Any Questions?

It’s been said a thousand times, but the publishing industry sloooooooows during the summer months. This happens for obvious reasons (vacation time) and less-obvious-to-the-public reasons (editors are preparing for their upcoming fall and winter launches and catching up on material sent to them in the spring).

As an agent, I read submissions and queries as I receive them. I don’t have to worry about “launch” and I don’t have to wait until my superiors return from vacation before I can take on a new project. It also helps that my editorial deadlines are self-imposed. This means I spend most of my summers preparing clients’ work for fall submissions, catching up on queries, touching base with editors on existing projects, and traveling to conferences.

The most recent conference I attended was from the comfort of my own home (well, a Starbucks) and it was the free online conference, WriteOnCon (which is wonderful, and did I mention free?). I did a live chat with a few other agents in which we answered questions specifically about querying. Writers always have many, many questions about querying to the point where I just want to hug them. But since I can’t do that through the internet, I try my best to answer their questions. 

The questions during WriteOnCon could have been direct quotes from the questions I receive at every conference I attend in person. Most of them are fantastic and smart, and I don’t mind answering them 50 different times because every single time is important.

Questions like:
“How important is my author bio?”
“Should we use comp titles?”
“How long should a query be?”
“Can we send a previously rejected query after a major revision?”

… and other good questions that pertain to querying in general – as a process, as part of the business, as a necessary step toward reaching a larger goal.

There are other questions that always come up though – whether in Q&A sessions at conferences or in #askagent chats on Twitter – that only tell an agent the writer is at best, uninformed, and at worst, desperately unprofessional. These questions are rarely questions at all. They are masks to hide their pitches behind.

Here are questions to reconsider before asking an agent during a Q&A session:

What is the market like for [insert genre/style here]? 
Unless the topic of the Q&A session is specifically about the state of the market – which would be rare in circumstances involving unpublished/unagented writers – do not ask this question. We all know what you’re really asking, and if we represent your genre, you can query us. Questions about the market for a specific genre tell me you don’t actually care about the answer. You just want to know that there’s a market for your book. That tells an agent you’re writing (and querying) for the wrong reasons. If the answer to that question is “the market is dead,” does that mean you’re going to stop writing? If so, what happens if I sign you as a client but we have trouble selling your first book? I wouldn’t want to work with an author who gives up that easily or is unwilling to write another book. Also, it tells me you’re not reading in the genre in which you’re hoping to contribute. You should already be aware of what’s been published and the general trends in the genre you’re writing.
What are you looking for right now?
This question is asking the agent what they represent, which is something that will vary among agents and is another sneaky way to finding out if the agent represents your book. Do your research on where/whom to query, but panels are not the place to ask for specifics you can easily Google. It’s your chance to get insider knowledge that isn’t on their websites and Twitter feeds. 
Are you looking for new writers?/Do you work with debut authors?
99.9% of the time the answer to question is an all-caps YES. Agents close to queries sometimes for various reasons, and if that’s the case it’ll say so on their websites/Twitter pages (aka, the things you should be checking before you query anyway). If you’re still unsure, just try anyway. Worst that happens is an auto-response that says no, or you just don’t hear from them. The point is, it’s not a question to ask during a Q&A. It’s an agent’s JOB to find new authors. If you’re querying us at all, chances are you are a debut author. I can’t think of any agent who’s ever said “I only work with published authors.” If an author is already widely published, it’s likely they have an agent already too. So… YES, we want new authors.

Is this something you would like?/Can I send this to you?
This question is one I usually receive after I do a critique. At conferences, part of the draw for authors to attend is getting a one-on-one session with an agent and getting personal feedback on their pages. Once the 10, 15, or 20 minute conversation is over, I always ask “do you have any other questions for me?” And sadly, from at least one person, that question will be whether I want to represent the manuscript based on the opening pages I just read. No. The answer is no. Even if it’s a genre I love and my critique was entirely made of praise, that was not the point of meeting with me. If there are no questions about the critique itself, or larger industry-related questions, then just say “Nope. No questions. Thanks!” (And then query me after you revise.)

