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Pitching Woo

Once upon a time, an agent was a writer's best friend. Now getting an agent is just as tough as finding a publisher, and just as crucial. One insider offers her advice.

I used to work at the Writers House agency in Manhattan as assistant and reader for the founder Albert Zuckerman, an old-school book guy with a long-term client base of dedicated authors. When he started his business three decades ago, Zuckerman didn't have much of an office so he would meet his clients in a bank lobby, according to agency legend. A swanky bank lobby, as grandiose as a ballroom, but a bank lobby nonetheless. He started small and built up to a renowned agency run from a book-lined brownstone in Chelsea.

Much has changed in the business since then. The publishing world has become a corporate labyrinth. Agents are generally the only way for authors, especially new ones, to navigate the multi-tiered bureaucracy. But literary agencies themselves are becoming hierarchical fiefdoms with the agents sequestered away and hard to reach. Finding an agent is crucial, challenging, and utterly intimidating. What's a young writer to do?

First things first: Write a great book, or get started on one. Only then should a writer approach a literary agency -- with a few tricks like these up the sleeve.

1. One Page, Please

The agent's "slush pile" of query letters represents both hours of tedium and a siren call of promised golden treasure -- the next big author waiting to be discovered. This schizophrenia works in favor of the author, as agents and their assistants will rarely ignore a query in their mailbox. The trick, then, is to write your query letter as close to one page as possible and make it as interesting as your book. As Zuckerman liked to say, "If an author can't zing me with the writing in his query, I doubt he'll zing me with his book."

Your query letter should spell out the following:

* What makes your book wonderful.
* What your book is about.
* Why you are the best one to write it.

It's an art form in and of itself, like a film trailer. In two years of query reading, I rejected hundreds simply because the first two lines didn't grab me. Assume that all readers are this hard to please.

2. More Query Rules

* Sending multiple queries out is fine, but not to multiple agents within the same agency. There is no written rule about this, but if an agent or assistant discovers you have queried more than one agent at a time within the agency, they will be turned off on some level.

* Find out if a particular agent is open to emailed queries before you assume so.

* Whatever you do, don't forget to include a self addressed stamped envelope with your query. If you don't include the SASE, your query may be thrown out, unread. (Please don't send loose stamps.)

3. Name Drop

How do I know who to send my query to in the first place, you may ask? First, you may look into who represents authors that you admire with projects along similar lines to yours, or you may complete the egalitarian feat of sifting through listings in any of the guides to literary agents that are on the market. The very best way to put a blinking neon light on your query is to name-drop in the very first line. Therefore ask everyone you know if they will refer you to their agent.

4. Beware the Overload

Never send your entire manuscript or even a tiny bit of it to an agent unless specifically requested. Your first contact with an agent should be a query letter only. If you ignore this "rule," most agents and/or assistants will decide they do not like you. After mailing a query, you will either receive a rejection letter outright, or you will receive a request for a sample.

5. Shmooze the Assistant

Some book-industry bashers say the bigger agencies have become mini-industries ruled by a hierarchy and topped by a bank of leather armchairs in the penthouse of some myopic chamber, where agents royales are glued to telephones and rarely read a query letter. It's true!

Agents often delegate the reading to assistants and interns so they can spend precious time working with existing clients. One way to avoid this hierarchy is to submit to small agencies. Small shops tend to have good success rates, too, but simply work with less volume. Wherever you submit, the challenge is to get your query read, your material requested and then placed onto the head honcho's pile. Here's a little trick: address your query letter to the assistant directly. I was always pleased when prospective clients 'got' the system enough to send their queries straight to me. Try calling the receptionist and request the name of your wanna-be agent's assistant. It can't hurt. Assistants are subconsciously more apt to pay attention to a query if it's addressed to them personally.

6. Be Nice

Refrain from calling or e-mailing agents and assistants to ask why they haven't replied to your query letter. This is the surest way to have your letter instantly dug out of the wobbling monster slush pile and shredded. If you do receive a request for part of your manuscript, you are one giant leap closer to having an agent. Congratulations!

Follow the agent's instructions on submission; avoid following up until at least six weeks have passed and you have still not received word. If you must contact the agent about your work, call the assistant and be very friendly. Sweetness goes a long way. I have fished a prospective client's work out from a tower of unreviewed material and read it on the spot simply because someone made me giggle or smile. That said, if you call the assistant prematurely to seek answers about your requested material, your work is in danger of being rejected without mercy. No agent wants to take on a micro-managing client who may turn out to be a pest. No, it's not fair to expect writers to have infinite patience, but alas, that is the way it has to be.

It may seem daunting that all this work is done and there is such a slim chance of being noticed, but if your work is excellent, it is only a matter of time before a well-tuned assistant passes your work up the ladder.

7. What to Submit, When Finally Asked

If your project is fiction the agent/assistant will probably ask for the first few chapters, along with a synopsis or a chapter-by-chapter summary of the work. (And make them exclusive: see #8 below.) Here are some guidelines:

The Synopsis and Summary

Make these documents straightforward. The synopsis should be a single page, like a book-flap blurb. Enticing, yet to the point. A chapter-by-chapter summary should include one or two lines of concise text for each chapter. Illustrate the arc of the plot at a quick glance.

About your Sample Chapters

The first 50 or so pages of your book must be brilliant. These sample pages are the only chance you will get to show an agent or a publisher what you've got. Like your future loyal reader, the agent wants nothing more from your writing sample than an immersion in another world that is believable to them but is also more thrilling, true, profound, romantic, painful, exasperating than real life could ever be. If a hint of this magic does not occur within the first 50 pages, your prospective agent/assistant will probably send you a rejection letter. Though at this stage in the process, your letter will at least be personalized and may include some feedback.

If your project is non-fiction, be prepared to submit a formal book proposal (the exclusivity rule also applies; see below). Creating this document is not a writer's fantasy task, but a book proposal is the tool the agent will use to sell your project to a publisher. For guidance, try How To Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (a well-known Bay Area agent, no less.)

8. Exclusivity (Don't Be Promiscuous)

I mentioned in #2 that sending your query letter to multiple agents within the same agency is frowned upon. The same taboo on promiscuity applies to your requested material. That is, don't send your samples to other agents until the first agent who requested your work has rejected it. (Magazine editors work under the same assumption; woe to the freelance writer caught sending the same pitch to more than one publication at a time.)

When requesting to see your work, most agencies will mention this exclusivity rule, but even if they don't, it's a good idea to assume and respect exclusivity. Do tell an agent if you plan on stretching the rule in any way; in certain cases they may agree to look at your work regardless. Again, it's true that this seems terribly unfair to the author, but it's just the way it's done in this sometimes stodgy business.

9. What to Ask, and What To Know

Nothing frustrates an agent more than a client with unrealistic expectations. Asking your prospective agent a few questions about his or her business isn't nosy. In fact, it shows you are thoughtful and prepared. Here are a few:

"Who are your published clients?"
"What sort of advance do you predict for a project such as mine?"
"What publishing houses may be a good fit for your material?"
"What are the terms of your agency's Author's Agreement?"

An experienced agent may ask you about your own expectations for your book project. Think ahead what you would like for an publishing advance, your most desired publishers, and how you see the agent/client relationship working in your best interest. Do some research.

About the Author

Emily Kischell was assistant to Al Zuckerman at Writers House for about two years, reading queries, learning the tricks of the trade, and taking a few clients of her own. She has since returned to the Bay Area to start her own small agency, WordCake.