A Literary Agent Answers Your Fevered Questions -The Toast

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHi everyone: I’m going to be writing a monthly column here at The Toast for unpublished and published writers looking for advice about…really anything. No question is too obscure or strange or boring. Do you want to ask me about how you can get a flow through from your publisher for subrights sales? Ask it! Do you want to discuss the high discount clause and how much you hate it? Ask me! Are you completely confused by these questions and just want to figure out how to get a good agent? That’s okay. Ask me!

When an agent has your manuscript on submission, do they recommend working on a sequel (if it’s built that way) or something different? – @violethenry79

I usually advise my clients to do two things when they go out on submission: start working on another book that they have always wanted to write, and get a hobby that takes them away from email. I usually suggest gardening or boxing.

If a client wants to work on a sequel to the book we’re trying to sell, that’s fine–but what happens if the first book never sells? If they are working on something different, great–if book one doesn’t sell, we can try something unrelated and fresh.

I often end my email to the client by saying, “But, look–write the book you want to write. If what’s appealing to you is the sequel to [AWESOME CONTEMPORARY YA NOVEL], then write that.”

When is a good time to tell an agent that you have other completed material? In your query, on request, when you’re made an offer or otherwise? – @MEasleyWalsh

When I get a query from an author saying that in addition to the book they just asked if I would review, they have several other works waiting, I worry that if I take on this book, I will then have another three or four or ten books to handle as well. Agents usually expect to be the sole agent for an author—handling all their work—and so the idea of suddenly handling not one new book but several is a bit daunting. So do not mention it in the query.

If you receive a request from an agent for a full or partial manuscript, I would also refrain from mentioning the books at that time. Send the agent the manuscript. Let him or her know if another agent has offered representation. Keep your correspondence on-topic and polite.

I recommend telling an agent about this other material when they have offered you representation, and you are having that first phone chat where the agent is trying to impress you. Tell them that in addition to the book they just fell in love with, [LITERARY HORROR NOVEL INVOLVING CTHULHU], you also wrote a mystery novel called [NO, THE BUTLER TOTALLY DID IT THIS TIME, HE’S A PSYCHOPATH]. In fact, you were wondering whether they’d be interested in also representing [NTBTDITTHAP].

If they are, discuss that further. Do they want to send it out after [LHNIC]?

If they aren’t, but you find this agent to be hitting all the right buttons with you, consider if [NTBTDITTHAP] is something you feel is stronger than [LHNIC]. Do you need to prioritize it over Cthulhu? (Answer from Cthulhu himself: NO MINION. I COME FIRST). Or not?

In short, bring it up after the offer, but before you have signed. Query agents one book at a time. If you don’t get any requests with your first book and you’ve tried dozens of agents, try a new book—but only one at a time.

How do you write a good synopsis? – @NooshHugg

Let me start this answer by reassuring you that no client of mine enjoys writing synopses—even if they are going to potentially get a book deal out of it. A sample response to my request for a one-to-two page synopsis: “I hate writing synopses. Do I have to?”

I usually respond along the lines of, “Don’t you like getting paid? I know I like it when you get paid.”

Synopses of books are requested by agents who are reviewing a partial manuscript, so they can see how the book ends without reading the whole things. Synopses are often requested by editors who want to know what your next book will be about—or, if they want to buy a series from an author, they want to know what happens in Books 2 and 3 because only Book 1 has been written. A synopsis should include the basic plot points. If there is a big plot twist or secret, detail it. Is there some kind of romantic subplot? Mention it. Give away the ending.

Something you might find useful is practicing by writing synopses of well-known stories. Here is a synopsis of Goldilocks and the Three Bears:

“A young girl was wandering in the woods and got hungry and tired. She discovered a house that was owned by a bear family and, with the entitlement of the young, entered it uninvited. She ate their food, broke furniture, and fell asleep in the child bear’s bed. The family of bears returned, having gone for a walk to let their porridge cool, and discovered the girl and the damage she had done to their house. The girl woke up and ran screaming from their house. The bears decided not to press charges.”

(Please note a synopsis is different from a detailed outline, which is much longer, more in-depth, and often simultaneously harder and easier for authors to write).

Do literary agents generally consider international submissions, or do they prefer home-grown talent? – 

I have clients in the UK, in Canada, Ireland, and Australia. As long as the submission is written in English and written well, I will consider it. I think most agents are willing to consider books from all over the world. The trick is to have appeal in the US, if we are primarily selling to American publishers. A book does not have to be set in the US to appeal to American readers. (See: J.K. Rowling and the Scandinavian Crime Invasion). But it certainly does help (I sell to publishers in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, so that expands my criteria).

What can people do to prepare themselves and make themselves more qualified for internships? – Anonymous

Two things: read what is being published right now, and get some assistant experience. Know what’s on the bestseller lists, and what’s up front on the display tables at your local bookstore. Also know how to use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint (please tell me you know how to use these) and try to have a working awareness of whatever proprietary data management system/accounting system a publisher or agency will throw at you.

Have good phone manners. Read authors who have not been dead for 30 years. Be fine with being someone’s assistant for a while. Do not say “I’m a big fan of Nabokov, and that’s really all I read” (an actual quote from an interview a friend of mine conducted) and then have no idea who Stephenie Meyer is.

I had two jobs in high school and college that prepared me best for publishing: shelving books at my hometown library (Dick Francis had his own section) and working as a summer clerk at a law firm (thank you, Donna Heller!). I learned how popular Danielle Steel is and I learned the basics of office work and how to behave in an office properly. I also learned legalese, which is incredibly valuable to know early on as an agent. It’s like a foreign language—the earlier you pick it up, the easier it is to understand.

Is the fantasy genre played out? Is there hope for fantasy authors who passionately love the genre and must be published? – @Patricia02437

The entire fantasy genre? Not played out at all. Certain subgenres? Yes, they are played out. It is much harder to sell a new urban fantasy series now than it was three years ago. UF still rules the bestseller charts (Butcher, Hamilton, Harris, Harrison, my own client Richard Kadrey), but those are authors who are at least three or four books into their series and have built an audience. Urban fantasy’s cousin, paranormal romance, is also a lot harder. (Vampires, man. I can’t believe vampires are really dead this time; they’ve died twice before.) New Weird remains the field of, like, four authors. On the flip side, five years ago high fantasy was doing only okay, and nowadays everyone wants it. For this you can almost certainly thank George R. R. Martin.

It’s cyclical. Maybe five years from now high fantasy will be out of style and we’ll be up to our ears in historical fantasy. Our pointy, possibly furry elf ears.

Ginger Clark is a literary agent at Curtis Brown. The opinions expressed above are solely hers, and do not reflect the opinions of her employer or colleagues. Would you like to ask her a question about publishing and writing? Email her and she might answer it in a future column. No question is too specific, obscure, or small. If you wish to send her a professional query, please email her at her Curtis Brown email address.

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