An Agent’s Advice: The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent

Kathryn Lilley
@KathrynELilley

The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories. 

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As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb
Literary Agent
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
(212) 333-1506

Mark Profile at Trident Media Group

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FOR DISCUSSION:

Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.

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State of Play

I had a great visit to New York, justified in part by our friends’ wedding anniversary (a fabulous rooftop renewal of vows ceremony and dinner) and, in part, by a desire to touch base with my agent. The major downside about moving back to Australia is the sheer distance it is from anywhere else. It literally took a day and a half of travel to get from Melbourne to NYC…so I was really hoping that the visit was worth it!

It was.

Meeting my agent was important for three things: 1) to get feedback on my WIP; 2) to discuss next proposals and plans; and 3) to get insight into the industry (as it continues to change, an agent’s perspective is always helpful). I also think there is no real substitute for a face-to-face meeting.

Thankfully, the feedback on all three was extremely positive, and perhaps just as importantly, my agent seemed pretty optimistic about the publishing industry in general. A year or so ago he seemed much more subdued – but (no surprise for us TKZers here) the success of e-books has definitely buoyed the industry. Here’s a few things I took away from our meeting:
  • Though the YA market continues to be vibrant, the mystery/thriller market is still tough going, with many houses streamlining their lines and focusing (again, no surprise) on their bestselling authors. It remains tougher than ever to get published (in fact, I doubt my first book would ever have sold in this market – which is a depressing thought!).
  • E-books have become extremely profitable for publishers and are creating greater opportunities for publishers to target readers. A few years ago most publishing decisions were driven by what the buyers from Barnes&Noble and Borders liked. Such market concentration wasn’t necessarily a good thing (for writers or readers) but now, e-books present a huge opportunity for a more ‘level playing field’. Even Amazon doesn’t command a massive market share and the growth of the Nook and other e-reader/book options is making the market more ‘democratic’ and accessible. Good news for authors and readers alike!
  • Given all the industry changes, agents are re-evaluating how they can advise and work with their clients on publishing e-books (particularly for their backlist). As there is potential for conflict of interest, agents are looking into the options carefully. There are now companies who work only with agents and their published writers in this respect. I think it will be interesting to see how this pans out – especially as many writers are already choosing to go it alone and self-publish their e-books with or without an agent.
So my question to you all is: how do you view the role of agents changing in this current environment (apart from selling your work to a traditional publisher)? Have your expectations regarding an agent changed with the success of e-books? If you are unpublished, are you still seeking agency representation?

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How Not to Query

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently there was a query letter discussion on one of the lists that I frequent. Everyone chimed in with differing opinions about what works, and what almost guarantees one of those soul-crushing form letter rejections. It made me reflect back on my own letters (and yes, you read that correctly: letters, plural).

Out of curiosity, I asked the multi-talented Luc Hunt from my agency (the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency) to dissect two of my query letters. The first was for a book that was roundly rejected (rightfully so, I must say) by every agent I queried.

The second was the letter that got me a nibble for a full manuscript, which eventually led to representation.

So here’s the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy. Luc’s analysis is below each letter:

Dear Mr. Hunt,

I am looking for an agent to represent my book.

“Adventures of the Almost Wed” tells the story of Alexandra, a young woman attempting to rebuild her life after a failed engagement. The novel takes place over the course of a year, opening with the break-up of the central relationship, and concluding on what was to be their wedding day. In the interim Alexandra confronts obstacles ranging from long-distance maternal disapproval to the challenges of dating a movie star. At the end Alexandra faces the future with a renewed sense of self-worth, and the knowledge that there’s more to life than love and marriage. Written in the first person, the style is similar to that of Helen Fielding in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Melissa Banks’ book “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing.”

Although this is my first novel, my non-fiction articles and columns have previously been published on numerous websites, including Chickclick.com and Asimba.com.

Thank you for considering “Adventures of the Almost Wed.” I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Michelle Gagnon

LUC HUNT:

This starts off with an all too obvious statement. No one queries an agent unless they are looking for representation. Personally, I respond best when the author gets right to the story. Michelle then goes on to tell about the plot, but does so in a way that overly simplifies the trajectory of the character’s development. She goes so far as to point out the moral. A more engaging summary would reveal an exigency latent in the narrative, and leave out the didactic conclusion. Michelle also compares her work to others, which can be positive, but is a matter of interpretation, and possibly tenuous. It is good to identify both what is familiar and unique about your manuscript. She concludes with an almost apologetic mention of her publishing credits. Politeness is welcome, but if you have little history or are not confident in the prestige of your previous venues, then just state that you are a first time author. There’s nothing wrong with not having a record.

And here’s query letter #2:

Dear Mr. Hunt,

I’m hoping that you’ll consider representing my novel “The Tunnels,” a suspense thriller set at a small East coast university. A serial killer is ritualistically murdering the daughters of powerful men in the tunnels below campus. Special Agent Kelly Jones, a jaded Clarisse Starling ten years into her career, is called in to investigate.

Kelly confronts a daunting list of suspects ranging from tweedy professors to one-armed janitors. Complicating matters further, a grief-ridden father pulls strings to get an investigator with his own agenda assigned to the case. Together, they must find a madman obsessed with pagan sorcery before he claims another victim.

My non-fiction articles have appeared in Glamour, San Francisco Magazine, and CondeNast Traveler, among other publications. The book is set on the campus of Wesleyan University, my alma mater. I researched Norse mythology and neo-paganism extensively before writing “The Tunnels.” All of the rituals outlined in the story are based on fact. I’m planning a series of books featuring Agent Kelly Jones and her continuing efforts to track down serial killers.

I’ve included a brief synopsis and the first chapter of my manuscript. Thanks for considering “The Tunnels.” I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Michelle Gagnon

LUC HUNT:

Michelle’s second query is immediately compelling. She begins with a journalistic statement of the facts that quickly answers the who, what, why, and when of the proposal. Due to this introduction, it is easy for me to be drawn in by the action of her story. She follows the opening with an interesting communication of some of the particulars, grounding her query in what makes it unique. Michelle also gives a more developed biography of herself as an author, and provides us with details of her personal connection to the setting of the novel. This leads me to believe that not only is she an authority on her subject, but that her perspectives are likely to be well researched and credible. The query closes with a brief mention of future projects, and that a synopsis and sample chapter follow. Well done.

LUC’S FINAL COMMENTS:

In conclusion, one could certainly make too much of a query letter. It is essentially a one page introduction of the work and author to their prospective agent. The nature of the thing is surely subjective, yet I hope to have shown at least a few helpful parameters.

Luc wanted me to mention that sadly, the Spitzer Agency is currently not accepting submissions. But his comments apply to most agents, in terms of what they’re looking for and what gets tossed aside.

He also said that recently, the agency has been experiencing a blitz of “spam queries.” Apparently there are companies that will assemble a query letter for you, then send it out en masse to every agent in the business. He recommended against using one of these companies-the deluge has been such that it’s off-putting. The next Da Vinci Code could be buried in that pile, and they probably wouldn’t bother reading the query.

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Oh, and by the way…look what I found when I dug through my files. That’s right, a form rejection letter. From my current agent (boy, did we have a good laugh about this).

So if you’re at the querying stage, take heart. Never underestimate the power of persistence. If your letter doesn’t seem to be garnering a good response, take another look at it. Show it to a few people whose opinion you trust, or sign up for a workshop that teaches you to hone it, then send it out again. It might take a few years (it sure took me that long) but in the end, persistence pays off.

For more query submission tips, check out John Gilstrap’s last post here.

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