May 13, 2015
Notes by Barbara Beckwith
Literary Agents Seek Love — of the literary, not carnal sort, that is. Amaryah Orenstein of GO Literary and Katherine Flynn of Kneerim, Williams & Bloom look for fiction writing to love and for non-fiction ideas that compel them. Or for a combination: “I love books that read like a novel but are true,” said Flynn.
Flynn represents 30-40 active clients (plus others who are busy writing or researching). Orenstein represents nine clients at her newly launched agency; she is also the new co-chair of the Boston Chapter of The Women’s National Book Association (www.wnba-boston.org), co-sponsor of this annual event.
Both agents will take on the challenge of finding a publisher for a manuscript by even someone who never published anything (“We have to figure out how to pitch both book and author,” said Flynn), and will work with writers whose manuscripts may not be “quite there yet” (“I’m an editorial agent: some books need no editing; others I tear to shreds,” said Orenstein). They both stressed, however, that it’s crucial to polish your query and/or manuscript or proposal before submitting. Flynn’s suggestions: “Personalize your query: show off your research, say why you chose this agent, mention if you met the agent at a writers’ event or were referred by an author the agent would know.”
Flynn urged writers to check out agents’ individual interests and submission requirements and recommended Poets and Writers’ free website. Some agents have picky rules and won’t read your work if you don’t address them by name, or if the type size is not what they ask for, or if you submit by snail mail instead of email, or if you include a writing sample in your query when one is not wanted. Orenstein, for instance, wants no writing sample unless she requests it: she wants queries that include a brief (approximately 200 words) description of your work and brief biographical sketch.
Both agents stressed the critical opening page of a sample chapter. Too many submissions take too long to take off: the agent often tells the writer to cut the first chapter because “the story starts here.” It’s risky not to grab the reader on page one, so don’t open with a dream, a flashback, a prologue, or lengthy description. Orenstein looks for fiction openings that introduce the protagonist, and through action show that character’s internal conflict, and also convey the theme of the entire book. Don’t give away the ending, which ruins the agent’s desire to read further to find out what happens.
What if an agent doesn’t respond? Some will say on their websites: “We will respond within [x] weeks.” It’s best to wait 1-2 weeks beyond that date, but then fine to send a friendly reminder (do not berate the agent). Other agents state on their websites: “If you don’t hear from us in [x] weeks, assume we don’t want it.”
It helps to submit your work to a limited number of agents, maybe 8-10, at first. If all the agents say the same thing (some may reject your book but say explicitly “here’s your problem”), re-do your manuscript and send it to a new set of agents. Don’t be discouraged: remember that reading is highly subjective. One agent may hate a book, while another may love it.
Flynn described an agent’s many roles, which can involve lots of handholding, some necessary pushback − in other words, it’s a long-term relationship. Together they decide: do we go for the most money? The best editor? A name publisher? Or if a book includes illustrations, do we go for a publisher who excels in such books? Some writers want to talk to their agent daily; others want to hear from an agent only when there’s an offer from a publisher to report. Agents negotiate terms for a range of rights: film rights, audiobook rights, international rights, and magazine excerpts (these are less important now).
Flynn and Orenstein’s final advice: Don’t write in a vacuum. Find writers you can connect with and swap work. Read in your genre, go to writer conferences, find a mentor, build your social media and publishing credentials and become part of writers’ groups.