When I first started querying, I was absolutely terrified. It's such a HUGE step in a writer's journey, and the fear of the unknown can be quite overwhelming! However, one of the things that really helped calm my nerves was researching. I spent a lot of time looking up prospective agents and trying to get a feel for who they were as a person/agent and what they were looking for in their clients. I also read A LOT of agents interviews! Those interviews made me feel like I had insider information, and I ended up feeling really prepared when I started querying---scared out of my mind!--but prepared nonetheless!
I think reading agent interviews are a GREAT way to understand the process a bit better and get that little insider scoop that might just make the difference when it comes to you and your query. So, when you guys asked me a while back if I could go an interview with my own wonderful agent, Caitlen, I readily agreed! I asked all of you what questions you had, and Caitlen graciously took time out of her super busy schedule to answer some of them! I hope this interview is helpful to you in your querying journey, and remember, it's all worth it in the end! I promise! :)
Interview with Caitlen Rubino-Bradway of LKG Agency:
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a literary agent!
Wow, I really wish I had an exciting story to tell! Something about how I was wandering the woods of Avalon one day, and came to a lake, where Lauren appeared to me out of the shimmering waters and gave to me Excalibur, and thereupon I swore to right all story-wrongs, to vanquish all plot holes, and to reconcile all wonky character motivation.
Honestly, I was just always a big reader, so publishing seemed like a natural fit. I did a couple internships while in college, both at literary agencies and in publishing houses, and found I enjoyed the agenting side of things much more. As an agent, I get to have a more personal relationship with my authors, and enjoy more of the fun working-on-the-book stuff. (We’re a very editorial agency, as Kim has experienced!)
2. What catches your attention when you read a query? What specifically are you looking for?
Bribery. If an author tries to bribe me into being their agent, especially with baked goods, it tends to work, like 85% of the time. Ask Kim.
Seriously, though, there are a couple of things that catch my eye. First, does this story sound like something I’d like to read? Personal taste can play as much of a factor as whether or no I think something will sell. If I don’t click with a story, if I don’t really love it and get excited by it, then it’s probably a sign I’m not the right agent for you. Plus, if I sign you and your manuscript, I’m going to be reading it over and over again, so it helps if I really enjoy reading it.
But what really tends to catch my attention is personality. If I can get a sense of who this author is and what it might be like to work with them through the letter. One thing I loved about Kim’s query is that it sounded like her! A lot of times, I think authors err on the side of making their query very business-like and professional — which isn’t wrong, because this is your first impression! — but it can also mean that a lot of queries end up sounding alike. Sometimes I’d rather an author take a chance and let their personality shine through!
On the other hand, there are certain things that tend to set off a warning light. I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but a big one is whenever someone claims their book is going to be the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games — I’d love to represent the next Harry Potter, but it’s not something you can predict, and claiming it makes me worry that the author has unrealistic expectations. There are also certain storylines and plot points that are getting a little too prevalent, which means they’re harder sells. Dystopian is obviously really tough now, and one thing we’ve also heard is that there’s a few too many ‘dead sibling’ books out there.
3. What are the most common mistakes you see in a query?
Let’s see. Not including all the necessary information — I’ve gotten queries where they spend so much time talking about who they are and why their book is awesome that they forget to tell me what the book is actually about!
I also see a lot of mistakes about what category a story falls into (since the LKG Agency only represents children’s fiction). It is confusing! But I often see a book categorized as middle grade, when it would be young adult, or YA when it would actually be adult fiction. A super quick guide to where your book falls: go by the age of the protagonist. If they’re 8-14, it’s MG. 15-18 is YA. Older than that, and we’re getting into New Adult and Adult. And if it’s a children’s book, then the pov character needs to be a kid. We’ve gotten a lot of queries that claim their book is middle grade, but the main character and primary pov is a 35 year-old accountant from Vineland.
4. Should a manuscript be professionally edited before querying?
It doesn’t need to be professionally edited, but your manuscript does need to be as polished as you can make it. Don’t send me your first draft — in fact, when someone mentions in their query that it’s a first draft, or they ‘just finished’, it’s a sign that the book isn’t ready yet. Before you send the book out on submission, you need to take a second look, and then a third, and another after that, and generally when you hit the point where you’re just sick of looking at this freaking manuscript and about to tear your hair out, that’s when you can go on sub.
