Hell yeah! Information sure is hard to find in the information age. Am I the only who thinks the blog--twitter--another blog--agent website--agent personal website--and so on deal makes it even harder?
Anonymous

That was quick, and maybe more a comment than a question, but I’ll Q&A it anyway, as this is something I will return to in another blog post, probably later this week.

In the meantime, I will leave you with this nugget of fail from Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency. They maintain a website and a blog, which is hardly uncommon. However, they have a different take on this.

First, check out the website.

Then, check out the blog.

Notice anything really weird? Apart from the stock photo of delightfully ethnic co-workers? Right, Neo; there is no spoon. Or, rather, there is no website. Because the only function of the website is to link to the blog.

This is particularly entertaining if you read this blog entry. Here is the relevant quote, complete with elevated levels of snooty:

"Maybe we are unique in that we list our Needs and Guidelines on our blog on a special page located just under the blog’s mast, but I don’t think so."

…uh, yeah? Most agents use their actual professional website for that.

The information war

First of all, I would like to thank everyone who has contacted me here and on twitter. I will do my best to reply to all of you in a timely manner. Some of the issues you have brought up will of course be addressed here on the blog.

One of the most common pet peeves among writers (in any other business, they would be called potential clients, you know) appears to be website accessibility and usefulness. Although things like the tunnel can be wildly annoying, they’re just cosmetic, after all. Don’t get me wrong - maintaining an aesthetically challenged and outdated website is unprofessional. After all, would you show up at an important business meeting in your favorite 1980s power suit complete with shoulder pads and extravagant accessories? Hardly. So why do you allow your website to wear the equivalent to all first meetings with potential clients?

However, potential clients tend to be less forgiving when it comes to what really matters - information. Sometimes it’s plain wrong. Sometimes it’s contradictory. Sometimes it’s just not there. An educational example can be found at The Seymour Agency’s website. Now, apart from the cosmetic issues (But seriously, just because you work with books, doesn’t mean you have to put them in the background/header/footer/border of your website. It really is the equivalent of the inkwell-adorned query letter. Oh, and 1995 called - they want their teal-burgundy palette back.) this website has some problems.

   1. Information overload.

Do not weigh down any section of your website with excessive information. This index page is three or four different pages all in one. Generally speaking, a visitor would expect some information on the agency here - that would be considered great index page content. Tell us briefly who you are and why you are awesome. In this context, awesome would encompass the agency’s long history and its successes. Possibly something about its structure - is it a one-woman operation? Are there fifteen other agents lurking in the shadows? You know, a blurb.

Instead, here we get something about awards, something very personal about adopting a soldier, then something about ordering help materials for writers, then a frantically flipping, diminutive thumbnail slide show of current titles, a very long and completely irrelevant list of all the conferences the agent has ever attended, then the history of the agency, then a professional bio, then some more personal bio content, then - unexpectedly - an updated list of the conferences the agent will be attending, and then the never-ending scrolldown of death containing unclickable, hardly visible thumbnails of the agent, random children, Disney characters and, lo and behold, the occasional author.

You’re left with the impression that Mary Sue would never be around to answer any of your queries or shop your books around, because she attends every single conference in the western hemisphere. You have a very vague idea of what the agency does, because you were distracted by the soldier adoption, confused by the seemingly random structure of the text, and also because the slide show made you slightly woozy. The real deal breaker, however, was the big block of text that turned out to be a mere enumeration of conferences attended. Because at this point, you were expecting something relevant, say, some information on the agency. On the other hand, that Mary Sue can really, really rock a hat and she seems generally fun and awesome to be around - both definite pluses in an agent, believe me. So you’ll keep reading, which brings you to the next point.

   2. Information inconsistencies.

Keep it simple. Don’t contradict yourself, particularly not if you would prefer to receive relevant queries.

On the first page - I doubt anyone would ever make it there without using the ‘find’ function in their browser, but still - is it stated that the agency is on the lookout for “clients who write any type of romance including historical, contemporary category, contemporary mainstream, suspense, paranormal, regency or inspirational - basically any type of romance.” That’s pretty all-encompassing! However, if you go to the contact section to get your query on, you run into this - “The only fiction The SA handles is romance, Christian books.”.

Read that to yourself. Experiment a little with the intonation. Is it Christian romance? Or is it romance and Christian books? There really is no way of knowing, unless you have more information. The entry on the index page would be helpful, if you knew when it was posted… which brings you to the next point.

   3. Information senescence.

Make sure your website is up-to-date. This is one of the many things twitter and blogs are good for - they show the world you’re alive. (Don’t appear too alive, though, you do have to maintain the illusion that you’re actually reading all those queries.) This is why the website should only contain information that is set in stone, or in any case not prone to constant fluctuation.

So you scroll down. All the way down. Designed in 2005? Well, we’re closer to explaining the teal-burgundy, I’ll give you that - but nowhere near close enough. Then, right above that, you’ll note that the site was last updated in 2007. So apparently someone predicted that the agent would be attending all those conferences more than three years later? You know, the ones that are posted on the first page? Probably not.

At some point, I’m sure this website was more consistent. Then the nephew went off to college, or GetSet! Communications actually got set and whoever is responsible for the site just decided to put everything on the first page, seeing as most of the people who query are completely nuts, anyway. 

In short - don’t post too much information, avoid inconsistencies, and update your website more than once every three years.

To round this up, my favorite part:

“Mary Sue is a spiritual person and often attempts to soften a rejection with a prayer card; if this would bother you, you may not want to query her.”

Whoever prompted this addition to the website - I hope you queried someone else, too. Seeing as an overwhelming majority of agents tend to soften rejections through making fun of the query on their blog, forgetting the name of the writer or the proposed title or just not responding at all, a prayer card would honestly feel like a grand prize in comparison.

What's your opinion on a relatively new agent, in business since 2009, yet with no sales? The agent is a junior agent, with an agent partner who represents mostly Christian, inspirational writers. They are taking on new writers in broader genres under her direction, and she also helps authors edit their manuscripts, yet no sales. His client list is not that impressive, but these are legit agents. If a book sits and doesn't sell with an agent, do you think some authors are better off maybe agent less and utilizing say the new technology, e.g. Amazon Kindle, etc?
Anonymous

This question is both simple and difficult to answer. Simple, as - in my opinion - you are never better off without an agent. Editorial Ass (I miss you!) has already explained that impeccably here.

When it comes to self-publishing in any form, whether you choose to make use of new technology or turn to a vanity press, I’d say sure, why not? If your only goal is to see your name in print, by all means, go ahead and print it. That won’t make you a ‘real’ writer, however, and is nothing that will be perceived as an advantage or an achievement if you do choose to pursue a relationship with an agent in the future.

On her excellent list of things to avoid putting in a query letter, Janet Reid writes, “Don’t tell me you’re published if the books are printed by a vanity, subsidy or POD-mill like authorhouse or iUniverse. You’re not published. You’re printed. If you don’t know the difference, I do.”

This thoroughly reflects the outlook of every agent I know, and know of. If you want to be a real writer, and one that actually sells books, you need your agent. You need your publisher. They’re there for a reason.

As for the tricky part of your question, the agent you refer to has been on the market for a very short period of time. There is no way whatsoever of knowing why she has yet to make a sale. Look at this entry from Ask a Literary Agent. That’s a year and half right there. Then, read the First Sale section over at Dear Author. If you add up the years those patient, persistent authors have waited for an agent to make a sale, that’s probably another half-century.

But in the First Sale interviews you will also find this little-known nugget of wisdom: your first agent is not necessarily your ideal agent. In spite of believing in your book, he or she might simply have a hard time selling it. Another agent might find it easier, but you won’t know that until you switch agents. This can certainly be messy and complicated, but sometimes it’s also absolutely necessary. 

Or maybe the agent in question is just a hopeless newbie, taking on the wrong clients and making every other rookie mistake in the book. But let’s hope for the best, shall we?

Gargoyles and piano music, oh my

So you’re looking for an agent to represent you. You scour AgentQuery and desperately read the biz newsletters to see who’s made the latest sales (This would qualify you as a Researcher). Maybe you do no research whatsoever and just randomly send out your 260,000-word tome (it’s the first in a 12-book series) to whomever you suspect of being associated with some form of agency (This puts you in the Crackpot category).

