likes/dislikes

A little while back I was asking for information on what writers like to see on an agent’s webpage. I got several very helpful replies and my thanks goes out to those who took the time to offer an opinion. I’m still trying to work on my CSS, but hopefully I’ll get a new and improved site put together in the not-too-distant future.

In the midst of all those comments, though, several people expressed a desire that I should post a list of not only what genres I represent, but what subgrenes I’m interested in as well. Along with possibly any pet peeves I might have about certain proposals. And I find myself a bit stymied by this idea. I have always hated that question so often trotted out at q&a sessions at conventions: “What are you looking for?” Because, to be honest, that can change based on so many factors that any answer I give seems ultimately unhelpful both to myself in finding new projects and to writers seeking representation. I might not know I’m looking for something particular (they’ve been known to occasionally sneak up on me), or an editor might mention a kind of project they’re looking for just as it crosses my desk (synchronicity can be lovely). I don’t want to have those novels not come to me because I might have said I wasn’t looking for them at some point in the past. Or the market could drop out of the bottom of a particular genre. Or I could read several novels of a certain type and not find what I’m looking for and conclude (in error) that I don’t actually enjoy that kind of book, only to finally discover the one story that changes my mind. Of late, I’ve taken to answering that often irksome question by saying that my needs are two-fold: (1) I have to like the book (and I mean like-like, not just so-so), and (2) I have to think that I can sell it.

I’m not trying to be difficult. Really. I just really want to find all the best books I can and represent them. (Even if that is an inherently subjective judgement in the end.) And I come by this resistance honestly. Here’s a story. Once upon a time I said over and over again that I wasn’t a big fan of first person narratives. I repeated this at many a conference, firmly believing that I was helping myself avoid books that I wasn’t going to like anyway and saving the writers the time and expense of submitting them to me. And then one day, at a fateful conference (which one I’ve long since forgotten), a friend of mine happened to be sitting in the audience when I made this claim. Aftewards, this friend told me that a book that I represented, that had been published a few years previous, was written in first person. I didn’t believe them. So, off we went to the dealer’s room, and sure enough…. first person. And apparently so well-written and so compelling that I hadn’t remembered it as being a problem in that instance. Ergo, a retraction of that statement (which is just as well because I now have more authors who write in first person when the muse so strikes them).

That’s not the only example either. Plus, I’ve even ended up representing a number of writers that I initially rejected. Long story, short: I don’t want to limit myself. And I don’t think writers should limit themselves either. Sure, target the agents you think might be best suited to your work and don’t waste your time on those that don’t handle anything even vaguely similar to your project. And, yeah, make an A-list (and shoot high – why not?) to start your search. I’m definitely not saying you should settle. (Sidebar: This reminds me of some comment I saw the other day – not sure where – in which an author said they were only going to query agents that accepted email… This struck me as putting a limitation on their search that seemed rather, er, unwise and not relevant. Wouldn’t one choose their list based on the quality of the agent?)

In any case, I guess that means that I’m not sure how to put such a detailed list on my website and have it actually be practical and useful. I can certainly put current titles on there — that should help, and some general information about what I represent and what areas of the list need more filling out. But I don’t want to box myself in or get typecast. Broader horizons are good. Variety is the spice of life. And, with that in mind, I’m going to see about this next batch of submissions that’s awaiting review…

13 responses to “likes/dislikes

  1. Tell ’em you’re looking for something about an international ring of book smugglers! 😛
    —–
    All valid points. If your interests are broad, why would you want to restrict yourself?
    I think you might be taking the wrong approach by polling the unwashed masses. (Whee! Elitist snobbery! Gotta love it!)
    If you’re looking to find people who write stuff you “like-like” and believe you can sell, go to your clients–you know, the people who already write stuff you “like-like” and that you already do sell–and ask them why they came to you. In theory, whatever attracted them will attract others like them.
    Or maybe you should just tidy up what you just wrote and use that. Works for me, not that I’m your target audience. Well, maybe if my hypothetical co-author will quit wasting time on her thesis AND if she calls my bluff AND if we can actually turn our ideas into something storyish, then MAYBE I might join the ranks of the “pre-published” *shudder*. But I’m thinking your main interest is people who already have something written. 🙂

  2. I think that the list you posted recently of the books that you represent (okay the authors) that are coming out soon or have since the first of a year is an excellent indication of what you are looking for. All sorts of stories.
    “Read my authors” is a great response–and makes for sales, too!

    • That’s a great response…if the clients listed on the website are a representative sample of the whole client list and the breadth of the agent’s taste. An agent website that names only the three most famous clients is not actually all that informative, even if the writer in search of an agent dutifully goes out and reads those three famous people.

