“Are You Ignoring Me on Purpose?” and Other Burning Questions for a Literary Agent (ft. Amelia Appel)

Spine & Page is back from the dead! For its comeback post, we’re having a fireside chat with the lovely Amelia Appel, assistant literary agent at Triada US. Do you have burning questions you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent but felt weird about? And everyone else conveniently ignores these questions in their Q&As?  Luckily, I have no shame and I am willing to ask them for you! Also, Amelia is a friend of mine and I am forcing her to answer! Let’s begin 🙂

Amelia Appel, assistant literary agent at Triada US. Photo by me! 🙂

Ok seriously, why do you guys take so long to respond to queries? Are you ignoring me on purpose?
We’re not ignoring you, I promise!  (And in the rare event that we are, it’s because you queried incorrectly – more on that later.)  I can’t speak for every agent out there, but I’d argue that for most, queries tend to fall more towards the bottom of our to-do list.  We spend a ton of time emailing, editing, on the phone, reviewing contracts, honing pitches, compiling submission lists, and reading for our clients.  So with all that going on, reading queries is something we slip in where we can.  And when you can get upwards of 50 queries in a single day, it takes a while to get through them all.

Everyone says not to write for trends, but then you guys turn around and say my decidedly off-trend manuscript isn’t marketable right now. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT? (AKA how do I balance writing what I’m excited about vs. what will sell?)
I firmly do not believe in writing for trends – by the time you think you’ve got a handle on it, it’s over.  Always always ALWAYS write what you’re excited about – if you’re not excited about it, why would anyone else be?  That comes through in your writing.  Publishing is an extremely subjective business, but if you write something that you’re excited about and that your beta readers are excited about, you have a shot at getting an agent, then editor, then publisher excited.  Not everything sells, but if you’re not writing what you love, you should reconsider why you’re doing it.

What’s the best way to win over an agent in a submission?
For a submission to win me over to where I ask for more pages, it all has to work – your query, synopsis, and first ten pages have to all be appealing to me.  The trick that gets me to pay extra attention, though, is to start your query with personalized reasons why you think I’d like your manuscript and be the best agent for it. When queriers know and cite the specific reasons why they queried me in particular, it shows me that they’ve been paying attention, done their homework, and value the author/agent relationship enough to not send form letters out blindly. I notice that, and those queries are the most successful for me.

What’s the best way to get an agent to hate you?
Don’t follow directions.  Be rude.  Email me constantly after I already said I was reviewing and would get back to you when I was done.  Hit on me.  Butcher my name.  Send me a query clearly meant for another agent.  I’ll usually only ignore you, though, if you blatantly don’t follow my query guidelines; I don’t have time to tell you how to query properly, especially when the instructions are right on our website.

What’s the most important part of a submission – query, synopsis, or the sample chapters?
I might be alone in this, but they’re all equally important to me, which is why I ask for all of them in a submission.  If you have a great pitch but your writing’s not there?  Pass.  Writing’s good but your story is all over the place?  Pass.  It all has to work for me.

What do you think is the most common reason an author might never get their manuscript taken on by an agent and/or published?
I think most near-misses happen because something’s missing.  The best way to take care of that is to have beta readers and become a member of a writing group.  You need that outside feedback to make your manuscript better, and it has to be great for an agent to want to work with you on it, and then it has to be excellent to get published.  You can’t be shy with your manuscript before querying; it’s not to your benefit.

If I query an agent and they pass on my project, can I query them again with another one I think they’ll like better?
Absolutely!  We encourage this.  But send a separate query and mention that they’d passed on your other project; don’t just continue that thread.

If the tables were turned and you were submitting a manuscript to agents, what would be your approach to the process?
I’d do my research so I was sure to query only agents I thought would be a good fit (meaning they’re actively looking for the kind of project I’m querying), then I’d tailor each query to each agent by following their specific guidelines and including reasons for why I queried them in particular.  Then I’d be patient, see what they said, and (as the case may be), revise accordingly.

I know it’s important to research agents and agencies before submitting. How extensive should this research be? Everyone else seems to know everyone and be best friends with agents on Twitter and I feel left out 🙁
You don’t have to completely stalk them (actually, please don’t), but a solid amount of research will help – review their profile on their company website, peruse their Twitter, familiarize yourself with their MSWL.  That’s it.  But don’t be afraid to engage with them on Twitter!  Just use your best judgment on how to go about that.

How do I know if my manuscript counts as #OwnVoices?
The #OwnVoices hashtag was created as a way to identify books about diverse characters written by authors of that same diverse group.  We Need Diverse Books has an excellent, detailed definition of what counts as #OwnVoices:

“We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”

If your manuscript aligns with this definition, you’re not appropriating anything, and you’ve gotten feedback from others to confirm, I’d say you can call it that.

What’s your ideal author/agent relationship?
One grounded in respect and transparency.  There’s a lot of trust built between an agent and their client; everyone needs to be on the same page and both parties have to work hard for each other independently, otherwise it won’t work.  I’ve found the most successful relationships are when clients trust their agents to do their jobs, and agents in turn trust their clients to do theirs.

What’s the most underrated piece of advice you wish more people looking to work in publishing took to heart?
Stick with it.  This can be a really tough industry to break into for a plethora of reasons, and it can be frustrating at times.  I’ve seen lots of people become disheartened and quit and wish they hadn’t.  If you truly believe this industry is your calling, work hard and don’t give up.  You’ll get there.

What’s one thing you think all literary agents have in common?
Apart from the obvious love of books, I’d say we’re all really passionate people.  We want to be moved, and we have to love what we’re working on to work as hard for our clients and their projects as we do, because we can never guarantee a sale.

What are the three books I should read to understand what you’re looking for?
I want practically all of the things (check out the link below to see exactly what I’m looking for), so here are three books I love and why:

Okay, so this is actually four books instead of one, but this YA fantasy series is one of my all-time favorites for so many reasons.  It’s fast-paced, the world-building is so top-notch that you’re unquestionably sucked in from the first page, and it highlights the trials and tribulations of not only being a female in a male-dominated field, but of growing up in a realistic way, albeit in a fantastic setting.  The character arcs are believable and endearing, and while the protagonist develops romantic relationships, they are neither gratuitous nor the focus.  I LOVE that Kel develops these strong relationships with the boys she grows up with, and that she’s single when the series closes.

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
The format of this novel helps make it a quick read (once you figure it out), but the voices are what make it a page-turner.  And I am an absolute sucker for stories that blend creepy elements with humor.  Really, anything set in a graveyard will grab my interest.  But the combination of the unique format, the hilarious characters, and the fascinating, historical fiction premise quickly brought this one into my top faves.

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace
I’m willing to bet Shannon’s rolling her eyes over this one (Editor’s note: Yup.) because I hardly ever shut up about it, but I’ll argue I have excellent reason.  I first read this in college for a “Study of the Novel” class, and my professor told us before we started that this book would change our lives.  We all laughed at the time, and were no longer laughing by the time we finished.  This book elicits an impressively broad range of emotions.  I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I was horribly frustrated to the point of wanting to punch someone, but by the time I was done, I felt like a different person.  I love this book for how it makes me feel, how it makes me think, and how it makes me observe the world around me in a different light.  It’s funny, for such a verbose novel (it’s over a thousand pages long and has hundreds of endnotes), my favorite parts of it were subtext.  I love when a book makes me do some actual work to get the bigger picture.  “Show, don’t tell” is great advice for writers, but when I have everything in front of me and still have to connect the dots on my own, that’s my favorite kind of writing.

Thanks for joining us! For more about Amelia, her interests, and how to query her, see guidelines here. Also, follow her on twitter @AmeliaLAppel.

What Is Going on With You?!

Hi everyone! It’s been a while.

As some of you may know, things have been somewhat transitional for me over the past several months in terms of my professional life, which is why I have been closed to queries and not actively taking on new clients. This post is to give an update and explain what’s going on to the few (but appreciated) who have been asking!

While there’s a long and boring story here, the short version is this: I am stepping away from agenting. As of this post officially, I will not be taking on clients or handling a list. My email for submissions will no longer be active. And I’m no longer affiliated with McIntosh and Otis.

I feel I have to say this decision didn’t happen because I don’t love books or publishing or didn’t like agenting. Not the case! It was such a privilege to be an agent for a time and have people share their work with me. Books and reading and stories have always been my passions and always will be. However, to keep it brief, being an agent turned out to not be the right path for me, at least at this point in my career/life. That said, while I have a new day job, I’ll be staying involved in the book & publishing world in other ways, probably through some freelance editorial work and consulting (coming soon) and maybe even doing some writing of my own 🙂

I’m not totally sure what’s around the bend, but my blog Spine & Page and my new pretty website (a work in progress, but designed beautifully by the talented Rich & Hated Grafixx – check him out!) will remain active and reflect the new things I’ll be doing, whatever those may be. I hope you’ll stick around for that as it’s been so nice to connect with the people reading. I really appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read my posts – I hope they’ve been helpful.

Anyway, that’s it for now! On to the next chapter.

“I Just Sit and Read All Day!” Said No Literary Agent Ever

Working at a literary agency is great. For someone like me whose life is basically run by books, it’s the dream. However, I do get a lot of assumptions about my job, which are basically this: “Don’t you just sit and read all day?”

Sadly, my friends, no.

