A friend of mine who’s recently had a number of editors request his manuscript asked me how I created a sense of urgency among agents and editors when I was sending out The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys — since that was something I mentioned to him when I talked to him at a recent writer’s workshop, about the value of creating a sense of urgency. I was going to answer him directly, but I thought my thoughts on this might benefit other writers, too. This is just my opinion, of course, and what I think worked for me, so take it for what it is. Other writers may have different experiences.
1. Have a great manuscript. I know it goes without saying, but well, I’m saying it anyway. Nothing you do will matter if you don’t have a great manuscript. However, remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and where one person sees a diamond in the rough another sees only a lump of coal. There is no book ever published that was universally liked. Once your writing gets to a publishable level, it’s always about taste.
2. Perfect your query, but also modify it for each agent or editor. Nobody wants to feel like they are getting a form letter. Even one or two sentences at the beginning of your query that’s tailored to each particular editor or agent helps a great deal. It could be about a book they sold that’s similar in tone or feel to yours, or a client they represent that writes similar books. A workshop or conference where you saw them speak. Just something to make them feel like you didn’t just boilerplate your query. Think small talk, but don’t pander. And make it real.
3. Be aggressive! In less than a week, after I decided to get serious about marketing Water Balloon Boys, I sent out 32 queries to both editors and agents. Not all at once, but staggered over the week. And not just to any editors or agents. I did my research. Yes, it’s hard work, and yes, it’s exhausting. But I’m fully convinced it’s a numbers game. There are many, many reasons why agents and editors don’t ask to see books, and only a few of those reasons have to do with the quality of your manuscript. (As far as how to research, check out my Resources for Writers page. It’s a place to start.)
4. This one’s probably going to be controversial, but I’ve come to believe it’s true: You don’t want an agent who won’t take email queries. Yes, you can make exceptions, but they better be heavy hitters with lots of bestsellers on their lists. However, the agents most new writers are most likely to get — and the ones who will usually be the best fit — are the younger agents, the ones hungry to grow their careers. If they’re not taking email queries, they are behind the times. They are not serious about building their client base, because they run the risk of missing out on great clients.
Yes, I understand all their objections, that taking email queries makes it incredibly easy for any Tom, Dick, or Harriet to submit a manuscript, but so what? Rejecting email queries is also incredibly easy: “Thanks, but this one’s not a good fit for me,” and then hit the Send button. No sticking a letter in an envelope. No walking that letter to the mailbox. This is the way of the future, folks. The agent I ended up going with (the amazing Rachel Vater of Folio) read my query, asked for the manuscript, read the manuscript, and offered representation all in twenty-four hours.
A postal letter wouldn’t even have made it from Oregon to Ohio in that time.
Is it any coincidence that Rachel is quickly becoming one of the hottest agents out there, with a growing number of clients hitting the bestseller lists? I think not. Her response to my query is indicative of the type of agent she is — one who’s agressive when she finds a project she believes in.
One other point: not one of my 32 queries was sent by postal mail. Not one.
5. Don’t stop because a few of them have asked to see it. That’s the worst thing you can do. Remember, you must believe you have a hot commodity. Everybody wants it. If everybody wants it, why would you stop when only a few people have asked for it? The best way to create a sense of urgency among editors and agents is to have many of them wanting it at the same time. Think about eBay. What happens to the bidding when more than one person wants the same thing?
6. Always include at least the first five pages of your manuscript. I do this even when agents and editors don’t ask for it. There are a couple reasons for this. First, most writers write crappy query letters and most editors and agents know this. But lots of writers who can’t write query letters can write great books — which means that no matter how bad your query letter is, no agent or editor will be able to resist at least glancing at your opening pages.
I know this is hard to believe, but 99% of manuscripts are rejected in the first five pages even if the whole manuscript is included. If you haven’t hooked an agent or editor in those first five pages, you aren’t going to hook them. Sorry, but it’s true. However, the flip side is also true: if you have hooked them in the first five pages, there’s a decent chance that you can get them to read the rest of the manuscript. Why? Because you got them across threshold from looking for a reason to reject to looking for a reason to represent or buy. That change in mindset makes all the difference.
