Author’s Note: This was originally part of my Pitch Wars reflection blog but it got WAY too unwieldly and off-topic, so I split it into a separate post that was more targeted. Hopefully.
Content warning: This post discusses offer calls and how to prepare for them, as well as some (non-confidential things) related to my offer.
Disclaimer: Any links or recommendations made by me are my opinion and are not paid endorsements.
There is so much about querying I wish I’d known before I was in the thick of it. Particularly about agents and how to choose one. You know, the whole point of querying. I mean, I queried for FIVE years, and I had no idea what I was doing until Pitch Wars. Maybe not even then, honestly. I thought I knew what I was doing. Until I watched a whole bunch of other people do it and realized nope, I did not have this right.
So, I wrote this post for anyone who, like me, thinks they know what they’re doing but perhaps could stand to learn a bit more. Or for anyone who has questions they’re too afraid to ask (also me, yeah). This isn’t intended to answer every question about publishing and agents that ever was, because wow, that would be even longer than I imagine this will end up being, but I will try to answer the questions I had in hopes they might help someone else. Also, there will be no querying advice AT ALL because as I’ve mentioned repeatedly my query stats are shit. Please head on over to literally anywhere besides here for tips on writing query letters, synopses, pitches, etc.
Step One: Building Your List
Okay, so you wrote a book! Congratulations! Take time to celebrate, it’s a big achievement! You edited it! Celebrate again! You wrote a query letter! Do a dance! You rewrote your query letter for the 982nd time? That is totally normal and fine, please point yourself in the direction of the nearest piece of cake. You earned it. Now, you’re ready to query. Meaning it’s time to build your list of potential agents.
Man, when I did this the first time… well, we aren’t talking about that. First thing’s first. Sign up for Querytracker. It’s free. There’s a premium version too that’s $25 a year and offers some really cool features, but if you can’t swing it, that’s totally fine. The free version is also super helpful. You might also want to start an Excel spreadsheet that tracks information similar to what you’ll find on Querytracker (adding additional columns for more information that might be important to you). Because also, fun fact, there are agents who aren’t on Querytracker (not many, but they do exist).
Querytracker will help you narrow agents down by the genre you write in. That isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s a good start and does a huge lift for you, so it’s where I would start if you’re starting from zero. You’ll probably get a ton of results. Take a breath. Hydrate. Stretch. You’re going to be here awhile. Building a list is kind of a bitch.
Now, ONWARD! TO RESEARCH, MY FRIENDS!
Are you neurodiverse? Cool, me, too. This could swing probably one of two ways for you in particular. You’ll either find it super fun and fall down the rabbit hole forever, or you’re going to get super fucking frustrated really fast. It might switch with the day. Brains, right? Self-care. Medicate if you do that. Chunk out your time but also remember you do not have to attack this all at one time. Just one agent at a time.
Here’s the part where I got irritated as a neurodiverse author who does NOT like agent research. The next step of this process on a lot of blogs/writing advice platforms/Twitter feeds what have you skip right from Querytracker list to: What’s on their manuscript wishlist? What’s on their anti-manuscript wishlist? What do their sales look like? Do they sell to imprints/editors you want your book sold to? Are they from a reputable agency? How long have they been doing this? If not long, who is their mentor? Is there anything about them or their agency that’s a “red flag?”
At this point my brain started to look something like this:
Where to Find Things About Agents
For my overwhelmed querying friends, neurodiverse or otherwise, I am here to tell you WHERE to find all this mystery information. Sort of. Sadly, the information is not uniform so there isn’t a real cut and dry answer, but I’m going to try:
- Manuscript Wishlists (“MSWLs”) and Anti-Manuscript Wishlists (“Anti-MSWLs”) can be found most often on either (a) the agency’s website under the agent’s biography; (b) the agent’s personal website (often linked to on their agent page on their agency’s website); or (c) The Official Manuscript Wishlist SPECIAL NOTE: Sometimes, additional information about what the agent is currently accepting can be found on the agent’s Query Manager site if they use one, so it’s not a terrible idea to try checking that before you go down a rabbit hole of research. I have heard many a querying author bemoan doing loads of research only to go to Query Manager to upload their query and find a note at the top from the agent that says *NOT CURRENTLY ACCEPTING [YOUR GENRE]* despite everything else the agent’s MSWL’s elsewhere say. Also make sure to check the drop down menu to see if your genre and age group is listed! So, consider yourself duly forewarned.
