‘Play It Again, Sam’
For a long time, most author-agent communications on the front end have gone just that way — author to agent: the query letter.
The query letter is so daunting for many writers that there are whole courses offered simply on how to write a good query letter, never mind the damned book: what to say to an agent, what not to say, how to intrigue without hype. (You can start by getting that agent’s name right. You think I’m kidding? You’d be amazed.)
And even if you do lots of research on agents and work hard to understand what agents and editors want and study their track records and look up their deals and ask a few of their authors what it’s like to work with them, well, that first salvo can still be a complete shot in the dark. And agents do know that. Editors know that. They understand that it’s hard on the other side of the query, too.
Maybe you consult Chuck Sambuchino’s annual Guide to Literary Agents from Writer’s Digest Books, or maybe you join QueryTracker.net or another popular site for sorting out agents, their interests and how to approach them. A few years ago, QueryTracker was good enough to start listing agents’ gender — so authors at least didn’t have to worry about fumbling a “Ms.” or “Mr.” reference.
And for an author who needs representation, just how many agents are out there to research?
QueryTracker’s folks now count 1,343 literary agents listed in its system. And, as agent Kristin Nelson is noting in her new series of blog posts for writers — we wrote it up here at Thought Catalog — all agents are not created equal.
But most authors don’t know what to look for. A lot of ships are passing in the night.
Maybe that’s why there was so much excitement this week when the word started passing among authors in the tweeterie:
Guys! It’s #MSWL day! Check out the hashtag and see what agents want 😀
— Cole Burke (@MissColeBurke) February 18, 2015
I was alerted by my great colleague Jane Friedman:
And if you missed it, don’t worry. The tweets are captured, categorized, tagged so you can find them quickly…and they’re still coming. I asked the creator of the #MSWL hashtag-o-rama if it wouldn’t make sense for writers to periodically check for new tweets, even when there isn’t an “#MSWL day” under way. And Jessica Sinsheimer said to go for it: It would make sense, yes.
I use the hashtag whenever I think of something–and I know a lot of other agents and editors do, too. Also, as ManuscriptWishList.com continues to grow, there will be more features, more listings, and even more potential matches.
None of the rules of the agent-editor-author speakeasy change, by the way. For example, authors still need to get very tight with an agency’s submission guidelines and follow those rules precisely, don’t wing it. In the #MSWL stream, agents are smart to direct you to those guidelines:
For those who feel sometimes that the entire industry has gone to romance, here’s where you take heart:
I’d like to see more of that, too, but submit it to Eddie, please. I’ll read it when he places you with a great deal at a good publisher.
The “play it again, Sam” aspect of this process is in the frequent use of “comps,” comparison titles. You’ll see many agents noting books they like (or not) to illustrate what it is they’re asking for. Granted, this is part of the reason that publishing sometimes suffers a reputation as a business of trend-chasers. In the world of book popularity, vampires really do seem undead. But practically speaking, “comps” are a useful way for agents and editors to signal what they’re talking about to authors in a short space.
And with luck, you might find out that those 300 pages you thought added up to a non-starter could have a chance, after all:
The range of requests I’m seeing is heartening, even for those of us relieved that the ATP World Tour is back on the road after its winter break:
So just what kind of honky-tonk action is going on here? Glad you asked.
Tell The Bouncer Jessica Sent You
In 2013, Sinsheimer, who is an agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency in New York, got the idea of using a hashtag with which other agents could tweet out some of the things they were looking for in books at the time. She wasn’t sure anybody would show up. Sinsheimer tells me:
For the very first #MSWL, I sent out maybe thirty emails to agents a few days beforehand, mentioning that I’d be doing this on that Thursday, and they were welcome to jump in.
Sinsheimer wasn’t aware right away of what she had started.
If memory serves, I went around favoriting each tweet–I was just so happy anyone would show up. Agents are notoriously busy.
As it turned out, they had really, really shown up.
Soon I was in Twitter jail. #MSWL appeared to be trending. And the whole thing exploded. KK Hendin was generous enough to start sorting and archiving the tweets, and has become an amazing partner, collaborator, and friend.
Hendin is an author, writing YA and New Adult (NA) material, and she has continued to work with Sinsheimer on the project.
Today, a couple of years later, the Web site that came out of the original tweetly triumph — ManuscriptWishList.com — is an evolving repository of the tweeted messages from agents and editors. Thanks to Sinsheimer and Hendin’s exhaustive work, longer wish lists are organized into some 900 sub-genre/specific-interest tags, from 20th Century to Zeitgeist, and tweets are tagged and organized on AgentAndEditorWishlist at Tumblr.
And Sinsheimer regularly tweets out practical tips on using the site. Like this:
How’s That Working Out For You?
A couple of tips for authors about using #MSWL tweets:
- Don’t pitch agents and editors on Twitter during #MSWL events. In fact, don’t pitch them on Twitter ever. This instruction is repeated frequently, and yet you see authors pitching with the dependability of Pavlov’s dogs. Resist that urge: when you see an #MSWL tweet go speeding by, go to that agent or editor’s site and find out how to contact them in their submission guidelines. For all the things the blue bird of platforms may be, it is not a pitch mound.
