Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Tribe has Spoken

Okay, you seem to want closure, so I will continue to respond to queries at the pace that I can. For those that are really late, I'll add a note that says "sorry for the delay, but we get 30,000 submissions."

And for those writers who just can't stand getting rejection, on time or late, and feel compelled to write me a nasty comment I just might share it with you here, so you can see how annoying and frustrating it is.

Let me make one thing clear though. My list is full for all intents and purposes. I could make a comfortable living from my existing clients and their referrals. I have taken Jenny Rappoport on so that new writers can still get the benefit of my experience through her, but I am in no way obligated to take on new writers. I choose to do this. If you research me, it says something like 10% of my list is composed of first time authors - that's 7 or 8 a year.

And I'm sorry, I refuse to hire someone just to go through unsolicted queries. It's not a sound business practice. It makes no extra money for me or my existing clients. Yes, I might get a book or two from it, but if I didn't, I would probably put that time and energy into an existing client. And in my 20 years as an agent, I have never gotten a big book from the unsolicteds - all my big books have been nurtured or I have gone after them.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Question for you

Okay, I am serious. I want your gut reponse to this question.

If I've had a query letter for months, should I bother to respond or do you just assume that you've been rejected already and get pissed off that I held on to it for so long and then rejected you?

When I do query catch-up, I am always surprised that some writers get back to me with hositlity because I took the time to reject them. It's a lot of work for me. Should I just toss the old queries?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Thanks, but not for me.

This is the short note a writer will get when I return something. It means what it says.

If I add anything more, that's good news. Sometimes I'll tell you your novel is too long or too short (and don't email me back about IT or Johnathan Livingston Seagull - you are neither King nor Bach). Sometimes I'll add that it's publishable, but just not my cup of tea - keep trying (don't email me back asking me to read it anyway). Sometimes I'll tell you to look for an agent who specializes in inspirational books, which I don't (don't email me back asking me to recommend someone. If I thought it was right for someone, I'd tell you.) So, basically, don't email me back, unless you want to thank me for taking the time to explain to you why you were rejected. I've already given you your minutes of my time.

Of course, there are many other major and minor reasons why something gets rejected (you can't write, you send the email to the wrong agent and/or it was part of a group email blast of all the agents in the U.S., Canada and England), but most of the time I will read through the letter even if there are one or two spelling errors (depends on what they are though - I have no patience for horror writers who can't spell cemetery). If I take the time to open the email, I do try to give it a shot.

And sometimes, something is written badly, but it's unique and I hope by telling the author to join a writer's workshop or pull out a copy of Strunk & White's Elements of Style, it will come back to me transformed, with a note that says, "you are the only one who told me the truth about my writing," and a beautiful relationship will begin. This has happened.

A little over two years ago, I lost my fabulous assistant of a year and was reorganizing how I wanted to run my office (since then I decided to relocate to the home office, where I have been much happier), but I was beginning to be overwhelmed with snail mail. Boxes upon boxes upon boxes, which I had no physical room for. So I cleverly sent a form rejection letter that said (and I paraphrase here) "I was overwhelmed with submissions at the moment and was currently not reading for new clients, but that if the writer believed his/her work was truly suitable for my agency to requery in six months."

To my amazement, I got lambasted by writers and writers organizations for not notifying every writing site that I wasn't reading (and that wasn't true - I just did't want any more than what I already had and was just taking a break from the pace of unsolicteds, which is demanding). Why was I still listed in Writer's Market? Why was I doing writer's conferences. It was surreal. (if you do a google search on me, you can still find these diatribes). I really felt like I couldn't win for loosing, and that's also why I keep my rejection letter short and sweet.

Over at Miss Snark's (misssnark.blogspot.com - a great agent blog, if you do not know about it), there's a post about an agent that just hand wrote a rejection on the envelope. I know an agent who used to just write "No," in red on the letter. So the next time you get what you think is a cold form rejection, know that the words were carefully chosen even if they're not what you want to read.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How Can You Judge My Novel by My Query?

