dinner with literary agents

Over the holidays, INTERN had the hallucinatorily good luck of being invited to dinner with an entire table full of young, up-and-coming literary agents. INTERN hardly made a squeak the whole evening, so content was she to be a fly on the wall to their conversation (she was also trying very hard not to drip tomato sauce down her shirt.) Today, INTERN would like to share with you a few observations from that delightful evening.

It's a reaaaally small world.

Everyone says publishing's a small world, but nothing brings it home more than a roomful of agents from different agencies going "Did you get that query about the time-traveling tabby cat?" "Yeah!" "Me too!" "So did I!" "I requested the full!" "What did you think of the sample pages?"

You will be pleased (and, INTERN hopes, not surprised) to know that the above exchanges never consisted of making fun of someone's query or manuscript, but were made in the spirit of comparing notes, the same way writers compare notes over requests, rejections, and offers of rep.

Publishing, by definition, is the act of making your writing public. That begins with your query. Agents read; agents talk. As if you needed another reason to put your best foot forward in everything you write.

Competition for writers is fierce.

As writers, we like to think we have a monopoly on wallflowerdom—watching our manuscript sit on the shelf while every other manuscript gets whisked off to dance. But agenting can feel like that too, especially when you're just starting out.

"I offered rep the second I finished the manuscript, but she'd already signed with so-and-so!" "We talked on the phone for two hours and I thought I had him for sure!" "The time-traveling cat manuscript went to the Paradox McBean Agency—did you hear?"

It's tempting to imagine that agents have it easy—they just sit around on velvet pillows rejecting manuscripts until something tempting comes along, at which point they simply pluck it out of the air like a ripe mango! But the truth is, there are plenty of other agents reaching for that same mango, and you can watch an awful lot of mangoes go to other agents before you finally win.

You are being scouted.

Ever post your work on AbsoluteWrite, Verla Kay, or another popular critique forum? Agents (at least the young, ambitious, web-savvy ones INTERN had the pleasure of hanging out with) scout writers from these websites more often than INTERN would have guessed. The market for great manuscripts (not "any manuscripts"—great ones!) is so fierce that some agents don't want to wait for writers to come to them. These agents use forums to find promising writing and, in some cases, request materials.

INTERN knows from experience that agents and publishers also scout non-fiction authors, although this is more likely to take place from published magazine or blog articles than from writing forums.

It's a hard game for everyone.

In the same way most writers hold down day jobs while they're struggling to make their first (or second, or third) sale, agents who are just starting out don't exactly have it easy. 15% of 1 or 2 book sales isn't very much, and until an agent has developed a strong list of clients and book sales, he or she might be working behind the coffee bar, right next to you (ever asked your fellow barista what he does on the side?)

This being said, agents have a pretty sweet job. In her next life, INTERN wants to be one. All those wine-soaked conferences! All those lunches with editors! So much tasty gossip it makes Gawker look like Watchtower Magazine! Oh, and that whole part about selling books.

Conclusion

So what divine secrets should aspiring writers take away from all this? Play nice. Write your best. Know that agents are just people (unusually intelligent and strikingly attractive people, but still—just people) and they truly want to discover great writing. Maybe even yours.

Comments

  1. Excellent post, and so encouraging! Thanks for this, Intern!

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  2. Now I wonder if they were any of the agents I queried. *g*

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  3. Dear INTERN: I ♥ you so completely, there are no words. This is all stuff I knew, but it feels so very good to read it somewhere else. Validation is a powerful emotion!

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  4. Dear Laurel: INTERN hearts the fact that you are somehow able to insert an actual heart into your comment. Wishing you many writerly victories in 2012!

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  5. WOW. This is reassuring, yet strangely frightening.

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  6. Thanks for these insights from your close-up observations of agents in the wild.

    And really interesting about them scouting blogs. I mean, if that's true, I bet they scout comments, too. Right? Hello?

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  7. It sounds like agents are under a lot of pressure to find the right writers. Do they establish their own criteria for choosing writers, or do their agencies set the criteria?

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  8. I always wonder if the little heart icons are meant to be read as "love" or "heart" because I definitely always think "heart" just like I think "dot dot dot" or "winky face emoticon."

    What an irrelevant comment, I apologize. (Insert cheeky shame emoticon).

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  9. Thank you for being our fly on the wall as well. This is both interesting and encouraging!

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  10. This is very informative. I must admit, I was surprised to hear that your conversations never consist of poking fun at certain manuscripts. And surprised that agents dont' have it as easy as many people think!

    Thank you :)

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  11. I *loved* this! It made me picture my own agent sitting on a velvet pillow, pulling a mango from the air.
    Great fun.

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  12. Great post. I'm about to start looking for a new agent (agent and I parted ways recently), and am SO excited about my new ms. The agents I've had the pleasure of speaking with in person or via email have been generous, kind, and extremely supportive. Thanks for the "behind the scenes" glimpse. xoxo (I don't know how to insert the heart emoticon. Poor, sad me.).

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  13. I love that they compare notes. It almost sounds like a pajama party.

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  14. Thanks! This was enlightening and encouraging. :)

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  15. Great post and thanks for sharing it. It's easy to think of agents as sombre gatekeepers, schmoozing the good and scorning the bad. It's nice to hear that they're just like us!

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  16. Thanks for the fly's perspective :)

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  17. No fun was poked at clueless ms? It's such a relief to know my various ms aren't out there on display like my awkward teenage self, scowling at the ground, collectively dissed and ignored.

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  19. What a wonderful dinner party. Thanks for the post!

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  20. Oh Intern- you make it sound like agenting is a positively gastronomical profession. How do they stay so attractive, that's what I'd like to know.
    P.S. Thanks for this. You're too much fun.

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  21. Thanks for all the comments, guys! INTERN was thinking about you the whole time :)

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  22. Mirka, I'm pretty sure agents consume a predominantly liquid diet.

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  23. This is surprising and encouraging to know! And I've just realized that these agents are probably young enough to be my grandchildren. Very unsettling realization. Will they like what I write? I don't even have any grandchildren to practice on!

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  24. Thanks for sharing! I am hoping that someday I get to work with an agent who wants to talk about me with other agents as well. . . in a positive manner of course. However, if they would like to fight over who gets to represent me and book my world wide book tour that would be ok too.

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  25. Thanks for this informative write-up! Nice to hear what it is like on the other side.

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  26. The tabby cat reference was hilarious! This post is so true. I'm incredibly nervous about this scouting aspect now. Thanks a lot. Lol.

    RivaFlowzDOTcom

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  27. OMG! They saw my book. I KNEW feline time-slip would be the next big thing! ;)

    Thanks INTERN! Once again, very informative.

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  28. I just love your posts. So fun to read.

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  29. How about posting a list of new agents. So many of the lists I've seen are out dated

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  30. *blink*

    Have you looked at Query Tracker? They're pretty darn up to date, I find.

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