Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Ask an Agent

This week I wanted to blog about querying agents, but since I don't have an agent myself, I'm not an expert on the subject. Instead I've invited Sara Wolski of Calliope Content to answer some frequently asked questions:

Dana Kaye: What is the first thing you look for in a query letter? Is there something that can make or break that submission?

Sara Wolski: A good query letter is clear, concise, and follows a specific format. I get almost all of my queries via email, and there can be a few pitfalls to that medium. Informality is one pitfall, along with casual errors, typos, improper grammar, and my favorite, accidentally addressing the query letter to another agent or something standard like “Dear Gentlemen.” A great query letter is one that tells me (succinctly) what the book is about, a brief introduction to the author and his writing credentials, and hopefully, it piques my curiosity. Nathan Bransford, an agent with Curtis Brown, has an excellent blog on the anatomy of a good query letter (

DK: After you've asked for pages, what do you look for? What's your decision making process?

SW: If the query letter has done its job and hooked my interest, I’ll usually ask for the first three chapters or the first fifty pages. Less frequently, I might request the full manuscript. At that point, I’m looking for a story in which I become completely absorbed – I know what I’m looking for in writing quality so the winning combination is if the craft is there structurally and I can get lost in the story. Assessing the market is also a consideration (i.e. is there a book already published that’s exactly like this, has this story been told before, etc), but overall, if a book has a great story, compelling storytelling, and strong writing, chances are there will be a publisher for it. Sometimes books that don’t quite fall into a clear genre (genre-benders or “hybrids” and whatever else they’re calling them these days) are a bit harder to sell on principle, but “General Fiction” has become a genre of its own these days, so sometimes that’s not a huge factor in my decision-making process.

DK: Agents are always inundated with manuscripts and pages often get lost in the piles. Is there anything writers can do to stand out? Is there anything that will make you dig someone's manuscript out of the slush pile?

SW: The slush pile can be very daunting, but again, a well-written query letter automatically stands out from the rest. Queries printed on scented, pink paper do not stand out in a positive way, nor do query letters with fancy fonts or photos. Authors often forget that this is first and foremost a business, and agents love it when authors are on the same page – kitsch and cute is not the way to an agent’s heart. A professional query is always best. Once a manuscript is requested, if the author is sending it by post, the best way for it to not get lost in the jungle of paper is to label the envelope with “Requested Material” in large, clear writing. Sending it certified mail is another way to assure its arrival without bugging the agent. Sometimes assistants and interns handle the mail and requested manuscripts (and at times will even read it first), so certified mail can be a less obtrusive way of confirming this. However, I don’t mind at all when authors follow up with a short, professional email 3-4 weeks after sending their requested manuscripts. With agents dealing with a million different irons in the fire, a polite reminder can be helpful.

DK: Many agents are saying now, "If you don't hear from me, I'm not interested." What is the follow-up protocol?

SW: This is a product of the emailed query letter, unfortunately. I know how frustrating it can be to send missives out into the ether and wonder if anyone is ever even reading them, so I try to follow up with every query letter with either a “No, thank you” or a “Yes, please.” Some agencies put on their websites that replies are not guaranteed with emailed queries, which is somewhat better, but the best practice is to research each agency to learn their submission guidelines. The way email is, sometimes queries get snagged in spam filters. This is unavoidable, but again, I think it’s acceptable to send a short, professional, and polite follow up to ensure that the query was received and read. If there is still no response, I’d move on. The fact of the matter is that publishing can be a long process and with the amount of agencies out there, there’s no sense in dwelling on whether one of them received a query letter. Authors should be submitting to as many agencies as possible – hundreds if possible! It’s such a subjective process too, so the more agents queried, the better chance an author has of attaining representation.

DK: What is the most common mistake made by writers?

SW: I find that the biggest mistakes made by writers all stem from not understanding the publishing industry. Authors have to realize that this is a business, and even though it’s virtually impossible to be completely objective about one’s book, authors have to separate the rejection factor and the business methods from their intellectual property. Directly related to this is the mistake of letting emotions get in the way. I can’t tell you how many nasty responses I’ve received over the years from authors I have rejected. As a writer myself, I do understand the frustration and desolation of rejection. What writers might not realize is that agents have to deal with rejection with almost every book they sell. Georges Borchardt, one of the most famous agents (with clients like the Tennessee Williams estate, Ian McEwan, Kate Millett, the Samuel Beckett estate, the list goes on!) talks about how Elie Wiesel and William Faulkner were rejected from several big publishing houses before finding their editorial homes in a recent interview he did with Jofie Ferrari-Adler in P&W ( With email it’s so easy to just click “reply” and send an ugly tirade of insults to the agent that did the rejecting: regardless of how polite and sincerely regretful the rejection may be, some authors insist on having the last – bitter – word. I guess it gets it out of their systems. Needless to say, this does nothing to help them. I have had some severe replies to very nice rejections and have not hesitated to tell my agent colleagues about it. The bottom line is that graciousness and professionalism speak volumes in every situation.

DK: What is the biggest piece of advice you can offer writers seeking an agent?

SW: My advice is to do the homework and stay active. Even when an author is published, there is no time to sit back. To get an agent, read agents’ blogs, research how to write a strong query letter, look up the agencies you’d like to submit to and follow the submission guidelines. Don’t agonize over whether everything is perfect – make the materials as strong as you can and run with it. Send it out to as many agents as possible that represent books similar to yours. Once the submissions are out, don’t sit back and wait. Submit short stories to literary magazines whenever possible, submit articles and make contacts within local publications – learn how to pitch articles to magazine and newspaper editors. The more you develop your pitching skills the better you will be at pitching your book to agents and editors. Create a website and blog frequently and on topic. The more active an aspiring author is about furthering his writing career through every avenue and means possible, the more likely an agent will find him and offer representation – not to mention that the stronger an author’s platform is, the easier it will be to publish the book and most importantly, sell copies.

Sara Wolski is the founder and president of Calliope Content, a full-service literary agency. She is newly based in Chicago after spending four years in the publishing industry in New York and London. She enjoys general fiction, educational books, children's literature, historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, literary fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction, and business books for the trade. Visit her online at

Feel free to comment with follow-up questions for Sara and she'll do her best to answer them.


Quinn said...

Hi Sara, I actually just met an acquaintance of yours named Claire Martinson and was going to contact you with some questions directly, but it looks like Dana already did the legwork for me. I hope Chicago is treating you and your business well.

My question: I'm shopping around my first novel and I have no publication credits. As such my query says simply "[Title] is my first novel." But since a lot of first novels are pretty terrible, I'm wondering if that one sentence might be enough to push a wavering agent away from a partial request.

How do you react when you see that the author is querying for a first novel? Would that hurt their chances even if their pitch intrigues you? Or am I just overthinking this?

Sara said...

Hi Quinn,

I don't mind at all when I see that authors are querying a first novel. As long as the query is written professionally and succinctly, I'm happy. The best thing debut authors can do is make the most intriguing pitch possible and keep things short and sweet. It's always nice to see other publications on a query (short stories in lit mags, articles, etc), but if not, it's certainly not a deal-breaker for me or for most other agents.

I wish you every success with your submission!