In additon to writing these last two posts (and having Jenny Rappaport, my fellow agent, do the same over at her blog, litsoup.blogspot.com) for our new intern, I also wrote these posts as the long answer to the inevitable writer's conference question, "How can you tell if you like my book if you only read the query." I am hoping that by sharing these long personal diatribes about what goes into our decision to read something and, perhaps, take it and/or the writer on, you'll understand that most of the time it really is a case of "it's not you, it's me." The short answer to this question that I often give at writer's conferences is that I've been doing this for a long time and I really know what I like and what I do well.

Now, in the same way I told you so much about who I am and what I like, and why, I also try, over the years, to get to know my authors as well as they know me, so that when we brainstorm for book ideas, we are on the same page and I can sell their work well. I know that every agent doesn't work this way, but my representation is really a collaborative effort. I see us as partners for the long haul. I am really not interested in doing just one book, even if it will make me a lot of money.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bell Ringing, Pt. 2

And I like novels about plagues and viruses (THE STAND, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN - shows you how old I am).

One of you mentioned agentquery.com. It's a great resource because it really encourages the agents to be very specific about what they are looking for. It also lists recent sales, so you can see what we've sold.

But if you search long and hard enough for me, you'll find that the three things I always say I'm interested in seeing are "a Latin Gone with the Wind," urban ethnic horror and feminist smut.

Latin Gone with the Wind means a novel set in one of the Latin and South American countries or the Caribbean where the paternalistic society crumbles leaving the plucky female protagonist to figure out the new world and rules. I keep on getting novels about some guy who swims across the Rio Grande. That's not what I want.

Urban ethnic horror. I thought this was pretty straight forward. The horror boom of the late 80's was suburban white teens. I want the city novels using urban mythologies set in at least an ethically diverse community, if not a black or Hispanic one.

Feminist smut. Women centered erotica where the women have great self-esteem and know what they want and how to get it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

What Rings My Bells (probably part 1)

I like social science fiction, which means 1984, Brave New World, Jennifer Government. I'm not into hard science fiction and I don't like military science fiction. I also have a soft spot for feminist sci-fi (The Hand Maiden's Tale). I am a liberal Democrat, so that colors the kind of books I want to spend time with. I can't imagine I would represent a Republican or conservative social science fiction novel, unless it was so head-smackingly brilliant I was blinded.

I like dark fantasy. Of course, these are quest novels. They are full of goblins and demons and vampires and shape shifters. I am not particularly fond of elves (although I will read something with them in it, if it is dark) and I don't like fairies, unicorns, Vikings, Sword & Sorcery, etc.

I love horror, of all kinds from splatter to the literary. I have a a particular fondness for vampires. I have sold more than 200 vampire novels. I also love zombies. I really love vampire zombie novels. I also like a good ghost story.

I don't do romance novels because I haven't read them, but I love chic lit. My chic lit is urban and my protagonist is usually over 30. I also like Mom lit. In both fiction and nonfiction.

I am taking on erotica writers, mostly hetero, although I represent a handful of gay and lesbian writers.

I like dark literary fiction. I like dysfunctional families. I like unhappy endings. My favorite lit writers are Rick Moody and John Irving.

I handle very few mysteries and when I do they are "quirky." I had a drag queen detective series and a dominatrix series. I tried to take on an undertaker series, but the author went with another agent.

That's fiction.

In nonfiction, I like books about pop culture. That means books about music (mostly rock), art (mostly contemporary American), TV, film. I am very good at this and one of the few agents who has consistently sold books about other media. I have a whole series of Science of books. I've done a ton of Making of...books. I've done a ton of popular bios. I've sold a lot of books about aspects of TV shows. I've done quite a few companion books (Louie L'Amour, Stephen King, Anne Rice). And I've taught rock stars how to write novels.

I consider trends pop culture, so I'll do books that fall into that category. I did Pokemon, Digimon books for kids when they hit.

I am a late baby boomer, a feminist (card-carrying), a journalist (I started my own newspaper in Manhattan in the 80's), a liberal Democrat, a single mother of a teen-aged son who is a nerd, and a cat owner. I have a degree in art history and journalism from NYU, where I have taught writing for the past 20 years. I went to the Bronx High School of Science because I wanted to be a pathologist (so I'm into death). I have always lived in New York City and I love it. I love Paris, I spent two summers in Tucson AZ, and my father's family is from Belfast, ME. I am a life-long Yankees fan, but do not follow any other sport. All these things play into what I would want to take on.

