More Questions on Those Pesky Agents

I’m continuing to work through my backlog of questions on agents and editors.

Sam asked:

I was wondering how to submit a few pages or a one-sentence + one paragraph summary to an agent without attending a conference. Chip had mentioned submitting through email but referencing the conference so he knew it wasn’t a cold submission. Do agents just ignore cold submissions? How can we find an agent (that will help us either market the book or tell us it needs work) that will accept a cold submission?

Randy sez: That’s several questions, which I’ll break apart as follows:

You can submit something to an agent without ever meeting them. This is how my buddy John Olson got his first agent within one week. Of course, it helped that he and I had an offer on the table from an editor for our novel OXYGEN. The point is, it can be done. The important thing in doing a cold submission is to find out exactly what form the agent wants the information and then give them that–no more and no less. You can find this out from their web sites. If they say they want only a query letter, then send them JUST a query letter, dadgummit! They don’t want a proposal and they don’t want the full manuscript. If they say they want only email queries with no attachments, then don’t send attachments. Writer really make themselves look bad by not giving the agent the info that they want the way they want it.

So agents don’t ignore cold submissions. They do prioritize them based on how well you followed directions and other factors, such as whether your email has drool on it, whether you carry a recommendation from one of the agent’s clients, etc. In John Olson’s case, he had a friend who was a client of the agent. The friend gave him a recommendation. Plus John had a sale in hand–that put him at Priority One for this high-powered agent, because she knew John was money in the bank.

As for how to find an agent, the BEST way is to meet them at a conference. The second best way is to do your research. That means getting WRITER’S MARKET and working through all the agent listings to find those few agents who are most likely to be interested. Then send each of them exactly what they want, and make it clear that you aren’t just spamming them with a mass mailing. Long ago when I was looking for my first agent, I picked out one who I thought would be suitable and in my query letter, I mentioned that my project was similar in spirit to CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR–which was a novel she had represented. That told her I’d done my homework and she requested a chapter and later the whole manuscript. She didn’t take me on as a client, but that was because my writing wasn’t quite up to snuff yet.

Paulette wrote:

I enjoyed this very much because I have run into a couple of rude agents and it left me wondering why I spent all my hard earned money to go to a conference to meet up with these types. A good lesson on forgiveness and the realization that there are all types in the writing business. I imagine the poor people were tired and frustrated by the time I got to the appointment.

Randy sez: Yes, there are rude agents, rude editors, and even (gasp!) rude writers. There have been times when I’ve undoubtedly been rude. I try not to, but it happens. 🙁

Sally wrote:

At what point would an agent be willing to talk about representing you? Does that happen at the conference, or later? Does the agent contact you, or wait until you contact them?

Randy sez: Occasionally, this might happen at a conference. It’s rare, but it could happen. Generally, that would be if you come with an awesome recommendation from somebody the agent respects AND if your writing is simply extraordinary AND if the agent believes you’re the Next Big Cheese. Otherwise, it will typically take a few weeks or months. The agent will want to see your stuff. They may want to read your whole manuscript.

If the agent requests that you send more stuff after the conference, send exactly what they asked for. Once you’ve done that, the ball is in the agent’s court. It may be there days, weeks, months, or forever. It’s a good idea to ask early on what sort of response time you should expect. Then if that time gets exceeded, you can shoot a quick email asking for an update. Be aware that most agents get enormous amounts of email and so shorter is better when dealing with them. If they can read your email in a minute and respond in a minute, they might well do so.

Bonnie had a great comment which I hope you’ve all read. I’ll quote the last couple of paragraphs here:

Agents take on work they love and know they can sell, but they also take on the author. Most agents go above and beyond the call of duty for their authors, working all sorts of hours and offering all sorts of support. Ideally, they want to work with authors who understand, respect them, and can work with them.

Take home: Look for an agent you believe is a good fit. You, the agent, and your career will benefit.

Randy sez: This is all very true. Agents now fill much of the role that editors used to. Editors depend on agents to screen out all the crap and only acquire authors that are ready to be published. So editors no longer get so much stuff on their desk. The agents get it all. It can be murder to sort through it all. So take pity on the agents and help them help you.

Patricia wrote:

1) Do agents always offer a time period in which to get back to them? What if you felt right away that you couldn’t do it in that time? Would suggesting a slightly longer time period cast you in a negative light?

2) Isn’t another possibility that the agent doesn’t like the premise at all? (I’m betting not everything Tom Clancy proposed was accepted.) How would the agent say this and how should the author react? Should the author be prepared with other ideas?