- Sales Information (Agent and Agency) can be found on Publisher’s Marketplace. This includes the agent’s sales and the agency’s sales, and it will show you who the agent/agency are selling to (editors and imprints). PROBLEM. This information, while really helpful, is self-reported, so not always up-to-date or entirely accurate, AND it can only be accessed with a paid subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace (PM) which is quite expensive (I believe it’s about $25 a month). The good news is you can pay monthly and cancel at any time.
- Reputation and Red Flag Information is harder because this is usually accessed via the “Whisper Network” or by doing some serious sleuthing into the deep dark places on Twitter. You can, however, find some very good information on Writer Beware and its companion Writer Beware Blog (which can at least help you avoid vanity presses and scams). Unfortunately, these resources don’t usually have the latest industry “tea” regarding literary agencies. Comments on Querytracker can often lead you in the right direction on this front and many authors on Twitter are very willing to talk privately as long as you maintain that privacy (going back to my earlier post on community).
So, after all this, what you should end up with is a list of agents (or the start of one, it doesn’t have to be every single one you’re going to query, just some to get your feet wet maybe), that meet some basic criteria. The criteria will differ based on every author and their goals but in general, your group of shiny gem agents should all have some things in common:
- They accept submissions for your age group and genre
- Your book sounds like something sort of close to something on their manuscript wishlist
- It doesn’t sound like something on their anti-manuscript wishlist (if they have one)
- Their sales are in line with your goals as an author (i.e. they’re selling the kinds of books you write to the kinds of editors/imprints you’d like to publish your books)
- If they’re a new agent and don’t have sales yet, their agency is doing number 4
- SUBJECTIVE: Either the (a) agency has been around awhile with a good history of sales or (b) the agent has been around awhile with a good history of sales (this doesn’t HAVE to be the case for you, new agencies with new agents are a thing, they’re just a riskier than I’m willing to do thing, but that’s a personal preference)
- SUBJECTIVE: There’s nothing about them or their agency you’ve heard or learned that makes you uncomfy or makes you feel they wouldn’t be a good potential lifelong business partner FOR YOU (totally different for different people)
But what about my Dream Agent, i.e. the One Who Says Yes?
But Aimee, you haven’t addressed the most important criteria: will they say yes to me?
“My dream agent is the one who says yes.” I see this so frequently on Twitter these days it actually makes me wince a little to put it here. Because I get it. Truly. And I know, querying writers, you’re like no, Aimee, you don’t. You have an agent. You have your yes. You can fuck right off into the sunset with your I get it. And I get that, too. I was there for five years with like exactly five requests to my name in that entire time. At one point I told a friend of mine that I would make my main character a two-headed dolphin if it meant getting into Pitch Wars. But getting into Pitch Wars actually taught me how wrong I was. The yes isn’t the dream. Sharing a vision is.
So, sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but no. Your dream agent is absolutely not the one who says yes. I mean, listen, your dream agent COULD in fact be the one who says yes. But not BECAUSE they say yes. Because they share your vision and meet all your objective criteria which you laid out while building your list.
While much of the old query advice can be thrown out, the adage that a bad agent is worse than no agent remains true. “Bad” agent is also an agent who is “bad” for you. There are tons of agents out there who hit all the right “boxes.” Who have great sales, come from a reputable agency that’s well known, who have impressive client lists, and great references, who represent your heroes, who might even give you a yes and can still be a bad fit for you.
Huh? But you just said… and the list… and… I KNOW! THIS IS WHY IT IS ANNOYING AND CONFUSING. Onward!