I don't like the south. It does not call to me and I don't understand it, so I have few clients writing about it.

My mother is a liberal Protestant minister, which is why I am so attracted to horror novels. For me, they are the most religious fiction there is. I know my Bible and Bible stories, which is why I have so little patience for religious fiction or diatribes.

I also do very little of what we'd call inspirational books or New Age, but I do like some old-fashioned occult stuff.

I do very few memoirs, and those that I do take on are usually from pop culture. I did WHAT IT USED TO BE LIKE By MaryAnn Carver, because I love Raymond Carver's work and the story was so compelling.

I also like true crime.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Of those 30,000 queries, how many do you consider?

This is the post that you've all been waiting for. It contains the top secret information on the screening process by which an established agent decides to take on new clients.

I'm writing this post now because we have elected to take on an electronic intern. I'm sure you're asking, what the hell is that? With all the electronic changes in publishing, it's obvious to me that an intern no longer need to come to my office to go through the unsolicteds. Since half of them are electronic (the submissions, not the interns), I can work with him/her over the Internet (during non-office hours, which is great for me because training someone during my work day has always taken away from my hardcore job of selling). So this post is my internal memo to our new intern, who has a college education in English, has written a book already, and wants to work in publishing, but does not live close enough to the tri-state area to do it from our offices (in case you were wondering what qualifies someone to be an intern with a literary agent).

A little background on me, in case you've forgotten. I have 78 clients (just took another on). I sell both fiction and nonfiction, but about half my clients write both. I like to have a somewhat even list, meaning I like to sell about 50 novels and 50 nonfiction books a year. Since I have a fairly full list, there are not a lot of openings on my time because my existing clients ALWAYS come first. So what I'm looking for has to knock both the socks off of me and the wind out of me.

We receive about 30,000 queries a year, half snail mail, half electronic. It is almost humanly impossible to go through the snail mail in a timely fashion, so we are at least six months behind there. Sometimes I have an intern sifting through it. I send boxes to Jenny three or four times a year(I know she loves me for it). Once or twice a year I grab a U.S.P.S. tub of mail and do it myself. Each tub contains about 1,000 queries. The last time I did this (Nov/Dec, I took on one client and asked to see two partials, which I haven't read yet). I think I forwarded three queries to Jenny.

This past Tuesday, I did the Jan/Feb electronic emails. I asked to see 5 partials. I sent 5 queries to Jenny - she asked to see one. The two that were nonfiction, I believe I will take on. One needs structural and content revisions. The other is a completed manuscript, which I'm waiting to see. One is in pop culture. The other is in fitness/self-help, which I rarely take on, but this project seems perfect and I like the author, so go figure.

Of the 30,000 queries that come in, at least half of them are too long (over 120,000 words for sci-fi and fantasy, way over 80,000 words for anything else) or too short (under 70,000 words). There is always more fiction than nonfiction, so it's just statically harder to crack my agent barrier with fiction, because there are more of you. And fiction always needs more work.

Of the 15,000 remaining, more than half of them are just not the kind of thing I sell - screenplays, plays, short stories, poetry, plain mysteries, regular romance, political thrillers, historical fiction, children's books, mundane WWII or suicide/abuse/drug memoirs, cookbooks, photo books by the unfamous (sorry), novels in someone else's licensed universe (Star Trek, Warcraft, Buffy), and nonfiction that has already been written before but the doctor, psychiatrist, nutritionist, life coach is too lazy to search amazon for similar books.

Of the remaining 7,500, at least a third of them are not written well enough to even begin the editorial rewrite process. I am blunt about this and often send a letter that says, "clever idea. Now get yourself to a writer's workshop and hone your craft. Then requery."

Of the 5,000 remaining, half just don't interest me. I know what I like and when I take a client on, I expect to work with them for a few books (meaning a few years) and my bells just have to be rung.

The remaining 2,500 are probably publishable. That's about 10%, so it's not bad. They're just not for me. Many of them need a lot of work, and I know I don't love the idea enough to want to do the work. I would say that I ask to see about 200 partials and proposals a year. In 2006, I took on 15 new clients (mainly because I was expanding my erotica list), some of whom came from queries. Others came from referral. This year, I've already taken on one client from the unsols, one who is the boyfriend of one of my clients, and a pair of writers who came from a referral.