I understand frustration with rejection and feeling like any chance you get to speak directly to an agent should be used to sell your book. Professionalism is about curbing that impulse and thinking before you act. Agents experience rejection all the time, but if I’m at a cocktail party I don’t pitch books to editors. I get to know them, get a feeling about their taste, and then we either set up a lunch or I’ll send a follow-up email to pitch books to them. Think of conferences and Twitter as the cocktail party; your query is the lunch date.

If you’re interested in other query-centric discussions on this blog, feel free to read these as well:


Shady Business

So, earlier this week via The Twitter, agent (and author!), Mandy Hubbard mentioned her distrust of new agents who have no publishing background. This started a conversation, which I participated in, about the merits of these agents and start-up publishers who claim to be legit.

The thing is, many of these new agents and start-up publishers (usually digital-only publishers) aren’t aware they’re not legit. They have the best of intentions. They’re people who follow the industry closely and, because of the transparency provided by blogs and Twitter, they think they have enough information to start their own companies. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and some of these newbies do succeed and prove their worth. Most of them, however, don’t help an author rise to any level beyond what the author could have done themselves.

When I started at Curtis Brown, I was an assistant and only an assistant. I also kept up with industry news and market trends, but mostly I was an apprentice at an established agency where I had several agents to learn from. Before that I was an intern at a different agency and read the hell out of the slush pile. Reading the slush pile and writing reader’s reports for agents seems like busy work, but here is what I learned from it: In my first year as an intern, what I put in the “yes” pile was usually not what the agent would have said yes to, and more importantly I learned why. My experience is very, very common among agents at my level and those at the levels above mine. Reading someone else’s slush pile is a very helpful rite of passage.

If I took on clients within that first year of working in publishing, nothing I took on would have sold, I wouldn’t even have seen a contract until it was my own client’s, and I would not have known how to negotiate in my author’s best interest. Every agency is different in terms of when they let assistants take on clients, but those decisions are always based on “is this person ready?” New agents who don’t have that kind of experience in publishing, but just want to take on clients to “help authors get published” don’t get that feedback or education. This is why, despite their good intentions, they end up hurting authors.

New agents at established agencies, or those who have publishing experience elsewhere, are hungry to build their lists and you should definitely query them. Put them at the top of your lists, actually. But pay attention to the backgrounds of these new agents too. If they don’t have the backing of an established agency, then Google deeper and ask the following questions:

1. Do they belong to the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives)? Note: Not every agent needs to join the AAR and I know a few at established agencies who have not joined, or just recently joined. However, if you’re on the fence about an agent and their credentials seem suspicious, not being a member of the AAR could be a dealbreaker.
2. How long have they worked in publishing? If they weren’t always an agent, what did they do before? Editor at a major house? Marketing or sales representative (meaning, they know what booksellers buy and would probably be a good agent because of it)? Were they an assistant or intern at an agency that’s respected in the industry?

3. How long have they been agenting? It should not be the same amount of time they’ve been in publishing. If they are just starting out, who do they work for? What type of agency is backing them up? 
4. What have they sold? If they’re new, this won’t be as relevant because they may not have many sales to their name yet. In this case, ask new agents where they see your book in the market. Hardcover/trade paperback vs. mass market vs. ebook only? These things matter, and knowing which format will work best for your book is something a good agent should be able to tell you. 
5. What types of publishers have they sold to? Check Publisher’s Marketplace to see an agent’s sales history. Note: Not every agent reports their deals, but new agents usually do because they are still proving themselves. So, look them up. Are they only selling to the types of publishers you could have submitted to yourself? Or do they have a few Big 6 and larger, respected indie publishers in their sales history too?
6. Are they just a lawyer? Agents are like combination lawyers and managers, and you need those skills to be good at your job. The difference is that a lawyer has no personal stake in whether your book does well (they’ll get paid either way) and their ability to read legal language rarely extends to book contracts, which is a different animal. If you self-publish or use a small press without an agent, make sure you get someone to read over your contract who is a literary lawyer. People who know legal jargon, as intelligent and educated as they are, aren’t going to have the same expertise when it comes to publishing.