Step 2: Preparing for The Call™
You got an email to set up a call! Hooray! BUY YOURSELF A WHOLE DAMN CAKE! I’ll wait.
It’s time to prepare for The Call™. Okay, first, a disclaimer. Hopefully, the purpose of the call was laid out for you in the email scheduling it, but if it wasn’t, I will forewarn you that not all calls with agents lead to offers. This is something I learned during Pitch Wars that SHOCKED me. So if you, like me, wandered around in the querying darkness for many years before now, please know that sometimes agents call to… reject you. Which is weird. They also sometimes call to explain to you a R&R. More rare still, they intend to offer then something goes sideways on the call and an offer doesn’t actually happen.
BUT, before too much panic happens, please know that most calls are in fact THOSE calls.
The Standard Lists
Now, there are loads of resources, blogs, lists, etc. circulating about what questions you should ask on The Call. The most popular one is probably Jim McCarthy’s which you can find here. From what I’ve heard from my friends’ calls, of which I’ve been fortunate enough to hear about many (and in my personal experience), most agents will answer like 95% of these questions without you having to ask, because they know these lists exist. That’s a green flag if they just start answering them, as an FYI.
To be clear, I am 100% supportive of having these lists prepared. I used one myself. That’s a great base, I just am not going to spend time recreating the wheel when others have done it better. What I want to talk about is the shit not on these lists. The things that might help you better suss out not what makes an agent a schmagent or a bad agent but a bad fit FOR YOU.
The Nonstandard List
Okay, this is where it starts getting a little dicey, because all of this is immensely personal. So, take everything I’m about to say with like 1,000 grains of salt. I don’t want anyone to come back to me like, “Aimee, I gave up my yes because of something you wrote on your blog.” This is simply what worked for me when I really wanted to evaluate what mattered to me about my writing and my potential relationship with an agent.
Consider critically dissecting the most important elements of your story. Really think about genre and genre conventions. Where does your book fit on the shelf? Do you care if it lands elsewhere? Why? Would you be willing to change the point of view? Add another character? Change the gender of your character? Something critical to who they are or their identity? Rip the structure out and put a new one in? Age the characters up or down to put it into a different age group? List out what’s important to you and really think about what your hard lines are. Knowing this will be incredibly important because it’ll tell you more about your book, yourself, and your future agent.
Identify what’s most important to you about your writing and your career. This will be really different depending on the author, but to get to the bottom of the “will you be a good career partner for me” question, you need something particular to you.
Which means no one can design it for you, unfortunately. But what I can do is give you an example. Genre is really important to me, for the reasons I talked about in this post. For my call, I had several questions tailored around this concept, from revision visions, to submission strategy, to general thoughts about my conception of the market versus Keir’s. Was it awkward to get all hot and bothered over my opinions on the call I’d been waiting to have for the past two decades? Yes. Was I nervous as hell Keir would think I was a messy, scattered human word vomiting slightly disjointed thoughts in faer direction? Yes. Did I still need to say this to figure out if we were on the same page about something I’ll likely come up against for the entirety of my career as a woman writing adult SFF? Also yes.
In short, it’s not a bad idea to have a couple questions prepared to see if you and your agent are on the same page about your career, and where you want your books (and yourself) to land. This should be an honest conversation. Your agent is your future business partner. Transparency is important. And if you don’t share the same vision, there will for sure be problems. If you write MG and your agent wants you to age everything up to YA and that’s a hard no for you, but you say yes anyway, then your edit letter comes and you have to write in an age group you know jack shit about, you’re going to be pissed. And your agent might be less than thrilled with the result. Similarly, if you write fantasy you dream of seeing in hardback on the shelves at Barnes & Noble next to Neil Gaiman, and your agent wants you to turn everything into fantasy romance to be sold digital only, so you can churn out three books a year to compete in the romance space, you’ll run into a problem or two, I’m pretty sure. Trying to figure this out now instead of later is better. Even if the answer is less than ideal.
