There is a perception that a Literary Agent (Agent), is the door to an author’s big break. An agent is expected to market a manuscript/book and possibly bring the author some measure of success – maybe even stardom.
I must make it clear at the outset that there is a need for an Agent once they represent the author well and will deliver as an agent is expected to. However I have observed a certain arrogance and rudeness from agents that in my view seem to make them believe that they are an indispensable species, maybe even a god.
The plethora of self publishers attests to the fact that the self publishing industry is a lucrative and growing one. From my reading these self publishing companies have very attractive packages for prospects and often provide substantial after-publication services to self published authors. The self publishing firm seems to have taken the place of the traditional literary agent, to a certain extent. Their functions seem to have some elements of a literary agent.
These Agents often seem to focus heavily on a query letter as well as if the prospect is already a published author with a “name”. The way these agents focus on a query letter is almost as if this letter is more important than the plot in the manuscript. I find it an interesting read when I browse the profiles of agents and the submission guidelines on their websites. Generally, for fiction the guideline states that query letters should be a page and that a brief bio is to be attached.
On June 21, 2015, I took this from Andy Ross Literary Agency’s website which states;
“Queries should be less than half page. Please put the word “query” in the title header of the email. State in the first sentence the category of the project. Give a short description of the book and your qualifications for writing.”
An email from Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency stated;
“ … start with a description of the book, a few paragraphs … query letter description and bio should be no more than 1 page if it were printed out.”
If a query letter is so important, then how much information can be provided to sufficiently pique the interest of an agent? How can an author seriously be impactful in representing himself based on the requirements of Andy Ross and Jill Marsal. It’s a gamble and a joke!
A lot of agents in addition to the brief query and bio as well, also require the first 10 pages of the manuscript. This I think is reasonable. I understand that the primary reason for their preferences for short query letters is because of the vast number of letters that each agent receives each month. That is not a proper excuse in my view as short changing an author is the end result of compromising a properly written query letter of about two pages by using volume as an excuse.
The fact of the matter is that for an agent to be effective and thorough in their job requires that they painstakingly go through maybe a query letter of about two pages and the first 10 pages of the manuscript.
This is not a case of sour grapes but agents seem more interested in a query letter than the actual story in the manuscript. As what exists now is that an author has to pass the query letter stage and also pass the bio stage before any portion of the writing style of the author is examined and before the plot is reviewed. I am sure there are instances where the query was so well polished only for the agent to later discover that the story lacks a good plot and/or is poorly written. The reverse I believe is also possible. After all, it’s the book that is published and bought by readers, not the query letter. So why is such a monumental focus on the query letter? Why is it that there are so many articles and books on “How to Write a Query Letter” to be found all over the internet and in bookstores?
I saw one which said something like; “How to write a killer query letter.” It is laughable, as it seems that the query letter is more important in the long run rather than the actual manuscript. A two or three page synopsis/summary in my view would be more realistic and practical. Agents do their profession a bad rap when they make these guidelines so impractical. How can they represent their jobs effectively if they demand so much in a one or two page query letter to include; bio, outline and pitch.
Another laughable article I come across is; “How I Landed My First Agent.” I can understand why it calls for a celebration and more ridiculous to write an article on it. Authors see that as a major achievement to pass the acid test; of passing the query letter test.
Articles and books have been written on “How to approach an agent”. The operative word “approach”. This can be likened to a bomb agent in which that agent needs to know how to approach a “suspicious bag” at an airport wondering if it has a bomb that soon will be detonated. Agents are revered, they are demigods that are expected to take an author to stardom so one needs to “approach” them carefully. Are they human beings?
There are lists of “dos” and “don'ts” all over the internet and in book shops. It seems that speaking with a literary agent is not like the typical business or professional conversation.
The profile of some of these agents display such arrogance and rudeness that I think that’s the genesis of those articles.
The replies that these agents send out; e.g. despite the body of the reply being generic, some agents don’t even have the courtesy to address their email responses with your name on it.
This one was received from Eric W. Ruben;
“Thank you for sending me your work. Unfortunately, it’s not right for this office. I wish you the best.”
Mr. Ruben didn’t even think he could properly address his rejection letter.
I got this from Paul S. Levine,
“Not for me – thanks anyway.”
I got a very respectful response from Diana Finch Literary Agency;
“Dear Garfield Whyte,
Thanks you for the query. I’m sorry to report that I don’t think that I’m the right agent for the novel. I do appreciate having been offered the chance to consider your work.”
That’s a respectful agent who despite rejection still shows some respect and class.
There are websites which state that agents will only reply to work that they are interested in. What does it take to send out an email with a one or two line courtesy rejection reply? An author sends in a query that has a potential if accepted, it can be a mutually beneficially relationship. Yet the agent doesn’t even display the basic courtesy of replying.
Some of these agents require a superb letter from authors yet they cannot even address a one sentence response to authors showing a little dignity and respect.
An agent cannot survive without authors but authors can operate without agents. In today’s technologically advanced world, many authors are now going the route of self publishing and either using a marketing consultant to market their books or put their own marketing machinery in motion.
An agent obliged when I asked her if she could be kind enough to tell me what’s wrong with my query letter. She replied and said I should not include that I did a survey seeking to find out which would be the preferred topic for my book. I had included in my query letter a sentence that I had done a survey with about 30 persons. I had provided a list of titles asking which title would be their preference. The reason for that was to get a feel of which titles resonated with those persons. In my view it was one way of doing my research. The agent said I should not have included that in my query. Clearly, she used that as an excuse to pass on mine. She clearly hasn’t gotten a clue about marketing. That information in my view is not detrimental to a manuscript, the plot and the writing style for the novel, as the query letter is not for the public but simply between the agent and an author.
If these agents demand the perfect pitch, the perfect synopsis, the perfect first five or ten pages, then why aren’t they writing the next best novel … the next best movie script? If they can’t, then should we trust them with our careers as an author?
My feeling is that getting an acceptance on a query letter is a game of chance. There is no magic spell, no special word, no guarantee of success whenever a query is sent out. An author being successful with their query letter has to be a game of chance since the situation is a subjective one, as going through a pile of query letters many times is dependent on what is going on within the agent’s world at that time. The agent maybe having a bad day, personal issues, maybe distracted by chatting on the telephone while reading a letter. Very subjective. In some ways like the lottery.
There is a perception that self published authors are the rejects of the literary industry because they opt not to succumb to the epidemic that some agents are demigods and are indispensable. Generally, inherent in most success stories are two factors; dedication and hard work. As long as an author can rise above rejection, with work hard and remaining focused, dedicated and innovative/creative then success will come even without an agent.
Technology is now making literary agents fast become a dying specie. The vastly growing options for making one’s book available through online stores, a host of websites (even one belonging to the author), ebooks, book fairs, media marketing, direct marketing.
There will eventually be agents searching for jobs very soon, that’s if some are not already doing so.
Self-publishing companies are making agents irrelevant. Some agents will soon be unemployed and unemployable. Technology has changed the face or every industry, so why should the literary industry be immune? It’s just a matter of time.
-Garfield Whyte (Indie Author)