I also mentioned start-up publishers above. If you choose not to get an agent – either because you’re going to self-publish or use smaller publishers who take unagented manuscripts – then you need to be extra careful. Like I said, start-up publishers can turn into legit publishers who are good at what they specialize in. They’re often digital-only, at least at first, and tend to focus on a specific genre to build up a successful niche market. Note: This is what a good start-up publisher will do. Be wary of small presses, digital-only publishers, or start-ups who want everything and anything. Usually this means they haven’t created a solid business model or know the best way to publish different types of books.

If you’re unsure about whether to sign that contract or submit to that shiny new publisher at all, don’t be afraid to ask the publisher the following questions:

1. Do you content edit or just copy-edit? Copy-editing is ridiculously important, but so is editing for the content itself. Will your book get Big 6 treatment at a small press? It won’t go through as many revision rounds and maybe only one set of eyes (as opposed to several you get at large houses) will see it. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a professional editor with a skilled eye who will make your book the best it can be.

2. What is your marketing plan for my book? They should have one, and it should involve more than a Facebook ad. 
3. Where are your books sold? If the publisher is digital-only, ask them what platforms they use and if your book will be available on multiple reading devices. If they do print books as well, ask them if they’ve ever been sold through Barnes & Noble (the physical stores) or independent local bookstores (unlikely, but worth asking).
4. Will any part of this process cost me any money, other than the royalties you will earn on my sales? Answer: NO! NO, NO, NO! If a publisher wants you to pay them, run away. They are a scam. Real publishers pay you for the privilege to publish your book. 
5. How much are you taking in royalties? The answer to this question varies, but what you’re really asking is “are you doing enough for my book to warrant taking over half my earnings?” Because if they’re only doing the bare minimum and you’re not seeing a significant return in your sales, you could have self-published and kept almost all of your royalties instead.
6. What’s the deal with your subrights department? Subrights matter. It’s how you earn back an advance faster and audio, film, serial, and foreign rights are how you get your book in more places. Most small or start-up publishers won’t have a significant presence in the film world, but if they are going to call themselves a publisher, they should be aware of foreign markets and work with specific agents or scouts to sell your book abroad.

If any of these questions make a publisher nervous, don’t use them. These are simple questions they should not only answer, but be proud to tell you. Of course, they are trying to woo you. Tell you what you need to hear. So, go a step further and research:

1. Go to sites like Preditors and EditorsFind out what other books they’ve published. Have they had success in your genre? Do they have any specialties? A good publisher has standards.

2. Where have their books actually been sold? Can you find them anywhere other than Amazon?
3. Do they have a Publisher’s Marketplace page with reported deals? Note: This does not necessarily make them legit (as is more eloquently stated in this blog post by legit agent, Victoria Marini). But! It at least gives you a starting off point to see what types of deals this publisher has made. 
4. Who are their other authors? Contact them directly to ask about their experience. The publisher should also willingly give you their authors’ information if you can’t find it online. If they don’t, then that’s another red flag and you should be suspicious of them.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s less work if you have an agent, but if you don’t want or need an agent, be prepared. It’s incredibly tempting to sign a contract because YAY BOOK DEAL!!! You’ve been waiting forever for this. All those rejections were piling up and you were getting so frustrated and ready to quit, but OMG this publisher sees the brilliance of your book and finally all is well in the world! Yes, of course you will want to sign immediately. This is what shady publishers and shady agents are counting on.