There should not be a power imbalance. Your relationship with your agent should really feel like it’s mutually respectful. I will caveat this by saying this is a really hard thing to vet on The Call or even in the early stages of the relationship for most new authors, especially those who’ve been querying a long time. I’ve discussed this at length with many of my newly agented friends, including many who already have book deals and they still struggle with fear. This isn’t the fault of most agents, it’s simply a side effect of querying for so long. We’re all afraid of doing something “wrong” and getting “sent back.” Sadly, we also have reason to be in some cases.
Always be ready to say no. I had only one request. One call. Some would say I had one shot. Maybe that’s true. I had at that point essentially given up writing. But the lessons I learned during Pitch Wars about what was important to me about my book combined with what I’d learned in “quitting” (i.e. there was a whole career for me I was very good at and other potential passions I could pursue and still find meaning in) gave me the courage to approach my call with Keir ready to walk away. Obviously, I desperately hoped I wouldn’t have to. But I had a couple questions on my list especially formulated to try and discern whether Keir and I would be a good match not only for this book but for future ones. And they were mostly designed around those things that had gone from “I’ll make Isabelle a two-headed dolphin if someone will just say yes” into “I won’t change this because it really matters to me from a career perspective.” If we couldn’t see eye to eye on what mattered to me, I wasn’t sure how we’d continue.
Of course, this all has to be approached reasonably. It kind of reminds me of when my partner and I were first shopping for our home. We picked out the area and set the budget and had a list of “must haves” and a list of “nice to haves.” The more and more we looked, the more things moved from the “must have” list to the “nice to have” list. However, there were a few things that never left: two toilets, a garage, a fenced in yard, a dishwasher. That was basically it. When you’re researching agents, you can find yourself doing a similar analysis, but it’s important to never end up in a position where your “must have” category becomes only “an agent.”
Step 3: Post Call
I’m going to skip the actual call because I think there’s a ton of information out there on that whirlwind. It’s basically an interview.
So you got an offer, for real! Hooray!!! Time to eat cake! And nudge.
I actually didn’t have to do this because, well, whatever. Anyway, after you get the official verbal offer (industry standard is for the offering agent to give you two weeks to notify other agents), you can nudge any agent who has your query. The old advice used to be you nudge only agents who have your full or partial. Throw that advice AWAY. Immediately. Any agent who has your query who you’re still interested in potentially representing you, nudge. As a professional courtesy, do not nudge agents who you really don’t want to represent you now that you have this one on the line. You should withdraw your materials from them.
Now comes the part I really never understood.
How People End up with Multiple Offers
For four years I queried mostly alone, no community to speak of, no friends with agents, very much an outsider trying to find a way in. Authors on Twitter declared they had eight offers. It seemed impossible. The timing. Honestly, how did that work when it took agents 187 days to respond to my queries? How did they get eight all at once to read a whole book? Clearly, I was doing something very, very wrong.
Maybe I’m the only fool out there. There are pros and cons to that, I suppose. But in the event I’m not, the way people get eight offers is by getting ONE single offer then nudging everyone who has their query.
What happens after that is a two-week medley of agents requesting materials in a rush, passing quickly (called a “step aside”), and, if you’re lucky, more calls. When you’re in the trenches, this all sounds super exciting, but from what I’ve seen watching a bunch of people go through it, I think it sort of sucks, honestly. I might just be trying to cheer myself up about not having 37 agents clambering to represent me, but I’ve not seen this be particularly pleasant for anyone who’s done it. I think it’s probably pretty jarring to go from a stream of rejections to… frenzy. But because I haven’t done it myself I’m not really qualified to say much more other than that’s how it works! Oh, and at the end, you have to uh… decide. On one. Or none. Walking away is still always an option!
There are no guarantees. Not in publishing. Not in life. This isn’t a set of rules any more than anything else I ramble on about. There are exceptions and scenarios I haven’t covered. Anomalies and twists of fate. I am pretty sure I know of at least one story about someone who got an agent without having to query at all, for example (maybe rumors, who knows). But for the most part, we all have to do the same things, and at the end, we have to make decisions that aren’t always easy using the best information we have at the time. Here’s to making some of that a little less nebulous.