles are books that are kin to yours, that would be in the same section on a bookshelf. 
    • Make sure the comps you give are contemporary novels, not classics.
    • Don’t base comps on plot. How is your WRITING similar? Sometimes that involves movie/TV shows as well, and you can include these, but make sure to give a book comparison, too.
    • Comps let agent know who is going to buy your book. Think of Amazon’s: “People who liked this book also bought…”
    • Don’t say there’s nothing like my book out there—it’s probably not true, and it says you work outside the box. Agents work inside. Even a whiff of this is bad.

What if an agent urges you to revise and resubmit?

  • Be happy! This happens when a book is promising, but an agent doesn’t have time to edit it with you. You need to edit it yourself and send it back.
  • The agent will sometimes take pains to give you specific feedback, so don’t rush back with your revision. Process and digest the feedback. Take your time. Don’t be afraid the agent will forget you.

A final note:  Above all, agents want to see that you’re trying—to position your book, to frame it correctly, and that you’re thinking about how your book fits them and their list. Do your homework, write a polished, professional letter. An agent is your partner in the publishing business, so be a good business partner in return. 

–Query on, friends. Karen

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