July 23, 2013

Finding the Gatekeepers of the Walled City of Publishing

Unfortunately, one of the authors with whom I was scheduled to exchange posts for the Blogger Book Fair had to drop out at the last minute. Rather than deprive all of you of the post I wrote for her site (and we all know it'd be an unacceptable loss) I am publishing it here. I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments!

Agent Adventure

Finding the Gatekeepers of the Walled City of Publishing

Having chosen the traditional route, a writer begins a quest not unlike that of medieval heroes. We’ve packed our bags with the necessary supplies (our finished manuscript, a polished query letter, determination, and as a bonus—internet access) and now set out to make it past the gatekeepers (aka agents). At least one must be convinced of our worth before we are allowed to enter the walled city of publishing and fight for a place in its perpetual tournament. First, of course, we have to seek out the gatekeeper most likely to appreciate our potential.

Just some years ago, unknown writers would mostly stumble around unbeaten paths, searching for a sign of nearby agents and then pleading at their doors for the slightest glimmer of attention. Now, via the internet, roads have been built, leading more directly and easily to a wealth of agents. On the one hand, gone are the days of stumbling around blindly. On the other, with an abundance of paths laid out before us via consolidated information about hundreds of literary agents, we must now make strategic choices about our approach, to avoid wasting time and resources traveling endlessly from one agent to another until one, hopefully, decides to open the door.

The question is, how do we make that choice? How do we know, especially having never worked with an agent before, whether we will be personally and professionally compatible?

Though sites such as Agent Query lay out all of our options before us, it is still up to the writer to weed through them, selecting groups of 5-10 agents to query at a time. There is no doubt that this is in many ways easier than stalking bookstores, searching for agent information in the acknowledgments or technical pages of novels. Still, after a search on Agent Query for my genre (romance) came up with 182 results, I was at a loss. Sending personalized query letters (or packets, according to specifications) to 182 agents seems excessive. Of course, I may have to do just that, though I certainly hope not.

The thing is, unlike a hero questing for any gatekeeper to grant entry, as writers, we need the right agent—one who will support us, understand our voice and genre, give us exactly the amount of guidance best for our personality and writing style, be responsible with our finances and careers, and possibly also be interpersonally pleasant—though some writers may not seek the last in an agent. But how do we really know any of these things from an Agent Query profile or an agency website? Even if we can glean that information, with which agent do we start? Alphabetically is an option, but that would still have left me hundreds of websites, bios, or blogs to read.

Back when I began my search, my manuscript was still in the draft stage, and I wasn’t even sure I needed an agent; I have a mind for business, I can understand contracts, and not all publishing houses require agents to submit queries. In other words: who needs a gate? I can scale the wall—no problem!

I prepared for that option by collecting resources—i.e. information on the world I wanted to enter. One day, I came across a link to Kristin Nelson’s blog, on which Ms. Nelson helps authors with or without agents understand the publishing world, generously saturating her posts with tips on common pitfalls and how to read the foreign road signs. It’s an easily accessible guidebook for entry into the tournament and what to do once we’ve made it there.

Ms. Nelson’s blog thoroughly convinced me that I want a skilled and involved agent to deal with the details of my writing career, but it also showcased something very important to me: I want to feel like I know the person with whom I’ll be working. I’d prefer meeting an agent in person before signing on with him/her, but of course in today’s world, with phones and Skype, there are other methods of close communication. Still, I wouldn’t mind an agent who lives relatively nearby.

Then again, written information other than a professional biography can also provide a wealth of insight into the person writing it. So more importantly than seeking geographic proximity, I have learned how necessary it is to read the personally written information about an agent: blog posts, articles, bios, interviews—whatever I can find. It is inarguably time-consuming, and my list of potential agents (a literal list, in an excel spreadsheet) grows very slowly.

Still, I hope this approach will allow me to find an agent with the work ethic, personal goals, and interpersonal skills I seek; one with whom I will develop a connection as my writing career progresses. Because agents are more than simply gatekeepers, holding the keys to entry into a race within a walled city—they become our right-hand counselors, advising, shaping, and supporting every moment of our careers. If such in-depth research is sacrificed, we could end up with Jafar as our most trusted adviser. And none of us wants that.

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