Ad Astra 2016, day 2: How to get an agent

Disclaimer: I am not perfect and neither are my notes. If you notice anything that requires correction or clarification, please email me at melanie (dot) marttila (at) gmail (dot) com.

Panellists: Amanda Sun, Mary Fan, Gerald Brandt, Matt Bin


AS: Online resources that can help you get an agent: #MSWL, Miss Snark, Query Shark, Guide to Literary Agents blog.

MB: #MSWL is critical these days.

GB: You have to do the research.

MF: There are writers who get an agent and their first novel fails to sell, their second novel fails to sell, but then their third sells big.

MB: The agent has to love your book.

GB: If your query doesn’t match their submission guidelines, it will be rejected.

AS: I used to be an acquiring editor for Room. If a submission didn’t meet the submission requirements, I’d never see it. It would go straight to the spam folder.

Q: How formal does your query have to be? I write YA.

GB: You have to be professional up front. Your second paragraph, where you’re pitching the novel has to have the flavour of your book, but it’s a sales pitch.

MB: The agent wants to understand how your book works and why it will appeal to readers.

MF: 250 words is a good goal length for your query.

Q: At what point do you look for an agent?

GB: As soon as you have a book that’s finished and ready to go out into the world.

MB: Query agents first. If you submit to publishers, agents will have their sales channels limited. Remember, it’s your agent’s job to sell your book to publishers.

GB: Take advantage of pitch sessions at conferences and conventions.

AS: And work on your next book.

GB: The agent is in it with you for the life of your career.

Q: So querying an agent first is better? Is that because editor A might love you book and editor B might hate it?

GB: At Penguin Random House, if one editor rejects the book, all of them do.

MF: That can happen at agencies, too. Agents can move around, too.

Q: What happens when your agent leaves the agency?

GB: In my experience, I was given the option to follow the agent or stay with the agency.

MB: When agents send your novel to publishers, they do so with a different perspective.

MF: I know a writer whose agent is all business. Some agents will want to help edit or develop the work prior to submission to publishers.

MB: Look at the agent’s reputation before you sign with them. You have to be able to work with them.

GB: When an agent is interested in your work, the tables turn.

MF: When you get an offer, don’t be afraid to ask for references.

AS: Don’t be too eager. You don’t have to back down 100% of the time. It’s a partnership.

MF: There are some Schmagents who aren’t legitimate. There should be no reading fee.

GB: The money should flow to the author. Check out Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors.

MB: Querying is the traditional road. Networking at conferences and conventions can help.

GB: But don’t be stalkery. Have your elevator pitch ready, just in case.

AS: Don’t burn your bridges. Publishing is a surprisingly small world.

MF: Maybe we should talk about the structure of a query? It’s three paragraphs. Introduce yourself and your book. The second paragraph is your pitch. Then the third paragraph is about you and your qualifications.

GB: List publication credits if you have any, memberships in any writing organizations. Make sure you look serious.

AS: Your introductory paragraph should focus on the reasons you’re querying this particular agent. Have you met at a con? Do you write books in the same genre as other authors they represent?

Q: Do you use Canadian, or US spelling?

GB: Everything should be in US spelling.

MF: Your comps (comparative novels) should be published in the last three years.

AS: X meets Y is a popular formula to use. Agents can use it to pitch to publishers.

MB: We should also mention online pitch contests like #PitMad. Look them up. Most of them are on Twitter and you have a limited time to pitch directly to agents. Use the hashtag. If an agent likes your 140 character pitch, they’ll respond to you. The rules are all online.

Q: How long should my book be?

MF: It really depends on your genre and category. There are a lot of resources for this online.

Q: Should you query to an agent if you mostly write short fiction?

AS: You can do that without an agent and, in fact, most agents won’t represent short fiction, even for authors they represent for novels.

GB: Collections of short stories are a hard sell.

And that was time.

Next weekend, it will once more be time for a next chapter update (already?).

Be good and write well!

Query letters that work with Adrienne Kerr

Adrienne_KerrAdrienne Kerr is the senior editor for commercial fiction at Penguin Canada.  She’s worked in various book-oriented occupations for seventeen years (gosh, she must have started as a kid).

Adrienne ran the session alone and we had a fabulous time.

