Category Archives: Publishing

How I evaluated agents when I queried

I am by no means an expert on how to select agents to query. I’m just this writer with an agent and an internship, you know? But I think I collected a solid list of criteria over my querying days, so I’m going to share it. (I didn’t actually have a list I’d consult—over time, I just learned how to look for these things without really realizing I was looking for them.) Anyway, yeah, this is not exhaustive, nor should it be your only resource.

With that said, here’s how did it. I’m not you, so your priorities may be different—keep that in mind! Also, all these resources listed are free. I don’t really recommend paying for a yearly QueryTracker subscription—I spent $0.00 on that site, used it daily, and learned all I needed to know—and Publishers Marketplace, while content-rich, isn’t worth the money if you don’t work on the other side of the desk.

  1. Find out about an agent. This could be on Twitter; Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks forum (I typically read the recently updated threads a few times a week, even and especially now); QueryTracker (regularly updated with new/new-to-QT agent listings on the bottom of the home page); AgentQuery; or through word of mouth, from critique partners or writer-friends, etc. There’s no best source on which to discover agents; they all have pros and cons and quirks—querying writers don’t usually air complaints with specific, named agents publicly on Twitter since their real names are attached; AW has the opposite problem, wherein almost every agent with an industry presence to speak of has an anonymous complaint lodged against them somewhere; QT has well over a thousand agents in its database, which can make it difficult to cull your list; AgentQuery is a bit of a hassle to navigate. That said, they can all be invaluable resources.
  2. Find the agency website, whether from one of those initial resources or via Google. Take general note of the site—is it professional? Relatively easy to navigate? Are the agents’ names given?—but don’t put too much stock in this. ICM, one of the biggest and most respected literary agencies, gives you barely any information whatsoever on their site. Frankly, they don’t have to. They’re ICM. Compare to The Bent Agency (which I am un-coincidentally represented by). TBA’s site gives detailed bios for each agent, a list of clients, a broad overview of what they do for their authors, recent agency updates, contact information, and other goodies. TBA and ICM are both perfectly respectable agencies with great sales and solid industry reputations. So what’s the difference here? You can relatively safely speculate that TBA agents are more actively building their lists (industry-speak for “signing new authors”) than ICM agents. This isn’t the case for every agency ever, and honestly, I’m taking an educated guess with that conclusion. But in a solid amount of cases, agents who are eager to sign new clients won’t make that process difficult for those potential clients.
  3. Get the agent’s bio, somehow. Occasionally I used Writer’s Digest as a last resort for this, since I think they require some sort of bio for agents listed on the site. Things to look for include: relevant publishing experience (working in trade publishing in some capacity, be it in publicity at a respected publisher or as an intern with established agents at their current agency or, in my agent’s case, as a scout); evidence of industry know-how (sales to big publishers are your easiest giveaway here); and clients (it helps in a big way if you’ve heard of/read even one of them for pleasure). You might only find client lists with names you recognize for established agents, but that doesn’t mean you should discount newer agents! Jennifer Laughran, a most excellent agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, breaks down things any agent needs in this blog post. (Her entire Tumblr and former blog are wealths of knowledge.)
  4. Look for sales. If agents are very, very helpful, they’ll list some of their sales on their website or blog—sometimes even in their bio. That’s not the only way to find them, though! You can search on Google, clients’ websites, or Twitter—usually in the form of Publishers Marketplace deal announcements under the Photos tab—for information. Ideally, agents I queried would have plenty of sales to big publishers, and this would be super easy to find out. Sometimes that wasn’t the case and they still ended up on my query list, though. Why?
  5. If lacking sales, look for: employment at an agency with good sales, experience at a well-known publisher, or a wealth of industry connections. This last one can be hard to discern, but if the agent has either of the first two, they probably have access to editors.