To Cornerstone Literary Agency, it’s all the same. They just want you to listen to the lovely piano music playing in the background. It will relax you, make you let your guard down. Then, when you unsuspectingly click on the ‘titles’ link, you will get sucked into a horrible and weirdly hypnotic animation depicting an unending library tunnel. With busts. Seriously, those busts are out to get you. Frantically, you click somewhere, anywhere, just to get away, and end up staring at the titles list, complete with Amazon links. Because you came here to buy books, not in the hope of getting them published.

No, wait! Don’t let them distract you! You did come here looking for submissions information, so why not click on that very helpful link in the top left corner that actually says ‘submissions’? How serendipitous… oh. Maybe not. Because Cornerstone don’t respond to unsolicited e-mail inquiries. (Nor can they be reached by regular mail. Stealthy.) Note that it doesn’t say e-mail queries, but rather inquiries - you can’t even e-mail them to ask who’s responsible for the moving busts, to what I am certain will be the disappointment of many.

Out of the two categories of agent-hunting writers above, who will contact Cornerstone? The Researcher? Hardly. He’s read his Query Shark and his Pub Rants. He’d rather remain unagented than query blindly. And, after all, with no information on how to query acceptably available, what else is there to do but to contact someone else?

The Crackpot, on the other hand, doesn’t care. When he sees a mailing address, an e-mail link, a phone number or, even better, a fax number, he will pounce. With all of these options available on the agency website, Cracky will have a field day. Give him a week, and the agency floor will be covered in gimmicky glitter seeping from the envelopes he sent, the fax machine will have gone through three whole rolls of paper, and the voicemail and spam filters will be clogged.

In short - keeping the Crackpots at bay might feel like a hopeless challenge, but the solution is not to make yourself unreachable. Cracky won’t care, but you do risk scaring off the Researcher. In 99.9% (really) of the cases the authors you sign will be in the latter category, so why would you want to alienate them immediately?

It must also be added - and I have a feeling this is a point that will be revisited on more than one occasion - that it’s 2010, and in 2010 your website is your hook. It’s your calling card, your bait - in fact, it’s the agent’s version of the query letter. With one, huge, important difference. Agents don’t have to write their own. We don’t even expect you to. You can pay someone who knows what the heck they’re doing, to make you look interesting, approachable, and more than anything - professional. Don’t delegate this to your nephew, unless you’ve lucked out and he’s an actual web designer.

After all, it’s just as gimmicky to force prospective clients through a never-ending tunnel of marble-flanked doom and expose them to random background music, as it is to submit your manuscript on pink, perfumed, unicorn-embossed paper.    

The Agent Shark

I love Janet Reid’s Query Shark. It’s a phenomenal blog and a great resource for writers and - I’m sure - agents alike. Some critique the conformity of literary agents and claim they all look for the same thing. To some degree, that’s true. On the other hand, if the thing you’re looking for is talent, such single-mindedness should be rewarded, rather than chastised.

But what does a writer look for in an agent? Some want a tough negotiator. Some look for an agent who will be there for the long haul. I wanted someone who did all that and also sent me bubbly after a successful deal had been made, and then proceeded to get completely sloshed with me over the phone. (It’s awesome. You should do that with your agent.)

The majority of prospective writers, however, are simply so desperate to be published that they’ll go with a recently retired cattle veterinarian in Anchorage who has decided to embark on his second dream career. He just needs to figure out how to use e-mail first. And why those pesky vampires seem to be so popular these days.

This, of course, entails that the buyer’s market mentality is widespread and unyielding. As an unpublished writer, you should know your place, follow instructions and not make demands. Don’t get me wrong, though - I am all for this.

Very few hopeful writers are mad, unique, brilliant artists. The vast majority, it seems, are just plain mad. With hundreds of new plotless, inkwell-emblazoned, handwritten queries to deal with every week, agents need to employ strategies to plough through the slush with at least some small shred of sanity intact.

Unfortunately, however, agents don’t always follow their own advice. And that’s what this blog is about.

WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST HUMAN MEMORY?

The shark bit didn’t tip you off?