When I was a literary agent, about five times a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, I got this exact. same. call:
“Hi, my name is (so and so) and I’m from (such and such place), and I’m looking for an agent. I don’t really know how to go about this, but I got your name off of the internet and I’m wondering if you can help me out.”
Then there was a pregnant pause as I tried and stop my head from exploding.
Testing an agent’s patience
I really tried to be nice. I really did. Even if it was the 177,527th time I’d fielded a similar call, I tried to be patient and either direct them to my blog or tell them how to write a query:
Them: “A what?”
Me: “A query.”
Them: “Can you spell that for me?”
Them: “What is that?”
Me: “A letter describing your work.”
Them: “Huh. Do you want sample pages?”
Me: “No, just a query.”
Them: “Really? You don’t want sample pages?”
Me: “No, just a query.”
Them: “Huh. What’s your address again?”
Me: *Remain calm… remain calm…*
The thing is, I know that the query callers didn’t Google my name in order to try and find this information themselves (thus avoiding taking time out of my busy day), so it’s very difficult for me to be patient. And honestly, it reflects badly on a prospective author.
Authors don’t just need to be good writers, they also need to do their homework in order to succeed in this business. I know they meant well, hence my attempts at civility, and I don’t want to pick on anyone, but you gotta know the customs.
Unless you’re represented by an agent, you shouldn’t call an agency. Here’s how to deal with situations where you otherwise might be tempted to call.
What to do when you’re tempted to call
You want to know if they’re accepting queries: Just send the query. If they’re not they’ll either tell you or you’ll have your answer from their silence.
You want to know which particular agent you should submit to: Research the agency online and try and choose the agent who seems like the best fit. If you can’t figure it out online you can send a general letter to the agency, and if it’s a great letter you can bet it will find its way into the right hands (although it might take a while).
You’re unclear on an agent’s submission guidelines: Guess. Don’t call. If they don’t have a website or clear e-submission guidelines and you can’t find an email address, assume that you need to send them a query letter through the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope. If you can’t find any info that says otherwise on the internet after a good-faith search, just go with that.
You want to know if you should include sample pages: No one has ever been rejected just because they included some sample pages. Paste it in the body of the e-mail or include some pages if it’s through the mail.
You want to follow up on a query letter or manuscript: Unless they say it’s ok to follow-up, assume they’re following the “we’ll respond if we’re interested” policy and don’t follow up. If you decide to follow up anyway, do so in the manner in which you sent the original query (so email, don’t call).
Seriously don’t call
I know to outsiders this may seem a little draconian, particularly when there are agencies who don’t even have websites, but this is a quirky business, and agents are not Wal-Mart.
An agent’s phone number is only a customer service line if you’re a customer (read: client). In which case operators are standing by.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
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Art: Man and woman using telephones, c. 1910 postcard
I think you are the nicest guy in the business, and if you don’t want to agent me, or marry me—either one is fine—would you lend me ten bucks until Friday?
Adaora A. says
Wow. Five times a day? More? If I were you, I’d just stop picking up the phone. Indeed I use this tactic all the time. When people keep the phone ringing I take it off of the hook. Perhaps you might get another phone line for clients/editors etc and so on professional calls that agents need to take and make.
This whole thing is really a dating game isn’t it?
When you’re on a first date and those annoying dates are too pushy and they stampede you to the point that you’re flattened against the wall or on the floor, peering at them fearfully.
Where is that bourbon when you need it? You should keep it locked up in your desk if you insist on picking up the phone. You’re too nice for your own good.
What was that? People should send you a QUERITYY? QUEREN? Oh a QUERY. I get it!
Margaret Yang says
The fact that you actually talk to these bozos means that you really are the nicest person in publishing.
Gosh, I knew not to call an agent or an editor waaaaay back when I was a new baby writer, and that was pre-internets. Now a one-click google will answer most newbie questions about how to get an agent. There really is no excuse.
I hate these people quite a lot because they make the rest of us look bad.
Oops, Anon. Nathan is spoken for. I’m engaged to him.
I always tell him that at least he knows I really love him for HIM because I started dating him WAYYYYYYY before he became (ahem) a smidge famous.
But don’t worry. He is actually every bit as kind as you all have suspected. His blogging super powers have not gone to his head!
solution: keep your public phone number but set it to roll to voice mail. for clients & other VIP’s, create a second line.
it’s neither your responsibility nor an effective use of your time to spoon feed these morons (how else to describe?)
Tiffany Kenzie says
With all the information available, people still call?
You are too nice, Nathan.
Not the least bit draconian, just common sense.
Adaora A. says
Some people love a short cut. I highly doubt they read the blog and I doubt they’ve even done a simple ‘agent query [dot] com search. They even asked what a ‘query is.’ That keeps me flabbergasted.
Nikki Duncan says
LOL, I knew people could be morons, but really.