Randy sez: Agents operate in different ways and so not all of them will give you a timeline. If they ask you to send something by a certain date and you know you can’t do it, ask for a longer time period and give a good reason. One common reason is, “I learned so much at this conference that I want to apply it all to my manuscript before I send it to you.”

It is VERY likely that the agent won’t like the premise and will Just Say No. (I once heard that Tom Clancy had never been rejected, but Tom’s a singular case. Most authors are.) How an agent would phrase this tragic truth depends on the agent. Some might be rude. Some might be overly kind. A lot depends on why they don’t like it. If the writing’s wretched, then frankly, the author has wasted the agent’s time, and the agent might be a bit more abrasive. If the writing’s good but it just isn’t the right genre for the agent, again the author has wasted the agent’s time, because most agents specialize. It’s a good idea to do your homework and find out what agents like your genre. If Clancy had submitted his work to an agent specializing in romance, then he’d have had a sure-fire rejection.

As for being prepared with other ideas, that would be rare. Authors generally only write one book at a time. If you come in with multiple ideas, it might look like you are “all hat and no horse” or whatever the Texans say about people who talk a lot and don’t execute.

OK, I’ll answer more questions tomorrow. I’ve still got some good ones in the hopper, I think.


  1. Andra M. August 26, 2008 at 11:37 pm #

    If I talk to an agent who in the end isn’t a good fit, is it appropriate to ask if he or she knows another agent who would be?

    If so, would it then be appropriate to mention the recommendation in a query letter (or face-to-face meeting) to the new agent?

  2. Ann Isik August 27, 2008 at 3:16 am #

    andy, on interviews with Agents and Publishers, do you think it would be acceptable to ask if they would agree to my recording the interview, and making it clear that it’s only to be able to go over their advice and requests (if they have any requests) at a later date?


  3. Ann Isik August 27, 2008 at 3:16 am #

    Sorry, I mean Randy (must be thinking of Andy Rooney!!!

  4. PatriciaW August 27, 2008 at 10:56 am #

    This is a very informative series. Thanks, Randy (not Andy)!

  5. Kristi Holl August 27, 2008 at 11:42 am #

    I do think it’s really wise to meet your agent in person first, if you can. I actually wasn’t looking for an agent, but I spoke at two conferences in Texas where my agent also spoke, so we ended up at dinner together a few times, and I just really liked her as a person. So upbeat and energetic. It was a good match when she later contacted me. On the other hand, before that, I had attended conferences to meet agents, and after meeting them, realized that although they sounded great in email, we just didn’t mix well at all. (No one’s fault–we just had very different views on some important things.) So yes, DO meet them in person before signing on the dotted line.
    Writer’s First Aid

  6. Miss Skye August 27, 2008 at 1:50 pm #

    Hi Randy!

    I’m curious– did you finish reading the Harry Potter series yet? The reason I ask is I wanted to direct your attention to editor Cheryl Klein’s speech “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter” which you can find linked at her blog post here:

    I thought you might be interested since it’s really thought-provoking and informative, and especially since you gave a great example of subtexting using dialogue from HP (which I loved). 🙂

    Thank you for writing such a helpful blog and sharing your insights with us.

  7. Story Hack (Bryce Beattie) August 27, 2008 at 3:48 pm #

    Well, I’d like to thank both Andy and Randy. Here’s to hoping I’ll need your advice soon (you know, because I’ll have a contract in hand…).

  8. Amy VR August 27, 2008 at 8:50 pm #

    Miss Skye:

    THANK YOU for that wonderful link! I printed out the speech and will share it with my critique group. Absolutely fantastic!

  9. Camille August 28, 2008 at 10:33 am #

    Ditto Amy – thank you Miss Skye for that link. I was only going to save it for later, but got caught up reading and had to blink furiously at the lights coming on in my little writer brain as I read her tips. Great stuff there! This was one of many bits I found encouraging/helpful, especially the last line:

    “J. K. Rowling has been working on the Harry Potter series since 1990 . . . So that was seventeen years from the initial idea till the publication of Book 7. It was five years between the idea and the completion of Sorcerer’s Stone.

    And in all that time, Ms. Rowling was working out her plots, deepening her characters and themes, writing and rewriting. Eager to be published, no doubt,
    But also giving herself time to get it right,
    As she ultimately did.”

  10. Sean August 28, 2008 at 11:19 am #

    It’s “all hat and no cattle.” 🙂

    Thanks for this stuff, it’s all been really encouraging. I’m not at the stage where I’d be meeting with agents just yet, but when I am at that stage, I’ll have more confidence about it.

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