(I also got this question when working as a bookseller. Even though you can go into any bookstore and see employees doing lots of things other than reading, but people have their ideas…)


There is a lot of reading involved in a literary agent’s job. But, there are a lot of other things involved as well. I wanted to write a bit about them to shed some light on what exactly we do all day. And for those of you waiting for responses on submissions, now instead of picturing the agent just ignoring your email (they are most likely not!), you can picture them wanting to get back to you but doing one of these things instead 😉

Of course, every agent’s approach to work and every agency is different. I am a junior agent at an agency that has been around for a long time, so my responsibilities are different from others. This is just a general idea of what a literary agent COULD be doing, not everyone’s job description.

Here we go:

I constantly say that working in publishing is basically training to be a detective (mostly because being a detective is my dream job and it sounds exciting). At the agency I work with, there is a lot of history to dig through as we’ve been around a long time. Someone may come calling about an old title we handled and we need to figure out if it’s still in print, if the proprietor (author or their descendants, usually) is around, if the rights are with the author or with the publisher, and what that publisher is today vs. 50 years ago when the book was published. This involves a lot of searching through records, reading old contracts, and doing online research. I have landed in many a Wikipedia-spiral because of these searches, reading lists of things like “50 Forgotten Science Fiction Magazines from the 1950s ” Fun!

Research can also involve things that are more “frontlist” oriented (frontlist meaning for current, active clients), like researching publishers for a project, reading up on potential editors, or reading up on current books being published to be familiar with the market. All of this goes in the agent’s knowledge bank so that when they take on a project, they have a great idea of where it fits in the market and what editor/publisher might be interested in it.

The nature of publishing these days is that editors expect (and require) much more polished work than maybe ever before. This means that agenting has taken on more of an editorial role, so agents do a LOT of editorial feedback for their  clients. Some agents are more hands on than others, but it’s an essential part of the job no matter what.

Agents typically edit for the “big picture” questions and issues of the manuscript (ex: the pacing is slow in this section, this character needs more development, etc) rather than nitty gritty editorial things like grammar and punctuation. In most cases, they will do the bulk of content editing on the project. It’s totally normal to do several (what seem like endless) rounds of revision with an agent before they say it’s ready to submit. That means a lot of time spent working on editorial feedback as an agent in a day, especially if they have many clients.

Publishing is a relationship-based business. A huge part of an agent’s work life is networking with editors that they may want to submit a project to one day, knowing their interests, and establishing a relationship with them. This can start from something like an industry event (we have mixers – they are just as awkward as they sound, but still great), or from something like Twitter (in which I read an editor’s twitter, develop a professional crush* on them, and then reach out to introduce myself).

*Professional Crush: The feeling of finding a fellow publishing professional whose interests align with yours, has worked on projects you like, seems like they’d be great to work with, and who also seems like an all-around cool person that you want to get to know. (E.g. “I stalked Sally Editor’s #MSWL feed on Twitter and now I have such a professional crush on her.”)

It’s great to meet in person with editors as much as possible. Luckily, most people who work in publishing are downright lovely and totally fun to grab a cup of coffee or lunch with to talk about books and industry happenings. And agents do that a lot to build up their network and keep current on what editors are looking for, hoping one day to play matchmaker to an editor and your project!

This is a huge part of an agent’s day, at least an older, smaller agency like the one I work with. If you’re an author and you sell a book to a publisher, you and the publisher will have an agreement to outline the terms of how they are going to publish, how much you’re getting paid, etc. An agent’s job is to get the author the best deal possible. You all probably know that! But you may not know what that process actually looks like – whether it’s a back and forth with an editor/contracts associate, phone calls, redlining of the agreement, getting approval on changes, on and on to eliminate any doubt about what everyone’s responsible for in this arrangment.

Some larger agencies have their own contracts departments that will handle agreements, while in other cases, agents draft their own contracts. Being an agent actually gets you a pretty decent primer in legal language 🙂 Contracts can be a lot of fun (if you’re a nerd and enjoy them like me), but they also take up a lot of time. Agents want to be thorough and make sure everyone is happy!

Another aspect of contracts you might not think about is that there are many different uses for a literary work. There are translation rights, audio rights, film/TV rights, performance rights, the list goes on. If someone wants to use just a selection from a book, they need to approach the rightsholder (often the author) to do so, which requires – you guessed it – a written agreement. As I’m sure you can imagine, written agreements are really the backbone of publishing and ensure that everything runs smoothly by letting everyone know to expect. So, they are definitely a huge part of an agent’s day to day.

There are TONS of other things an agent might do in a given day – corresponding with authors, managing social media, exploring new writing opportunities, managing/organizing things like files and sumbmissions, attending conferences and author events, etc. The exciting part about working at a literary agency is that every day can be different! And yes, we do get to read a lot which is also exciting. Hopefully this post gave you just a slightly more in-depth glimpse at what an agent might be up to inbetween manuscripts 🙂