Important: unless they ask for the pages as an attachment, don’t do it that way. Include it in the body of the email directly below your query. You’ll have to reformat it, but it’s worth it. That way, if they’re not interested in reading the pages, no harm, no foul. It didn’t clog up their inbox or get flagged by their spam program. Being aggressive doesn’t mean being annoying.
7. Don’t promise an exclusive. If they don’t ask, don’t mention it. If they ask, be honest. Tell them you appreciate their interest, but unfortunately you can’t offer an exclusive at this time. You’ve just started querying and you’ve already had a fair amount of interest. However, you promise to immediately let them know if there’s an offer of representation and to give them time, if they’re interested, to let you know why he or she would be the best agent for this project. Then you go ahead and send them the manuscript (by email or snail mail, depending on how they ask for it).
Here’s the important point, and the point that probably gives new writers fits: if they decide to pass because you didn’t offer them an exclusive, you don’t want them.This means that 1) they’re too busy to take on a new client, 2) they’re not an agressive enough agent, or 3) they probably don’t believe in the concept of your book enough, which means you already have an uphill climb with them.
Some agents, especially ones who have been in the business a long time, are legitimately too busy to be the kind of agent that an up-and-coming writer needs. They might have a number of bestsellers on their list (and they know where their bread is buttered), they might have personal problems, or they might just be truly buried. In any case, they’re not the right agent for you. A good agent can make all the difference, but you are better off having no agent than a agent who isn’t right for you.
Remember, for the most part agents are like Realtors. Their job is to help you sell an already sellable project. Why would you want an agent or editor who isn’t excited enough about your project to compete with other agents or editors for it?
8. An agent offers representation. What do you do?You listen, ask questions, and try to determine if they’d be a good agent for you at this time in your career and with this particular project. Sure, you want an agent who will be with you long term, but the most imprant thing is that they’re right for you now and with this current project. Everything else is hypothetical. Then tell them that you’ve had lots of interest in the manuscript, and to be fair, you need to give the others an opportunity to make their pitches. Any good agent will completely understand this. It’s a business, after all. You tell the agent that you’re going to give everyone until such and such date and then you will make your decision.
Now email anyone who asked to see the manuscript and anyone you’ve queried who hasn’t passed on it telling them that there’s an offer of representation on the table.You tell them you value everyone’s time, and you know how hard agenting is, so you want to make sure that anyone who’s interested has a chance to make his or her pitch to you. Then you give them your deadline. A week is ample time. An agent who really believes in the book will get to it in a week.
9. For me, this spurred a number of agents into action, and in the end, I had multiple offers of representation.It also spurred a number of agents to pass on the project. But that’s fine. That’s what creating a sense of urgency will do — it speeds up the process. Fast rejections are no different than slow rejections. However, a fast acceptance generally means extra enthusiasm, and in this business, there’s no substitute for having an agent or editor with enthusiasm for your project. I happen to know that Rachel Vater is incredibly busy, just buried in queries and manuscripts, and so her fast response time gave her bonus points in my mind.
10. What if, instead, an editor offers to buy the book? What do you do? You thank the editor and tell them you’ll have your agent give them a call (even if you don’t have an agent). Congratulations! Now you have a huge bargaining chip you can use to get the agent you want. Be forewarned: you still want an agent who is right for you. Call the agents on your dream list and interview them. Take your time. Publishing moves at glacial speed. Taking an extra few days or even weeks means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
I actually signed with an agent before I had an offer from an editor, but I will say this: marketing my work aggressively was one of the chief reasons the editor who ended up buying my book even heard about it in the first place. If I had been passive, if I had sat around waiting for agents or editors to get back to me before marketing it to others, it’s doubtful this particular editor would have even heard about it.
Of course, that’s a story for another day . . .