By Rachel Beck
Publishing a book is an interesting undertaking, in that it feels very isolated, cryptic, almost inaccessible in some ways. From the writing to the research to the querying literary agencies to the landing a deal with a publishing house, it involves many steps that might seem mysterious to an outsider. And as with anything that feels baffling and impenetrable, myths will certainly spring up.
In my nearly 10 years in the industry, I’ve heard it all–that editors and agents “clear their desks” every December 31 being perhaps the most ludicrous one. No, we don’t simply delete everything we haven’t had time to look at at the end of each year. We do look at everything that comes across our desks, once it’s been screened by the submissions coordinator to be sure it follows the basic rules of submission.
Here are four of the top misconceptions when it comes to landing an agent, debunked:
1. When You Query an Agent You Need to Stand Out
Nope, definitely not. In fact, please don’t stand out. I know writers worry about the insane volume of queries that every agent gets on a daily basis, and their story idea getting lost in it. So you might think that you need to stand out somehow, whether it’s with a crazy opening line, giant/colored font, or using Old or Middle English type language, coming at your actual story description in a weird roundabout way. All of these things make you stand out in a negative light. Agents want to read a query letter that is extremely ordinary in terms of things like font, etc., and that gets to the point of the story with as little fanfare as possible. Trust me, not doing anything overt to stand out–and instead getting the agent’s attention based on your story idea alone–is the best thing you can do to actually stand out.
2. You Should Make Sure the Agent Knows Who You Are
Another word for this is stalking. Or at least, internet-stalking. I’ve had the same authors query me through the submissions inbox, send emails to my agency email (usually by guessing the address, since it’s not publicly available), writing to me on LinkedIn or Facebook Messenger or Twitter…the list goes on and on. Sure, I will see your name more times than I would’ve otherwise. But this is not a good thing. Agents talk to one another, and we’ll probably warn each other about these “problem” authors who don’t respect professional boundaries. Please don’t stalk or harass us. It’s really off-putting, and it shows a sense of entitlement that you can’t just send a query and wait for a response like all the other authors.
3. Agents Only Want Previously Published Authors
Not true. In fact, I actually love finding a debut writer–someone who’s never been published anywhere, not even so much as an article in their high school newspaper. There’s something so pure and wonderful about finding undiscovered talent and helping them get it out there for the world to see, making someone’s dreams come true in this way for the first time. So there’s no reason to exaggerate any previous writing history in your query letter, or to provide an exhaustive laundry list of all the micro publications you’ve contributed to. Just listing the top few of these is sufficient. Don’t worry that you don’t have enough “experience.” Just sell me on your idea, and if it’s a strong one, that will be enough. Think of it like a job interview, but instead of previous related work experience, the most important asset you need to be a strong candidate is a well-written, interesting story.
4. It’s Fine to Ignore Certain “Rules” if Your Story is Really Strong
Sometimes a writer will send a query for a young adult novel that’s only 40,000 words, or a women’s fiction that’s 120,000. There are numerous resources, blogs and articles out there on maximum/minimum acceptable word count for each genre. 40k is too short for a young adult; that’s really more middle grade length. And 120k is definitely too long for women’s fiction. At that length, it’s probably an epic fantasy. Writers who choose to ignore these things because the story is so good that they’re sure it won’t matter are probably not going to get an agent to read much, if anything, past the sentence where the word count is given. Again, don’t be that author who stands out. Don’t think that your story is worthy of breaking basic rules such as word count.
These are a few of the biggest myths I see authors acting on in my everyday routine of sorting through queries. It’s really easy to not be that person, and hopefully this post is helpful to steer you away from what makes you seem amateur or unprofessional, and instead help you become the type of author agents want to work with!