I hate sending out queries to agents. The odds of an agent responding positively to a query from an unknown author are worse than the odds of winning a darts tournament blindfolded. But what else are you gonna do? I’ve sent out 15 queries in the past three days. Tomorrow, another five.
I have two quite different feelings about my new novel. First, I’m proud of it. I think it’s quite good. Second, I don’t think it’s marketable. I don’t think it has the kind of zing! that agents are looking for.
The phrase “breakout novel” popped into my head, so I googled it. Turns out Donald Maass, one of the top NY agents, wrote a book 20 years ago called Writing the Breakout Novel. I’m sure my subconscious knew that already. So I grabbed the Kindle edition and started reading it.
It’s full of high-powered advice. This is not a book that tells you how to do dialog tags or master other Fiction 101 techniques; it’s the graduate course. It’s a bit chatty, but absolutely worthwhile if you’re serious about writing fiction.
A lot of agents these days use a web service called Query Tracker to receive queries. It’s a web form with spaces for the query letter, synopsis, first X pages, and so on. Evidently each agent can set up their own form: Some ask for a bio; some ask for comparable titles; some ask, if you’ve self-published in the last year, how many copies did you sell? That’s a painful question for me, because I don’t do any marketing or promotion. My sales figures would have to be five times better to qualify as dismal. And that’s a real problem, because an agent is going to be looking at whether a prospective client is into self-promotion. The publisher is not going to promote your book, kids: You’ll have to do it yourself.
But ultimately, what matters is not the snappy query letter or the statistics. What matters is whether the agent “falls in love” (that’s a standard term) with your book. There are, I think, two aspects to this falling-in-love thing. First, a successful agent is exquisitely attuned to the needs of the market. If your book hits the bull’s-eye in a particular market niche, the agent’s stone-cold heart will go pitty-pat. Second, each agent has personal tastes — and that matters, because your agent is going to be your advocate as your book lurches its way into the abattoir of the publishing industry. If the agent loves the book, she will be an effective advocate. And of course she will get 15% off the top of your advance and royalties, so falling in love will enhance her financial prospects as well as yours.
It’s a gruesome business. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to get involved in it. But I already have some ideas for a new book….