Dec 10, 2010

Do your research!

I don't know what is in the water these days, but in the past two weeks we have gotten more queries for genres that we DON'T work on and ARE NOT looking for than ever before. Nancy more so than I, since her taste is more specific.

Why is anyone sending Nancy paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, cozies, picture books, etc?

This is what is says on our website under Nancy's profile:

As an agent, I represent quality writers who have a story to tell, am always on the lookout for strong historicals or historical romances, haunting gothics, upmarket women's fiction, big commercial military thrillers, literary and mainstream fiction, epic family sagas and African-American fiction and romance. Above all, I'm looking for exquisite writing and a voice that grabs me, whatever the genre.

Just because it says "exquisite writing and a voice that grabs me, whatever the genre." does not mean "query me with whatever tickles your fancy!" It's clear to see from what she is looking for and already represents what she would gravitate to. And if you're going to push the boundaries of her interest, it should still make sense.

For example, a long-standing client, Thea Devine, wrote a dark, epic, juicy gothic vampire novel that comes out next year (THE DARKEST HEART, Gallery Books, June 2011). Nancy is not looking for genre vampire books or the equivalent, but she DOES love big, juicy, epic gothics. So the vampire element isn't the element that initially attracted her here...just an added bonus.

It's all about looking for the Pattern-of-Interest (this is a term made up by me, just now, at this moment, in order to clarify my point--so please don't think it's industry standard language.). And there are many different ways to research for this. My suggestion would be to do as MUCH research as possible on the agents you plan to query.

- What does it say they are looking for on their website?

- What does it say that are NOT looking for on their website?

- What authors do they currently represent? (There is a secondary step here--after discovering who they represent and have sold, research those titles and authors as well, and if you can, read or at least flip through a couple of the books. This will give you a good sense of what kinds of voice and styles they are attracted to.)

- What have they recently sold?

- If the agent has a blog, do you follow regularly to get a better sense of his/her personal taste, interests, and voice?

- Are there any interviews that express even further interests?

Once you've gone through that checklist of research, you should see a pretty strong Pattern-of-Interest. Which should bring you to the final question:

- Does my story satisfy enough of the agent's interest/taste that it would make sense to query him/her?

Sometimes this means sending outside of the agent's typical genre--because the voice is similar to others they've represented, or it's in alignment with the agent's favorite book or TV show (or whatever the reason may be), and that's OK.

Whatever you do, the research is key. And if you don't do it, trust me when I say: We. Can. Tell.


Matthew Rush said...

Well first of all this is excellent advice, and very true, but I am curious, is there a specific reason not to cut that last phrase from the "what she's looking for blurb?"

The "whatever the genre" seems like it might lead some writers to query away. I mean any writer who believes that they are ready to query a novel (whether they truly are or not) probably thinks that their writing is exquisite and that they have a voice that will grab agents. So even if that's only rarely the case, I wonder whether some writers use the "whatever the genre" to tell themselves: "Oh great! She likes all genres. I'm good!"

I don't know. It must be frustrating wading through so much slush that you would never represent no matter how good the writing, and it certainly doesn't help the writers who do do their research to have to wait while you read all those queries, but I suppose that is the nature of the business.

Thanks for sharing this advice, hopefully you'll get less "whatever tickles your fancy" in the future!

Susan said...

Buuuuut Joaaaaannnnaaaaaa.... That's soooo much wooooooork!!!!

Good blog post; something that I think a lot of writers fail to do is solid research before querying. We may think we're okay since we glanced at submission guidelines, but in reality, there's so much more we need to know!

I think it's great that you link to interviews on your About page -- at least you point writers in the right direction!

CKHB said...

Yeah, I have to say that I think the "what I'm looking for" profile is ambiguous. It looks to me like it's saying "I'm PARTICULARLY in the market for" certain things, but ultimately "I'm open to anything, whatever the genre."

"Always on the lookout for" does not, to me, mean "this is the only set of genres I represent." Favorite genres, perhaps, but it's certainly not a phrase that sounds like it excludes genres not listed.

Josh said...

More research is better research - we can never be too informed about an agent's tastes and recent similar deals as querying writers. But I have to agree that on the flip-side, some agents leave a lot of wiggle room in their "looking for" statements that can make things ambiguous.

What if I have an epic family saga that happens to be fantasy? And what if I think it's got exquisite writing? The writers who would make the mistake of over-estimating their prose would also make the mistake of not reading in between the lines, I think.

As long as we're all in the business of communication, agents should check to see whether or not they're unintentionally inviting the deluge. I bet if that last snippet were cut, you'd see a reduction in inappropriate queries.

Joanna said...

Good points made here, and certainly something to consider and address with Nancy.

But I do worry--wouldn't that also LIMIT an agent from receiving a military thriller with a speculative angle? OR an epic family saga that also has magical realism qualities? If we're so rigid in what we'd like to see and not see, we could miss out on something that COULD be our favorite read.

Writers are supposed to research the agents they query, or else how would you even have an inkling to know if you'd like to work with them? And the research should not just stop at the basic list of genre interests.