Other things:

  1. Subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly. Now. Not kidding. I get the PW Daily email every weekday morning and the PW Children’s Bookshelf email twice a week, and I read all of them. There’s usually a section in PW Daily with job moves, and this can be invaluable for finding out who joined which agency from where, who got promoted, and who’s leaving the business. PW Bookshelf lists new book deals with each issue, typically in the format of “[Editor] at [Big Fancy Publishing House] has bought Title, an [age category] [genre] [novel/nonfiction work] by [Author]. In the book, [quick plot summary]. Publication is slated for [season] [year]; [Agent] at [Agency] negotiated the deal for [world/world English/North American] rights.” (Sometimes the information is moved around, but usually it’s all there.) This is, 99.9% of the time, a source for legitimate deals to respected publishers with advances paid to the author. Sometimes a less-than-amazing small press will sneak its way on to the end of the list, but that’s pretty much negligible.
  2. Read up on terms you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t know what world or world English or North American rights are? Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency has a great explanation here—I recommend reading as much of her Pub Rants blog as you can. Need some examples of big or respected publishers? Here are some (not all) that publish YA, though the article is outdated (Penguin and Random House are now Penguin Random House, unfortunately not Random Penguin; and HarperCollins has purchased Harlequin and its imprints, for two examples that jump out at me). Wait, what are subsidiary (or just “sub”) rights? Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a relatively good breakdown, though obviously no analysis is given. Google is your friend here!
  3. Follow people who are involved with/work in the industry on Twitter. Agents! Editors! Authors! Interns! Publicists! Bloggers! Marketers! Sales people! Those brave souls in the contracts department! Me! We’re fun, hilarious, book-loving nerds. You’ll learn a lot by osmosis. And also, y’know, by the discussions we have on book-related topics.
  4. Seriously, follow me on Twitter.
  5. Do it.
  6. I’m waiting.
  7. *stares*
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Keeping and caring for your faith, trust, and pixie dust

I write gay character-driven YA contemporary romances. They’re not coming out books. The prose in my latest manuscript is experimental, which has led to a lot of my beta readers calling it “literary” (which I absolutely love but feel weird describing my own work as). They’re almost always dark in premise—SWEETEST DOWNFALL deals in part with a best friend’s suicide, and in my WIP the love interest is recovering from a self-harm habit—and lighter in execution. They have hooks, sure, but nothing huge.

All of this is to say I don’t write for money. I’m writing some pretty great stuff, if I do say so myself, but my books are not Red Queen. They’re not An Ember in the Ashes or All the Bright Places.

So maybe I write for awards? I mean, yes, it would be incredible to win something, but those shiny stickers on book covers have always seemed even less out of my control than the market. You can, to some extent, study and predict the market; you can’t study or predict what book will get what award, especially with rotating committees.

Prestige? Nope—as loyal readers are well aware, my ego’s big enough as it is.

To prove to myself that I can? Nay, good fellow. I’ve written six manuscripts. I’m represented by one of the top New York agencies. I know I can do it.

Stubborn determination? Well, I mean, probably to some extent—I am a Taurus, after all. When I really want something, giving up is not so much an option. Not even when I want to give up. But what’s underlying that? Why am I so stubbornly determined?

It’s not for me. It’s for you.

I work day in and day out to be published because I want my book to reach people who need it. Not in some “my book is the best, most sacred artwork ever composed and it will heal the sick” kind of way—I mean for whatever reason someone might need it, no matter what it is. If buying my very queer book that I will fight to wear a very queer cover might be a stepping stone for a teen to talk to his parents for the first time about a guy he likes, I want it to be there. If the back cover copy detailing how my gay main character falls for his demisexual love interest validates for a grown woman that she can, in fact, write about people who love the way she loves, I want it to be there. If reading about a queer teen with anxiety whose life has been impacted by suicide but who still manages to make his own happy ending helps literally anyone, I want it to be there.

