Recently, I attended a lecture hosted by GLAWS, and the guest speaker for the day was literary agent Steve Hutson. I’m sure you can guess the focus of the event.
What NOT to Say to a Literary Agent (or Editor)
I like attending events such as this because on top of the joy of meeting new writers, it’s always nice to hear advice directly from the pros–the ones who actually do this for a living.
Here are some takeaways from the event that I’d like to share with you. Some of these I’d consider obvious–like don’t pitch a book to an agent in the bathroom, or don’t tell them your mother loved it. But some of these might not be so obvious, or maybe you hadn’t thought about it in the agent’s/editor’s perspective before.
Either way, I want you to have the tools to succeed.
When we talk about editors here, it means acquisition editors in a publishing house, not a freelancer editor (aka moi).
Don’t say your book is the next best seller.
Don’t be informal. Address the agent by name in your query (or in person). This means DO NOT send a mass email to a hundred agents and editors.
Don’t pitch a book in a genre the agent doesn’t accept.
Don’t say, “My book is for everyone.” That’s just not possible. No book is for everyone. Think about the audience that would actually want to read your book. Feel free to include that in your query–such as my book is for teenage boys in small towns.
Don’t ask an agent/editor to sign a NDA. It doesn’t benefit them to steal your idea. What are they going to do with it? They need the writers so they can sell the story. And agents will not go through extra hoops to read your work. They have hundreds, even thousands, of submissions to look through.
Don’t say your manuscript is X pages. Page total doesn’t help because formatting, font, spacing, etc. can affect the page length. DO share the word count.
*60-80k words is the ideal word count [for most genres]. Some agents will not look at an MS above or below this count. For example, a 105k-word MS is too high, and the reasoning is because it’s too expensive to produce a book of that length. Consider the editors, formatting, book production, printing, and more that goes into the book.
Don’t start your query with a question. This has become too commonplace and too cutesy. Agents just want to get right into the meat of your work, not futz around trying to be clever.
Don’t say how many books you’ve self-published. Unless you’ve SOLD over 5k for one book, how many books you’ve published before does not matter to an agent.
*97% of self-publish books sell less than 100 copies.
Don’t write your query in the character’s POV. This is something agents have recently stated they are not into. However, you DO want to show your character has a unique voice.
Don’t say your book is completely original and unlike anything else. No one’s book is 100% unlike anything else; even Shakespeare’s work is a version of the same stories told time and time again.
Don’t say you are the next “so and so”. Let the agent decide how to place your book when selling to an editor.
Don’t say you can get X celebrity endorsements that are clearly out of reach. That is a wish list. If you can get an endorsement from a celeb or someone important in your field/genre, state enough to show it’s actually obtainable.
Do get a professional critique–at least three passes is what agent Steve Hutson recommends.
*Keep in mind an agent’s goal is to sell your book. When they read a submission, they are already trying to think of editors at X houses that would be interested. If an agent sees a book needs a lot of work, they can’t afford to spend the time working with you to make it better. Remember, they only make money when your book sells. Send them a book that is in the best shape possible.
Do list the (right) genre. And only list one genre. A book that is equal parts Sci-fi and Romance will not sell. Another lit agent, Paul Levine was also at this event, and he shared a story about a book that was Sci-Fi/Romance. The editors in Sci-Fi wouldn’t take it because it had too much romance, and the editors in Romance wouldn’t take it because it was too sci-fi. It’s fine to say a book is Romance with sci-fi elements, or a Sci-Fi with romantic elements, but be sure it is clearly ONE genre first and foremost.
*Genre, in the most basic explanation, means where on a bookstore shelf would this book belong? If you aren’t sure–go to a Barnes and Noble, look at the shelves and the labels for each, and figure where you’d put your book. If you still don’t know where your book belongs, you have reevaluating to do (see: get a critique).
Do follow the agent’s requests/directions. Each agent has a different set of expectations for queries, so be sure to read their requirements before submitting. Don’t start on the wrong foot by pitching them a book they would never read, or sending them items they didn’t ask for.
What has your experience been with editors or agents? Are you planning to pitch your book soon? Share in the comments below!
Guest post contributed by Katie McCoach. Katie is a freelance developmental book editor at KM Editorial working with authors of all levels to help them create their best story possible. Katie is a member of Romance Writers of America and the Editorial Freelancers Association. She has had essays published in TrainWrite and Kalliope and is currently writing a contemporary romance novel. For more articles, check out her blog.
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