Can You Compete for an Agent’s or Editor’s Time?

Can You Compete for an Agent’s or Editor’s Time?

Aspiring authors often seem puzzled that their work isn’t read more carefully, or positively, or even at all, when they send their work out to an agent or an editor.

Those would-be authors aren’t thinking enough about the competitive pressure on the gatekeepers’ time. Editors and agents have a lot of hot projects, and to add another to their list means you need to deliver a truly compelling work . . . good enough to make them put aside something else.

Yes, your work may be perfectly fine. Readable and enjoyable. Yeoman plot. Likable hero. All that. But agents and editors have a lot of that already. You need to compete for their attention, and compete hard. You need to knock their socks off.

And quickly. If you are a new author, it had better happen in the first few pages.

Here’s how it looks from a busy editor’s point of view. This is a perspective shared at a WisCon 2009 panel a few weeks ago by James Frenkel, senior editor of science fiction titles for Tor Books.

Frenkel was talking to an audience of mostly would-be authors. He said, okay, it might help to understand my professional priorities as an editor. The top projects on my desk, he said, are sequels by bestselling authors already in the Tor line-up. (Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? These are lucrative projects with a built-in audience, likely to sell and also will promote earlier work in the series.)

Then, he said, next in line are new queries or manuscripts by other bestselling authors at Tor, although not necessarily sequels. (Makes a lot of sense; these are proven authors in which Tor already has a relationship and an investment. More work by these good authors will likely pay off.)

Then, Frenkel looks at new work by bestselling authors from the outside, pitched to him by top agents. (Makes sense; these are from authors and agents who have proven themselves, although not at Tor.)

Then, he looks at proposals from new authors . . . sent to him via top agents who also represent bestselling authors. (Makes sense; these agents know the business and have a track record of identifying successful writers and material.)

Then . . . Frenkel paused and looked at the aspiring authors in the room . . . “If I have time, I look at you.”

Clearly, there’s not a lot of time left. That’s the way the business works. Publishers, editors, agents, marketing departments, all are busy working with people who have already shown signs of success. They already have a lot of viable projects on their desks.

Frenkel clearly would love, as does any editor, to discover new talent. But his and others’ time is limited.

No, it’s not impossible to break in. But to do it, you need to gird your loins to compete, and compete hard. If one of those agents or editors does get a few moments to riffle through a slush pile . . . you need to make your manuscript sparkle . . . quickly, convincingly, without any quibbles or concerns or dull spots or wasted words.

We all have to compete, even (as you can see from Frenkel’s hierarchy of attention) those much higher in the queue than you or me.

So . . . make the most of any chance you get. Write a couple of first pages that are teeming with the “wow!” factor, that are really outstanding (not just competent), that fire a reader’s immediate curiosity about what comes next. Make us say, “Hey, that’s remarkably good. I’ll read some more.”

“I’ll read more . . . despite all the pressures on my time . . . despite all the other projects piled on my desk that are so likely to succeed and fund my paycheck.”

Can you do that? The opening lines should be fantastic. The first page must be great. And the following several pages should be brisk and bold and brilliant with the promise of a wonderful story.

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