Saturday, 24 April 2010


There are many ways not to hook an agent but today we are talking about just one: the ill-considered use of a middle-person to make the approach for you, even if the approach includes a glowing report on your book. I have just had a message from an agent telling me about a submission she's just had.

First mistake: it began, "We write on behalf of our client..." NO! Avoid outfits that claim to offer your MS to a whole raft of agents and publishers together. Knowledgeable agents want to hear from YOU, not some cowboy crew who think they know about publishing. Your approach must be personal and tailored if you want proper publication with a real publisher and a great service from a genuine agent. The exception is if the agent already knows and respects the opinion of the sender of the letter, but they will attach no importance at all to the recommendation of strangers.

Second mistake: the website of the outfit sending the letter had basic errors. (Not that the agent got as far as looking, but I did.) Dodgy punctuation, dull writing, no evidence of real knowledge or passion, and a claim to use a "published author!" - their exclamation mark, as though finding a published author to help them was such a big deal. If the person making the recommendation writes such dull English and fails to understand how publishing works, why should the agent trust the opinion of said person?

Third mistake: before describing the MS, the organisation offered boring and irrelevant info about its "client's" background. When offering a novel, background is irrelevant unless it happens to be relevant. If the people in this outfit don't know that, they don't know anything.

Listen at the back, please. Stop fiddling and pay attention. If you're a writer and you have a publishable book, do not demean yourself by getting someone to present your book to an agent on your behalf. By all means quote a genuine endorsement if you have one that means something, but don't use a third party that the agent hasn't heard of. Using a third party may seem professional to a novice, but it isn't. It's just not how publishing works. Publishing works very simply: professionals (agent and / or editor) love your book, believe it can sell and know how they would sell it; said professionals sign you up, buy the rights (well, the publishers do) - and buy means PAY FOR - and put their company's money into marketing, distributing and selling your book, passing on a % to you twice a year. You do not need any other middle people. Yes, you can have other people helping by giving feedback, either informally or formally, but once your book is ready to send out, you must do this yourself if you want to gain respect.

Sometimes writing consultancies do offer to present your book, if they feel it's good enough, to agents or publishers with whom they have contacts. Sometimes this is OK, but only if the consultancy is a quality outfit with genuine connections.Unfortunately, too many are not, and some are now getting themselves a bad name for giving over-glowing reports on dud MSS.

My consultancy (Pen2Publication) does NOT offer to submit your work to agents or publishers for you. However, if I came across an MS which I felt was ready and suited to an agent or publisher of my acquaintance, I might create an opening and / or endorsement, but that would be all. I don't advertise that fact because it's rarely going to be the case and I don't want to raise hopes. Also, I know very well that most agents worth their salt want to be approached directly by the writer and if the work is good enough my opinion won't be needed. I certainly would never make the approach for a writer and I would not recommend any writer to use that method.

You're a writer: write your own letters. Get genned up on publishing and do your research. Write the best book you can and stand up for it yourself. Getting someone else to submit your work is NOT the best way to impress an agent or publisher. Trust me.


DJ Kirkby said...

Very sensible advice and it's nice to have it all laid out in one post. Thank you.

Catherine Hughes said...

I hope I don't sound hugely arrogant when I say I simply wouldn't trust anyone else to write my query letter for me!

(Which is an entirely different thing from being willing to accept advice on its content and format, which I have been and am.)

Apart from anything else, there is a learning process involved and you can't improve if you don't try! Or something like that!


GalaktioNova said...

Thank you very much for such a useful and important post!

The other day I stumbled into one of these "outfits" while doing some research on the Net. For three dollars, they offer to write a query for you and send it to the likes of Penguin, Simon & Schuster, etc (never mind they don't accept unsolicited queries). And if you subscribed to their regular services, they offered - as a special bonus, obviously - to send your query out BY EMAIL.

Is there a smiley for "speechless"?

Harry Markov said...

Oh, boy. So you get representation to get represented in front of the agent, who is supposed to represent you in front of publishers...

People do this? Especially, when they know how long it takes.

@ Cat: I am with you on the trust issue. With so much plagiarism on the prowl, I fear that the third party will steal my work and legally prove it's theirs and not mine. *shudders*

KarenG said...

Sounds like yet another scam targeting writers. Do we LOOK like we're made of money? Why are all these ideas/people/companies/ coming up with new ways to fleece us?

Anonymous said...

Great advice. I can see how tempting it would be to have a third party...until you know better, it could feel "professional." This entry will greatly benefit those still new to this whole (hell of a) game, I think.

Theresa Milstein said...

Many writers are looking for that in, but we have to accept that it's got to be us doing the hard work every step of the way to get there.

Spider Griffin said...

Excellent advice; you've hit the nail on the head there, Nicola; thank you.


Alison said...

I agree strongly with Cat.

Crafting a query letter and putting the package together cannot be entrusted to anybody else.

I found it a labour of love and quite exciting in a way; it represented the end of the creative production phase and the beginning of the marketing one.

It allowed me to step back and review my whole work and to see it from the POV of other professionals in the publishing chain.

No, as a writer, as a creator, you miss out if you hand this stage over to a stranger...

Ebony McKenna. said...

Thanks so much for posting this - but the pessimist in me thinks even with such sage advice, far too many people will still use these services.

I guess people hear reports about how impossible it is to get an agent/publisher etc and so they think they need an 'in'.

For the record, I approached an agent under my own steam and they took me on. That's how it works.

You don't need to 'know somebody' or have any glowing testimonials. Let your query letter, synopsis and novel do the talking.

Thanks for another great post Nicola.

Ebony McKenna. said...

maybe this smiley for speechless (and chin hitting desk)

eyebrows through the roof, chin smacking the keyboard.

Alexandra Crocodile said...

Great advice - great post. As always!

Anonymous said...

This is great advice and I'll go further: write your own curriculum vitae too (resumé for our friends across the pond). I've had recent experiences of employment agencies utterly mangling my CV, supposedly in order to satisfy their house style. This included the introduction of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.

If you want a job done properly...

Marisa Birns said...

This is very good advice, though I wish it wasn't needed. Feel so terrible for those writers who do not take the time to research and learn.

Especially since the internet has made it easily possible to find knowledgeable people who generously share the proper information.

Jayde Scott said...

I can only hope writers put in the time to present their own work rather than wait for others to do it for them. It's just pretencious and lazy. It doesn't take a PR expert to write a great query letter. Just a bit of imagination and the willingness to revise it depending on an agent's needs and wants. Great post.