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Pitching your genre novel to an international agent

Posted in: Writers Victoria,13 July 2015
By: Courtney Miller-Callihan
Photo of Courtney Miller-Callihan in front of a garden fence
Courtney Miller-Callihan

You’ve finished your novel. It’s been fact-checked, spell-checked, proofread, edited and polished to the point of perfection. Now you are ready to find an agent. You know that in these days of the global village and Internet frontiers it is possible to go international. After all, Australia’s own genre Queens and Kings have proved that, from bestselling romance writers Anne Gracie and Anna Campbell to thriller megastars Michael Robotham and Matthew Reilly, to name just four.

In Australia it is helpful to have an agent, but not entirely necessary. To crack the American and British markets, it is essential. So how do you go about finding the right agent for you?  Courtney Miller-Callihan, an agent with the prestigious American firm Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, shares her lists of dos and don’ts.

How to find an agent who specialises in your genre

One of the best ways to find an agent who will be a good fit for your work is to find out who represents the authors whose work is similar to yours. There are several schools of thought here: do you go after the agents who represent the big stars, many of whom have been in the business for decades, or do you look for an up-and-coming agent, who’s more likely to be taking on new and less-experienced clients? There’s no reason you can’t query agents in both categories, but which sort of agent you prefer may be a matter of personal taste.

Besides the acknowledgment section of published books, here are a few other places to work on your agent “wish list”: author websites, lists of writing contest judges such as RWA(US)’s regional contests, internet forums like Absolute Write, and industry publications like Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace. That last one is a subscription-only site, but you can look at member pages for free, and their huge database includes searchable deal announcements dating back to 2000, and it may be worth a one-month subscription fee to get access to that information, which will tell you a lot about which US and UK agents are most actively selling in your chosen genre.

Is it better to go with someone who represents many authors you consider ‘competitors’ or someone whose stable includes no authors in your genre?

This is a tricky one, because the publishing industry is fairly large and rather diverse, not to mention very relationship-driven. Most agents are at least somewhat specialised in terms of what sorts of projects they take on, and will have relationships with editors who work on the sorts of books they do most often. When I started representing romance writers, about five years ago now, one of my first orders of business was to cultivate relationships with the romance editors at the large and mid-sized houses I hoped to do a lot of books with. An agent who has never represented a book in your genre may not have the network of contacts necessary to get the book sold (even if she or he has been agenting in other genres for years).

However, the flip side of that is that an agent who represents a lot of authors you deem “the competition” may already have too many too-similar books on her or his list. For example, because I’m only one person, I can’t really pitch more than a couple of “rock star” romances in a year, and even those two need to be pretty distinct from one another.

If you learned in the course of your research that I represent Alexis Hall, you’d guess (correctly!) that I’m open to LGBTQ+ books, but because I represent Alexis Hall, I’m not likely to take on another queer paranormal detective series(link is external). However, I also represent Jennifer Dawson, whose ‘Take a Chance on Me’(link is external) included a runaway bride heroine, and I’d love to have another runaway bride series on my list.

The more specific or “niche” your project is, the less likely it is that an agent will be able to accommodate two similar works on his or her list.

Critical must-dos when pitching

Make your novel sound exciting! Take a look at the “back cover copy” of some of your favourite published books to see how those stories are described and emulate the style and length as best you can.

Concentrate on what makes your story unique, not what makes the story universal. I’d rather know that the heroine runs a mail-order husband business than that the novel will appeal to anyone who’s ever been in love.

Own your story and/or your inexperience. Agents and publishers love a debut author, because it’s a chance to discover a fresh new voice, the Next Big Thing, the writer who’s soon going to be everyone’s favourite.

Avoid-at-all-costs mistakes when pitching

The phrase “guaranteed bestseller” and its variants. No one, and I mean NO one, is guaranteed this! Instead use “will resonate with readers” or something along those lines.