I did have one client leave this year. He shifted from horror to mysteries and thought someone who concentrates more directly in that genre would be better for him. I agreed. The next day I got another email from an unbelievably talented short story writer (who is now writing novels) I had been trying to fold into my list, so I immediately gave him that spot in my client list.

I have also forwarded queries to Jenny, as she has a wider range of interests (she does take mysteries, romance, thrillers and a broader range of fantasy than I do).

Next post: What Turns Me On!!!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Agent interview

Dear Ms. Perkins,

Below are a series of six
questions involving your industry including one that
involves a hypothetical novel.

Regards,
Teacher at XU


1. What kind of novels/books do you normally choose
to represent?

I represent all kinds of horror, social science fiction, dark fantasy and dark fiction, as well as erotica. In nonfiction, I represent pop culture titles - both high and low-brow. Books about TV, music, art, literature.

2. Approximately how many query letters do you receive
in a given week?

Between 200 and 500.

3. What about an author's query letter pique's your
interest?

Voice and subject matter.

4. If you find an query letter interesting and ask
for the author to send you the manuscript, what are
you looking for in the first 50 pages that will tell
you whether or not this is a marketable book?

If the author can write, if the book has voice, if the story is well-told and the pacing of information is structurally sound.

5. I will now offer you a brief synopsis of a
hypothetical work and, if you don't mind, could you
explain how you would try to market this book to a
publisher? if it is even marketable in the first
place? and, if it isn't, why not?

This hypothetical work is a character driven revenge
tale set in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Two
former lovers, Kieth, a public relations expert
working for an expanding university in the South Carolina
mountains and Caitlin, a woman in the middle
of an ugly divorce and struggling to hold onto her
children, decide to make a new start for each other.
The still married Caitlin secretly travels to the
mountains so they can be together for a weekend and
rekindle their romance. However, during their time
together, they become the victims of a violent home
invasion in which they are beaten, raped and robbed.
Unable to go to the police for fear of losing her
children in the upcoming divorce hearings, she
convinces Keith to stay silent and repress the violent
memory and humiliation. What follows is an
examination of guilt, repression, anger and eventually
revenge as the story follows Keith, trying to survive
in a world whose violence and brutality he cannot
comprehend and Caitlin as she struggles to stay
strong, despite an emotionally crippling experience,
through her divorce and the beginning of her new life.
It is a look at the effects of violence, not only on
the victims, but on the perpetrators, the police,
whose job it is to administer justice, and the town
that has allowed for the creation of such violent and
flawed individuals. Eventually, though, secrets are
revealed and justice, in one way or another, will be
served.

This is an interesting novel, and dark in places, but it's just not the kind of thing I handle, so I would reject it with a note saying it is interesting and that I wish the author luck in placing it with the right agent.

6. Does an author in today's publishing market, stand
much of a chance without an agent?

Not in any one of the major New York houses.

7. What is your take on self-publishing companies
like booksurge.com, etc.?

They have their place for local memoirs and history, family cookbooks, and poetry and over-anxious authors who can't wait to go through the agent/editor process and/or do the editing that is necessary to get published by one of the major players.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

But why can't I sell in three genres simultaneously?

Or, Once more with feeling....

I understand that behaving professionally might collide with author dreams of making three separate best-seller lists at the same time, but unless you really are Stephen King, it's not going to happen. So stop, breathe, and thank God if one of the 1200 or so credible literary agents in this country actually want to work with you.

Most of you got this on the first go round, but a handful still don't get it, so I'll try to S-P-E-L-L it out real slow. Unless you have been published in reputable book form, YOU ARE UNPUBLISHED. Almost every first novel I have ever sold has needed work - a lot of work. Usually two rewrites guided by me, and then one rewrite guided by the editor. Until you have been through that process, everything you write whether it's science fiction, horror, romance, young adult or literary fiction, will need editing. If you are writing non-fiction, I will also have to guide you, even if you've been writing articles for The New York Times for over a decade (possibly more so if you've been writing for the Times for a decade). You don't know how to write a book. You don't know how to pace 300 pages. Believe me, I know.

