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Finding an Agent, by Shila Desai

March 12, 2013

Diaspora Dialogues recently hosted a round table discussion between 15 writers and Joyce Wayne (ex trade editor of Quill and Quire, and author of soon-to-be published When Belle Walked Along Spadina) and her agent, Dean Cooke of The Cooke Agency. The two speakers addressed the topic of the symbiotic literary agent/writer relationship.

Biologically, “symbiotic” is defined as “a close association of animals or plants of different species that is often, but not always, of mutual benefit.” There are other more upbeat definitions that encapsulate the relationship’s honeymoon stage and continuation in a similar vein. How does a writer ensure the latter and not the former? Joyce Wayne offered these suggestions:

  • Be patient. She expressed surprise at the length of time between not only submission and acceptance of her manuscript, but also between acceptance and subsequent editing process. The agent wants to put forward only the best, most viable version of the manuscript.
  • This one may be difficult to follow, but Joyce urged writers not to argue too much with the agent. The agent after all, has the benefit of experience. The key, I think, is “not too much”. Which leads to:
  • Maintain congeniality with your agent. Duh. Right? Not always. Congeniality may dissipate when a writer and agent work closely together for a couple of years before a manuscript is ready to be touted. It may help if the mutual goal of producing the most viable manuscript possible is kept firmly in mind.

Besides obvious exhortations such as following slavishly the submission instructions on their website, and showcasing credentials and credits on the query letter, Dean Cooke recommended:

  • A succinct and intriguing query letter that sums up your 30K words in 2-3 sentences.
  • Including details about writers who suggested you get in touch with them, and if possible, references from them.
  • Mentioning similar books, but being sure to point out how yours is different. (Agents know the market very well, so it is pointless trying to outline it for them).
  • Highlighting the “story behind the story.” The first is the true story upon which the second is based, and affords a perspective of the why behind your writing.

Other nuggets from the discussion:

  • Submission of a finished vs. partially completed manuscript? Dean prefers the former, which led to a discussion of what constitutes a finished manuscript. Canadian writers tend towards nebulous endings that are seen as inconclusive in the US or Britain.
  • Publishing in the US garners a higher advance and commission (20% as opposed to 15% in Canada)
  • Getting a US agent may be easier, but it is much harder to build up a meaningful lasting relationship. Agents in the US are prone to take on quickly but drop just as quickly after a few publisher rejections.
  • Dean loves short stories, but has to go with market demand for full length novels. He suggests submitting shorts as a sample. The outcome can go 3 ways: yes; no; or no to shorts but go ahead and submit a full length novel.
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