Some parts of my book are very much #ownvoices—I’m gay, I have anxiety, and I’ve been suicidal. The thing about #ownvoices books—books about marginalized characters written by authors who share those marginalizations—is that they have significant cultural impact alongside personal impact. Every time there’s a Black man or a hijabi woman in the author picture in the back of the book, every time the bio ends in “She lives in New York with her wife,” that matters. Representation is absolutely vital for teenagers—not just inside the books they read; in the identity of the author too. I hid my grin every time I walked by David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing in Barnes & Noble when it came out a few years ago. I didn’t buy it until after I came out to my mom, but I remember going home, Googling David Levithan’s name, and smiling and smiling and smiling so much I came close to tears.

My manuscript matters. My book will matter. Maybe it won’t get the money or win the awards or hit the lists. Maybe I’ll be a midlist author for my entire career. Maybe I’ll sell a couple hundred copies.

Maybe it’ll mean the world to some teenager I’ll never meet.

Maybe that makes it all worth it.

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What I wish I’d known when I was querying

1. Do. Something. Else.

I was the worst because I had so few hobbies besides writing. Reading, sure, but after a while lines start to blur and “I’ll read this book by a stranger!” turned to “I’ll read this book by a Twitter friend!” turned to “I’ll read this manuscript by a critique partner or someone I’m beta-reading for,” and that’s not healthy. You need to have a life outside of publishing. Sometimes I joke about whatever writing- or publishing-related thing I’m doing that day being the only thing in the world—whether it’s plugging away at the first draft of my manuscript or line-editing a critique partner’s book before it goes to their agent or proofreading an author’s galley for my internship. But while sometimes those things are so intensive they seem like the only thing, it’s important that we make the distinction: it’s not, because life exists outside of publishing, and we should be living it.

2. Do not obsess.

Yes, I was one of Those Writers. I checked QueryTracker a minimum of five times a day, every day, and I say that without joking or exaggerating. If I sent an agent my full on January 1st and I hadn’t heard anything by April 1st, I nudged them that day, since three months is the general timeline when nudging becomes a thing you can do. I was absolutely obsessive about everything, and I know a lot of people for whom “don’t obsess about querying” is equivalent to “don’t breathe.”

But the thing is, it gets so much easier if you relax a little. If you realize that agents have professional and personal lives outside of the slush pile, let alone your book, #19 in the onslaught of Microsoft Word documents they might not even have time to send to their Kindle. I can’t promise that it’ll ever be easy, but it does not have to be this hard. Write and edit your best damn book. Follow guidelines. Be professional. Then let your work speak for itself.

3. Write the next thing.

Please, for the love of all things good and kind in this world, write your next project. Throw yourself into it. Get breathless every time you think about how magical it will be, how it will be the best thing you’ve ever written. (Because if you’re not improving with each book, especially if you’ve only written a few so far, you’re probably not doing it right.) If you’re absolutely in love with your next project, the sting from rejections on the one you’re querying will be so much lesser. It doesn’t mean you don’t adore the book you’re querying—it means you’re simultaneously making things easier for yourself and being proactive about your career.

4. Take things to heart.

I know—this isn’t the standard advice! You’re supposed to remember everything is subjective and wholly impersonal! What gives? Well, yes, you’re correct about rejections, but I’m not talking about those. Or I am, but I’m also talking about the good things that come from rejections.

When an agent says “Please do send me your next project,” they are not kidding. In almost every circumstance imaginable—and certainly in all the ones I can think of—this means something to the tune of “I really freaking like your writing but, for one reason or another, I can’t take on this book, but I super hope you’ll think of me for the next one.” You’re not a one-trick pony; you’ll have other books. (If not, why are you trying to break into publishing?) And even if (what you think is) the worst thing that could happen does happen and you don’t get an agent with this manuscript, you already have someone—maybe even someones, plural—you can send your next one!

5. It gets easier.

It feels like it never will. It does. It takes time, dedication, and unending patience, but you will get there, and it’ll be amazing.

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