Literary Agents: Rules of Engagement Still Basically the Same

IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) Annual Agents Panel for 2014 (l to r) Telly Davidson, Moderator; Eddie Pietzak, Renaissance Management; Dana Newman, Dana Newman Literary; BJ Robbins, BJ Robbins Literary Agency; Greg Gertmenian, Abbot Entertainment. Standing: (on left) Gary Young, Director of Professional Development, and (on right) IWOSC's President, Flo Selfman

IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) Annual Agents Panel for 2014 (left to right) Telly Davidson, Moderator; Eddie Pietzak, Renaissance Management; Dana Newman, Dana Newman Literary; BJ Robbins, BJ Robbins Literary Agency; Greg Gertmenian, Abbot Entertainment. Standing in back: (on left) Gary Young, IWOSC’s Director of Professional Development; (on right) IWOSC’s President, Flo Selfman. Photo: Sylvia Cary

Once a year, I attend the Agents Panel presented by IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) in order to get a refresher course in what’s going on in that “other” world known as Traditional Publishing. I’ve spend so many years now as an editor and book doctor helping authors (especially therapists) get self-published that I almost forget that traditional publishing still exists, that there is still a world out there where terms such as “book proposals,” “query letters,” and “rejection letters” are used on a daily basis. I speak “indie publishing” now which utilizes an entirely different vocabulary.

However, since I have a couple of author clients who still hope to be traditionally published, even though they know their chances are slim, I want to help them with their dream as best I can, so I need to keep up.

Every year, the huge room for the Agents Panel is always energy-filled with book people buzzing about publishing. Much as I love sitting at my computer, this event is always a high for me.

Every year, the room for the Agents Panel fills up with book people buzzing about publishing. Just being there is a high for me. — Photo: Sylvia Cary

Rules of Engagement Still the Same

While traditional publishing has gone through some huge and hurtful changes over the last decade and while self-publishing had become “hot,” what’s clear from panel discussions like this one is that traditional publishing is still alive and kicking, even though wounded, and there are still authors who want to go the traditional publishing route (look at the crowd!) and they want to know the best way to approach literary agents who are the gate-keepers to the publishing houses they want to approach.

As the moderator Telly Davidson went up and down the line of agents and asked them questions about how authors can best approach them, it turns out the rules of engagement are basically the same as they’ve always been. But they are worth repeating.

Keeping in mind that there are probably “two schools of thought” on every issue, here’s a brief run-down of the basic hints, tips, do’s/don’ts and advice from the IWOSC Agents Panel of 2014:

  • authors should do their homework!
  • authors should research the agent and agency they plan to approach. (Check websites, directories, etc.)
  • authors should know that different agents have different tastes and want different things (e.g., panelists Dana Newman and BJ Robbins both like narrative non-fiction)
  • pet peeve: not getting the appropriate material from authors
  • pet peeve: authors who spell the agent’s name incorrectly
  • every query letters should show the author’s “voice”
  • authors should make it clear in a query what they are trying to say
  • if an agent asks for 50 pages don’t send 100 pages
  • hook readers with a  “grabber.”
  • “I want to be sucked in,” one agent said.
  • in fiction, “I want a strong character with a good arc and a mission.”
  • if the author is asked to send a book proposal, “write good chapter summaries”
  • “a long synopsis of a book I haven’t read is a killer and a bore”
  • go easy on Prologues or Introductions: “People skip them.” (However, some say a prologue works well for an E-Book or when using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature)
  • if accepted by an agent, ask questions: “What’s your strategy going to be?”
  • most agents prefer emailed queries and submissions — but check
  • always check agent’s website for submission guidelines first
  • about memoirs: “It can’t just be you had an interesting life; it has to be more than that. You have to have some kind of connection to the rest of the world so you touch several audiences.”
  • If an agent says, “It’s too small,” it means the book doesn’t have a large enough audience
  • agents want to see that the author has a built-in platform (audience)
  • agents are busy and it might take anywhere from one hour to six months to get back to the author
  • marketing is daunting and today’s it’s up to the author!

“Secret Password”

One big “perk” of going to these writer events in person is that often the panelists and speakers give attendees their email address and tell them what to write in the subject line which lets the agent know you are special because you were there in the room when they spoke. That means they’ll read your query before queries from “those other writers” who weren’t there in the room.

So what’s the secret password to put in the subject line? That’s for me to know and you to find out — when you go to IWOSC’s Agents Panel next year.

(c) 2014  Sylvia Cary, LMFT

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3 responses to “Literary Agents: Rules of Engagement Still Basically the Same

  1. catherine Yesayan

    This is good information. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to publish a book. And then I will ask for your help.

  2. Catherine, start writing it first. You can worry about the publishing later!
    Sylvia

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