Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hot Tips from Cool Agents

Elizabeth Zelvin

I heard literary agents Donna Bagdasarian of Publication Riot Group and Josh Getzler of Writers House speak to the New York Tristate Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I found myself wishing that every mystery writer seeking publication—and I know many—could have heard them. They demystified those agonizing rejection letters, gave terrific advice about how to make a good impression on an agent, and were funny as hell.

Here are some of their most important points (not verbatim):

1. Write the book first. Don’t pitch unless the manuscript is finished and polished and can be sent right out.

2. Don’t get cute with the query letter. It’s your first chance to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. Get the spelling, grammar, syntax, and agent’s name and gender right. Tell them the genre, the word count, and how you can prove you didn’t pick their name out of a hat. Then give them that pithy description of the story—it will be your first selling tool. Then say who you are, stressing any points that will help them sell the book. That’ll be your platform, not the workshops you’ve taken or other proofs you’re a good writer. The manuscript will tell them that—or not.

3. Read the agent’s website and submission guidelines before you query. Give them what they ask for—no exceptions.

4. There’s a simple code in those rejection letters. If they don’t say, “Send me 50 pages” or “Send me the full manuscript” in so many words, the answer is No. Don’t try to appeal their decision. Those stock phrases and form rejection letters are done that way for a reason—to keep the overworked agent from being drawn into an extended correspondence with a writer whose manuscript they don’t want to represent. Exception: if they say, “I’ll be glad to look at it again if you make such-and-such changes,” they mean it. If they say, “I’ll be glad to look at your next project,” they mean that. They won’t hint around, either. If they don’t say it outright, they’re saying No.

5. While today’s email query is less formal than an old-style business letter, Facebook and Twitter are too informal. Don’t use the online social networks to query. And you won’t make a good impression if you use the language of texting or tweeting to approach an agent.

6. It’s okay to follow up by email after eight weeks if the agent’s website says they respond to queries in eight weeks and you’ve heard nothing. Following up in two weeks is not okay. Don’t nudge. And don’t phone. Agents use their phones to talk to editors and the clients they represent. And sometimes to tell you they want to represent you.

7. Don’t threaten an agent. (“If you don’t take my book, you’ll regret it when I go on Facebook.”) Don’t insult an agent. (“You probably aren’t smart enough to understand my book.”) And don’t take anything for granted.

Donna Bagdasarian can be found at and Josh Getzler at And if you have a chance to see their presentation at Crime Bake, Sleuthfest, or another conference, mark it on your calendar as a don’t-miss event.


Anonymous said...

Thanks -- I was so sorry to have missed this event!

Sandra Parshall said...

Writers waste so much time trying to figure out what a rejection means -- hoping to discover something in it that simply isn't there. A rejection means is, "I don't want it." Unless every agent cites exactly the same reason -- for example, the writing isn't polished or the protagonist isn't believable -- you should save your sanity by putting rejections aside and moving on. But don't spend the rest of your life trying to sell one manuscript! Keep writing. Your second, third, or fourth book may be the one that finally sells.

Meredith Cole said...

Great advice, Sandy! Too many people stop at the first book when they need to move on. You learn so much with every book you write. And you never know--the market can change, and that book you wrote 3 years ago may have a subject that's suddenly hot!

Thanks for sharing the info, Liz. I miss all my NY SinC sisters...