Here are my notes:

  • Everyone has to hustle.
  • Harness your enthusiasm.
  • Craft your query as carefully as you craft your novel.
  • Find out what your target agent or editor has sold or acquired recently.


  • Writers have the power.  Act like it.
  • Start with your bookshelves.  Pick out your favourite books.  Look at the acknowledgements.  Authors always thank their agents and editors.
  • Next, go to your library or bookstore and do the same thing.
  • Then go on line.  Look at the agencies.  Look at the submission guidelines.  Anything less than 100% compliance is a waste of everyone’s time.
  • Be open to the process; be delightful to work with.
  • Editors are hidden.  They’re not on-line.  Traditionally, they don’t take unsolicited submissions.  Now, they’re taking a more active role in ferreting out new talent.
  • Check out Publishers’ Marketplace.  Search through 14 years worth of deals.  Each entry has a logline attached.

Loglines – you need one

  • What if – so what formula
    25 words or less.  Convey major conflict.
    Answers so what.
  • Hollywood style
    It’s X meets Y.
    Mash-up of famous books and/or movies.
  • Save the Cat method
    A sentence or two, ironic, compelling, genre/audience-targeted, killer title.
  • Blurb-based
    Who/what the hero wants and why.
    Focus on conflict.
  • Comps must be realistic.  Consider the sales numbers and the social media imprint.
  • Indicate your job only if pertinent (e.g. a lawyer who writes legal thrillers).
  • Agents will use your query/logline/synopsis to sell.
  • Editors will use your query/logline/synopsis for marketing.
  • You will use it when someone asks what your book is about.

The rest of the session was spent critiquing loglines and queries volunteered from the attendees.  I was still working on mine and didn’t speak up, but there were some pretty interesting projects pitched and some effective improvements were crowd-sourced.

I will be finishing off my SiWC posts one per day.

Until tomorrow, mes amis!

Building your writing resume: three points to consider

This topic has come up in a peripheral way on Wordsmith Studio: As an unpublished, or even as a not-recently-published author, what can you do to bolster your writing resume?  I say peripheral, because the actual question asked was whether it was worthwhile to enter contests because many of the entry fees are expensive/potentially prohibitive.  I believe the question was posed in the context of accruing publishing credits, however, and that’s when I started to think about this topic in earnest.

So for better or worse, here are my thoughts on the subject in the context of my personal experience.

1. Contests

Contests can be fun.  They can inspire you, particularly if they have a theme you can latch onto, and the deadline always helps to motivate.  The issue for me is that many contests in literary magazines, whether for poetry or prose, carry with them entry fees, and some of these can be as much as $40 (!) for a single entry.  If that entry is a single poem (not epic, they usually have line limits), or a 2000 word or fewer short story, you really have to weigh the benefits of paying someone to consider your work, which already carries with it a labour cost in author-hours spent writing/revising.

Food for thought: Value your work.  How much do you think it cost to write?  Even at minimum wage per hour (and I’d advise a higher value than that) it’s probably more than the entry fee.  How much are you willing to pay to have your work published?  In the beginning, we may all have to pay for this consideration, but it’s important to remember that unless you have a really good day-job, you’re going to reach the point of diminishing returns sooner than later.

Yes, you can write off the entry fees on your taxes if you claim your writing as self-employment, and yes, you often get a year’s subscription to the magazine or journal, which you can declare as income on your taxes as well, but you have to consider the relative cost for benefit.

For example: If you’re paying a $25 entry fee to receive and annual subscription worth $15 or $20, this may not be in your best interest.  Sure, you may stand to win $500 if you place first in the contest, but if the magazine or journal holding the contest is well-known, you’re going to be up against some stiff competition.  Take the possible purse out of the equation and work through your numbers again.  If you don’t win, or even place, will this still be a good investment for you?

Contests are sometimes a way for a magazine or journal to generate some fresh material, gain new subscribers, or refill the enterprise’s dwindling coffers.  If you like the journal and want to support them, consider a paid subscription and simply submit to them according to their submission specifications (see below) to see if you can get published by other means.

Further, most magazines and journals that hold contests receive so many entries that their judges cannot possibly comment, even in general terms, on the quality/suitability of your work.  Entering a contest may be a good experience, but if you’re aiming to get critical feedback, it’s not your best bet.

