Friday, May 6, 2011

Sympathy for Agents

Free-form Friday

I'm not an agent, and the only kind I play on TV is secret (wait, I've said too much), but I've worked through something recently that has ratcheted my sympathy for literary agents up a notch or two.

During the past month, my mild-mannered alter ego had to do some hiring. We posted a notice with a handful of requirements for the position and for the process (e.g,. send us a resume) in a public place. Then we watched as responses from all over the map rolled in:

  • Some had nothing to do with the job.
  • Some came from people with wildly inappropriate experience (e.g., I've operated a cash register so I can build enterprise software).
  • Many came from people who didn't follow the simple instructions to include a resume.
  • "Queries" from people other than the applicant, who didn't follow instructions either.
  • There were even people who felt they had to berate us for not recognizing their inherent talent and our flawed decision making (e.g, "if you had been more diligent, you would have reached a different conclusion," when we decided they wouldn't be a good fit.
If you've followed any agent blogs or found posts when they talk about query mistakes, this list will sound familiar.

Another familiar note that surprised me was how quickly I was able to dismiss 90% of the responses because they clearly showed that the people hadn't paid attention to either our requirements for the job or the application process. By the same token, it was easy to see who among the respondents had made a good-faith effort and we didn't hold unimportant details like resume format against them.

The first thing I want you take away from these observations is that you should do yourself and the agents you wish to query a favor and try to follow their submission instructions. Just that much care and attention on your part will put you ahead of 90% of the people sending queries.

The second thing you should take to heart is that a good faith effort, which includes doing enough research to be confident that the agent actually represents projects like yours, is more important than agonizing over every fiddly detail. This is not to say you'll get a pass on grammar and spelling errors. But no agent is going to care whether you indent the first line of each paragraph (which you shouldn't in standard business letter format) if the words in those paragraphs describe a project that fits what they're looking for. (For more on what to worry about in queries, see "Writer Zen: Forests and Trees."

Put another way, what we wanted in response to our job posting wasn't that hard, and yet I was amazed at all the ways people found to make it harder. Querying agents doesn't have to be as hard as some people make it: relax, take a breath, read the instructions twice, and then give it your best shot. I can't tell you how refreshing it was to open a response and see that they'd actually paid attention to our request.

[Edit] As you'll see in the comments, I should have added a final qualification: we, of course, didn't hire everybody who sent us a good resume. Similarly, no agent is going to respond favorably to every well-crafted, carefully-targeted query.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /


  1. And when you do exactly everything right, have a brilliant resume, ace the interview, and you still don't get the job? What does that say?

    An agent recently put out a post on her blog looking for a specific genre, one in which I write. I have a killer query, detailed it specifically to her, sent her the pages she requested in the blog, and got a form rejection 2 days later.

    I'm beginning to think it has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with luck and who you know.

  2. Anne,

    I should have added, as a final note, that we didn't hire everyone who sent us a resume.

    For example, I spoke with a candidate a few days ago who had a beautiful resume, detailing a history of remarkable experience, and it was apparent to both of us that it wasn't a good fit.

    I should also say that there was a great deal more--some of it ineffable--that went into our ultimate decision about whether to extend an offer.

    A good query, like a good resume, is only the beginning of the conversation.

  3. I understand that. I was a manager in a restaurant for a long time and had the pleasure of hiring. I know how much face to face really represents.

    However, my point was, you were specifically looking for a certain type of person who could do a certain type of job.

    This agent asked for a certain type of manuscript. I "applied" with my query.

    As a manager looking for a waitress, even if she did not have certain skills on her resume, I would still have her come in for an interview.

    As an agent, if she requested this particular genre (regency) on her blog, I would assume she would have at least asked for a partial request. Unless what she really wanted was 'steampunk regency with a paranormal twist' but did not say that.

    I know the word assume takes a lot into consideration. However, I feel upset, that I didn't even get to the 'interview' stage (partial request).

    As with any good manager, I interview everyone. There might be a hidden gem in someone who may not have ALL the skills required but a knack for something else not seen yet. And the person with the best resume may not be right for the company as you so clearly stated. However, you had to interview her to find that out.

    I did not even get an interview.

    You know.

  4. Anne,

    Yes, I do know. And I empathize.

    There are several agents whose blogs I've followed religiously for years, convinced that each could be a good fit. I've never received anything but form rejections from them. (And yes, I still read their blogs.)

    You have a right to feel frustrated given that you've tried to do everything right and still can't get any attention.

    And what makes it so difficult is that you have no way of knowing whether the rejection came because of something you can change or something beyond your control.


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