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The Myth of Querying Widely

“I say query widely. Query everyone who represents commercial fiction.”
Miss Snark- 5/10/07

“Sending out a flurry of queries and settling for any agent who’ll take you on is selling yourself short. Be selective.”  Tami Brown – 4/15/08

Now you and your work are ready for a literary agent. You’ve read the guides, spoken to friends and mentors, and searched the internet. You’ve found 80 or 120 or 200 literary agents with offices all over the world. Sure some of them don’t represent children’s or YA writers- yet- but once they see your writing someone- anyone- will jump on you. You’ve got your query written. Now it’s time to “QUERY WIDELY”. Right??????

Wrong. Absolutely Totally Positively Wrong.

I disagree with the dear departed Miss Snark on this. Violently. Miss Snark was an anonymous agent who represented adult and perhaps a few YA writers. I suspect the adult agenting community, like the adult publishing world in general is different from children’s and YA. Much bigger. Massive. Much less personal in scope.

But children’s and YA publishing is a small world. It’s business but it’s also personal.

Be selective.

Don’t query widely.

To me, finding an agent was like finding a spouse. Some people are willing to marry a random partner fate or luck selects for them.

I could never do that. I needed to search until I found the right one- the right husband and the right agent.

Sure there should be immediate attraction.

But I want my match to last… 

This is my advice-

Go back to square one.

Know yourself. Know what you want and what you need. Do you want an agent who comes from an editorial background and takes a firm hand in helping you shape your work before he or she sends it out? Or do you want someone who expects you’ll do all the writing and they’ll control the sales? Do you want a deal maker who specializes in major deals and auctions? Do you want an agent willing to submit to small publishers? Do you want an agent who sticks to the American market or one with a worldwide focus? Do you want an agent who plans your career or do you want to be the sole decider? Do you want someone who focuses only on children’s writers or an agent with a practice that combines children’s and adult writing?

Make a list (I’ll help you with that tomorrow, with questions to ask that agent once you get the call). Then go back to your research.

Find agents who fill your most important criteria. Find agents who represent work in a similar vein to yours. Research and research and research.

If you’ve been honest with yourself the list of agents who satisfy your needs isn’t going to be pages long.  There will be several individuals who seem to be a good match. Not hundreds. Probably not even dozens. Maybe a dozen.

Which is wonderful. It means you can focus. It means you’re beginning to understand what you need as a professional writer. It means you have a road map.

Everyone’s road is different. This is mine.

As a former lawyer I wanted to find a savvy business person whose negotiation skills I respect. I wanted a brilliant strategist who would help me shape a career, not just sell a book. And I wanted to send out stellar work so I wanted an agent with a strong editorial background. I wanted clear open communication about writing, finances and career.

I wanted to be proud to be represented by my agent. I also wanted to find an agent I like being with and talking to. That’s a bit like magic, but when I met the person who became my agent, face to face, I knew she was the one.

Sure the fact that I wanted her and she wanted me was part very good luck.
It was also years and years of writing. Having a good salable novel in hand. Knowing what I wanted and how to get it.

BUT BUT BUT you say… it’s hard to get an agent. Nearly impossible for an unpublished writer to land someone.

Right? No. Not exactly.

Not every agent is building their client list. Some are full up. Forget them. But most agents are eager to sign new exciting talent. People with great work they can sell.

Steve Martin says this:
“Here’s what they always want to hear… Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script… What I always say is
‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
If you’re ready and your skills are phenomenal you WILL get out of the slush pile. The skills part is the hard part. Writing a book people want to buy is the hard part. Once you have that finding a great agent will be (relatively) easy.


Then you’ll find the agent who’s right for you.
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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
Very important point about an agent with editing skills, Tami. I didn't want one like that, and when I was looking, there weren't that many who worked that way. I've noticed that more and more of them do act as editors now, though. My only caution to people would be to ask what editorial qualifications they have. I know agents who "edit" a manuscript based on what they think will sell. This, obviously, is totally subjective on their parts and completely different than the approach an editor would take. I know writers who completely revised their manuscript in the hopes of getting such an agent, only to finally be rejected. I'm not sure I understand how an agent who hasn't worked as an editor for a healthy amount of time can pass editorial judgments. That's obviously my opinion, but writers should be careful to query what makes an agent an editor.
Apr. 15th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
Great post, Tami. I agree -- we should do our research and be selective. As an as-yet-unagented writer, I can see how it would be easy to fall into the somebody, anybody trap when seeking representation, but I've learned enough to know that a bad agent, or the wrong agent (for me), is worse than no agent. So I'm taking my time, honing my craft, and doing my research.

- Shari, who currently has fulls out with a select few agents.... ;)
Apr. 15th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
It's very true that the wrong agent is far worse than no agent. Getting out of an agent client relationship isn't necessarily clean and easy. If you've sold a book together, you still have to communicate with that person for the life of the book.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )