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Between the pages, Past
A Mystery Column
By Dennis Collins

Literary agents

Any author will tell you that there’s no chance of having your book considered for publication by a major publisher unless it’s presented to them by a reputable agent. Nowadays the big publishing houses rely quite heavily on the agent’s judgment to screen manuscripts and to handle preliminary editing. The author depends on the agent to find the right publisher for their work and to negotiate the best contract. As a result, literary agents have become extremely selective on who they sign on as a client.

I recently attended a writer’s conference that featured a presentation given by a panel of agents. They had a lot of interesting and helpful information to share and some of it was downright depressing. One agency said that they receive as many as a hundred query letters a day. That’s over two thousand in a month. They generally invite about thirty percent of those to submit at least part of their manuscript. And they usually find one that they feel they can represent. One chance in two thousand; pretty long odds.

How do you get their attention? How can you stand out from the other one thousand-nine hundred and ninety-nine? It starts with your query letter. If you read all of the how-to books on finding an agent, you’ll see dozens of examples of what the perfect query letter should look like. The trouble is that the other couple of thousand aspiring authors are reading the same books and writing the same cookie-cutter query letter.

On the other side of the coin, all of the agents on the panel agreed that they’re really turned off by queries that claim to be the next Hemingway or that they have produced another War and Peace. It’s an amateur ploy and they’ve seen it a hundred times. That query heads straight to the reject pile. Sending your query on fancy stationary is unprofessional and a distraction that may have the same effect.

As writers we’ve been taught, “show; don’t tell.” Descriptions are weak but actions paint a strong and clear picture. The same goes for query letters. They need to be intriguing and to show the strength of the writer’s voice. After all, it’s the first chance that the agent has to feel the tone of your style.

If you’re fortunate enough to be invited to submit your manuscript, be absolutely sure that it’s as clean as you can possibly make it. Pay an editor to examine it if you must but if it’s not error free, there’s a good chance the agent won’t read it all the way through. They simply don’t have the time to correct all of your mistakes for you.

Assuming you’ve got to this point, you need a good story that is well told. And the agent has to determine if there is a market demand for your unique product
Good luck.

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