- If you’re working on a great book, don’t let #MSWL derail you. If you don’t see what you’re writing being tweeted out on some agent or editor’s Manuscript Wish List tweets, go ahead and query — provided you’ve done your homework and made sure your work is in the general area that an agent or editor takes. Notice how many #MSWL comments from agents include words to the effect of, “Surprise me.” They mean it. Yours may be the surprise they’ve been waiting for. Carry on.
- Take comments from agents and editors like this one very seriously:
- Another good bit of instruction, from Sinsheimer:
A Hot Time In The Old Town
Agents and editors not using #MSWL might want to drop by, even just set up a good lurking stream for it on Hootsuite — stand over by the digital bar in the back with me and listen to some tunes. Not for nothing do we call these media “social,” and one of the very best aspects of what Sinsheimer and Hendin have created here is the humanizing effects of the medium. Check out how some of the most entertaining comments from agents are the most direct:
Look how classy someone like Meredith Bernstein can make a tweet:
Sometimes you spot an #MSWL tweet that makes you want to drop everything and dive in, as if La Goulue just winked at you on her way to rehearse with Valentin le Désossé at Moulin Rouge:
This guy gets it:
Direct from my own corner of the world (called “Everybody’s A Critic”), I’d say the smartest authors will give some thought to contacting an agent or editor who knows how to write an Manuscript Wish List tweet well — clean, tight, intriguing, and singular:
And then there’s the wry smile of a trompe-l’oeil #MSWL tweet — can you believe this is really what they want? Or is this an unreliable tweeteur charmingly at work?
And do you know why Maria Vicente starts to look familiar? Because she knows how to work this system, also a profoundly important attribute in an agent:
Specificity is the currency of the realm here. I’d recommend authors blow past every #MSWL tweet from an agent or editor banging on about “All I want is a good story.” This is exactly on a par with saying, “All I want from a comedian is a good laugh.” I saw quite a number of just such uninformative #MSWL tweets from agents this week. Those aren’t the agents smart authors need. Instead, watch for call-outs from agents and editors who know what they’re after: in many cases, it means they’ll work hard to support it when you hand it to them. For example, here is Chris Hernandez, an associate editor in HarperCollins’ children’s division and HarperTeen. What is he looking for? Now you know, in three tweets:
Relationship structures, of course, define a lot of requests in the #MSWL chatter:
And in some cases, you’ll spot not only what an agent or editor wants but also what he or she does not want:
It’s not all genre, I’m glad to say. And, no, not because there’s a thing wrong with genre — sit back down — but because I read literary, myself, and would like to see literary fiction thrive in the digital era:
Some of our agents and editors know that the brevity of Twitter doesn’t mean you have to leave things out. Brooks Sherman at Jenny Bent’s shop got off at least 13 numbered tweets, and taken together, they offer authors a lot of leads as to what he might be interested in seeing. Here are just a couple, and notice, as with Hernandez, a lot of use of comps, those title comparisons, to put across what he’s talking about — play it again, Sam:
On the whole, Sinsheimer tells me, authors are picking up on #MSWL fairly well:
They seem very happy to find agents this way, and I know there are many deals that have come out of this.
Has she snagged a good client-author this way for the agency?
I haven’t signed a client, but I’ve come close. I’ve certainly seen projects I would never have received otherwise. After all, many writers don’t know agents want anything beyond the sort of projects they’ve already sold. It’s to everyone’s benefit. You’re more likely to get something if you ask.
You don’t have to be shopping a manuscript to enjoy perusing a lot of these tweets. One of the nicest elements of this way of working is the chance to pick up on personalities behind the agencys’ and publishing houses’ facades. You may hear from your fellow onlookers, as well:
While pitching an agent or editor in the stream is not appropriate, it’s fine for an author to reach out for assistance if something isn’t clear:
Discerning writers will find a lot to read here — and more features, Sinsheimer tells me, are coming to the Web site, too, to help authors parse what agents and editors are asking for.
Here’s what happens when an agent is also a college English professor:
At Jolly Fish Press, Tj da Roza might entertain seeing some rules broken:
Sarah Cantlin at Atria Books likes the big picture:
Notice how it starts to feel like the personals? That’s because it is personal. Not quite the carefully edited statement of interest you might read on an agency or publisher site. #MSWL gives you a quicker, more personable insight into what might fly. And that might be the spur you need to get down and do the writing:
The next main “#MSWL Day,” Sinsheimer tells me, will probably come “in about three months.” No date is set as yet, she says, but it sounds like some time in May.
So keep an eye on that hashtag, check the site, don’t pitch anybody on Twitter, do follow submission guidelines to the letter, and take advantage of yet another way that various social media (still a plural word — one medium, two media) can get you into close proxmity to someone else’s thoughts. And new submissions are on the way:
Take note of what editor Annie Stone tells you:
And there goes the victory lap.