An Author’s Advice to Literary Agents

Today’s guest post is by writer Cara Sue Achterberg.

I sometimes feel as though I have read hundreds, no thousands, of articles written by literary agents filled with advice for wannabe writers. I’ve even trekked thousands of miles to hear them tell me that same information in person. When I can’t make it in person I listen to podcasts while simultaneously playing Solitaire. I’ve logged so many hours I can now play Spider Solitaire with two decks—and win!

At this point, I think I know all there is to know about how to artistically grovel to agents. But I’m wondering if agents know all there is to know about how to treat wannabe writers? Sure, I realize they hold all the cards in this potential relationship, but I think they could stand to read at least one article about the proper care and feeding of those of us vying for their attention.

Ways Agents Can Help Us Writers

Most of us investigate agents through their website. I’m certain it was much harder for authors even ten years ago when they had to depend on books in search of current facts that changed daily.

That said, here’s my advice to literary agents:

  • DO make your website writer friendly. Tell us about your agency—what makes it stand out and what you can do for us as a potential authors. Pictures are especially good as we are generally a creative sort and we can gather a lot of information—correct or not—from a simple picture. I particularly like agencies that post pictures of a dog or cat. Yes, I’m aware that a dog or cat tells me very little about your agency except that you’re an animal person, but that’s a great divider in this world.
  • DO list exactly what you’re looking for in terms of genres.  “Literary or commercial fiction with a strong sense of story and character” is pretty much what we’re all trying to write. Could you be a little more specific, please?

I look for books with incredible writing and real characters” as opposed to horrible writing and unreal characters? Who’s looking for that? You’re on the hunt for “compelling memoir”? Is there any other type?

Sure, I understand it can be difficult to put in writing exactly what you’re looking for, but maybe something a bit more unambiguous than “awesome writing” as one agent so cleverly wrote.  Awesome is subjective. My mountain of rejection letters have clarified that.

  • DO explain clearly what you’d like in terms of the submission package. But consider stepping outside the box a little; give us a chance to differentiate ourselves.

Recently, I queried an agency through their online form that asked for my favorite line from my book. I loved that challenge; especially because it made it sound like my book was already a book. I was also asked to list the last book I’d read. This was a bit tougher since I generally read 3-4 books at a time. I spent a good hour debating between Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks, and The First 15 Lives of Harry August by Claire North. I worried that if I listed Paton’s book, I’d sound pretentious (or maybe undereducated—why didn’t you read that in school?) and if I wrote The Longest Ride I might come off as a lightweight. So I went with The First 15 Lives because that made me seem current (it’s not out in paperback yet).

So, if you really want to get to know the authors querying you, consider asking for something other than the standby. (And authors: try finding your favorite line in your book! It may help you see your theme in a new light.)

  • DO confirm that you received our queries. It doesn’t have to be fancy or personal, or anything but “Dear Writer, thank you for your submission. We received it and we’ll let you know [or we won’t let you know, but we’ll let you wonder for at least six weeks at which point, if you haven’t heard from us, you can assume we’re passing] our response.” I advise this because when I don’t get a confirmation that my query was received, and I never hear a yea or nay on that query, then I’m left wondering if you ever received my query in the first place.

I mean, I know it’s compelling, with incredible writing full of real characters and a strong sense of story, commercial, yet leaning towards the literary—so it’s perfect for you. When I receive no word at all, it gets my worrier worrying. What am I to do? I query again, even though, thanks to numerous articles, I know that’s a big no-no. I keep expecting my query to turn up in an article as an example of writers who badger agents. “This crazy woman queried me a dozen times!” Here’s my solution: confirm you got my query and/or let me know that you are choosing to pass (or not!) on my awesome manuscript.

  • DON’T force us to listen to sappy music. Okay, this may be nitpicking, but just today I visited a site that immediately launched into a Muzak version of what I believe was Nadia’s Theme (remember her—that tiny gymnast?). It’s distracting. I share an office, so it’s also embarrassing. (And it bothers the cat.)
  • If your name could be male or female, dear agent, DON’T leave us guessing. Either give it away in the bio or add a picture. At this point, I may resort to calling you by your first name rather than blunder your gender.
  • DO post cover pictures and links to your recent sales. Don’t simply list the authors you represent in alphabetical order and make me go search them out on the Internet, only to find that the last book they published was in 1992. A long list is impressive, but if all the books on that long list were published ten years ago, you’re leading me on.
  • DON’T instruct us to pick the agent who seems best for our work and then give us nothing about what each agent is representing. I know (from the many podcasts) that I should be selecting my agent based on books he or she has represented and I do that, but it would also be helpful to know what you are looking for now. Maybe you’re tired of representing feline steampunk mysteries and you’d really like a story about caterpillars eating Uganda. I don’t know that unless you tell me.
  • DO tell us about yourself. You’re asking me to tell you everything that matters about me and my qualifications; let’s hear yours. Who are you? Where are you from? What do you like to do? Why are you the BEST AGENT IN THE WORLD (or not)? I love to hear about agents’ families and hobbies and what they like to read when they’re not selling manuscripts. That makes me feel as if I know this person enough to guess whether or not he or she will be someone I could work with. Most agents say they’re looking for a “relationship,” not simply a one-shot deal. Me too!
  • And finally, if you’re honestly open only to queries from people you know, that’s fine. But don’t lead me on. That’s all we really expect. If you plan to delete my stellar submission package upon receipt, don’t make me waste my time. And I won’t waste yours.