This whole process is hard. Whether it’s you looking for a good agent or agents looking for a good small publisher (we use them too!). An easy way out only makes it harder in the long run. My job is to protect authors’ rights and make sure their books are getting the treatment they deserve. Which is why agents like Mandy and Victoria, and me, and every other agent I know get so impassioned about these lovely people who want to do good, but probably aren’t ready yet.

Long blog post is over. To sum up, research like it’s your job! Because it is. Now, let’s hug it out.

When to Fold ‘Em

This weekend I went to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference and met some very talented writers. I made more requests at this conference than I’ve had at most others I’ve been to this year, and the reasons why became obvious during our pitch sessions. For one, these writers studied craft. Not only were they just good writers, but they knew their genres and where their book would be placed in a bookstore. It was clear they read within their genres too; not once did I hear someone compare their novels to a massive bestseller or radically mislabel them.

The second reason is because the majority of the writers at this conference had a clear vision for their writing career. They did their research in which agent was the best to pitch and no one was rude or abrasive if their novels weren’t requested. They understood that it’s not personal; it’s business, and rejection is just a stepping stone to finding a better agent for their work.

There were of course some pitches that simply weren’t for me, which is always bound to happen, but I noticed another small trend in what I was rejecting. Or rather, not what, but who I was rejecting: The Used Car Saleswriter.

It goes something like this:

Writer: “My book is about [X]”
Agent: “Thanks but I don’t think that’s for me.”
Writer: “WAIT! WAIT! I ALSO HAVE THIS ONE!”
Agent: “Um, OK fine. Let’s hear it.”
Writer: “It’s about [Y]”
Agent: “Sorry, this one isn’t for me either. Someone else might – “
Writer: “But surely I have something you’ll like! Perhaps something in red! With a moon roof! I’ll throw in a juicer!”
Agent: ::slowly backs away:: ::joins Witness Protection::

OK, so this is an extreme case, but variations of this conversation do happen in pitch sessions. I see it more often in my query inbox. Sometimes I’ll get 3 or 4 queries from the same person all sent on the same day. Other times I’ll send a form rejection and their next-day response will be a new query for a different project, as if the first project they queried meant nothing. Sometimes these responses are even within the hour. The strangest repeat queriers are the ones who just keep sending new material with no mention of ever having contacted me before, as if they’ve become one with the query process and stopped paying attention to the actual humans on the other end of it.

I encourage writers to re-query even if they receive a form rejection, but it’s important to know when to stop. (Hint: Usually after two or three queries, unless an agent specifies that you can send more work in the future or asks you what else you’re working on.)

Sending too many queries to an agent who’s already rejected you says, to me, the following:

  • You don’t care who represents you, just as long as someone does. 
  • You’re not ready to query because you aren’t thinking seriously about your career. If you give up that easily on your own projects, why should anyone else invest time into them? 
  • You have no intention of listening to feedback or taking constructive criticism. If you’re ignoring form rejections and only using them as an invitation to send something else, then you’re not stopping to consider the fact that either your query or the project itself is the problem. 

With requested material, I’m more forgiving. Sometimes I will ask to see future work, but if I read two or more of the same writer’s manuscripts and they’re still not clicking with me, I won’t want to read another one. I could like their third or fourth manuscript just fine, but I’ll probably still pass on it because I already know it’s the only manuscript of the writer’s that I like. [Note: By “like” I mean both in personal taste and in regard to my ability to sell the project in question.]

I’ve also had writers ask me what would happen if they significantly revise. Can they re-submit then? This depends. With queries, an agent rejects or accepts based on the premise of the book. So, if we pass on it, we likely won’t be interested even if the writing improves. If an agent requested material and the main reason for rejection was the overall execution of the plot, then it can’t hurt to try again if the revisions are significant.

You don’t only get one shot in this business. Most of the time, you get several. If one person passes, send to someone else. If everybody passes, send out a new project. No one will yell at you. But keep track of who responds and what they say. Some rejections are nicer than others, and some provide more explanation than others, but a rejection is a rejection. Don’t settle for an agent who begrudgingly accepts the one project they think they can sell. You want an agent who will leap at the chance to represent your work and be equally excited about your other ideas, that way you’ll both have a long, satisfying career.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I’ve stumbled across a few blog posts and tweets recently that have been both flattering and troubling. The posts come from writers who are either querying agents or preparing to query agents, and have very nicely named me as their “dream agent.” When I say “a few” posts I mean just that. I’m not implying I have legions of fans or anything. But a few posts – and really even if it was just one post – are too many. Here’s why.

Resting all of your hopes and dreams on one person is dangerous. This is true for life in general, but let’s stick with talking about publishing. If you’re a writer and you’re querying agents, you should have a healthy list of agents (say 10-20) whom you deem the best fit for your work. If they all say no, find 20 more. And if they all say no, OK well maybe you need to revise. The point is, there is never just one agent to query. The number of websites devoted to curating lists of literary agents is staggering, so no one with Internet access has an excuse for not doing research.

Here’s the thing: most manuscripts get rejected. On an average month, I receive roughly 400 queries. Of those 400, I request maybe 5-10 manuscripts. I won’t tell you how many of those requests turn into offers of representation because I don’t want to depress you too much. Let’s just say the odds aren’t exactly in your favor if for no other reason than I can’t read 400 manuscripts a month. That’s the beautiful thing about there being other qualified literary agents! What I don’t request, someone else might, and your chances of getting an agent increase. Building up one person out of many to pick your needle out of their haystack is absurd. What happens when your dream agent says “no thanks, this isn’t for me?” Do you give up because the dream is dead? Of course not. Saying “OK, on to the next one” – and not taking personal offense – should be your only logical course of action. 

What’s more troubling about the “dream agent” is that when I see writers use this phrase, whether about me or someone else, I worry it may be for more personal reasons than professional. The Internet has eliminated the great divide between Writer and Gatekeeper. Agents aren’t just mysterious figures in their New York City Ivory Towers who crush the dreams of writers at will. Now writers can see that we’re just regular people who love books and happen to have the right connections to get their books published by major publishers. This has been great for publishing for several reasons: Stronger relationships, built-in marketing networks, and being able to directly tell writers what I like and am looking for has made my slush pile a much more pleasant place to spend time. But, sometimes I worry the personal connections writers feel to certain agents can overshadow the real task at hand – selling books. Liking me on a personal level is great, but please research me on a professional level.

The agent-author relationship is first and foremost a business partnership. If you’re querying agents, writing is probably more than just a hobby for you. This is your career. It’s not something to take lightly or “pass off to a friend.” You should want a professional who will know exactly how to sell your work. Being liked is a nice feeling, and it lets me know the advice I give to the writing community on Twitter hasn’t gone unnoticed. But if you’re a writer seeking an agent, I hope you’re not just querying me because we both watch Doctor Who or because one time I made a joke you found funny. I have a good personal relationship with all of my clients, which I think enhances any business relationship, but that part of our relationship is a fun added bonus. I didn’t only love their books or think they were cool people – even though I did, and they are – I also knew I could help them get their work published.

Before querying, ask yourself the following questions:
– Is this agent taking on new clients?
– Does this agent represent my genre?
– Has this agent ever stated whether they specifically are or aren’t considering certain sub-genres?
– What type of success has this agent had with my genre specifically?
– What type of sales does this agent have overall? Will they have good connections even if my genre is new to them?
– What agency does this agent work for? Are they legit? What’s their reputation like in the industry?
– Does this agent share the same vision for my work that I have? If they don’t, why not?
– Will I get along with this agent on a personal level? Will this be an enjoyable relationship, as well as a successful business partnership?

