Personal editing. Professional results.

What an agent's request gets you

August 12, 2022
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

You may have returned from a writing conference this summer. There were three big ones in a row. Conferences in Austin, San Francisco, and New York all unfolded within 30 days of each other. Chalk up that close timing to the pandemic, which delayed San Francisco from its usual February weekend.

A big prize from attending the Writers' League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference, the San Francisco Writer's Conference, or the Writer's Digest Conference? An agent's request for your pages and your query letter.

But what does that amount to? You get to put "Requested manuscript" in your subject line. Or "SFWC" or "WLT22" along with those 10-50 pages. You got a great reason to go back to your desk and revise that excerpt of your book one more time. For the latest revision, you've got an audience of one. An important one, since they're evaluating you for representation. After reading, they'll say, "Yes, we'll work together to sell your book."

That's about all you can count upon after a face-to-face meeting with an agent. Permission to take a shot. The book is what's paramount while you seek representation. A great five or ten minutes? Good feelings all around. If things go very well, you might also get a sense of what this agent will be like to work with.

That kind of insight, about personality and demeanor and humility and respect, is not offered in the slushpile submission grind. In the absence of any in-person insight about the agent, authors might imagine the worst or the best. Those are expectations about a relationship — and we all know how little such expectations help us while we navigate the rapids of life's course.

Agent Kate McKean wrote a great Substack piece on doing the bare minimum while querying. She says, "It's the book, folks" that gets her to engage for representation. I talked with an agent last month about their practices. In general, the agent you want is the one who wouldn't kill a query because of the wrong honorific. Of note: successful agents (the sort you want) already have successful clients. These agents pick strong books, because every additional client will trigger new lifting the agent's got to do.

Who are you?

At the Author's Guild Forum outpost online, a goofy agent debate rose up this month. How do I address my agent at the top of my query letter?  Is the "Dear" too familiar or presumptive? Do you say "Hi" with the agent's first name only? You probably stay out of the minefield of Mr. or Mrs. Or Miss or Ms., because frankly, no one can make assumptions about the gender identity of anyone anymore. Even if you're working from a photo of the agent.

People in the forum seemed to settle in and agree upon using the salutation of the agent's first name only. Some thought that wasn't respectful enough. Then somebody pointed out, "most of these agents are millennials anyway, and these things don't matter that much."

They're not wrong, those first-name querying authors. If you pitch an agent who'll downgrade your book's chances, because they didn't get the salutation they expect? Well, I wonder if that's the agent who will be able to imagine your book's better self, or can reach sweep away any reservations about your book they might hear from an acquiring editor.

Your agent represents you when go-time shows up. Informality saves time and effort between people who trust and respect one another. That's the kind of agent I pursue. Everybody's got a first name, even Cher. Using it just feels like the fastest way to get a good book into the world.

What do you think? Leave me a comment, so we can revisit this goofy topic again. Don't worry about your salutation—we know one another.

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