5. Are book comps necessary in a query?
Necessary? No. But they’re not something you need to avoid either. At best they’re a quick and easy cheat sheet for me to get an idea about your book. Your book is Monty Python meets Jack the Ripper? Great, I know I’m in for wacky hijinks with serial killers. You have a YA that’s Star Wars meets Labyrinth? Awesome, I…I actually really want to read that book. I’m 100% serious here, somebody write that.
6. There’s been talk of authors querying agents before their books are completed since the process generally takes time. What are your thoughts on that?
For non-fiction, yes, you can query agents before the book is completed. Non-fiction books are sold on proposal, and the book is written after a contract is signed.
But when I get this question, most of the time it’s for fiction. And unfortunately, the answer is a big fat NO. For fiction, the manuscript must be completed before you start querying. This is because agents and editors can’t really do anything until the book is finished. I know writing a book takes time — a lot of time. But everything about publishing a book takes time. The writing part is generally the easiest (and the most fun!).
7. How do agents feel about representing authors who were previously self-published?
In my experience, most agents feel fine with it; lots of authors are choosing to go the self-pub route, for a variety of reasons. However, unless your self-published books have sold a crazy amount of copies, we’re going to view you as a debut author.
The one problem that does come up is when authors submit a book that is currently for sale online. Publishers can, and will, check the sales numbers for your book, and if it hasn’t sold a lot then they’ll tend to assume that no one’s interested in reading it.
8. Is it possible to publish a book that was previously published (for free) on a site like WattPad?
Yes. But it’s tricky. As with books that were previously self-published on Amazon or other sites for money, unless you have an amazing number of hits (like, hundreds of thousands, or millions), editors are going to assume that people aren’t that interested in reading the book.
Also, if your book is up on WattPad or another site for free, you’re going to want to take it down before you start submitting, either to agents or editors. Obviously they won’t be interested in trying to get people to pay money for something that’s available online for nothing.
9. When it comes to reading manuscript pages, what makes you request more? Is there anything writers should avoid on those opening pages?
Voice. Voice voice voicevoicevoice. That extra special something that makes this story uniquely yours, and uniquely your protagonist’s. It’s not just about the story you’re telling, but how you (and your main character) are telling it. That’s what really catches my attention. And the lack of a rich, unique voice is something editors flag a lot when they pass on a ms.
As for what to avoid: don’t start with weather, don’t info-dump, don’t give us a long history of everything leading up to the action (this is related to info-dumping), and don’t force in an extended description of what your protagonist looks like.
10. What’s the hardest part of being a literary agent? What’s the best part?
The hardest part is definitely having to tell an author that the project they’re really excited about, or that we’ve worked on so hard, isn’t going to work out. Not every book sells. Not every project is the right step. I’ve been really fortunate to work with a group of authors who are amazing, professional, and resilient, but having to have that conversation with them, or make the call that something just isn’t going to work out, is always tough.
The best part is signing a book/author that we’re really excited about, and selling a book that we’ve worked so hard for. No lie, whenever that happens, Lauren and I start shrieking and jumping up and down like school kids. It’s always amazing.
11. Any advice for novice writers?
Oh, yeah. Lots. But right now let’s go with: be patient. Believe me, I’ve been there, I know how frustrating it is to work your butt off for months, years, writing a book and sending it out, and then have to wait… (Obligatory plug for my books — Ordinary Magic, Supernormal, and Lady Vernon and Her Daughter!) But publishing moves slowly. You spent a year writing that book? Good. Now you have to spend (usually) months finding an agent. And then there’s the time revising the book before you send it out. Once they send it out it can take a while for editors to read it and the wheels to start turning. And once you get a deal and sign a contract, it’s generally 18 months before your book hits bookstores. So be patient, and in your downtime start to work on the next book.
Thank you so much, Caitlen! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions! Also, since this is my blog and I can totally gush if I want to, THANK YOU SO MUCH for being the best agent EVER! You changed my life on the day you offered me representation, and I am so excited to see where this journey takes us! I owe you so many baked good it ain't even funny! :)
For everyone else, if you are interested in querying Caitlen, you can find LKG's submission guidelines HERE. Also, if you're interested to hear my querying journey and how I found Caitlen, you can watch my story HERE.
Good luck on your querying journey, everyone! May the force be with you! :)