Is this post meant to be literal? Surely, these poor souls must know what a Q U E R Y is. Oh, my!
La Gringa says
Seriously laughing my ass off at this cos this happened to my office-mate today at the agency office. (And she’s not even an agent yet!) She was not feeling well, and trying to get some queries read and slush taken care of and the phone was ringing off the hook and she’d pick it up and it would be yet another author wanting to know how to get an agent.
Finally, after about the tenth call, she just screamed aloud at nobody in general “I AM NOT GOING TO PICK UP THAT PHONE EVER AGAIN SO STOP CALLING ME! JUST STOP!” And I just fell over laughing.
Which was mean, I know.
Susan D says
I actually remember a time several years ago when I was writing daily for enjoyment, wanted to maybe send out a manuscript, yet didn’t know a single writer.
Fortunately, for the sanity of agents worldwide, I wasn’t willing to advertise my ignorance. I attended book signing events where I met authors who invited me to conferences, where I joined critique groups, freelance groups and even a group which discusses only the business of writing! For me, writers and online resources (including Nathan, of course)really helped me get grounded in the business.
Random semi-related question:
And if you don’t live in a geographical area where agents are easy to access… what do you do?
Is it in poor taste to query an agent who lives in the next state? On the other coast? Across the border in the US, if you’re Canadian?
They say a pastoral setting is often quite good at getting the creative juices flowing. 😉 Need an aspiring author trade the country for the city?
P.S. Nathan- I read another writer’s query that began with a rhetorical question, and I shot him down all at once. Chin Up! Maybe the phone calls will cap at 200,000.
May the force be with you.
Deborah B. says
Gee, Nathan, that sounds awful. I’d love to talk to you about this problem…what was your phone number again? (Tee hee.)
I can’t believe anyone hasn’t figured this one out yet. Maybe it is just another case of “that rule only applies to EVERYONE ELSE.”
You clearly need an underpaid flunky to answer the phone for you. I’ll bet you could get a writer to do it for you…
With Bransford, if you don’t hear back in 15 minutes, check your spam filters. The boy is fast.
An additional research tool when trying to figure out submission policy:
Join professional organizations for writers, or at least go to their conferences. There are organizations for romance writers, science fiction and fantasy writers, children’s writers, etc., etc. The writers you meet there will either know the agency’s policy, or they’ll be able to tell you how to find out. Many of these groups also have resource guides designed to help people navigate the submissions process.
you mean all I have to do is call??? 🙂
here I am, sitting here having a nice dinner conversation with my son, when I get a new email my computer sings to me (no, it really sings)-my son hates that
at least I think it is decent of me to send an email because a person has the option to hit “delete” and they have that right
I personally would NEVER delete an email someone sent me…looking for the boulder falling from the sky to crush me
I would NEVER call an agent, but I did once call a publisher. My first NF book was researched and at the outline stage, and I was trying to figure out how much I needed to write in order to submit to this company I had identified as a good potential fit. They did not post writer’s guidelines anywhere I could find, so I called, thinking I’d get an office assistant. Turned out the staff had gone out to lunch and the senior editor answered, so I lobbed a fast pitch. He asked for a few chapters, and I’m just now coming up on deadline for my fifth NF ms with this publisher. Here is a question, Nathan…does it make sense to look for an agent when you’re prolific but advances in the genre are not large?
So, do you want sample pages?
I didn’t use to believe this, but these days I think there IS such a thing as a Stupid Question in the writing world. I’ve been quietly researching agents, publishers, imprints, query letters, and the whole writing business for about three years now (while also working on my manuscripts). It’s rare that I’ve had to ask a question of anyone; any information I want is easily found in a book or online.
It burns me up a little when I go to a conference and someone takes up the presenter’s valuable time with a Writing 101-type question: “Is there a listing of agents?” “So I just send the full manuscript and a cover letter to a bunch of agents?” “Will an agent try to steal my work?” Or when someone wanders onto an Internet writing forum and says, “I’ve just finished my first novel! Now how do I get it published?” Argh! How ’bout doing what the rest of us did and put a few basic publishing questions into a search engine, or spend half an hour perusing one of the immensely informative writing forums out there these days? Asking questions of friends who are in the business I can accept… but there’s no reason that one should have to badger strangers with Stupid Questions about publishing.
I used to answer the phones at a translation agency. We really needed those phone lines for legitimate clients, but at least once a day I’d get tied up on a “how do I become a translator?” call. Some people seemed to think I would instantly offer them freelance translation work. Meanwhile, I’m on the other side of the call, imagining the years and years of language translation study this person has ahead of them.
Furious D says
5 times a day. Sheesh. I guess I won’t be calling to pitch my new novel where the characters from The Wire, put the folks from The Hills under surveillance. I call it The Hill Are Awired.