When I was querying (back before anyone accepted e-queries, sheesh!), it was always really important to me what titles the agent had previously worked on. Now, maybe BECAUSE I had to pay for each and every submission it forced me to really, really research closer. And that sounds like a topic for another blog post...interesting to ponder. Hm.

Either way--great comments here, and certainly food for thought. Thank you!

Jake Kerr said...

To me the foolishness in this practice has nothing to do with wasting the agent's time (although I love you guys!), it has everything to do with hurting your own marketability as a writer. If you're writing a young adult fantasy, Nancy simply can't help you as much as someone who has that as a core competency. You should be querying Nancy Gallt!

Look at it this way, an agent who specializes in regency romance probably won't know the right people to talk with or the relationships to really push things forward if you send him or her a horror novel.

Of course, there is a reason for this practice and while it is often laziness, I think it is much more likely desperation. Unpublished authors are desperate to get published, but the first step is to get in front of publishing house editor, and that often requires an agent. Getting an agent is not easy, so many writers go with the "any agent will help" mentality. They'll send out 100 queries with the assumption that if one says yes, then they are agented and thus in a good spot.

Knowledge and research are important here, but so is a healthy bit of hard introspection. If your work is good enough to be represented by an agent, then you should push expect representation by the right agents. That cockiness is required. But, at the same time, if you come up empty, a writer needs to reassess his or her current situation. Odds are they should either improve their writing or their querying skill. The wrong strategy is to send out blanket queries to every agent they can find. That just helps no one.

Joseph L. Selby said...

But I do worry--wouldn't that also LIMIT an agent from receiving a military thriller with a speculative angle? OR an epic family saga that also has magical realism qualities? If we're so rigid in what we'd like to see and not see, we could miss out on something that COULD be our favorite read.

That level of control is before your reach. You either have rigid guidelines or you make it open to exceptions, in which case it's up to the querier's interpretation whether they think they're an exception. You may not agree with them, but that's the burden of being less rigid.

You also have to contend with the advice of popular agents like Janet Reid who say to disregard the genre preferences, as the worst that can happen is the agent says no. Even if you have the most rigid genre restrictions, you'll still get people outside that list that will query you regardless.

Colin said...

@Joseph- I agree completely. Sometimes the more research you do, the more likely you are to find a tie between your novel and the agent.
Some off-handed comment in an interview from three years ago can get writers thinking that an agent is waiting for just the kind of work you've got.
When it comes to the better-known agents, especially those who don't say "I am not looking for (your genre," we have nothing to lose. Yesterday we didn't have an agent, if we get a no, nothing changs.
In a perfect world we wouldn't have to stretch and bend and square the circle of the genre game, but when you're trying (often desperately)to get published, you can't afford not to query if there's even a chance in Hell.

C Scott Morris said...

@ Colin and Joseph,
I think you are both wrong. What is the worst that could happen? How about Query Fatigue?
Yes, the worst thing that could happen to YOU is one more rejection. But what happens to the agent and the industry as a whole?
There are so many submissions being shotgunned around right now, that many(most) agents are not only using form rejections, but are adopting a 'no reply means rejection' policy. This is what happens when eager writers ignore agency guidelines or an agent's preferences.
The effect is miniscule yet cumulative and devastating.
Show respect not only for the individual agents, but to agents as a whole, and please only submit to agents who are interested in, and can sell, your work.

Exobia said...

Thanks very much for the post, which exhibits to writers the importance of paying attention.

However, I also feel certain genres listed in Nancy's bio may be causing confusion, particularly:

"literary and mainstream fiction"

What is mainstream fiction? states:

"Mainstream Fiction is Genre or Literary Fiction that Sells Well According to this first definition, any novel, whether genre or literary, which attracts a wide audience and sells in large numbers can be called mainstream.

"So the fan base for a science fiction novel, for example, might well be very large (meaning the potential for big sales), but it is unlikely to appeal to fans of westerns or romances or literary novels.

But when a genre novel or a literary novel reaches beyond its traditional audience and is bought by people who aren't normally fans of that variety of fiction, it can be said to be mainstream.

Stephen King, a horror novelist, might also be considered a mainstream novelist by virtue of his huge popularity and his ability to attract readers who wouldn't normally read horror novels written by less well known writers.

The English Patient, a literary novel, also became a mainstream novel when it was bought by people who wouldn't normally buy literary novels and it sold in huge numbers (helped, no doubt, by the Oscar-winning film adaptation)."

So, in the end, no real clarity there (the book promoted on the site apparently provides a second definition) but the point of contention, I believe, rests with those three little words with many interpretations--NO, not I love you-- literary and mainstream.

I hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

C. Scott Morris,

If someone gets fatigued reading queries, they should either consider a career in something other than literary agenting, or close to queries. To answer your question, given that agents, writers, and queries for things that agents don't represent have been around since the first person decided to be a professional go-between or buffer for authors and the industry is still standing, I'd say not too much. Queries are a tiny part of publishing. Unwanted queries won't shut it down. Agents reject the majority of the queries they receive for all sorts of reasons. I don't see why this particular trend should be a greater source of "query fatigue" than queries that are their genre, just not right for them. It takes the same amount of time to read. Maybe less. And the same amount of time to delete.

