14 February 2014

First Pass Through the Agent Lists

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:02 pm

I’ve read, one by one, the bios and preferences of each agent on 30 of the 106 pages of the online Literary Agents Directory. That’s 310 agents. I’ve also looked at the home pages of many of the agencies for which these individuals work, so that by now I’m sure I’ve read about at least half of the working literary agents. Tallying up from my notes, I’ve identified 41 whose interests align at least remotely with my own writing. That’s around a 10 percent hit rate — better than I expected when I started going through the list. I think that’s enough for now.

My sense is that the agents’ self-descriptions are quite generic, quite broad. That’s meant to be encouraging, I suppose — they’re open to practically anything. These are professional salespeople after all — they don’t want to be inundated with submissions, but they don’t want to miss anything either. I’m sure they’d rather say no to 99% of the inquiring authors in hopes of striking gold. They want to demonstrate high standards while also flattering potential clients into believing that they’ve found just the right person to represent them in the literary marketplace. Here’s a composite of preferences compiled from three agents who work for the same agency:

“For Michelle, compelling writing consists of strong, carefully crafted characters with a unique voice. Most importantly, she’s looking for projects with emotional resonance and longevity. She’s specifically looking for high concept plots with literary underpinnings, psychological conflict, quirky protagonists, and fast-paced writing. Michelle is seeking literary works, women’s fiction, horror, thrillers, multicultural voices, and any well-written novels with quirky characters and/or unique plots and settings. She is drawn to an authentic voice, unforgettable characters and a well-crafted story that is emotional in unpredictable ways.”

I don’t believe that my own fiction pushes all of “Michelle”‘s hot buttons, nor do I necessarily wish that it did. Still, she would probably make my short list. I’d try to keyword my first paragraph with “high concept” and “unpredictable,” letting the content of the letter convey the careful craftsmanship of my prose, the uniqueness of my plots/settings, and the quirks of my characters.

Next, I’ll sift through my 41 agents looking for more information about them online in hopes of customizing my inquiry letters a bit more. I’ll also see what they want in the initial inquiry and in what form they want it. Hopefully next week I’ll start sending out the correspondence.



  1. John:
    The quality of your writing is good but the problem is that even if you get an agent who gets a publisher who promotes you assiduously there is in the end a mere 3 or 4 weeks for your books to make an impression before they are returned. Even if you sell a few you will be the last person to be paid. I presume you have looked at publishing via Amazon to the Kindle market which can give you a 70% return on the dollar you might charge. People will risk a Euro/Dollar on a newcomer but not €/$ 8/10 in the bookshop.

    What are your thoughts on this?


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 16 February 2014 @ 10:09 am

  2. I find it discouraging and enervating if I think about it — and I do think about it. Agents and publishers do have marketing reach that’s incomparably more powerful than I could manage as a self-publisher. As they say, 15% of something is better than 70% of nothing, which is what I’d expect to get selling my ebooks online. I’m more interested in the books being read than in making money from them. Thinking about the market potential of my books is an alien concept for me these days inasmuch as I rarely buy books anymore, preferring to check them out from the library. I agree in principle with the lower-price possibilities of ebooks that require no binding and shipping and warehousing. Would I be more willing to pay $1-4 for an online edition as an economical and convenient alternative to the library? Yes. However, I don’t have a Kindle or similar device — I was given one for Christmas 3 years ago but I returned it after finding it user-unfriendly. It’s my understanding that most of the ebook sales are going to the established authors, who don’t need shelf displays of hard copy to grab buyers’ attention, as well as to pulpy genre books that buyers have no interest in mounting proudly on their bookshelves as outward signs of their erudition and good taste.

    My plan at present is to run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes, as the men in the gray flannel suits used to say. If I get no response from the agents then the point is moot. If I get any positive responses then I can decide whether or not to sign on. I suppose if any agent expresses interest I would regard it as a good sign that my books might actually have commercial potential, a feature to which I gave no consideration while writing them. Any positive agent response would increase my confidence of pursuing other publishing alternatives. No agent response would reinforce my view that the industry is more interested in commodity value than in truth/beauty/goodness — which might also encourage me to try other venues. Win-win, glass is half full, put on a happy face, etc. etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 February 2014 @ 11:20 am

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