Here’s a tactic to use if a caller gets angry over you not being able to take his call.
1. Speak calmly, don’t betray any emotion but pleasant professionalism.
2. Right when you are in the middle of saying a word– hang up. Like: “I wou–” click!
3. A lot of times the person will not call again, but if they do, the first thing you say is to ask them why they hung up on you.
They usually get embarrassed, blame it on a bad connection, and never call back again.
I really do enjoy reading your blog and receiving the emails of the blog. I especially get a kick when you talk about queries! Really, Nathan, when is the last time that you signed on to represent someone who sent you a query? Now, just being a bit of a devil’s advocate, in the big scheme of things, I suspect that 99.995% of the queries you receive, receive the standard thank you but no thank you form letter as a response. I’d like to know what the last successful query letter was and what made you decide to read the author’s work purely based on their query and not on some other aspect of their writing (i.e. if they went to school, where they got their MFA, where their work was published, etc.). You see, I suspect that getting an agent is just about like everything else in the publishing world, it’s about who you know as much as it is about what you’ve written. Looking forward to your thoughts!
sex scenes at starbucks says
I do agree that it’s a bit much to put up with. I also know, from working in other creative industries, that the writing industry has its own odd way of doing things. Frankly, most of us work in other industries where a phone call works as an acceptable, even preferable, method of contact.
It’s a tough lesson to learn about the writing business, and the folks who call you first should feel fortunate to have been taught it by you. 🙂
This is the thing I don’t get. Now I don’t begrudge someone being new and ignorant. I think I might have been one of the most ignorant writers out there when it came to the business of writing. I might not have said it aloud, or on a writing forum, but in my head I certainly thought: “I’ve just finished my novel. Now how do I get it published?”
So you know what I did? Research.
And that’s the thing that weirds me out. As writers, I would assume we would have a penchant for, you know . . . books and reading.
Of all the groups of people to avoid doing research, writers would seem to be the least likely. And yet . . .
I think the funniest call I got several times at work was. I always answer the phone stating the place’s name and then my name but for some reason people do not listen so after about 10 calls in two days I was kinda wanting to say I they had the right number, because I got calls like this:
“Hello, is this the Catholic donation line? I have my credit card number ready to give to the Christmas fund”
I work for a library and the name of it does not sound like any church I know in the area..LOL
I know one woman called 3 times and said the same thing.
I do love the, “Hello is this Robert?” ‘No you have the wrong number’ I replied. “Are you sure, you are not Robert?” ‘Yes Sir I am sure’ I answered. “Oh then why do you have Roberts phone?”. ‘Sir you just rang a County office, you might wish to recheck the number you have for this Robert’ I politely told him. “Tell Robert to call me” growled the man and hung up. LMAO! He never told me who he was either, but it really amused me for days. I kinda hoped he would call back.
Adaora A. says
@sexscenes- I agree. Can you imagine if it was any other agent? Don’t get me wrong, even the most sour agent would have every right to be nasty to someone calling in to get an agent without doing their research first. Easily, the argument (in favour of the agent) is that if you want to be represented, then know who you are contacting and know the way they prefer to be contacted. You don’t barge into an office where you dropped of your resume or CV for employment. Some people might want to get an easy fix and not think about the important part of carefully doing your homework in every area. They are lucky they talked to someone who was reigning in their right to shoot bullets.
I am one of those whose query you rejected last week. But something very good came out of that rejection.
I still love you though. 🙂 You are really a very nice person and agent. Most agents are rude and arrogant and think they are God. (five calls a day or not)
One of the problems with the Internet, per conventional wisdom, is that there’s no filter on outbound communication: anybody can say ANYTHING.
It works in the other direction as well, though. Or fails to work. That is, there’s no requirement that people with access to the Internet’s (unfiltered) content will necessarily be capable of “getting” it — not just “getting” that it’s unfiltered, but also “getting” what it even says, filtered or unfiltered.
I love the idea you’ve got a default “filter nothing” setting for your phone line, Nathan, but it’s a prescription for disaster. Like others have said, let technology do the work for you. With your published line, set up a voicemail thing which will be maddening to some callers but effective at helping you NOT steal time away from your other work. (And, in effect, from your existing clients.) “If you know your party’s extension, dial it at any time. Press ‘1’ if you know what a query is,” etc. But DON’T actually have any facility to leave a message — or make it buried so far down in the menu that only the most persistent (or angriest ;)) callers will get that far.
sl wrote: “And if you don’t live in a geographical area where agents are easy to access… what do you do?
Is it in poor taste to query an agent who lives in the next state?”
You can query agents regardless of where you and they live. In the U.S. the majority of agents live in NYC, with some in California (of course!) and a few in cities like Boston or Denver.
Agents don’t expect that all their clients will live where they do. It doesn’t matter. Query away.