You won’t know who your dream agent is until you receive that offer of representation and realize that someone saw something brilliant in your manuscript. If your pre-determined dream agent turns you down, then they weren’t the best fit to begin with. The person you need to work with is the person who needs to work with you. Don’t pretend this person exists before you even query them. Writing is hard enough, let alone querying. Take one solace where you can and know that your dream agent is out there, but it’s not up to you to decide who that is until he or she reads your work. They will come to you.

Should You Publish Your Memoir?

There have been some good posts about memoir recently – I’m thinking specifically of Janet Reid’s post on querying a memoir and Rachelle Gardner’s on when to write your memoir. I’ve noticed an increase in nonfiction queries lately, and have met with a few writers at conferences who are trying to get theirs published. I like memoir and personal essay collections a lot and don’t read them nearly as much as I used to. (Note: Not because I stopped liking them. It’s mostly because I don’t have the time.)

Creative nonfiction reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer. My expectations and fantasies of New York were formed when I read E.B. White, Joan Didion, and David Rakoff in college. I went head-to-head with writers like Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman in my obsession with pop culture analysis. I commiserated and laughed with David Sedaris over our crazy families. Through writers like Jennifer Finney Boylan, Leslie Feinberg, Mary Karr, and Joyce Johnson I formed my ideas of feminism and civil rights and shared in their experiences even though their lives couldn’t have been farther from my own.

I expect a lot from memoir writing and essays, which I think is why I haven’t found anything I’m head-over-heels in love with yet. I’m looking, always looking, but it’s hard. I need to be inspired, awestruck, unable to put down the book even after I finish it.

Reactions like that are harder to come by these days. I’m no longer the idealistic youth I was when I first discovered creative nonfiction, but I am still a romantic at heart. The difference now is that I’m a tougher reader, a stronger editor, and even if a story gives me that jaw-dropping reaction, I’m forced to look at it from a business angle. Can I sell this? Is there a place for it in the current market? Do I know the right editors to send this to? The same questions that go into whether I offer representation on a fiction project go into nonfiction projects. But, there’s an added question when it comes to nonfiction. Even though memoir writing is pitched to agents the same as a novel would be (see Janet Reid’s post linked above), the word “platform” looms over even the most literary and story-focused nonfiction writer.

As an agent, I end up rejecting queries from writers who have bravely shared their stories of abuse, drug addiction, war, divorce, cancer/fatal diseases, kidnapping, and almost every other painful or difficult thing you can think of. Because the thing is, these things are horrible, but they are also, unfortunately, common. There is a fine line between “relatable” and “boring.” Agents and publishers need to see your story on a national scale, and while things seem unique and important to the writer, their stories don’t always translate to a bigger picture.

That’s where platform comes back in. It’s an awful feeling to have to say to a writer “your story is beautiful, but not enough people will care.” (OK, not that I’ve ever said that to a writer, but that is what it comes down to.) People care about celebrities because they think they know who they are and want to relate to them. The difference between Michael Douglas’ cancer and your cancer is huge, I’m sorry to say.

I’m a big proponent of writing as a form of therapy. Treat your story like you are going to share it with the world. Get everything down on paper and then edit, edit, edit. Even if no one else ever reads it, EDIT. If someone outside of your family won’t understand something, cut it. If your emotions are still too strong to view a situation objectively, cut it. I’ve done this with my own experiences and it really does help. Sometimes we just need to get things down on paper so it escapes our minds. That doesn’t mean we need to publish it.

It’s obvious why people write memoirs. Sometimes it’s the only thing they can do. But, unless you are a celebrity or published author, ask yourself the following questions before you try to publish your memoir:

1. Can someone else write this story?
It’s true, everyone handles situations differently and learns different lessons. That is not what we mean when we ask whether your story is unique. As I mentioned above, most people have gone through what you’ve gone through. Unless you are the only person who can write about that topic, your memoir will probably get overlooked by agents and publishers. Excellent writing can often change our minds, but you should know going in that even if you have an MFA from a top program and have crafted your memoir flawlessly, it will be tough.