Note: The concerns for poetry are a little different than for prose, at least here in Canada.  A poet can rarely make even a meagre income from their work unless they self-publish, and even then, the costs of producing the anthology often outweigh the profits derived from sales.  A best-seller in terms of poetry might be 500 – 1000 copies and the poet often has to go on the road (or start up a YouTube or podcast channel to promote their work) to give public readings and drum up interest in their work.  In my experience, poets write for the love of poetry.  They’re not aiming to make money from the endeavour.  The fact of publication is often worth the cost, whatever it happens to be, and most poets are gainfully employed in other, though sometimes related professions, to offset the costs associated with their calling.

My advice: Look for contests that have low or no entry fees.  They do exist.

2. Calls for submission

Which brings us to our next consideration: calls for submissions.  Most magazines and journals do have their criteria for submission posted on their Web sites.  Occasionally, periodicals, or even publishers wishing to put out an anthology will have a themed call.

Like the contests listed above, themed calls can be fun and often for the same reasons (theme, deadline, etc.).  One consideration that you should keep in mind is the potential for resubmission.  If the theme is too specific or narrow, the story or poem produced thereby may not be suitable for submission elsewhere, unless another publisher is interested in Animal Bollywood, or Japanese Steampunk.

Note: Follow the submission guidelines carefully.  Many publications weed out submissions that are not perfectly aligned with their criteria, particularly the more popular or well-known ones that are flooded with the work of hopeful authors.

Some magazines close their submissions once they’ve received what they deem to be “enough.”  Usually, this has to do with their publication schedule.

For example: A quarterly (four times per year or every three months) that publishes three to four short stories per issue might close their submissions after receiving eighteen to twenty stories (a year’s worth plus a few back-ups) that they deem suitable for publication.

This can happen in any genre (poetry or fiction) or any genre within fiction or poetry (SF, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc.).  This only reinforces the importance of looking up the submission guidelines for whatever magazine or journal you choose to submit to.  If you rely on annual print publications to plan your submission strategy, this is especially important.  The periodical’s or publisher’s situation could have changed since the guide was produced.

Remuneration: These terms can also be found on most magazine’s or journal’s Web sites.  Often, for fiction, it will be a sliding scale of cents per word depending on the length of the story.  It may be a flat fee per poem.  Some journals, particularly poetry or literary journals, will only offer contributor copies, or a year’s subscription.  Once again, as with the contest entry fees, weigh the benefits of publication.

A note regarding online publications: Online publications may not offer contributor copies either (because there is no print version), and if relatively new, may not be able to pay much, if anything.  If they are established enough to have advertising income they may provide remuneration.  Once more, read carefully.

In most cases, it will be rare that a piece of creative writing submitted in response to a call will receive detailed commentary. Once again, it’s a matter of numbers.  If you had to read a hundred short stories, would you be able to give each one individual attention?  We’d all like to say that we would, but I think the reality is that after ten or so, we’d all admit to a certain amount of exhaustion.  And to be fair, why give commentary to a handful, when everyone deserves the same consideration?  This is why most publications will not go this particular extra mile.

If you do receive a few comments or pointers: excellent!  It means that your submission was good enough to merit some extra time and attention.  If the commentary is specific, take heed and use it to your best advantage.  If it’s simply complementary, keep it, and try not to use it as an excuse not to edit and revise before submitting the piece to another venue.

3. Resources

One of the most popular series of guides is the Writer’s Digest series: Writer’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, etc.  I might recommend a subscription to the Writers service, which will have resources/listings updated in real time and on a regular basis.

For Canadians there is The Canadian Writer’s Market, but I’ve found that WD has been getting better and better at keeping their Canadian listings up-to-date.  This may be a good resource for those dedicated to publishing in Canada.  It comes out less frequently than WD, and so checking out the individual Web sites of publishers and publications becomes very important.

While the Interwebz can provide a plethora of resources, I’ll recommend Duotrope as an excellent starting point.  The service is currently looking for donations to remain in operation as a free resource.  If you’ve used the service and found value in it, seriously consider donating.

That’s all the Alchemy Ink Writerly Goodness has for this week!

Until next time!