Nathan–As other commenters have already mentioned…Why don’t you have a receptionist? Or an automated voice mail system set up like some doctors’ offices? Press 1 for…
Jonathan Thomas says
ALWAYS check the spam folder. A couple years ago, an agent called me interested in my writing (she had requested a full several months before) asking if I had gotten an agent since I’d sent the book to her(she left a message, I thought it was a bill collector calling and didn’t anwser!). I called back and left a message saying that I had not found an agent and would be please if she read the whole book. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything after that. Being my first bite from an agent, I was on edge for quite some time, obsessively checking the phone to see if she called again (I knew not to call again). About a month later I broke down and sent snail mail letter following up, asking if she had a chance to read my full. About a week later I got a letter back which was a copy of the e-mail she had aparrently sent me. I ran upstairs and checked my junk mail folder and sure enough, there was an e-mail from her from nearly a month before! She got a good laugh out of it.
I think writers need to spread this information to other writers. If an agent’s time is wasted by fielding these ridiculous phone calls, there’s less time for that agent to read queries and submissions–and sell work! Stop the phone calls!
And yes, Nathan, you are far too nice. But that’s probably what makes you such a fine agent.
Kathryn Harris says
You mean you don’t want us to call and read our sample pages to you?
Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
Luc Reid says
I passed on the good word on my writing blog, so five more people know about this than otherwise would.
When I was querying I called an agency to verify an address or to make sure the agent was still working there. When I was querying for LOTTERY I called the agents reading the full when an editor saw my pages at the Maui Writers Conference site and expressed interest in seeing my manuscript…
Nathan — I almost called you when I was in San Fran in Dec for a good restaurant recommendation… does that count?
Re: Anonymous @ 8:54am…
Yeah. I think one reason that these people seem so clueless to many of us isn’t that they’re stupid or inconsiderate (although they may be one of those, or both). I think the reason they seem that way to us is that we ourselves are “clued.” They don’t have any idea what’s the right question to ask in a given situation, and if by some chance they get an answer anyway, they’re still in no position to understand it because they don’t even understand the framework — the context — in which they’re asking it.
Under the circumstances, telling prospective clients, “Query me before you do anything else — call, send a manuscript, ANYTHING” is pointless. Because (a) they don’t know what the verb “query” means in this context, have never been introduced to it even, and (b) they may honestly not even have any idea what a “manuscript” is. They don’t have a “manuscript.” If they’re lucky, they have a “book.” See?
I don’t know, but I bet when Nathan first told his colleagues of his plans to run a non-anonymous blog, many if not all of them winced or rolled their eyes (depending on their, umm, dispositions let’s say). The process of locating an agent and then getting a book published used to be much more difficult; just as agents act as gatekeepers to editors and publishers, the sheer difficulty of finding an agent in the first place used to serve as a gatekeeper to the agents. Now somebody just goes to Google and types in “book agent” and although NB’s blog doesn’t (yet) float to the top, it’s not hard to see how someone with stars in his/her eyes might find the blog, be unable to make heads or tails of it, and finally say, “I can’t figure this out and the Interwebs just freak me out anyway, I’m just gonna have to talk to this guy…”
Nathan Bransford says
You should have! That would have been fine.
First thing you do is agent a how to get published book. Then you suggest that all these callers buy the book. Win-win for both of you.
I think the caller types are just business minded people who figure, “selling a book is business. When I do business I give the person a call.” I don’t think they always mean to be pushy or rude, it’s just their way of doing business. Especially the non-fiction types.
I attended a meeting last night of my writers’ group and the speaker’s topic was pitches and queries. She suggested calling the agent to verify the spelling of his/her name since some publications misspell agents’ names and you don’t want to do that in your query. I stifled a scream in my throat: NO!!! With all the websites and publications out there, you can cross-reference the agent several times and come up with the most-used spelling and go with it. Lucky for you (and other agents) there were only a handful of writers at the meeting. I can’t imagine calling you and saying, “Is that N-a-t-h-a-n B-r-a-n-s-f-o-r-d.” I’m sure you’d want to strangle me through the phone line.
What I want to know is, where is your receptionist? Don’t you have someone to screen your calls? I don’t know many business professionals who have a direct line to their office that anyone can access. You need someone running interference – big time!
Nathan Bransford says
It’s not our receptionist’s job to screen calls. People ask for me, the calls get directed to me. I could have her interrogate people about why they’re calling, but the queriers are a fraction of the people calling and I don’t want to hold things up.
What about editors of small presses?
I e-mailed one for guidelines that were not spelled out on his site and have not heard back.
Should I send another e-mail or call or ???
Well said! Being a receptionist myself, I appreciate the bit about it not being the receptionist’s job to screen calls–or know how long he’s going to be on the phone or when he’s going to call back, etc. Phew! Glad to get that off my chest too.