Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Elusive Agent Just Got More Elusive

Today's usual Thursday Five post is being eclipsed by something Gemma Noon alerted me to via Twitter yesterday. It is five ways of confusing, so perhaps it counts.

UK agent Kirsty McLachlan, with David Godwin Associates, had some very real things to say about how authors get agents in a guest blog post, and her list of how writers can grab an agent's attention were these (I paraphrased and condensed):

  • Knowing someone who knows an agent
  • Building an author platform (this didn't preclude people from the slush, but still)
  • Breaking rules by ducking under guidelines
  • Doing your homework and looking for hungry agents (again does not preclude slush)
  • Stalking your favorite agent - go to events where they'll be
  • Getting involved in a writer's community – presumably this leads to agent networking
  • Making noise about your book in the hopes that someone, somewhere just might overhear the conversation and will help you get your manuscript to the desk of an agent

I don't disagree with those although I think you have to do them all in moderation (i.e., don't be a real stalker and don't do things that make you look unstable.) But what I had a hard time with was the way Kirsty's post started out: by saying that her agency has not typically found their slush pile to be lucrative. Instead, they've found authors because the authors did other things. The comments for the post supported this! The basic, and worrying, message here was: slush piles don't work. Slush piles have not produced the agency's authors.

Edit, April 2010: Based on the comments this post received, I'm adding a clarification here. The original guest post said that the agency was thinking of getting rid of the slush pile altogether because it hadn't yielded finds for them like the other methods had. And that bothered me only because it's very hard to get those other methods. No doubt it is better, but not always possible.

According to Kirsty's list, I see nothing in there that you couldn't do while still being in the slush pile. You can have a platform, network with agents so they remember you when you query, and make noise -- and some of those efforts will pay off because, presumably, you'll be noticed when they get to your query. But that isn't really what Kirsty was saying. She said: "Look for the gaps and you might just bypass the slush pile completely."
WTF does this mean? Is this just a difference between the UK and the US agents? Kirsty does say that her agency has only accepted snail submissions and that "they talk about going digital." I can see where if you still do things that way, it's harder to get in, but a slush pile is a slush pile.

I honestly don't believe that you'll be forgotten on the (virtual or real) floor just because you didn't have a platform or know someone who knows an agent. I really, truly don't believe that. I think that those things all help a lot, but because the internet has changed the way we communicate, the vast majority of new authors aren't going to know an agent and be BFFs with them before submitting.

Am I missing something here? I believe strongly that things can (and for me, should) be done largely through the tinterweb. I don't believe that I should spend $500 on writing conferences to fleetingly meet an agent whom I can then query and remind him or her of meeting them. I don't disagree that this is helpful, mind you, but none of the things above make you a better writer or your story a better book.

Right? Help me out here, folks. What is your take on this?

10 comments:

Tina Lynn said...

WTF is right! Though I think I may have my foot in the door somewhere. I still think this sucks!

Gemma Noon said...

It's more the message given out that disturbs me. I mean I know that platform building, doing your research and maybe getting to know a few agents (if possible) is a good thing, because it helps you understand the market for your work, but soomer or later you have to submit. Sooner or later an agent has to read your work, and it still has to stand out beside the other twenty manuscripts beside it.

INterestingly, the agents I've spoken to for the project assured me that every single submission to their agency was read. So how does bypassing the slushpile help, since your work is going to get read, anyway? Surely you'd be better off making the best damn submission that you can?

Don't get me wrong, I've made some good contacts through my own platform building and with The Literary Project started to get some attention, but I've done that with the view to learn more, get the best advice, work out what makes one book (and submission) stand out above another.

Even with having met a few agents & editors through my interviews - and in a few cases getting on extremely well with the people in question - I don't think it would be professional for me to follow them around and do nothing but talk about my book (which all us writers are guilty of to some degree, I guess!). If I think my work would appeal to them, I'll submit.

I did ask a writer friend to help me out once. It backfired and a friendship becamse strained because of it - I think they were too scared to tell me I wasn't ready, and I'm not sure I would have listened if they had. I hope I'm more mature about it now, but it isn't a mistake I'll make again. Don't get me wrong, I drill writers & publishing types for information, but that isn't the same thing. "Give me advice" and "put this onto the desk of your agent" will get different responses, and I know which i'd prefer to be asked if I were a successful, published author.