Once you've sold a book and you look at what you wanted to send out without that editorial guidance, you will want to change your name and gender. So having three books that need work go out in different genres, probably isn't going to help establish you as a writer.

Agents also guide your career. They will tell you what genre you are most likely to do well in. After your first sale in that area, you should do another title in that genre. Then, if you really must show the world that you can write martial arts fiction and picture books, by all means give it a whirl, but don't be surprised if you don't get an offer or if the offer for your first work in another genre is much less than that in your established genre.

So yes, many of my authors who write both fiction and nonfiction or romance and horror or mysteries and sci-fi, or even erotica and YA, but they establish themselves in their best field first and then go from there.

Is this clear?

In the case in the last post, the author says the second novel is a "dark literary" novel, which usually is a pretentious way of saying a horror novel that I want you to try selling in hardcover. It is not as if he's selling SF and romance. I am sure Mr. Famous read it and said, "this needs a lot of work. Let me see if I can sell what I have." Agents usually work on one book at a time, unless they're willing to handle your nonfiction and fiction.

Editors also work on one book at a time and publishers and editors get kind of pissed off if they find out they are making an investment in you and then that you have these other book commitments that you never bothered to run by them. When you actually have a contract, then you can go to another editor/publisher and say GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST publishes horror at NAL, but they don't want to do his romance, so we're looking for another publisher in this genre. But it's not done before that because you don't know if you're any good in horror.

If one of my clients writes something that's not for me, and I think it's publishable, I'll refer them to another agent who handles that material and the other agent and I will work together.

We expect you to know what you're best at.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Your opinion, please?

Below is a correspondence with a writer that just amazed me. He's finally got a good agent, who helped rewrite the book, but he wrote another book while waiting for an agent. He sent the new novel to the agent, who said it was not for him. So while his agent is sending out his first novel, he wants to know if I want to see his new novel.

"Hello Ms. Perkins,

About a year ago, you sent me this email and I wisely held on to it. You had read a ms. of mine called "MY FIRST HORROR NOVEL." That manuscript is now with the Semi-Famous Agency, and, after a long revision process, is about to be sent to publishers. In the meantime, I have written a very dark literary book. Mr. Famous has looked at it, but it's not the type of material his agency usually handles. I thought it might be a better fit for you if you were still interested in reading some of my work."


This was the letter I wrote to him a year ago that prompted this response:

'Believe it or not, I've finally got around to sitting
down with this. I get 30,000 requests for submission
a year and have 70 existing clients.

But the bottom line is that this title is best suited
for a small press, which I hope you'll tell me you've
already sold it to.

However, if you have new work, please email me about
it."

I told him to let Mr. Famous see what he could do with the first novel and give him the courtesy of representing him as an author on his next novel, should he make a sale.

Before I had even written this blog post, I got the following:

"Thank you for the reply. I did ask Mr. Famous if he wanted the new book and he declined it. I wouldn't shop it around if he hadn't already looked at it. This manuscript is not really SF, but more dark and literary and I don't think his agency handles that type of work."


And here's my response, which would have been a lot less explanatory and patient, if it weren't for you explaining to me just how out of the loop writers can be.

"But the editor he sells you too may do dark "literary" fiction, or some editor who has read your first novel might ask for your next book, which is why you need to let Mr. Famous have dibbs on it until you know what your first novel can do.

And you might write yet another novel or partial in the time it takes to sell the first novel, and Mr. Famous might like that one, and find it more sellable.

Also, there are only seven publishers for this kind of dark/horror fiction, so in all likelihood Mr. Famous and your other agent would be sending your two novels to the same editors, which just is not done."

But the reason why I posted about this is that I'm just astounded that this writer couldn't understand how lucky he was to have an agent with a good reputation work on his book (which I told him was a small book) and thought nothing of having two agents, or one to get you started and one to grow on, at the same time. It's just wrong.

I know he's anxious to get validation on his new novel, but what part of publishing is a slow business amongst people who all know each other have we failed to make clear?

P.S.

The author just wrote to me again, and he got it, so I guess you've taught me to be just a little more gentle and patient.

"I see now. Thank you for explaining. I'm afraid that I know very little about the business. I'll hang on to the new ms. and see what happens. You've been very kind.


Thanks again. I'm sorry if I've taken up much of your time."