  3. Well, to play Devil’s Advocate here – I think a lot of writers want prescriptive lists of rules in part due to – for example – experts/agents like Miss Snark. Now I love me some Miss Snark, really I do. But she rather does come off like a woman whose desk is a minefield of submission etiquette.
    I say this realizing full well that she deals with scores of nitwits every day, and understanding perfectly why she takes the approach she does. I’ve got nothing but respect for it. But hopeful writers are regularly told (a). concentrate on good writing and the rest will follow but (b). if you don’t put a staple in the left hand corner, then I won’t even read it.
    It tends to make a newbie nervous, that’s all I’m saying – nervous, and prone to asking for lists of rules. That way, even if we’re insecure about our manuscript content, at least, by God, we’ve got our staples in the right corner!
    🙂

    • I hear you. I guess I just wish they’d think of them more as guidelines than rules. I think what happens when you get so many submissions is that the nitwit things begin to really wear you down, so, of course, you want to find some way to minimize them. I do think (a) counts for so much more than (b) in general. I just want the query, partial, manuscript, etc. in clean and readable condition.

  4. Great post, as always.

    (Sidebar: This reminds me of some comment I saw the other day – not sure where – in which an author said they were only going to query agents that accepted email… This struck me as putting a limitation on their search that seemed rather, er, unwise and not relevant. Wouldn’t one chose their list based on the quality of the agent?)

    I can’t say what motivated this author, but nowadays I find the post office so unreliable I can hardly stand it. Trying to find an agent is already nervewracking. Trying to figure out what to do when requested stuff apparently gets lost enroute is even worse. 😦

    • *nods* Thing is…. I don’t find email all that much more reliable. Things get whacked as spam, for instance. (Wednesday my ISP wouldn’t take any deliveries from any AOL addresses.) And what I was really wondering is why the author would limit themselves to just those agents when the right one for them might one that prefers snailmail queries.
      As for requested stuff, I usually tell people that if they are concerned, they should include a stamped and addressed post card for the agent to pop back in the mail confirming receipt. Those are pretty easy.

  5. The things I note for agents on the markets forum at DII are: memberships, topics/fiction areas, what the agent doesn’t want, whether they take simultaneous subs/queries, what the author should submit (query, outline, 3 sample chapters w/SASE; no unsolicited mss), does the agent take on unpublished authors, est. response time, commision, what does the agent charge for, does the agent offer/insist on a contract, and where to submit. I also include a url and encourage writers to go to the site before they submit (things do change and there’s often more information that would be too much for me to include, like a list of published books! ;)). Perhaps by just putting down what you definitely DON’T want, it’s not as restrictive?
    Okay, so, I’m not all that helpful. lol

  6. Oh, I can definitely see your point, and it’s true that a well-written story will swing me over to a genre I never expected. I recently tore through George R. R. Martin’s first three books in the Song of Fire & Ice series, and I am about as far from High Falutin’ Fantasy Fan as you can get. I read Tolkien, I did my part, let’s move along… but Martin zapped me in. (Then again, as friends have pointed out, he and Bujold — another zap — truly are head-and-shoulders above the masses.)
    I suppose it’s more that if the market drops out, or you’ve gotten fifiteen bazillion “girl falls through mirror/well/hole/shoebox into another world where she’s the chosen one” plot lines, that might count as a “please, don’t, for the love of little uglies.” I know at least one agency that specifies “no cat stories, at all, please, just don’t” right on their webpage. Perhaps that might be easier, since I’d think at least half the time a dislike for a certain genre isn’t to avoid it on a personal level but because you know it just won’t sell; horror, I’m told, is pretty much in that category right now. It would be heartbreak to find a great novel…that still won’t sell, thanks to its genre or subgenre being over-represented on the shelves.
    As for the email thing, now that I’ve dealt with email queries to agents, I’d have to say I’m coming out in favor of written emails. It’s more professional, I have more control over the presentation, it’s actually signed, and in some ways it’s more pleasant because it’s distanced. If you reject me, you send back a standard, xeroxed page, perhaps with a note at the bottom but that’s about it. An email, dropped into my box, I’ve found, feels too personal. That’s my own email, after all, and I don’t like potential landmines in the email. At least with mail I can say, okay, that’s clearly my SASE, must be a rejection, I’ll open it when I’ve got chocolate in hand, can cope, and move on. It’s a little different to click on email and see “thanks but no thanks.”
    Of course, this could just be me.
    I would think, getting back to genre, that a list of the books you’ve sold is good, but also possibly a list of the books you wish you’d sold? Perhaps classics, or 20th cen books, or even more recent books you’ve read that made you go all waaaaaaaah and you missed your subway stop because you couldn’t put it down long enough to pay attention to the rest of the world. Just because you didn’t sell it, I think, doesn’t mean you can’t show the full range of diversity in your own personal tastes, which might be at least helpful.
    And if nothing else, might help get some impression of what you’re like as a person, and wouldn’t that be part of the point of the site, and helpful to potential authors? We do like to have some idea of what the person’s like before we query, after all.

