Literary agent, Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Agency in Berkeley spoke recently at the Redwood Writers branch of CWC. I’m surprised we haven’t hosted him before as he got his start in the book business in Cotati in the 1970s. But, unfortunately for us, Sonoma County proved too quiet for his tastes and when he had the opportunity to buy Cody’s Books in Berkeley, he did. Oddly, he bought the bookstore on its 23rd anniversary and sold it on the day of its 50th anniversary. After a career in books, Andy realized his strengths lay in the book industry and he opened his literary agency.
As an agent, he receives fifteen queries daily, reads ten of them and replies to those which interest him with a request for ten pages of fiction or a book proposal for non-fiction. He doesn’t take much fiction because it’s hard to publish in the current publishing era.
He makes part of his decision to look at an author’s work dependent on the author’s platform. While it’s not as important for a first time novelist to have a solid platform, it is necessary for any author to demonstrate a unique and deep connection to his or her topic. Essentially, why are you the one to write this book? Are you able to speak on your topic? Can you reach an audience?
About querying, he says “be ready” with a finished manuscript for fiction and memoir. The writing and editing needs to be perfect, especially that first paragraph. So does the query letter. He suggests submitters read his blog, Ask the Agent, before sending their queries. He also suggests writers look at Agentquery.com and the AAR website for information on agents, queries and what publishers are accepting. Don’t forget to check Preditors and Editors for agent references and author experiences with agents.
Once you’ve done your homework on who represents your genre and shaped your pitch, synopsis and bio, start tailoring your query to send to each agent individually. Andy threw out 50 as a target number to send to. He was adamant that you follow the agents’ guidelines and represent yourself and your publishing credits honestly. If you have self-published, say so, and if you’ve sold 5,000 copies of your self published book, mention that and the time it took to sell; it may be a plus. Keep in mind that BookScan is tracking sales of all books. This agency can make or break your chances to find an agent and traditionally publish.
When you’ve caught an agent’s eye, Andy says, “don’t be scared of the agent” and ask for references. What is he or she selling? What will he or she do for you? He says your best agent may not be a big NY agent. Look for an agent who will work hard for you and who will work with you to develop your career, not just the current book. Andy wants his clients to be published and has worn every hat, from editor to marketing director to mentor, to accomplish that goal. But he made it clear that you, the client, have to do your part too. He stressed that a good agent looks at your entire publishing career and the relationship becomes close.
In the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose well.”
How are you going to get on Oprah? Well isn’t that the million dollar question? A good start will be writing the best work you possibly can…then writing the best query you possibly can.
Write a rough draft of your query letter. Include the three main elements of a query:
1) A short synopsis of your book
2) A short personal biography
3) A hook
Agentquery.com has this to say about query letters:
“Query Letter Basics
A query letter is a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a resume. It’s not rambling saga of your life as an aspiring writer. It’s not a friendly, “Hey, what’s up, buddy. I’m the next John Grisham. Got the next best selling thriller for ya,” kind of letter. And for the love of god, it is NOT more than one-page. Trust us on this.
A query letter has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography. Don’t stray from this format. You won’t catch an agent’s attention by inventing a creative new query format. You’ll just alienate your chances of being taken seriously as a professional writer. A query letter is meant to elicit an invitation to send sample chapters or even the whole manuscript to the agent. It’s not meant to show off how cute and snazzy you can be by breaking formatting rules and going against the grain. Keep it simple. Stick to three paragraphs. The goal is to get the agent to read your book, not to blow you off because you screwed up the introduction.”