2. Why does this need to be published?
Most people write memoirs because they think others can learn from their personal experiences. This can be true, but that’s not a motive that interests me. I want to be told a great story, whether it’s your memoir or a novel. If you set out to inspire people or teach a lesson, make sure you’re not writing a self-help book instead of a memoir. Creative nonfiction means you employ the same techniques as novel writing, except the ideas come from real life instead of your imagination. The ability to tell a story and develop a character needs to be there in order for your memoir to get published.

3. Will this be more effective as a novel?
I give this advice to debut memoir writers a lot. If the story is interesting, but not particularly unique or exciting, I wonder why it’s so important to the writer to publish it as nonfiction. Fictionalizing real life can be just as therapeutic and it allows for creative freedom to build an even more interesting story for your reader. The heart of your story remains, but you’ll be free of platform-building. Not only that, your readers won’t expect as much from you. Reading a memoir creates an intimacy with the author, but if that author is just some stranger off the street, sometimes readers are left wondering, “yeah but so what?” A novel, on the other hand, transports the reader into a fictional world that’s far less demanding and just as real.

I tend to think of personal essay collections the same way I think of memoir, but I admit they are a slightly different breed. For one, you’d need to have a few pieces already published in some higher profile magazines or keep a regular blog that has a substantial following. Essays also, when done well, offer cultural or political analysis through a personal narrative, which is hard to convince readers of if you’re not at least mildly known.

I’m rooting for you, creative nonfiction writers. Just be prepared for how much harder it can be to break into nonfiction as an unknown author – even harder than fiction, and those writers can tell you just how hard that world is to navigate. Readers love true stories and feeling like they aren’t alone in the world, but more goes into memoir writing than being a regular person. Make sure you’re trying to publish for the right reasons, and if your story is as funny, sad, wonderful, and inspiring to us as it is to you, we’ll fight for it.

Are You Writing a Dystopian?

This post has been a few months in the making and I haven’t got around to it for a few reasons. The topic started as a joke with me, HarperCollins editor Sara Sargent, and literary agent Hannah Bowman. Important note: we were not making fun of dystopian. Personally, I love it. But like with any genre, there are certain conventions you can’t avoid when writing it. The reason I didn’t write this post earlier is because I figured no one is even publishing or submitting dystopian anymore. Sure, there are still some stragglers – some established authors finishing up trilogies or the rare debut that manages to be the needle in our haystack of queries. For the most part, however, the dystopian trend has slowed to a stop to make way for whatever the next thing will be.

Like I said, I love dystopian, but writers often confuse “personal preference” and “what agents are able to sell.” My love of dystopian needs to take a backseat in the post-Hunger Games market. The stakes for what makes a stand-out, original novel have been raised and there just isn’t room for 95% of them right now. The market won’t be ready to take a chance on a more traditional dystopian – especially in YA – for a few more years. (“Traditional dystopian” means a story that stays within the genre and doesn’t try to reinvent it.) Hence, not feeling the need to write this blog post. Then I noticed a recent increase in dystopian submissions. It’s obvious writers who were told to shelve their dystopian manuscripts waited a month or two, and are now re-submitting under the guise of other genres. The general premise and genre elements of dystopian are still there, but writers are labeling it “sci-fi,” “futuristic fantasy,” and “dark contemporary with sci-fi elements.”

If you’re wondering if what you’ve written is a dystopian, here’s a quick checklist. More importantly, this is how agents and editors know what you’ve written, regardless of what you call it:

1. Everything Has Generic Name
Your character lives in District or Zone [number], New [name of old town], or, if they’re rich, “Capitol City.” The government that controls everything is called The Corporation, The Agency, or simply The Government. The people fighting against them are The Resistance or The Rebels.

2. Story Begins with The Government Entering the Main Character’s Life
This main character is often a girl who’s either super pissed or super scared. She might even sass one of the guards before she goes with them willingly to a place where her destiny awaits.