Too much overlap with a well-known genre hit. If your billionaire dom hero is named Christian, he needs a new name. If your characters are learning to practice magic, they can’t attend a boarding school in Scotland. You don’t want to sound like a copycat, and you also don’t want to sound like you’re unaware of the biggest books in your genre.

Denigrating other authors’ work. Listen, I work mostly on commercial fiction, the books people read for fun. Don’t tell me that your novel is much better written than a household name author whose work sells millions of copies. And don’t EVER tell me that your writing is better than my other clients’. Just, no.

Unrealistic word count. Not all genre fiction is the same length, of course, but it’s very rare to see an adult fantasy novel that’s 50,000 words long, or a romance novel that’s 300,000 words long. Word count is a surprisingly good indicator of whether the story is the right “size” to meet readers’ genre expectations.

Pitching the second (third, etc.) book in a self-published series. It’s extremely difficult for me to sell a self-published novel to a traditional publisher; perhaps more difficult still is to try to sell a later book in a series where the first book is self-published. If the novel has been wildly successful, publishers will be calling you; otherwise, congratulations on taking the self-pub plunge, but please pitch me something brand new.

Trying to discuss business details upfront. The pitch letter is not the place to tell me which house should publish the work, what sort of unusual commission rate you’re prepared to offer me, or to outline your maybe-too-ambitious or maybe-too-unambitious career goals.

What to expect from an agent

Industry expertise: someone who knows the business and keeps up-to-date on new developments and trends.

Career guidance: agents work closely with their authors to help them meet their goals: a mass-market print deal, publication by a “Big 5” publisher, a film or audio deal, and so on. Some of these goals are long-term or ongoing, and the agent can help the author figure out the right career moves along the way.

Prompt processing of payments and contracts. You need to be able to trust that your money, as well as your books, are in safe hands, and your agent should keep you apprised of when payments are expected.

A professional “shoulder to cry on.” Your relationship with your agent may last for decades, and you want your agent to be an ally: someone to support your professional interests, fight your battles (e.g. cover design) with the publisher, and, sometimes, be a safe space to vent frustrations.

Editorial feedback, if the agent is an “editorial agent.” Not all agents work on the actual content of their clients’ manuscripts; some help the author refine the pitch before presenting the work to publishers but don’t offer feedback on the writing itself. Others do developmental edits or even line edits before sending the work out on submission, sometimes through several rounds of revision with the author. If you’d like this sort of feedback from your agent, be sure to ask whether the agent considers her or himself an editorial agent before signing with that person.

What an agent will expect from you

Professionalism. If you’ve sought agent representation, the assumption is that you’re serious about a career as a professional writer. Agents will expect you to treat your writing as a job, and though neither your agent nor your publisher is your employer, per se, the same sorts of rules of professionalism apply. Do everything you can to meet deadlines, honour publicity commitments, and avoid saying anything that will reflect poorly on you, your book, and your publisher.

A reasonably positive attitude. As I said before, sometimes it’s the agent’s job to provide a sounding board for an author’s anxiety or frustrations. Most of the time, this is a temporary crisis of confidence, and the writer can pick him or herself up and move on. But when the negativity feels relentless, that can feel extremely draining, even (especially?) if the agent has a close relationship with the writer.  

Commitment. Sometimes the road to success in publishing is not an easy one, and agents want to work with authors who are in this for the long term, who won’t get frustrated and give up. Sometimes the best way to not give up is to start the next book.

About Courtney Miller-Callihan 

Courtney Miller-Callihan holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a M.A. in English from The Johns Hopkins University. She began her career in publishing at Random House, where she spent a number of years in subsidiary rights sales and in contracts before joining Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in 2005. She is currently seeking women’s fiction, romance, and historical novels, as well as nonfiction projects on unusual topics, humour, pop culture, and lifestyle books. A member of the Romance Writers of America, she works closely with authors to help them reach their full creative and commercial potential. 

Courtney Miller-Callihan is a keynote speaker at the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Melbourne from 21-23 August 2015.