One of the biggest hurdles aspiring authors face is landing the right agent. Three of New York’s top literary agents shared their best advice to a packed crowd at The Writers Circle’s Speaker Series on Sunday, March 8.
Marietta B. Zacker
When it comes to finding clients, agents want great writing, plus look for a few other qualities.
“I want a unique voice I’ve never heard before, which I know is hard to identify in your own work,” said Marietta B. Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency. “I believe there are only about eight or so stories told over and over, especially in children’s books” – Marietta’s specialty. “But how do you tell that story? What voice are you using? I also look for a willingness to search within and see that the world is bigger than the bubble we live in.”
Tamar Rydzinski, Vice President of the Laura Dail Literary Agency, wants writers who are well-versed in the field. “You must read everything around you. Be tenacious, yet patient. This is a difficult business.”
To get a book published, agents rely heavily on their long established relationships with editors. Liza Dawson, founder of the Liza Dawson Associates, reminded writers that it’s most important to place the book. “I have to be able to think, who are six editors I can send this to now? If I can’t think of any, I’m sunk.”
All three agents advised writing queries that are short and to the point. Tamar said, “I want the voice to pop off the page. It has to be concise, smart, and not too much about yourself.” She said a four paragraph bio is a turn-off. “Go to publisher’s catalogs and see how they pitch books. They talk about the book, not the writers. It should be a sales pitch, saying ‘this is why you want to read this.’”
When asked, what makes a bad query? she said, “When someone starts a letter with, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ There might be a reason for that—like no one else would want to read it—or the writer just hasn’t read enough to have seen something similar.”
Marietta pointed out another common mistake, especially for children’s writers. “Don’t refer to how much your kids loved the book, or how their classmates all compared it to Harry Potter. Very few children tell their parents their book sucks.” She advised against using comps like Harry Potter or any top bestsellers. “Pick someone everyone knows, but more like your own writing.”
Because they receive so many queries, most agents have interns go through them first. Liza explained, “The interns have guidelines on what we’re looking for. Also, the author might drop a name, credentials, other books they’ve published, academic degrees. There are various ways to break out of the slush pile.”
She said some agents ask for chapters right away, but she doesn’t. “I’ve never seen a manuscript that’s better than the query letter. A good query might just be ‘Dear Liza, I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and happen to be writing the same kind of thing.’”
Marietta explained that getting an agent isn’t the end of the road, but another beginning, so it’s important to have your book completed and polished before sending it out. “Too many people send queries trying to see if the spaghetti will stick to the wall. That’s frustrating for us because we have to read all those manuscripts before we get to the gold. If someone called you up and said, ‘Yes, I want to publish this tomorrow,’ you should be proud to put it out there with your name on it.”
The panel discussed how the agent-client relationship changes during the publishing process. Liza said, “As former editor, I am very editorially involved. And there’s a bit of psychology. Four months before a book comes out every author has a breakdown, where they go through a period of doubt and self-loathing and we have to guide them through it.”
Tamar said, “Communication is key. Whether it’s hand holding or just checking in.” She advises writers to always have an open line to their agents. “You have to tell an agent if something is wrong. We aren’t mind readers.”
The panelists also discussed how they foster relationships with editors, which helps them decide who is right for each book. Tamar goes to a lot of lunches. “I like to know an editor’s background,” she said. “For example, an editor might have a degree in music and I might have a book featuring a musician, so maybe it’s a good match.”
Marietta agreed, and added, “Agents also read a lot. We see which editors worked on which books. After a while, we get to know their tastes.”
Liza will also refer to Publishers Marketplace, a database that, “lets you type in a genre like ‘thrillers’ and all the editors looking for thrillers will pop up.”
As the discussion turned to promotion and publicity, all the agents agreed that publishers rely on authors to do the lion’s share of promotion, especially with shrinking marketing staff, more books to publish, and less time to spend on authors.
“It’s shocking how much responsibility lies on the author’s shoulders,” Liza said, and stressed the growing importance of social media in establishing an author platform. “I have authors who are totally disconnected from social media and I push them hard. I say, ‘Today we’re going on Facebook.’ I hold their hand every step because it’s important.”
Tamar said that, while you don’t have to do everything, you should find at least one social media outlet that you can do. “Twitter is good if you like writing short snappy, sentences. Instagram, for the kids market, is amazing. Adult writers might do better with Facebook.”
Marietta added, “It’s important to keep your social media sites updated, or find something else you know you can put time into. I have clients who are at a schools promoting themselves every single week who don’t do social media.”
As for numbers, the panelists agreed that it doesn’t matter how many followers you have, unless you’re famous: “If it’s one or two thousand, no big difference. It matters if it’s in the millions.”
On the other hand, some writers love doing social media. The panelists warned debut authors not to put the platform before the book. “Before you do anything with social media, finish the book,” Tamar said. “It can be easier to put a platform together than go back to editing a novel. Writing should always come first.”
Liza said she doesn’t stress about an author’s social media platform, except with nonfiction where an author’s professional credentials are vital. “For most writers, it won’t help me decide if I take someone on. For me, it’s about the writing.”
In light of the growth of self-publishing, panelists were asked if having an agent is still really necessary. They all agreed it was more important than ever. “Why would you want to give up so much of your time doing what you love, which is writing?” Marietta asked, “Without an agent, a writer is destined to wear a lot of other hats.”
Having an agent is even more important for writers who want to publish traditionally. “The majority of people in my in-box who self-publish have a hundred people who gave them five stars,” Marietta said. “But these ratings are from friends and relatives. Anyone can get a book self-published. But if you think an editor and art director will make your book better, and you believe in the publishing process, traditional publishing is a better way to go.”
Liza added, “A lot of self-published authors are impatient. So many tell me ‘I just didn’t want to wait.’ Editors’ in-boxes are so full these days that there’s just no room for self-published books. But it is also worth noting how self-publishing has brought back our backlists, which is fantastic.”
Another change Liza described was that “publishers have become more creative and receptive.” For example, an editor got on the phone with her three months before a book came out, along with designer and publicist and they talked about a plan. “There was a time they didn’t want to hear from agents, but now they see that something unexpected can come out of it.”
When asked what’s selling, panelists gave a variety of answers, but everyone agreed that the landscape is constantly changing and it’s impossible to predict the next big thing.
“Never write to what’s hot,” Marietta said. “By the time it’s finished, you’ll be too late. Instead, write what you’re passionate about. That’s what burns bright in our in-boxes. I can’t stress that enough. Over-saturation of a market is beyond your control, so write what you feel inside.”