I hope this has been helpful. I’m available for personal consultations, and for a small fee, I’d be happy to critique your website and give a brief report of my findings.  Also, if you need Muzak suggestions, let me recommend How Bad Do You Want It? by Don Henley.

Note/Disclaimer: This post is meant to be fun. I know for a fact that most agents work even harder than I do, and I can’t imagine being inundated on an hourly (minute-by-minute) basis with pleas from writers. I also can’t imagine how quickly agents’ jobs are shifting beneath their feet as the publishing industry rapidly changes. So I’m declaring right here that I have only the utmost respect for literary agents and the work they do. Because we are all (agents and authors) in the business of communication, my comments are only meant to encourage agents to be clear and kind in their message to authors. And authors—it’s our job to be professional with agents, remembering that they too are human beings and maybe even were once in our shoes.

Cara Achterberg headshotCara Sue Achterberg is a freelance writer, blogger, speaker, and occasional cowgirl. Her work has been featured in Family Fun and Hobby Farms Home magazines, as well as in columns for The York Daily Record. Her essays and more can be found on her blog, The Mama Load. Cara leads workshops on the organic lifestyle and writes the blog, Kid Friendly Organic Life based on the adventures and lessons of running her small organic farm while raising three teens. You can find links to both blogs, plus inspiration for teen writers on her website

Feature Photo Credit: e_lisewin via Compfight cc

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  1. Great article, Cara, I agree with all but two of your comments:

    An image of a cat/dog on their site doesn’t tell us they are animal lovers; all it says is that they have put an image of a cat/dog on their site (perhaps after reading your article?) and would have me thinking they may be more focused on the cat/dog than doing a good job as an agent.

    The other issue that really tees me off is this high-handed ‘if you haven’t heard from us in…’ Where I was educated this is gross bad manners. In all my business and personal dealings I have always stood out for taking those few extra seconds to thank people and respond to them on their input (in this case with a clear yeah/nay) – it made me a much better people manager. If someone who intends to manage my books and me as an author, be it an agent or publisher, is so bad-mannered and lazy, I’d think twice about even giving them the opportunity to look at my work – they are already telling me they won’t go that extra mile, even to be polite.

  2. Oh, and one last observation FOR AGENTS out there. Cara’s post has been tweeted over 16,600 times since it appeared – that’s got to be telling you guys something! So LISTEN UP!

  3. This is long overdue! I suggest writers contribute additional thoughts, wordsmith it into a pithy statement, and send it out to the world of literary agents as a kind of friendly manifesto. After all, we have an interest in making things easier for one another, not harder. I especially want to echo the importance of acknowledging all submissions and noting IN the acknowledgement the time frame in which an author can expect a response. I am also not so quick to give up on the expectation that each submission get a response. After all, we go through a lot of effort to research and personalize each submission, I think we should at least get a form rejection so that we know our submission was actually read. With cut and paste, this ought not to take that much time.

  4. Hi,

    This post does reflect the extreme frustration writers are feeling. I will add one thing. The role of the agent is diminishing. Fewer writers are going that route mainly for the reasons stated in this post. Writers are treated like second-class citizens. They are not afforded the courtesies our moms taught us. Once at a conference I paid extra to have a one-on-one with an agent. She barely looked at me and had clearly not read my submission. I might add that she was also very unprofessionally dressed. Had she wanted to sign me, I would have refused!

    We, writers, do have more power than it feels. I know we feel as if they have all the control, But with more writers skipping agents and going directly to the small houses, agents had better think twice about the way they handle us.

    Thanks for this post and allowing us to vent.

  5. Agents have treated writers like s*** for decades. Now the need for them is all but completely gone. Let ’em come writing query letters to us when there’s no material left for them to peddle because self-publishing obliterated traditional publishing.

  6. A superb article Cara – you’ve hit the nail on the head about some of the obscure instructions agents include on their websites! As others have said here, hopefully some agents will read this and give their submission guidelines an overhaul!

  7. I’ve often thought the same things in my searches.

    The post is the purest form of humor: Truth at the core. Publisher’s Weekly should print this in their next issue.

  8. I totally enjoyed this post. I have been through every one of these reactions. I immediately reacted to the question of what does the agent want. The description of genre is classic – just what is literary with a commercial flair? This made me laugh and know to not take any of this too seriously. I just hope the agent doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

    I’ve had a top of the line agent ask me twice – in person – to send a considerable amount of work with the swore promise that they always respond – and still have never heard word one back. What a disappointment. Agents have to know how difficult this is for us writers. I expect the rejects – they will get me to the acceptance – but please have the heart to give it to me so I count it.

  9. If I had a dollar for every day an agent had me wait for a reply regarding a submission, I’d be rich and could retire. I’ve had agents promise they would get back to me, then never did. It does hurt, and, to me, it is bad for their reputation to make promises they don’t intend to keep. Although, of course, there are some great agents out there who are very considerate. I’ve been blessed with some wonderful agents who have gone out of their way to encourage and help me and who have worked hard on my behalf.

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