Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Monday, April 03, 2006

Literary Agents Are Such Delicate Creatures

Miss Snark posts this, obviously from another agent.

“I’ve gotten at least three queries this week that say, more or less, should I send a sample by snail mail or email? Or – would you prefer I send a sample to your PO Box or some other address? The presumption being that I want them to send anything at all.”

Miss Snark writes, “It's condescending as hell and, when done less than artfully, so transparent as to be annoying. Writing a sentence so that "no" is not the answer to "can I send you my manuscript" doesn't mean we're going to say yes. It means we're going to send you a form letter just like everyone else.

The danger of this kind of phrasing is that it makes us stop reading at the cover letter. That's not what you want.”

So, let me get this straight. Agents now skip to the end of a letter, read it first, and if they find the writer’s closing too assertive, get offended and toss the letter? This is ridiculous, for Pete’s sake. Miss Snark has commented before on how your closing shouldn’t be too obsequious, otherwise she’ll be put off. But if you’re not quite solicitous enough they’re equally offended.

My, my. Agents seem to be remarkably thin-skinned, skittish creatures. They’re a breed apart, they are.

This is one of the things about the publishing game that infuriates me. I classify it as "Doesn't One Hand Know What The Other Knows?” Agents are commissioned salespeople, like real estate agents. If they even deign to read your query, presumably they start at the beginning. If they don’t like the first paragraph, they won’t bother to read further, in all likelihood. If they like what they read and it looks like money, they’ll ask you for more even if your letter has no closing at all. So why do they pretend otherwise? Why all this hairsplitting over the etiquette of query letters? Agents don’t really care how you close your letter, and they know they don’t. Sentences like, "I would appreciate the opportunity to send you my proposal" and "Thak you for your time" are pro forma bullshit which have been obligatory in every business letter since the dawn of man. Nobody takes them seriously or pays attention. Agents' response is going to be the same whether you’re passive or aggressive in your solicitations.

I’m an atheist, but the one thing attributed to Christ that not only makes sense but is a foundation of my personal ethos is the Golden Rule. Reciprocity. Treat me the way you want to be treated and I’ll do likewise.

Maybe agents should practice more of what they preach. I’ve gotten undated rejection letters without an addressee at the front or signature at the end that looked like a fifth-generation copy taken from an original printed at a slant on a dot matrix printer with a faded ribbon.
When an agent rejects you, they don’t agonise over how they phrase their letters. They don't want to ever hear from you again. They're not afraid of offending you. The relationship is over before it’s begun.

"The presumption being that I want them to send anything at all."

I quite agree. We should presume agents don't want to have anything to do with us, unless we can guarantee them a bestseller. Then they might open their doors and PO boxes to us.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Peter, and I agree with a lot of what you're saying. OTOH, agents are making a decision about whether to invest their time in an author, and the most important concern for them is whether this author can present information well. If an author sucks at writing cover letters, then there's a good chance the author will also suck at writing books.

It does seem like a horrible, unforgiving game (and it is), but I'm not sure how agents responding differently to cover letters would solve the problem.

6:08 AM  

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