Advice from an Agent
by Rebecca Podos
As with everything else in publishing, there’s no one path to finding your agent. You might connect through a pitch contest, or at a conference, or through standard querying. They might be the very first person to look at your book and fall in insta-love, or they might be the fiftieth agent you’ve submitted to, the one who finally gets it. So my biggest advice, speaking as an author, is to keep going. Keep trying. If you’re always stopping to measure yourself against the successes of others, you’ll never find out what’s ahead for you.
That said, speaking as a literary agent, there’s work you can do ahead of time to give your book the best chance possible.
1. Be aware of the industry!
Must you follow every agent on Twitter, stalk every imprint on Instagram, and subscribe to ever single journal/bulletin/blog? No. That way madness lies. But understanding the basics will help you understand your novel’s place within the publishing industry. Before you query, figure out exactly what age-range you’re writing for, and in what genre, and who else is writing it. If you’re writing a Middle Grade LGBTQ sci-fi, know which books are currently sitting on the MG LGBTQ sci-fi shelf, and read as many of them as you can get your hands on. Be prepared to have a conversation about where your book fits on that shelf, because if you can’t envision it, an agent or editor will have a hard time doing so.
2. Do your research!
When you’re confident that you understand your book, do as much research as is necessary to find the best and most likely agents for it. I can’t tell you how many queries I’ve gotten for adult noir cop thrillers, or women’s commercial fiction, or erotic high fantasy novels. Noble genres, all, but because I state clearly in my agency bio that I don’t represent them, and because my entire list is MG and YA, those emails are deleted immediately. And sure, that wastes a few seconds of my time, but if you’re an author querying the wrong agents for your project, you’re wasting not only your own time, but valuable energy. Now, you’re waiting for a response or an offer from an agent who was never going to rep your novel in the first place. Poke around websites and social media and MSWL to figure out who’s really looking for a book like yours, even beyond the genre and the age-range. (Also figure out how to send it—most agents will have clear submission guidelines on their websites, and it can be a red flag when they’re not followed.)
3. Lead with a strong query!
A query isn’t just a summary of a novel. It’s your chance to tell a compelling story in 3-5 paragraphs. There are so many resources for writing a query letter that will convince an agent to read the first page, and then the rest of the sample, and then (fingers crossed) the full. But here’s what I look for:
a. Give me the basics—your genre, age-range, word count, and if possible, interesting and current comp titles. Remember how hard you worked to learn where your book fits on the shelf? This is where you get to show off.
b. Instead of summarizing every little thing that happens in the book, communicate who the main character is, what conflict they’re facing, and what the stakes are (What does your character want most? What will happen if they succeed, and what will happen if they fail?) If you can achieve that, and do it with language and atmosphere and style that convinces me you know how to tell a story, I’m going to read on.
c. Don’t make your bio into an apology. I would love to know if you’ve been published, if you’ve pursued a degree in creative writing, if you’re a member of a critique group or an organization like NESCWBI, if your work as a clown directly inspired your clown-centric YA horror. But if none of that applies to you, it’s okay. I won’t judge you or dismiss your query out of hand. You don’t need to write a long paragraph apologizing for being unpublished, because we all have to start somewhere. Tell me briefly who you are, and then let the work speak for itself as I read your fabulous debut novel!
THE MYSTERY OF HOLLOW PLACES (Balzer + Bray) is Rebecca Podos’ debut novel. A graduate of the Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College, her fiction has been published in journals like Glimmer Train, Paper Darts, and Smokelong Quarterly. Past awards include the Helman Award for Short Fiction, the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Prize for Young Adult Writers, and the Hillerman- McGarrity Scholarship for Creative Writing. By day, she works as a YA and MG agent at the Rees Literary Agency in Boston.
The Mystery Of Hollow Places
All Imogene Scott knows of her mother is the bedtime story her father told her as a child. It’s the story of how her parents met: he, a forensic pathologist, she, a mysterious woman who came to identify a body. A woman who left Imogene and her father when Imogene was a baby, a woman who was always possessed by a powerful loneliness, a woman who many referred to as “troubled waters.”
Now Imogene is seventeen, and her father, a famous author of medical mysteries, has struck out in the middle of the night and hasn’t come back. Neither Imogene’s stepmother nor the police know where he could’ve gone, but Imogene is convinced he’s looking for her mother. And she decides it’s up to her to put to use the skills she’s gleaned from a lifetime of reading her father’s books to track down a woman she’s only known in stories in order to find him and, perhaps, the answer to the question she’s carried with her for her entire life.
A huge thank you to Rebecca Podos for this wonderful post. As a fellow agent, I know that this advice is priceless for all of us as we navigate the publishing industry in the best way we can. I’m sure your advice will be put to good use!
Another thank you to all of the participants of Musings, past, present, and future. Your advice and stories are more appreciated that you will ever know!
Have a wonderful rest of your week!