How Not to Be the Literary Agent From Hell

Recently our local writers’ guild put on a one-day “Pitchfest” in which attendees like me had brief appointments with literary agents who’d been invited to see what talent they might discover within our midst.  I am indie published, but I’m writing a romantic mystery series which could be a good fit for some publishers, so I decided I’d give it a whirl.  I chose agents who stated they were looking for new writers in that genre (among others) and I spent considerable time prepping for my “auditions.”

I saw two agents.  The first encounter, while by no means perfect, in retrospect seemed heavenly compared to the second encounter, which was surely a quick descent into hell.

meeting a literary agent: heaven or hell

Image via

I write this post as an open letter to agents, to let them know what not to do when listening to a writer give a pitch.

First off, let me be clear: I am terrible at pitching ideas.  I know this.  I don’t memorize well, and I get tongue tied, especially when under time pressure.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t write well or that my ideas aren’t worthy. An effective agent should understand this.  He or she should realize that ultimately it’s far more important for the agent to pitch well than for the writer to do so. After all, it’s the agent whose job it is to sell the idea to a publisher.  The writer just has to have a fantastic, marketable idea, expertly crafted (piece of cake, right?!).  And most of the time, if the writer feels comfortable enough, he or she will be able to sell their idea just fine.

"Please Mr. Literary Agent, may I have some more?"

image courtesy

We were given precisely ten minutes to pitch to these agents—no more and no less. No matter how they spin it, in reality the agents are in the power seat for those ten minutes. (Think Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, may I have some more?”)

I was told beforehand to prepare a fifteen-twenty word “elevator pitch,” the so-called Big Idea.  I was also told to prepare an inquiry letter, and in fact to have two copies of the letter to give to the agent (the one I now refer to as “the agent from hell.”)  In addition, Guild organizers  recommended that we prepare a “leave-behind” with ten pages from the book, and whatever bona fides might help our cause (a list of awards, books already published, etc.).  All well and good. I prepared a small packet that would immediately let an agent know whether the book and series was something they’d want to pursue.  Finally, during the agent panel in the morning, the agent (from Hell) said, “Oh, we don’t like back cover copy; we want to know your story, yes, but we want to know why we should publish it.”

Here’s how it went for me: The first agent graciously took my packet, set me at ease, was respectful of my idea, etc.  I had brought my published books and we talked a bit about how the proposed mystery series was a good fit with my readers and how we both liked the hybrid model of publishing. At the end she said she’d be interested in reading the whole manuscript, not just ten pages. She liked the fact that I had a social media platform, explaining that publishers want to know that a writer understands what it takes to market their book.  Tap on the shoulder.  Time’s up.  I walk away thinking, “Well, I suck at pitching, but she’s very nice.  I like her a lot.”  That was the high point of my day.  Little did I know that I’d be experiencing the opposite later that afternoon.

The second agent started by refusing to take my leave-behind (remember, she was the one I was told to bring two letters for). She then refused to look at my fifteen word “Big Idea,” which I had written down so that she could see in a nutshell where I was going.

Okay, that’s two rejections in the space of about thirty seconds.  I’m not feeling great, but I soldier on. Next I make the apparently earth-shattering mistake of describing my series as a “cozy” mystery that has a time travel aspect to it. I was using the term in its broadest sense, i.e. to distinguish it from a police procedural.  But the agent from hell interrupts me (rather rudely, I thought) with “That’s not a cozy!” and begins to lecture me about precisely what a traditional cozy is, as if I’d never heard of Agatha Christie.

Her mind (in my imagination):  “WTF—this writer doesn’t even know what genre she’s writing in!”  My mind: “WTF—I have ten minutes and this person is spending four of them lecturing me on what a cozy is??”  I cut her off as politely as I can: the clock is ticking, for God’s sake! I start to explain the concept of my protagonists (who aren’t professional crime fighters, hence my use of the term “cozy”) interjecting themselves into actual historical events.  I’m trying my best not to get too much into “back cover copy” (as she warned against during the panel earlier that day). I begin to describe the real-life history they become embroiled in and she interrupts me again, saying, “I don’t care about that story—I want to know your story!”  And did I mention throughout this debacle that she didn’t smile – at all?The literary agent from hell

Her mind (in my imagination): “WTF—this person doesn’t even know her own story!” My mind: “WTF—if you’ll quit interrupting, I’ll explain, the protagonists get tangled up in the historical mystery!”  At this point I’m also thinking, “I feel like crap—get me out of here!” Complete, unmitigated disaster all around.  Did she ask to see my manuscript? Yes – more out of pity than anything else, I’m sure.  Will I send it to her? No.  I can’t imagine working with someone who treats others that way.

Okay. Some might say, “Hey, it was toward the end of the day.  She was tired.”  To that I answer, “So what? It was the end of the day for me, too. I was up late the night before putting together the packet that she couldn’t be bothered with.  Plus, I have the stress of thinking about telling a really good story … under threat of a stopwatch!”

Here’s the bottom line: at this point, it doesn’t matter whether my series can be categorized as a cozy mystery or not.  That’s a marketing discussion for some time after the first ten minutes.  Because maybe the idea is such that it’s not just a cookie cutter cozy and that’s a good thing.  It doesn’t even matter whether the agent’s going to like the concept or not, or like my writing style or not. Maybe the first agent thought the idea was crap, too; I have no idea.  For all I know she could have thrown away my little packet. Maybe the best I can hope for is a polite rejection in a few weeks, along the lines of “I enjoyed your story, but it’s not right for me at this time.”  Fine.  That’s life.  But the difference between how those two agents made me feel was night and day. Heaven and hell.  I know it’s not all about my delicate feelings.  Really, I do.  But if you can put someone at ease enough that they can feel comfortable telling you their story (which might just be a good one), and if you can have them walk away feeling good instead of crappy (no matter what you really think of their idea), why wouldn’t you do that?

What do you think? Have you ever encountered a literary agent from hell?  I’d love to hear from you.


Tags: , , , , ,