The Price of Attracting an Agent

When I started writing 20 years ago, some agents charged reading fees. Their reasoning was that it took time to read all the material and that they should be paid for that time. However, abuses snuck into the system and some unscrupulous agents realized they could make great profit out of just “reading”, i.e. accepting partial manuscripts, waiting a few weeks to months then send back a “dear author” letter without ever having opened a page. Eventually a cry of fraud went out and no reputable agent charged reading fees.

Nowadays, writers can

  • Send in query letters with hopes they don’t get lost in the great slush pile
  • Try one of the new social media methods like Twitter pitches, and
  • Pay to sign up for an agent “query letter review” or “first page review.”
  • Pay sometimes tremendous fees to attend a meet-and-greet event at a conference

I’m not saying any of these methods are bad. I’ve used all of them at one time or another. However, while some offer potentially valuable feedback (even if you don’t get the coveted “I’d like to see more” response), many can become quite expensive.

Query Letters

This is one of the cheapest methods since most, if not all, agents now prefer email submissions over mail-in letters. As an aspiring author you may have read tons of materials or gone to seminars galore that tell you how to write the perfect query. You have created and polished your letter to perfection. But is the query really making its way to the right hands? Some publishing experts that I have met have told me that letters often never reach the intended agent. Instead, they are shuffled off to bright-eyed interns whose jobs are to filter through the dross for the tiny gold nuggets.

To me this seems to be possibly the least effective way of reaching an agent, and it offers little in the way of real feedback. I’m sure many of you have received the dreaded “Dear Author” letter where they offer vague platitudes but no real information as to why your manuscript was turned down. Although I hate these unhelpful letters, I prefer them over the vast silence from an agency that states something to the effect of “if you haven’t heard in four weeks, then assume it is a no.”

Twitter Pitches

I’ve noticed that several agents are moving towards this method although it baffles me as to why. Are the agents actually spending one set day a month checking out a steady stream of tweets. Can you possibly judge a book from a single logline?

I have enough trouble condensing my novel down to a one-page synopsis. Making it a tweet is mind blowing. In addition, I don’t get Twitter. The few times I’ve participated in this sort of thing, I popped into the mass, writhing Twitter feed with the appropriate hashtags and then hovered over the program for the rest of the day, praying someone would hit the heart symbol. The experience was nerve wracking and I spent a lot of time wondering why others got hearts when I didn’t. Their tag lines didn’t sound particularly interesting to me.

So if you want to go this way, good luck. Like the query letter approach, this is a cost-effective way to try and get an agent to look more closely at your manuscript. I know Pitch Wars and PitchMad do these events on a regular basis as well as others. In the past, some lit agencies have sponsored certain days. When I find out more, I’ll try to list them on this blog.

Meet-and-Greet Events

Agents have stated that they are not only looking for a great novel but they are also wanting individuals that they can work with long term. In addition, some agents will only look at work from people they’ve met. Connecting with someone at a meet-and-greet, pitch fest, or similarly named event is the best option for them to do that. Since agents at conferences often give seminars, it also gives you a chance to meet them and make sure they are someone you want to contract with.

When I attended the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference several years ago, I had done my research and noted that two of the five agents were perfect for my book according to their websites. I signed up for the query review program with the intent of getting my pitch in front of them for ten minutes. Once I got there and met them, I immediately crossed one off my list. Something about her made me feel that we would be incompatible on several levels. On the other hand, the second agent told me my query letter was nearly perfect and requested to see the manuscript. That made the trip a winning situation in my book.

While at a Thrillerfest-sponsored Pitchfest one year, I had received 14 requests to see my manuscript. The agents go to these conferences because they are looking for new clients and therefore more likely to request manuscript pages.

The downside is that meet-and-greet events are expensive in terms of registration and travel. Most of the gatherings feature a separate price for their pitch event. I have found that the critical thing is getting a list of attending agents early and to use that to determine how useful it will be to attend. This is particularly true for those conferences hosting only a couple of agents. If I don’t see professionals that match my genre and interest then I save the money for a better opportunity.

Paying for an Agent or Editor review

Possibly the most successful way to get in front of an agent or editor is to pay for a review of your first pages or query letter. Writer’s Digest offers a number of these seminars where you purchase a one-hour (or so) webinar to hear a well-known agent discuss the current market trends or what they want to see in a query letter or opening pages. Afterwards, you polish up your work and email it in. The feedback arrives in four to six weeks later.

Of course, the whole point of this is for them to like what they read enough to request the manuscript, and that has happened to me before. Yet the opportunities costs anywhere from $35 to $90 depending on the program. I often see the same agents returning again and again to these webinars and I start to wonder if this is basically a new form of “reading fees.” The biggest difference is that you are getting feedback on your work. The value of it is up to you but never assume the agents are going to request your work just because you paid them.

Conclusion

The basic idea is that trying to shop a manuscript around is neither easy or necessarily cheap. Your best chances involving using the most expensive methods: the big national conferences that host the speed-dating style pitch festivals. But they are not the only avenue for the impoverished writer. No matter what method you try, keep plugging along and improving your work. Tenacity and good editing will win out in the long run.

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