Have you ever had a question you secretly wanted to ask a Literary Agent, but were too afraid to ask? Writers Digest once allowed writers to anonymously submit questions for answering by Barbara Poelle with the Irene Goodman Agency.
A few of the best (read: my favorites) are below.
NOTE: Ms. Poelle does not presume to speak for the industry at large. So, take what you’re about to read in the spirit in which it’s intended: as one agent’s honest take on the subjects at hand. Nothing you read here is meant to be direction on how to embark, sustain or engage in a publishing career, nor should you assume there is any specific path to success based upon the responses.
Dear Agent: A lot of agencies’ websites say they read every query. But I could say the same thing about all the junk mail I receive. How much time do you really spend looking at each query—as in, average seconds per query letter? Give it to me straight. I can take it. BP: This reminds me of the time I got curious and ordered my sister to hit me as hard as she could, to see if I could take it. She looks like Reese Witherspoon and weighs maybe 101 pounds soaking wet with rocks in her pockets, but she went ahead and cranked me a teeth-rattler on the arm that I feel fairly certain created some sort of embolism that is just waiting to travel to my brain like a gift that keeps on giving.That is a preface to say: Ground yourself; this one might be a molar-shaker.Sometimes it really is only, say, four seconds; a first line can close it down for me (e.g., the one I got that opened with, “What if it was your job to kill babies?”). Often the deal breaker is elsewhere in the first paragraph, when I see yet another Hezbollah/North Korea/China terrorist thriller plot, or an estranged daughter coming back to the small town to deal with her ailing mother, expose family secrets and rekindle love with her high school flame. Or sometimes it’s at a point later in a query when I am insulted, belittled or offended (yup, those happen too).In general, I just stop the second I realize the story is just not for me. But average time per query aside, I can assure you this: I do look at ’em all.
Dear Agent: How important is it for me to have a blog these days? BP: An online presence is important, and you will be asked to guest blog/do a blog tour when it comes time to publicize your book—but if you have a blog you are spending hours upon hours updating and only seven people are reading it, your time right now can be better spent. But that doesn’t have to mean bowing out entirely. If you’re having a hard time drawing an audience on your own, it might behoove you to grab a few writing buddies and have a grog (group blog) where you are able to collectively amass readers and you can maintain a steady stream of fresh content even with each of you contributing only, say, once a week.
Dear Agent: In today’s market, with print-on-demand, e-books and inexpensive publishing routes, do I even need to consider having a literary agent? Are agents still relevant? BP: Interestingly I have never had a client ask that question.And need is just such a funny word to me. Because actually, what do we all need really besides food, water, shelter and vodka? And Kate Spade handbags. And autographed photos of Benedict Cumberbatch.But I digress.Look, I don’t need Spanx. But I know that when I have them, they are taking care of my business. I get the support and the overall confidence to perform at my best and focus on what I need to accomplish without worry. And all for a bargain-basement price of only getting paid if I succeed at my job. If my Spanx could also enrich my talent, exponentially increase my income, sell to major New York publishers as well as foreign territories, secure me a film option, and have any career-related conversation on my behalf that frankly I just didn’t want to have, I guess I would trade a bit of social media for that.But in the end, if you do not feel an agent is necessary for your desired career path, that gets to be OK, too! You have to establish what your journey is going to look like on your terms, and if it is one without a partner, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge you that. And I will say this: A bad agent is way worse than no agent. Off-brand Spanx don’t do anyone any favors.
Dear Agent: What would you say sets apart a potential bestselling writer from the rest of your prospects? BP: They write real good and purty. Or, you know, they have that intangible combination of the right story and the right talent at the right time. But the purty thing works too.
What to Submit to Barbara: Barbara is looking for high octane thrillers, edgy mysteries, literary and upmarket fiction and YA.