In this wrap-up of information from the recent Writers League of Texas conference, literary agents Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary Management and Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management discussed the mystery of query letters.
So what does an agent want to see? “A really good one-page story,” Einstein said. “You need to convey a lot of information clearly,” McCarthy added. “(But) you don’t want to see people trying too hard. You don’t want to see (for example) ‘how would you feel if you woke up one day and your legs were gone?’ The queries you really remember are the bad ones. The good ones just move you from point A to point B.”
The question a writer most needs to ask herself, Einstein said, is “why are you the person to write this story? Sadly, the answer is not necessarily that you really love the subject and have studied it a lot. I’m looking for voice. That thing that’s fresh. I’m looking for something told in a new way. I love getting swept up into something. The whole reason to read a book is to get into someone’s heart.”
McCarthy’s answer to what he looks for was simple -- “brilliance.” Well, maybe a little more. “Something that doesn’t feel like something I’ve read before. But to be honest, when I’m reading the first fifty pages, I’m looking for a reason to stop. I want a reason to keep reading.”
“I can tell if writing is good within the first paragraph,” Einstein said. “If the writing is good, I’ll keep going. That doesn’t mean the first two pages have to have an explosion.
“You know if somebody’s got it or they don’t,” McCarthy added. “There are fifteen openings that eighty-five percent of manuscripts have. If it doesn’t have one of those, I’ll keep reading.”
(Unfortunately -- or not -- he didn’t elaborate.)
On the question of how quickly agents respond to queries, McCarthy said, usually within six to eight weeks. He tries to get back authors within two weeks, “but after a conference, there’s a backlog.”
“For us, it’s more like eight weeks,” Einstein said, “because we’re a pretty small agency.”
They agreed that an author should not necessarily take a lack of response to mean an agent is not interested. “Stuff gets stuck in spam filters sometimes,” McCarthy said.
Both agreed that email is the preferred method for contacting them. And for a writer who said he had waited more than a year for an answer, “better to follow up sooner than later.”
Should a writer mention in the query letter if he or she is sending multiple queries?
Not necessarily up front, Einstein said. “I assume people are submitting multiple (times). But if you do have interest from other agents, certainly if you’ve had an offer of representation, you should let the other (agents) know.”
Does it help to have a platform?
“For nonfiction, sure,” Einstein said. But, said McCarthy, “You can have a million hits to your blog, but it doesn’t mean you can write a novel.”
“If you’ve got a million hits, I’d be interested in seeing your work,” Einstein responded, to audience laughter. But the real trick, she said, is to write well. “Write a great book that I’ll want to represent.”
For more information about Einstein and McCarthy, see www.ljkliterary.com and www.dystel.com/
(Next week Wordcraft looks at some of writers’ best friends -- bookstores, starting with Austin’s BookPeople.)