For my Writer’s Digest webinar, I pledged to answer all the questions sent in by students. This one got me fired up enough to transfer the exchange to the blog:
What can we do to ensure that an actual agent sees my query? I’ve received rejection letters directly from assistants, therefore I know that the agent hasn’t seen my query or sample work. Perhaps the agent would have liked it, but if he or she wasn’t able to see it, then both the agent and I miss out on what could have been a wonderful opportunity.
This writer seems to have what I would call Assistant Attitude. It’s a belief that assistants aren’t really important and that only the big names at an agency can make or break a writer’s chances at representation. A lot of (beginning) writers think very poorly of assistants and are shocked — shocked! — to learn that these are the people reading their queries.
I invite everyone currently suffering from a case of Assistant Attitude to consider, perhaps, the complete opposite viewpoint. The truth is, assistants are amazing. Especially when it comes to going through the slush. First off, they are often the hard-working, unappreciated souls who make sure your queries get a response. Would you rather you submission languish in obscurity while a big shot agent caters to clients, makes book deals, speaks at conferences — you know, agents — for a few months or years, or would you rather an eagle-eyed assistant go through submissions and respond to you in a timely manner?
Here’s another thing to consider: Assistants are hired directly by the agent and know the agent’s tastes intimately. They also tend to pay more attention while reading. Would you rather an assistant read the whole query and sample or the agent glance at it and reject after reading a sentence because they are overwhelmed with a deluge of other submissions?
Assistants are also on the hunt and spend more time and energy giving writers a chance. A really busy agent may not invest a lot of time on a promising-but-not-ready-yet writer. Their assistant, though, could really spearhead a writer’s growth and give someone some editorial feedback, a shot to revise, an invitation to resubmit, a phone call, etc. Some assistants can even take on their own clients (see the Newer vs. Established agent conversation for more thoughts on this). Since this is a chance for an assistant to prove him or herself — and use the training they’ve received directly from the agent you’re targeting — most assistants and new agents are really hungry and eager to lavish prospective clients with attention.
Finally, assistants are often the ones who champion things they find and recommend them to their bosses. “Stop what you’re doing and read this right now. It came in through the slush but it’s really good” is a very compelling argument when it comes from the right source. Who do you think an agent will listen to? A random query or a personal recommendation from their trusted colleague?
I don’t have a full-time assistant because I work from home, but I do have a wonderful, savvy, genius intern-slash-reader. My intern sometimes cruises my slush and picks out which queries sound the most promising. Sometimes, she emails me to tell me that I need to request something ASAP OMG it is the single best thing she’s ever read. (My intern can get really enthusiastic and persuasive.) So what do I do? If I’m near a computer, I zoom immediately over to that query to see what’s getting her so excited, of course. My intern is a tough cookie and has very discriminating taste — like me — and so I trust her judgment completely. When she gets excited, I’m often not far behind.
Assistant Attitude is toxic and it’s actually the writer missing out on the opportunity of a patient, well-trained, excited pair of eyes on their manuscript…and to get a very close ally within the agency they’ve queried. Assistants are people, too, and some of the smartest, brightest, and most dedicated I’ve ever met, to boot.