Querying literary agents.

by Leigh Matthews on August 26, 2013

Powell's books, 2012 gender studies section

Perhaps, one day, my next novel will be in Powell’s Books amazing gender theory/LGBTQ fiction section.

If writing a novel is like having a baby then finding a literary agent must be a little akin to sending your child to finishing school. Make that novel round out its vowels, walk tall with a pile of heavyweight classics on its head, be seen but not heard… give it a fighting chance at publishing’s version of Oxbridge or the Ivy League.

Today, I sent my first query to a literary agent, a woman who I think will not only get the new novel’s premise but also be best able to quantify my book into a neat little morsel with which to bait publishing houses.

It’s been three hours and I’ve not yet had a form rejection. I’m counting every minute as a win. I am also worrying that her twitter account implies she may be on holiday. I did my research but there’s only so far cyber-stalking (and my moral laxity) can go.

So, why did I choose this particularly agent, how did I find her, and why does it matter?

Firstly, I didn’t bother with an agent for my first novel, The Old Arbutus Tree. That’s because I decided to self-publish, doing almost all of the editing, formatting, marketing, and copy (blurb) writing myself. I’d like to say it’s been a rip-roaring success but, hey, an LGBTQ book that deals with the problems of being a tad different in a small town, and the injustices of the judicial system in 1980s Canada, is no Trollope, Rowling, Grisham, or King. Still, my mum liked it, so maybe there’s hope yet. (Seriously, never underestimate those outside of your target audience!)

All this meant that I didn’t need a literary agent, nor was I approaching publishers directly. The second novel, Mt. Monadnoc, however, feels a little different. It’s still pretty niche, dealing as it does with transgender issues, fluid sexuality, and all against the backdrop of a mountain that may or may not have some kind of metamorphotic power. Again, I’m not optimistic about it being on Oprah’s Book Club any time soon (read: ever).

The difference then? I feel like this novel is more, er, me. I think I found that thing that writers like to call their ‘voice’, and I think that my voice might have something interesting to say and that it is saying things of interest in a rather lovely way. I wonder if, indeed, mine could be the first literary novel to have a protagonist who is a lesbian-identified-man (LIM). Maybe it is the first novel of any kind to focus on this struggle. I certainly haven’t found anything akin to it, and I’ve been looking.

So to find an agent to represent me and my book and tout it to publishers simply means searching the internet for ‘queer literary agents’, yes?

I did that.

There were all of two results and neither were accepting new clients. From there I went to AgentQuery.com (your new best friend, writers) and QueryTracker.com (your new super-organised friend who will make you feel deeply inadequate and messy). I checked the box for Gay/Lesbian fiction, annoyed that this is the distinction: Bisexual books don’t exist in publishing, neither do queer books or trans* books, apparently. I guess that means that all those who identify as such also don’t exist. Way to represent!

I was surprised to find that there were a few dozen literary agents who had listed Gay/Lesbian fiction among the types of books they sought, but closer analysis revealed a number of things. Most of those listing this category did so right at the end of their long and exhaustive lists. Most of those lists commenced with ‘commercial fiction’ and included ‘pets’ and ‘cooking’ and ‘spirituality’ way before they got around to wanting to represent us queers.

I waded through these, diligently putting them in my spreadsheet of possible agents (do this, spreadsheets are your friends, freelancers). Then I came across a few agents who had recently represented queer writers (such as Kate Bornstein) and, this is the really important bit, these agents had actually managed to sell their books. To real publishers. For money. So these writers can eat and buy pens (make sure it’s a Bic for Her) and continue to make great art that gives our community a multitude of voices, not just one token G/L at the publishers’ annual party.

Of those agents, I found one that expressed an interest in underrepresented subcultures. Win! A few others noted a desire to see cross-genre and/or genre-blending literary fiction. After realising that this said genre- and not gender-blending (I’ve been in attendance at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival recently so my worldview is totally skewed), those agents also made it to the spreadsheet.

Looking into these promising literary agents a little more, I found that their websites often resembled the covers of Harlequin romance novels. All pink and gold and curlicues and awfulness. One even played some tinkly muzac at me until I realised that I wasn’t suffering an aneurysm, that my phone hadn’t mystically changed its ringtone, and that my dog was not randomly serenading me (she’s smart and easily bored, so you never know). I closed the agent’s window. Muzac. Really. I found that none of their clients were in the Gay/Lesbian realm of the fiction world and that these terms made no appearance on their actual websites. Some people were pushed to the bottom of the spreadsheet.

Amongst the shimmering gold and pink, however, I finally found some literary agents that didn’t have typos on their site’s front page, that had more than ten followers on Twitter, and that seemed to be actively engaged with their clients on social media. When a number of writers list themselves as being ‘repped by’ an agent you have to figure that the agent in question is doing something right.

That’s how I found her, this seeming gem of a literary agent who now has my queer little noveling heart in her hands/inbox. It’s been… three and a half hours. This could go on for weeks… or months. Or years.

The Old Arbutus TreeLooking for tips on how/why to write a query letter? Try these resources:

FolioLit – Basic Info on Query Letters
25 Successful Query Letters
AgentQuery’s Guide to the Query Letter
25 Steps to Being Traditionally Published

The Old Arbutus Tree is available in eBook and paperback format from Amazon worldwide and all major booksellers (ISBN 0992022401 ASIN B00DEU6ODA).

Or, pay with Bitcoin and I’ll mail a copy out to you asap!
[wpbc_buy_now item_name=”The Old Arbutus Tree (paperback incl., shipping)” price=”11.74″ currency=”CAD”]

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