Please welcome literary agent Mary C. Moore to our latest round of Ask a Literary Agent! Mary is a Bay Area-based agent at Kimberley Cameron & Associates who loves representing authors who write unusual fantasy, grounded science fiction, and strong female characters.
When reading a query letter for a work of fiction (esp. fantasy/sci-fi), I know that having both strong characters and a strong plot are important. But which will make you more likely to keep reading and why? – Vanessa Silva
For me personally, the opening scene has to have forward-moving action. If an author spends a lot of time giving back story, they lose my interest. I want to feel like I jumped in the car with you and we took off for an adventure. This doesn’t mean the action has to be “high-stakes exciting” per se, it just has to have momentum.
A lot of fantasy authors make the mistake of opening with a battle/duel/fight scene because they think that is good opening “action.” This is hard to pull off, as we don’t know whose side we are on, nor do we care about the characters, so it just ends up being confusing. Another common mistake is having a big action-filled scene, only to have the character wake up from a dream. This generally brings reader enjoyment to a screeching halt. I would love to see an opening scene in which nothing appears to happen, yet the reader is utterly tantalized by tension and then sudden magic! One of my first clients caught my eye by opening a scene in a rustic western hotel where the protagonist, wearing a long grey duster jacket, is stealing food from the buffet during a dance for rich gentry, and she is snarking internally about her work partner who is off dancing with a local hooker. The twist? It’s a dystopian set in the future. Great tension, setting, and action without trying too hard.
In queries, what really tips the scales for me is professionalism. It’s amazing how personal authors get in the slushpile. We industry professionals know that writing is a highly personal art, but publishing is a business. If you are looking to become a part of the publishing world, you have to show us you are a professional to work with. This means your query letter should be clean, concise, and free of gimmicks. Your author bio should only have information pertaining to your writing, experience supporting your story, and/or your platform. Your blurb should be short, error-free, and well done, and your salutation should be accurate. Don’t be self-abasing but don’t be egotistical. Above all, you should not be a diva or attempt to guilt us into considering you, i.e. “I’m the best thing since JK Rowling,” or “I’ve been rejected x amount of times,” or “I’m sick and this is my last chance to be published,” that will send us running in the other direction. It’s just like a cover letter for a job application: professional.
I also look at an author’s presence online. Although online platforms are not nearly as important in fiction as in nonfiction, if I’m on the fence about a project, and the author has a killer website and a decent following on social media, it will push me to ask to consider their full manuscript or even offer representation. My client’s website ratiwrites.com, is one example of an author site that convinced me to offer representation. Her long list of short story publications would not have reasonably fit on her query, but the list is clear and easily accessible on her website.
If a self-published author isn’t actively looking for a publisher now or in the near future, what would the benefits be of having an agent? What are some other reasons to explore that relationship? – Jessica Hawkins
This is a hard question. If a self-published author is successful on their own, then there probably isn’t a need for an agent or publisher. That being said, there are many things agents do that will support an author’s career. We are everything from steady critique partner, to a negotiator, to an accountant and more. It’s our job to know the ever-changing market, and be able to adapt to it for both us and our clients. If an agent seeks out a self-published author, it means they really see an opportunity to expand on that author’s career beyond what the author has been able to do themselves. Everything from negotiating film/foreign/audio rights to repackaging and selling it to a publisher that will cause it to reach a wider audience.
However, there are very few agents/publishers that reach out directly to self-published authors who aren’t already famous, so if one does and you’re not on any best-seller lists, be sure to research them thoroughly before signing a contract.
What’s a normal workday in the life of an agent? How much time do you spend on Twitter? – Lucy Silag
In my case it’s reading, reading, and more reading. On the days that I’m not shopping my client’s projects, negotiating contracts, or shopping sub-rights, I’m reading submissions. And by reading submissions, I am not talking about the skimming that happens in the slushpile. If I’ve got a full manuscript, I’m reading critically, so even if I pass on it, I can give that author a line or two as to why. I’m also networking with editors and other agents, which usually means, for me, flying to NYC, traveling to conferences, and yes, spending time on Twitter.
The publishing community is huge on Twitter, and I’ve made many a connection on there. I also get a broader sense of an editor’s professional personality from some of the more active members. For new and experienced authors, following publishing professionals on Twitter is a goldmine of information, from everything about queries (#querytip), agent advice (#askagent), editor and agent manuscript wish lists (#MSWL), pitching opportunities (#PitMad), writing and editing tips (#writetip), publishing advice (#pubtip), genre love and information (#horror #thriller, #romance, #YA, #crime, #fantasy, #scifi, #memoir), and just a general sense of community in the lonely career that is writing (#amwriting, #amediting, #books, #author, #wip, #wordmongering, #NaNoWriMo). I highly recommend participating in Twitter to all authors, not just for self-promotion, but for community and networking.
