For the second year in a row, the New School in Manhattan, in partnership with the SCBWI-Metro NY chapter, hosted a panel of agents to discuss their jobs, what manuscripts they’re interested in, and share with MFA students and other aspiring writers how best to query them and their colleagues. On the November 10 panel were Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency, Alexandra Penfold of Upstart Crow Literary, and Alec Shane of Writers House. See below for some highlights from the discussion.
• In response to whether rumors are true “that your inboxes pile up,” Flaherty emphatically agreed, and said, “there are times when things spike,” citing the season when New Year’s resolutions are in full swing as one such time that she sees an influx of submissions. “It’s worthwhile to nudge if you’re waiting to hear,” she said. And many of the agents agreed: while some agents may dislike requests for response, if it’s been a while since you’ve heard back from a submission, it’s worth gently checking back in. Keeping up on the comments on sites like QueryTracker are a good way to see what response times should be like from agents, panelist suggested.
• The agents all concurred to not feel despondent over long wait times. “We really want to love everything we read,” Shane said. “We’re really looking for the next big thing in our inboxes,” Penfold said.
• Regarding social media, the agents all said it was a great place to keep involved in the conversation and share your interest in what they’re working on, but it’s not a place to pitch. However, Shane said, “If you can keep me intrigued in 140 characters, it’s good practice for an elevator pitch.” It also seemed pretty universally “not cool” to “cold tweet” pitches to the agents, Flaherty said.
• As far as pitching, Flaherty recommended “being yourself,” and mentioning if there’s some way the pitcher heard about the agent, be it from a previous conference, or books the agent worked on that the writer loved “and actually read,” Penfold said, as a way of demonstrating that the submission is intended specifically for the agent. And for that subject line? “A great title will get my attention,” Flaherty said.
• One thing the agents universally agreed on was that what they’re looking for in a manuscript is a strong voice. “It will make me immediately pay attention, even if the first page is just the author ‘walking into the novel,’ ” Penfold said. If the voice is strong, that will resonate through the whole book.
• Diversity is also something that the agents said they wanted to see more of in manuscripts, and that “editors are screaming for it,” according to Flaherty. Though “it has to be natural,” Shane said. “It should be seamless,” suggesting that diversity in books shouldn’t be to make the book more diverse, but rather to reflect an organic reality.
• The agents’ advice for writers was fairly straightforward; borrowing a line from Cassandra Clare, Flaherty recommended remembering the acronym “BICHOK: butt in chair, hands on keyboard! That’ll help you see more pages.” All the agents agreed that being able to put in the work demonstrated to them that the author would be able to put in the time necessary to create publishable work.
• During the questions from the audience, how to balance the tension between commercial and literary work was raised. Shane’s advice was to think about “what is it that you’re trying to say, and why do we need to hear it, instead of fixating on the end product.” Flaherty added, “Put art in your commercial projects and make your art projects sellable.”