Of course, according to Joanna, it's not her job to even read queries at all. So she can ignore them and suffer no "query fatigue" at all.

And since AGENTS even say to query them even if it doesn't fit what they're asking for, if you just HOPE or THINK they'll like it, I'd say "query fatigue" is not going to be an epidemic any time soon. If it were, agents would stop saying that.

Are "most" agents really adopting "no response means no"? I don't know about that, but I do know that no response means no is not new and it's not just because they're getting lots of queries for things they don't want to represent. Some just don't want dialogue with writers who aren't their clients. Some don't want the vitrol that can come with rejection. Some are just rude. But it's still not a new thing in publishing.

To both you and Joanna:

You can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can't say things like "query me whatever the genre" then get huffy when people do. Or "query me if you have an awesome voice" then get annoyed when people send what they think has an awesome voice, but it's not what you represent.

I don't understand the complaint that Nancy is getting queries for paranormal novels when she represents a paranormal novel. You say it's gothic, so it's in line with what she wants to an extent, but it's still paranormal.

And then, when people suggest making guidelines more stringest so you don't get supernatural/paranormal/fantasy etc your excuse is that you might miss supernatural/paranormal/fantasy elements that you like. You can't expect writers to read your minds and know that vampire gothics are okay, but - just as an example - an epic family saga with added futuristic fairies, or upmarket women's fiction with magical realism are not.

Either tighten the guidelines and risk missing out, or don't and deal with sorting the bad from the good. Which is what you're supposed to do, anyway.

If you say no, then that's fine because you were going to say no anyway, and it's no different than saying no to something that fits what you ask for but you don't want to represent. Or a query that just sucks. Either way you're reading a query for something that's not going to go on your list.

Also, it's not our job to keep your slush pile manageable. It's our job to query as widely as possible.

Joanna said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm sorry you're so upset about this. My post was not intended to offend, only to offer advice on how to best narrow your agent list down to find your best fit.

As you also noticed--I hope--I mentioned that taking out "whatever genre" from Nancy's bio is something I will discuss with her and I thought it a valid suggestion.

I do try my best to appeal to our blog readers and keep an open dialog with them, but I must be honest, the consistent cutting replies from "Anonymous" (whether they be the same person or no), are starting to make me rethink this.

I'm only trying to help and clarify. I'm sorry that you feel otherwise.


Anonymous said...


I did notice that. I also noticed that you worried about that limiting the chances of getting stories with those things you don't want. It seemed to me that you wanted it both ways (to leave "whatever the genre in" but only get those things you wanted and never see those things you don't), and that's just highly unlikely to happen.

For the record, I've never commented on this blog before. I do, however, see where people are upset and respond with that emotion.

Joanna said...

Dear Anonymous--

I think I've figured out part of the miscommunication and am working on a blog post about the term "genre" and how it's used in the industry.

What I said in the post was that Nancy is not looking for genre vampire novels--that's actually quite a different beast than a novel with a vampire in it. There are actually genre rules and goals to meet in a genre novel.

That being said--how would a writer know that? Which is why I will still be discussing Nancy's bio with her when she's available to do so.

Thank you for responding and for giving me something to think about.


Donna Hole said...

I liked the phrase "Pattern-of-Interest". Has a geeky lilt to it :)

That high technology there.

Thanks for posting this list of questions Joanna. I'm always on the lookout for this type of advice.

I understand your comment above about not wanting to put too many limitations on submissions, but also not wanting to overwhelmed with EVERYTHING.

A quandry. While reading your comment, I was thinking: hey, this sounds like query letter writing and submission anxiety.

I read through the last two query posts too. So nice to read some examples that worked, and the reasons why.

This site has been very helpful in upping my research skills for Agent querying. Much appreciated, thanks.


Leila said...

I'm coming to this discussion too late to be helpful, but a number of elements in the conversation really interested me. The frustration of the agents with being overwhelmed with submissions that aren't a great fit, the frustration of writers who are so motivated to interpret any ambiguity in their own favor, and even the possibly hurt feelings of Joanna in response to the "anonymous" poster--this all, to me, shows what a sensitive topic the whole issue represents.

I think the reason why is pretty simple. Joanna wants people to do their research, but the writers feel that even if they HAVE done their research, the level of ambiguity in the agents' descriptors can create pitfalls. This reminds me of trying to make hand outs for my writing students during class. You try to anticipate every possible pot hole in the road, but it doesn't really matter.. the same errors keep happening even if you post huge signs around them and wave your arms till they fall off.

Language is not math (mathematicians will take issue with the comparison I'm sure). It's so subject to interpretations and having a vested interest can definitely sway those interpretations even more. Not to mention that everyone always wants to be the exception and there are enough stories about exceptions to create (generally false) hope.

And of course there are also honest mistakes (that's my excuse for querying you even though I later learned you were closed to queries, Joanna!). The bottom line is that we all have to have a little patience with what can be an immensely stressful and confusing process (for writers) and time-consuming and frustrating process (for agents). Quick fixes, like more and more guidelines, are unlikely to completely solve the problem because the problem is to some degree built in to the process.

Thanks for all the fascinating posts!