  7. Yanno, I just got back from the PPWC in Colorado Springs…and never before have I appreciated what you’re saying more. I’ve heard people say many times that finding an agent is like getting married. I believe it now. Meeting people face to face, hearing their voice, knowing how they work by seeing it in action — I could immediately tell which agents I might fit with, and which I wouldn’t. And there were two that I know right away were definite possiblities, and two others that I knew weren’t…so I can see why you’re wondering about this. Good luck, and thanks for sharing this blog, because it does help me (and I’m sure many others) to get a better picture of who you are and whether or not we’re a possible match (whether I should even waste your time 🙂

  8. “More personal stuff”…
    By which we do not so much mean what you will — or will not — read and represent, but what you love to read, published or otherwise. What types of scenes or incidents move you the most, and why? What are your personal observations on the inside of the publishing houses from where you stand? Who are your favorite editors (no need to name names), and why? Where would you personally like to see the market go if the industry was taking a vote on it today and you knew your opinion was actually going to have an effect? What do you feel the reading public is looking for these days? And – if you so dare – your personal dreams for your own business.
    One of the phrases most often used today is that publishing is “such a subjective business.” At the same time, we all (like the emperor’s new clothes) tend to act as if we are discussing an operation manual for the heart, when there isn’t one. That’s because we humans are first and foremost emotional beings, and as such, we seek connections with the emotions of others: without which there can be no spark (and ultimately no ignition!). All of us are looking for those connections.
    What do we look for on a web page or blog? The same things we do when we read diaries and autobiographies: to catch a close-up glimpse of a particular person and discover who they really are. To see if there might possibly be some connection between us, and maybe even gain new insight into something that was puzzling us before. The most unique thing about blogs however, has been the ability to comment and respond to other people’s entries. This has become to today’s literary community what the coffeehouses of old used to be: a place where great thinkers (all literary people are great thinkers) could spark with other like minds, thereby drawing the best from each other. Such times often turn electric, occasionally even carrying whispers of the “juntos” from way, way back.
    My view on the email queries is that it saves time on both ends. From a writer’s standpoint, there is no question whether I would rather drive across country at great expense, or fly for free in a few hours. Even a “no answer” tells me what I need to know. One gets the same amount of interest and consideration as snail mail (typically about three to five minutes before an agent knows if they would like to keep reading – sometimes less!). If one decides to make simultaneous queries (not referring to form queries here, only to querying several agents at once), a writer can do in days what used to take weeks or months to accomplish. Often with more personal exchange than was otherwise acceptable with snail mail.
    To the agent’s benefit, their response time can be as short as hitting the delete key, to typing, “no thanks – not for me” or “sounds good, send me a partial.” No filling up the wastebasket with manila envelopes and pages, finding a pen that works to jot a reply, or stuffing envelopes with form rejections. Eventually, one even cuts down on trips to the post office. Another boon is that there is not as much transit delay during which one might forget whatever possessed them to ask for such a thing in the first place. Why do I think the entire industry should convert to email? In short, for the same reasons we traded our horses for automobiles.
    D. Ann Graham

    • Re: “More personal stuff”…
      Thanks for your thoughts. Those are sure a lot of questions at the start up there, but they perhaps help clarify some of this for me. On the other hand, they also bring up a different point. Putting something on the blog is a personal thing and that’s already out there. I think that’s probably more than enough to give that general idea of whether there’s a connection to be had or not. An official statement on my webpage still strikes me as being, well, too official and too locked-in. Hmmm….
      As for the e-query question…. what comes to me time and time again about this is that I prefer the snail mail ones. You bring up a point about the expense, but I don’t really see the comparison between driving cross-country. That’s an order of magnitude and perhaps it’s just to make the point. My objection isn’t so much getting queries by email as the fact that it tends to lead to other things: the quality is lower overall (I don’t know why, but it is); the letters aren’t professional (email culture being more casual?); they don’t take less time (actually, I think they take more); too many people seem to view replies as an invitation to open a dialogue. And, on your point of getting the same amount of attention — I’m not sure that’s true. It’s a lot easier to hit that delete button somehow and reading onscreen is harder than reading hardcopy, especially when you’re talking about a large quantity. And I don’t get the impression that they are more personal — in fact, they almost always feel less so, and more generic (and one suspects they are being sent to far too many agents at once). Honestly, I don’t see a benefit for me in the electronic format. I’d probably be more on the fence if it wasn’t for all those other factors, but there they are.
      It’s funny to me, because I don’t think of myself as being much of a Luddite.

  9. I recently read this case study of an agent’s site by an expert in the children’s book industry, and he makes some good points: http://www.underdown.org/firebrand-literary.htm.

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