I’m delighted to introduce y’all to Lindsay Ribar, assistant to my agent, Matt Bialer, at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates literary agency. Lindsay’s been working with Matt for long enough that she has a terrific insight when it comes to queries and slush, and was willing to answer some questions for us. There’s a lot of great information here, especially for those of you who are–or will soon be–agent-hunting. (Psst.. by the way, Lindsay’s always on the lookout for potential clients!)
Thnaks for joining us, Lindsay! I’ll cut right to the chase: How many unsolicited submissions do you normally get per week?
I had to go back through my epic “Rejected” folder to get a better idea of this, because I am long past the point of reading everything as soon as it comes in. The average looks to be around 60-75 per week via email, with an additional 30-40 via snail-mail.
Of those, how many follow the guidelines for submission?
A surprising amount! I would have to guess that about 85% (yes, I’m making up numbers) follow the guidelines. (The guidelines, by the way, are on our website. They will not be different if you call me on the phone and ask me about them. If you do that, I will merely point you toward the website.) Some don’t include a synopsis. Some don’t include a separate biography. Neither of those is really a Kiss of Death in my book. The biggest mistake that authors make is not including sample chapters with their queries – not because it’s “against the rules,” but because it’s a wasted opportunity for the author to show off.
Think about it this way: as someone who has been reading slush (among other things) for over two and a half years, I am (a) lazy, (b) jaded, and (c) LAZY. I do read everything that comes in (until I have read enough to make a decision), but… well, say I read a query letter that maybe isn’t wonderful, but is interesting enough to make me want to check out the author’s writing. If the sample chapters are attached to the email, I’ll double-click it and read. If they are NOT attached, what are the odds that I’ll go to the trouble of contacting you and asking for a partial? Not great. By sending sample chapters in your initial email or query package, you are saving me a lot of trouble. Which makes me like you more already.
What are your biggest peeves?
Oh, there are SO MANY! These are just a few that came immediately to mind – and please keep in mind that these are my own personal pet peeves. I know a lot of people who actually really enjoy vampyres-with-a-Y.
– Query letters that pitch a concept instead of a plot
– The word “feisty” as used to describe either the heroine or the token female love interest
– Authors who use their query letters to tell me why they think fantasy (or fiction in general) is an important part of our culture
– Authors who say that their chosen genre is basically a cesspool of shit, but their novel will single-handedly redeem it
– Authors who don’t understand the subtle difference between phrases like “my book would fit nicely on a shelf next to the Harry Potter series” and phrases like “I AM THE NEXT JK ROWLING”
– Authors who pitch their book as a Guaranteed Insta-Bestseller, or berate the slush-reader for “missing out on a golden opportunity” if they dare to send a rejection letter
– Fantasy novels featuring characters with utterly unpronounceable names
– Fantasy novels featuring character and/or place names lifted directly from Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling, Lewis, etc.
– Intentionally misspelled words like “magyck” or “vampyre,” especially in urban fantasy
– Overuse of prophecies, destiny, fate, and anything else that kickstarts the action without anything actually happening.
– Authors who quote bits of my boss’s website bio in their query letters
Is there anything that’s an instant “kiss of death”?
YES. Stupidity – which can often be found in the following forms:
– Impersonal query letters, i.e. “Dear Sir or Madam”
– Query letters in which my boss’s name is misspelled
– E-mail queries that say little more than “Please see attached.”
– Queries in which the author asks permission to submit a synopsis / sample chapters / proposal
– People who insist on pitching their books over the phone
– People who call every week to follow up on their submissions
– “My manuscript is complete at 945,000 words!” Seriously. That happened once.
– Authors who include their own cover art (bonus points if it’s poorly drawn in MS Paint!)
– QUERIES WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS
– Snail-mail queries consisting of one copy of the author’s self-published book… and nothing else
– People who include the first three chapters of their book… even though each of those chapters is 75 pages long
– People who include chapters 4, 11, and 23, because “that’s where I feel my writing is the strongest.”