It was recommended to me to self-publish first, mainly because of having control, but with all of the self-published titles in competition, how do we stand above, and also, how do we compete with traditionally published authors? I prefer the quality over quantity approach, but I don’t know of any other options. So, essentially, would an agent take a gamble on a self-published author/book? – Jaycee Ford
I would recommend attempting the traditional route first. Mainly because your book will be produced professionally and reach a much wider audience. Sure, with self-publishing you may have “control,” but that also means responsibility. Responsibility to do research on distribution, hiring a good cover/interior designer, working with a developmental editor, copy editor, and proofreader. Writing the back-cover copy, finding reviews, and begging the local bookstore to carry your POD nonreturnable book. Setting up your own book tour, developing your own marketing materials, paying for advertising, etc. Publishing a successful book that will compete is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and yes, you can do it yourself, but you lose a lot of time that could be used writing your next book. I look at self-publishing as a great backup option.
A few agents will consider representing an already self-published book, but I, unfortunately, am not one of them. This has nothing to do with the potential quality of the self-pub, merely that most publishers are looking for first rights and by self-publishing, you have used those first rights. Which means for me, it’s next to impossible to sell the book, which isn’t advantageous to either of us.
With that in mind, if you have self-published in the past, there’s no reason an agent (including myself) would not look at your next project. (Caveat to this, if you have self-published the first book in a series, most agents will not consider the second book, even if it is unpublished. Publishers want the first rights to the full series.)
I don’t mind if an author has a few backlist self-published books, as long as what they are submitting to me is a never-before published project. Indeed, if the author has had some modest success self-publishing, I look at that as a positive on their resume.
For an author who’s new to the traditional publishing game, sometimes it can be overwhelming navigating the world. I have an agent, an editor, a publisher, and even a publicist. How do you define these roles? What are things agents do specifically that an editor wouldn’t? Would I send my agent an unedited manuscript and run through edits together? Is this just a story edit? Should I have an editor I use separately? Or do I just run the MS through my agent, and then if/when a publisher picks it up, it’ll go through an edit then? (sorry for the twenty questions). What is the breakdown of the role of an agent so the expectations and lines don’t get blurred with all the people an author might work with? – Alex Rosa
Every agency is different, and every agent within the agency is different. However, across the board, the most important job of an agent is to negotiate the best deal possible for your work again and again. An agent has the author’s best interest at heart, at the very least for a calculating reason: because we only are successful if you are successful, and at the very most: because we love books and authors and want the book industry to be an amazing area to work in. Your agent is your sounding board. If you have questions about contracts/advances/payouts/edits/cover design/titles, etc., they should be there to answer questions and help you navigate through any frustration or jitters you may have working with a publisher.
Your publisher wants to see you succeed, but more importantly their company needs to succeed, and if that means offering you a tiny advance, selling off your sub rights, giving you royalties based on net profit instead of retail, dropping the last book in your series because the first didn’t sell well, selling their company to another company that doesn’t want your book, or even shuffling personnel around so suddenly you have a new editor halfway through your series, then that’s what they will do. Thus your agent is there to fight for you and make sure you and your work doesn’t get lost in the constantly changing publisher landscape.
Editors are somewhere in the middle. If they bought your manuscript, that means they lobbied the board for it, which means they love it and see a lot of potential in it and will fight for it if necessary, but in the end their employer is the publisher. Ideally, you land an editor that will work with you for a good length of time and on more than one project so that you grow with them, but the reality is you will probably work with many different editors, meaning your agent is your one constant.
A publicist is probably the furthest role from the agent. Some agents do specialize in marketing, especially nonfiction agents, but most of us support our authors on social media and our websites, or for example KC&A has a working relationship with local book store Book Passage, and our clients are welcome to do readings there, but beyond that we do not do much marketing.
Personally, I work closely with all of my client’s first books on both developmental and copyediting, sometimes reading it multiple times. Remember, my reputation is being represented by these manuscripts as well, and I want to be sure they are the best they can be before putting them before editors. Once I’ve sold a book, on the author’s next I will read and give notes, but I probably won’t read/edit it again before sending it out, unless I felt it needed major work.
I do have a client whom I initially rejected with some notes if she wanted to resubmit. She came back to me a few years later after hiring a freelance editor. Her manuscript was so beautiful at that point I signed her and we only did a quick proofread before I started shopping it to publishers.
Again each agent is different, so be sure to ask your agent about their process of reviewing manuscripts before sending it to your editor.
About Mary C. Moore
Mary C. Moore graduated with her MFA in Creative Writing and English from Mills College. After freelance copywriting and editing in the tech community, she joined Kimberley Cameron & Associates in 2012. She is an editorial agent, and works closely with debut authors to polish their work and to establish their online presence. Although she works primarily with traditional publishers, she is a fan of the new wave of hybrid and indie publishing and believes the savvy author can reap benefits from both forms. Currently her biggest sale is her client, Sean Danker, whose first in a three-book series of military science fiction is coming out in hardcover from Roc Books (Penguin) in the spring of 2016. You can find Mary on the web at marycmoore.com, kimberleycameron.com, and @Mary_C_Moore.”