Friday, September 20, 2013

Contacting Agents

Finishing my manuscript is merely the start of a longer journey. This past week my attention has been focused upon contacting agents.

Janice Hussein's chapter in the 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market advises the hopeful novelist to treat the query as a business proposal. Her advice is pragmatic and precise, stipulating even the recommended weight of paper that one should use if posting the query letter. She outlines the key content of the query: the 'hook' which details what makes your book exciting, different or unusual for the agent; the 'details' which cover the genre, title and setting; the 'overview' summarizing the book's plot; and biographical information relating to the author. It seems that the query is a tool for potentially leveraging the agents' interest.

But agents receive tens, if not hundreds, of queries each day, and case studies of debut authors suggest there are many other factors at play in attracting the attention of an agent: introductions to the agent facilitated by other authors; conference networking and meetings; requests from agents following the publication of earlier writings in well-regarded journals. Without any of these additional influences, query letters are little different from cold-calling.

A good friend of mine, also an aspiring writer, suggested that I should send out the same email to 70 agents in the hope that just one might respond. My optimism and integrity won't allow me to do that. I am meticulously researching each of the agents I approach. I read interviews they have given to various publications, cross-reference their postings on Poets and Writers, Publishers' Marketplace, and other websites, scrutinize every word on their agencies' websites. In particular, I am tailoring my queries towards those agents who have identified an interest in literary fiction and historical fiction, with a strong voice and a narrative drive; preferring to approach agents who already have relationships with writers I admire or with whom I compare my own writing. It's time-consuming work but it feels right for me and for my book.

Of course, there is a suitably meteorological resonance between my sense of 'cold-calling' and the risk that my queries will end up on a 'slush' pile: it's possible that it will be a long, cold winter. But, come the spring, I'll be heading out to meet agents and publishers face-to-face and forging new opportunities for myself. Until then, I'll continue with my researching, I'll optimistically check my email inbox far too frequently, and when the telephone rings at 6pm, as it does most evenings, and the cold caller asks me about my insurance policy or double glazing or willingness to contribute to a dozen nameless charities, I'll remember we're not all that different after all and I'll make sure that I have a smile in my voice when I answer.

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