What makes you keep reading?
I really enjoy finding a narrative voice that is unique, yet still accessible. (Think Jeff Lindsay. The “Dexter” series is an exercise in pure genius.) It’s a fine line to walk, since stylized narratives are often a very tough sell, even when they’re done well. My boss pegged my taste in writing right away: I like things that are “clean and crisp.” A good example: the writing of one Diana Rowland.
I also really enjoy finding vivid, memorable characters. Coming from the world of fandom as I do, I know how much readers enjoy falling in love with characters, because I do, too. Now, at the risk of seeming like a total shill for the authors I work with, I’ll say to look at Rachel Aaron’s first chapter of THE SPIRIT THIEF for an example of How To Write A Character With Whom People Will Fall In Love.
So, in short, voice and character. I like an author with a good sense of story structure, too, but if the natural talent for voice and character are there, structure can be taught.
What makes you bounce in your chair and make “squee!” noises?
Werewolves. Unique systems of magic. Brand-new takes on age-old themes. Ironic use of phrases like “DOOM!” And, seriously: werewolves.
What are you seeing way too much of?
Vampire romance novels. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming!) See, the thing is, vampire romances are still selling like hot cakes, so we’re actually actively looking for them. But the more popular a thing becomes, the more people write them – and the harder it becomes to find good ones among the crap. Many writers pitch themselves as “the next Stephenie Meyer” (on which I will not comment, because my thoughts on her series are the subject of a whole separate essay), but I find that 99 times out of 100, those authors are rehashing the same old vampires tropes that we’ve all read a million times, without adding anything new. And whatever you may think of sparkling vampires… let’s face it. That was new. It was enough to get somebody’s attention, and now Stephenie-with-an-E, Twilight, RPattz and K-Stew, Bella Swan, LOL RENESMEE, and Team Edward vs. Team Jacob are phrases that you can avoid only by moving into your very own apartment complex under the rock of your choice.
My point is this: if you’re going to write in what is arguably the world’s most popular fiction genre right now… do something different.
It’s also worth mentioning that I am still seeing a lot of epic fantasy, and that’s just not selling well right now. Which brings me back to “do something different.” It’s great if your “tale of an unlikely group of companions who must band together in order to rid the world of evil” is well-written, well-edited, and well-reviewed by your friends and family… but so is everyone else’s.
What are you seeing not enough of?
Werewolves. Let me rephrase: werewolves who are NOT Jacob.
What do you wish more people would do in their queries?
Spell things correctly. Write in complete sentences. Display a working knowledge of (a) the querying process and (b) the publishing business. Sell me on your plot, your characters, or whatever it is about your book that makes you stand out from the crowd. Most of all, be nice. Nobody wants to work with an author who isn’t nice.
How many queries do you pass on to Matt?
When I first started working here, I passed along a few every week, just so I could get a sense of what he was and was not looking for. He would tell me what to request – and what not to bother with. Now that we’ve worked together for a while, though, I’ve been able to figure out where our tastes overlap (which is pretty often, at least when it comes to fantasy stuff), and I only show him things that I think have a really good chance at selling.
Does he always recognize your genius and good taste?
Heehee! Well, we usually tend to agree on what’s good. Oddly, we often have differing opinions on what’s NOT good. For instance, right now he is reading a book that my (wonderful, delightful, speed-reading) intern passed along to me. It wasn’t really my style, but he sees potential and is determined to prove me wrong. Verdict pending. Make your wagers now.
Do you have any advice for people trying to break into publishing?
Oh, lots. But I think the most important thing is that if you really want to be in this industry, you have to do it for love. It’s a slow-moving industry, and it’s notoriously hard to get a foot in the door – as it is with any creative business. The starting pay for most entry-level jobs is… let’s say “not great.” You’ll have to work on projects you don’t like, and you’ll have to smile while doing it. But if you really love books, then it’s all completely worth it. If you don’t… well, I guess if you don’t, you aren’t reading this blog anyway.