Once I did rather cheekily ask an editor whose books were closed to let me know when they reopened so I could get to the top of the slush. The response was an invitation to directly sub, but I'm still competing against everything else he has to read. I don't think of that as a backdoor; he knew me through something else, so I suppose that comes under platform building, but I didn't ask for special treatment.

Anyway, that was a lot longer than I meant it to be! I think I'm going to keep on polishing my submission pack and not worry about back doors. The front one seems to be working fine.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

I speak largely from ignorance in publishing, but experience in several other sectors: this doesn't surprise me at all. No matter what anyone says, personal connections always help, often they are critically important, and no system is truly a meritocracy. This is about doing anything to stand out in the continuous crush of incoming queries agents must face. I don't think it is absolutely necessary to do any of these things to get published, but I bet it helps. Obviously it is easier for some to identify and take advantage of opportunities to bypass the slush than it is for others.

KLM said...

I don't fret about this too much, either. I mean, isn't this just the publishing world's version of "the good ole boys network?" Personal connections that get you a cushy job? FWIW, I have twice had personal referrals to big name agents and maybe because of the referral, I got moved up slightly in the TBR pile, but neither ultimately netted me representation. An agent once told my writing class, "When an author is ready to be published, somehow I find them." Maybe they assume because you're at a conference, you're at that stage? I don't know.

In the end, if the work is good and you keep at it, you will find an agent who wants to represent you. And frankly, I think there's great nobility in clawing your way out of the slush pile and into bookstores everywhere.

Sierra, another great, thought-provoking post!

Natalie said...

Okay, so I'm technically unplugged this week, but I had to weigh in here.

I got my agent through a query. I didn't know ANYONE in the business, I'd never been to a conference, and I had zero online presence (I didn't start my blog, or twitter until after I had an agent). I know about 20 agented authors now, and all but one of them found their agents the same way, through the slush, without any contacts anywhere.

I think contacts can help. I think platforms can help. I think conferences are fun. But I don't think any of these things will get a person an agent if their book isn't great. And if the book is great an agent is going to see it in the slush.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Great thoughts guys. Natalie, thanks for posting your experience. I really believe very strongly that your experience is repeatable and viable. That's really what it came down to me (and I think Gemma too) is that you still have to have a good book.

I just wish the message of Kirsty's post hadn't been to the contrary.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

I agree with the other commenters. I used to be in recruiting and there are always the people that get the job because they know someone or had some connection, but the majority of who we hired was from the resume "slush". My guess is it's not that different in publishing--connections help, but a great book is a great book. Things will stand out in the slush.

I don't have an agent or publisher yet, but I've had fulls requested and have gotten person feedback from agents in the past--so some are reading from the slush. Also, the publisher that currently has my full requested it from the three chapters I sent to their slush. Now, I don't know if that will turn into anything, but I have to imagine that they wouldn't request the full if they weren't giving it consideration.

Having said that...I'm trying to throw the net wide. I have joined my local RWA to network with other writers, I go to conferences, and I enter contests that offer the chance to "jump the slush" and get directly in front of the editor. Can't hurt.

Meghan Ward said...

I agree with Kirsty McLaughlan's post. Not to say that the slush pile doesn't get read and that you can't go that route as well (like you said, Sierra, no reason why you can't do both), but it can takes months and months for agents to respond to blind queries whereas you'll "jump the slush" as Roni says if you have a connection.

Anonymous said...

Further to Meghan, I agree but I'd also add it's not just about having a connection and jumping the queue. Sometimes good writing gets ignored because an agent or publisher isn't sure how to publish it or where it would fit.

Let's assume we are talking about decent writing here.

When you make a connection you allow them to glimpse the back story to the book and motivate them to help you improve the book. If the book was simply in the slushpile, it might be dismissed as good yet not quite good enough to stand out.

Authors can get so heated about this subject and a bit nasty too at times, as if they're entitled to be published, which none of us are. Self-publish if you're so convinced your work deserves an audience.

I'm an agent and whenever I comment on blogs I get loads of pitches; I'm already overrun with ms and so posting this anon.

Good luck all

Sierra said...

Thanks for the comments, Anon Agent...and good point about giving a connection to the book, which helps it stand out from other good books.

To clarify in case you think I'm one of those heated authors, the original post said that the agency was thinking of getting rid of the slush pile altogether because it hadn't yielded finds for them like the other methods had. And that bothered me only because it's very hard to get those other methods. No doubt it is BETTER, but not always possible.

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