3. The World Totally Sucks Now – Doesn’t Matter Why
To be dystopian, the modern/contemporary world needs to be destroyed. Sometimes there are references to “the old world” and other times we’re just placed in the middle of What Happened After. Usually this thing is a natural disaster or a virus, both of which are probably government conspiracies. Whatever it is, we don’t get to see the transition into dystopian society. It just exists.

4. Teenagers Matter A Lot.
Props to Hannah Bowman for making this point. Obviously in YA (which is where most dystopian novels live), teenagers need to be the focus, but rarely is it explained why society focuses on them. (Presumably there are more children and adults than teenagers in any given world, right?) Teens are the ones chosen, left behind, arranged into marriage, or sold into slavery. If you’re between the ages of 14 and 18 in a dystopian world, you’re pretty much screwed.

5. No Matter How Bad Things Get, There is Never a Shortage of Pretty Dresses
OK, this last one is kind of a joke. But seriously – why are so many dystopian heroines given beautiful gowns and why do we spend so much time reading about what they look like?? (You’re not above this, Katniss!)

There you have it. Keep in mind this list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. If your novel has all of these elements, it doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal, poorly written, or won’t get published. It just means it’s a dystopian. You should put just as much effort into making it perfect as you would any other project. Just be prepared to hear a lot of “I’m not taking on dystopian right now” or “Dystopian is really hard to sell…” comments from agents and editors. We like you and we like your book and we like all those fun, now-expected dystopian elements. Most of us are just taking a break from it, so query with caution, but query correctly. (I’m looking at you, “dark futuristic fantasy with romantic and sci-fi elements” people!)

Your Rhetorical Questions, Answered

If you’re a writer who’s ever queried an agent, let me salute you. It’s not very fun, I’d imagine. As you’ve noticed, agents tend to have different submission guidelines and some of us are quite militant about them. I hope you all have spreadsheets to keep everybody straight.

However! I’m here to make your lives slightly easier. While I don’t have the power to create a universal submission guideline, there is one thing that 99.9% of agents agree on when it comes to your actual query:

We hate rhetorical questions.

Now, to be fair, some agents don’t mind when you begin your query with a rhetorical question. Some just skip it and move on. But no one likes them, which I think it a notable distinction. They’re awkward to read, wastes precious query-reading seconds, and can even get you a very quick rejection. Agents read hundreds of queries – sometimes hundreds of them a day (!) – and your rhetorical question is not going to hook us the way a direct, unique description of your book will.

Here’s why rhetorical questions fail:

Have you ever wondered… ? Nope.

What would you do if…. ? Whatever your character does.

What if you… ? I’d be living in the premise of your book, whatever that is.  

Remember when… ? Maybe, but you shouldn’t assume I come from the same background or generation as you.

Do you ever wish… ? Probably not, but hopefully my enjoyment of your novel doesn’t depend on my inner desires. 


In short, the answer is never a simple “yes.” Even if by a miracle you pick the one agent who has been waiting to hear that question all day, chances are he or she will prefer to have heard what your book is about instead. What’s worse is that if the answer is a very plain “no” (which it usually is), then all you’ve done is given us permission to stop reading your query. 


You will never be rejected based on a rhetorical question alone, so don’t worry if you’ve already sent out a bunch of queries littered with them. But, for me, if I’m on the fence about a query or I know my reading my pile is getting too large to add to, I may take that rhetorical question as a testament to your writing style. It may not always be fair to the writer in question, but it’s an easy way to filter out material when I just don’t have the time for new things. 


Queries are hard, but there is no magic formula to them either. The only thing agents want to know is what your book is about. Note: your book. Rhetorical questions say nothing specific about you, your story, or your characters. They’re like movie taglines, meant to entice a potential audience without giving anything away. Agents, however, are not your potential audience. We’re the ones who will help you find your audience. But first, we need to know what your book is about.