What Not To Do: An Agent’s Perspective

Written by Joyce Holland | March 24, 2016

First of all, I realize that many writers today want to bypass agencies. There’s a lot of that going on lately in the self-publishing world, and I champion it. So why am I writing this advice piece?

Because once you succeed in selling and marketing your work, you may get dream offers. If so, you might reconsider and take a second look at what an agency can do for you that you cannot.

Are you an expert at dealing with contracts? Can you recognize all the little tricks of the trade? If so, stick to your guns. But remember the old adage attributed to Abe Lincoln:” A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” The same might be said of a successful author who acts as his own agent. This is true only if you hit the big time.

In case you do decide to contact an agent at any time, I want to share a few thoughts with you.

Number one on my list of things never to do, is to address a query to 30 or 40 agents or editors at the same time. I’m talking about listing them in the header of your query. We usually toss those without even reading the subject line. Someone sent me one yesterday addressed to at least 50 other agents. I took a moment and tried to figure out what their reasoning might be. Did the writer think I would immediately jump on the material, worried someone would beat me out of a bestseller? Really?

I’m not foolish enough to think authors aren’t submitting to more than one agent or editor at a time. I certainly do, but I never list them so everyone knows. By the same reasoning, don’t ever, ever, send material to all the agents at one agency. We do talk to one another.

I recently received a query stating the author had done his homework and investigated dozens of agents and agencies. It boiled down to me being the perfect person to represent his masterpiece. (Yes, that’s what he called it.) Unfortunately for him, he addressed the query to Ms. Gallagher. Lesson: Be very careful before you press the send button.

Never say you have copyrighted your book with the Library of Congress. Your book is copyrighted the moment you put the words on paper. To have it done officially, dates your material–forever. Let the publisher do that.

A book with a copyright date of 2013, and submitted in 2016, speaks volumes to an editor or agent. It means it’s been shopped around, a lot! If you are really worried someone will steal your material, register it with the Writers’ Guild, East or West. For a small fee they will record the work, proving when you wrote it. And then, unless you are submitting to an entertainment agent or producer, keep your mouth shut. Copyright marks and WGA numbers suggest you don’t trust us.

Name-dropping of famous people annoys most professionals. If you really have contacts, include a note from them and you’ll receive immediate attention. It doesn’t mean agents or editors will take it, but they will certainly have a quick look. Let’s face it, if James Patterson or Nora Roberts says your work is extraordinary, I will pant with excitement. If they have written a blurb or a preface for your book, send it along. Then celebrate by doing the naked chicken dance around your desk. Otherwise, don’t name-drop.

It goes without saying that you should research the agency or publishing house you are sending to. Then submit a clean, error free manuscript. Formatted to fit their submission guidelines.

Last (for now) on my list of suggestions of what not to do is what one famous agent calls “the no bullshit rule.” It means exactly what it says. If your book isn’t done, don’t say it is. Don’t make up kudos for yourself. Don’t brag, but don’t grovel either. And everyone’s favorite: Please, do not tell me your mother loved it.

I didn’t write this article in hopes of finding new clients, in fact, I am currently closed for submissions. Sorry. I need to devote my time to authors under contract to the agency. But I seriously look forward to chatting with other authors. Nobody “gets” us—like us. So write me if you feel like it and we can commiserate on the state of the writing business. Wish this site had a chat room.

Bio: Joyce Holland joined D4EO Literary Agency in late 2009 reading and recommending manuscripts. She is a former newspaper columnist for the Northwest Florida Daily News, past president and current conference coordinator for Emerald Coast Writers in Destin, Florida, and author of two nautical mysteries, Boat Dollies and Beyond Gulf Breeze (Deadly Alibi Press), the true crime book, My, My, Myra, and over two dozen short stories. Learn more  about her here.