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  • by Matthew Bayan

Marketing for Writers 102

Last month I explained push/pull marketing and promised to get back with more information on “pull” marketing, which can best be described as market research. Specifically, I want to show how market research can help find the right agent.

A lot of my editing clients are first-time novelists. They make two huge mistakes in trying to get signed by an agent. First, they give up their querying far too easily. (“I’ll never get an agent.” Or. “They don’t understand what I’m doing.”) It reminds me of the whiners in grade school who were always blaming their teachers when they got into trouble: “Oh, that Mrs. Crabtree doesn’t like me.”

Then I find out, OMG, they’ve sent out a staggering total of eleven queries and haven’t gotten any responses after a whole two weeks!

This need for instant gratification causes problems. Realistically, if a writer hasn’t cranked out at least fifty queries, she’s not entitled to complain. Even then, complaining creates a victim mentality. And it's important to wait; agents usually take months to respond.

Let’s apply market research. Worst case scenario, you send out twenty queries over a two-week span. Let’s say two months later, you’ve received zero responses. Not even rejections. The market is telling you something. You may have written a brilliant novel, but a crappy query letter. Is the letter short? Short is better.

Did you follow the agents’ instructions? If they ask for the first three pages, only send the first three pages. Don’t squeeze in a couple more with the belief that the more the agent sees, the more he’ll just love your work.

Change the focus of your letter. Try to capsulize the basic conflict of the book without trying to explain the whole plot. Three or four sentences should be enough. Agents usually say they only want a one-page letter. That doesn’t mean you cram every word possible into that page. Shorter is better. You’re trying to whet their appetites not force-feed them.

Maybe your writing is not up to par. Yes, your mother and your friends love your manuscript, but they’re not editors. If this is the problem, it may be why you haven’t received responses. More and more agents just ignore a query they’re not interested in, rather than waste time to send out a form letter rejection.

Have you put your manuscript through a critique group? That’s a free exercise. Other writers will very quickly see the flaws in your work. Or hire an editor. Get feedback from people who are published instead of friends and family.

Would you ask your school-teacher sister to perform open-heart surgery on you because she read an article about heart disease? You won’t get good feedback from relatives who have no experience in publishing, editing, or writing.

I find that I get the best feedback from other writers who don’t like me, because they will find every last tiny molecule of imperfection in my work. You’ll find your enemies eager to help.

My point here is that if you’re not getting responses from agents, it’s not the agents’ faults. Something you’re doing has to change.

The second mistake new writers make is wasting time and effort contacting the wrong agents. Here again, market research is the key. I’ve heard tales of woe from many writers who have sent out skadey-eight zillion queries but can’t get an agent interested.

Before starting a new query campaign, it’s important to marshal good resources. Two I recommend are The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) and QueryTracker.

AAR agents are the cream of the crop. AAR requires certain qualifications to become a member: ethical conduct, experience, and a minimum number of book sales, among others. These are usually the most established agents and those with the most thriving practices. You can use their agent search engine at You can use key words such as mystery or romance to find the agents who handle those genres.

Another search engine and great tool to track the queries you send out is QueryTracker. They currently have a database of about 2000 agents, which are searchable by all sorts of filters (more than AAR), such as genre, location, gender, and whether they’re closed or open to queries. As you send out queries, you can enter the contact info in QueryTracker and they will keep track for you, showing how long the query has been in play, rejections, requests for partial or full manuscripts, etc. The basic service is free.

So, what do you do with these tools? They are valuable sources of market research. Instead of sending out a mass of queries in a shotgun approach, chances for success are greatly increased if you send to the specific agents who would be most likely to want your work. This takes research. I suggest at least a half-hour for each query.

Let’s say you have a mystery. In QueryTracker, you click that genre. Maybe you want to first try for agents in New York City. Click that location. And so on. You make sure the agent is not closed to queries. If your book has a lot of violence, you might also winnow down the agents by gender. Male agents would probably be more interested than women. The reverse holds true for romances.

As you investigate an agent, click on the link for the agency website. If there are a half-dozen agents in the agency, read the information on each agent. One of the other agents might be a better match than the one you first looked at.

Many agents post links to their blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Check these out. I’ve seen a lot of blogs where agents say exactly what they’re looking for right now. This information is much fresher than what’s on the agency web site, which might not get updated for months or years.

Now, as you query from a short list, you’ll reach agents who have the greatest likelihood of signing you.

This process is ongoing. If you’re not getting results, evaluate your query letter, revise, try again. Same with your manuscript. It should be a feedback loop. The market is constantly giving you feedback, whether negative or positive.

Try something. Stir, rinse, repeat.

And most of all: Don’t give up.

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