An Interview with Anne Tibbets
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Greetings, readers. Some of you are old fans. Some of you are brand new. I’m going to perform a psychic trick and say that most of you are writers!
For those of you who know me, you know that I often provide tips for self-publishing, and how to best approach the self-publishing world for optimal results, but what about all of you writers out there whose sole goal it is to obtain a contract from a traditional publisher?
I’m sure many of you are wondering what exactly it takes, and I think I have some good news. You see, recently I was fortunate enough to speak with the wonderful Anne Tibbets of D4EO, a literary agency. She is an agent who formerly interned with Red Sofa Literary Agency.
Mrs. Tibbets was kind enough to take time out from her busy schedule to answer a few questions, so be thankful because you’re about to discover what’s required to find an agent, approach an agent, query an agent, and what happens after you secure an agent. An agent is necessary if you’re looking for a first rate publishing contract with a real, traditional publisher.
This interview was conducted via email, and I’m not going to fluff it up by pretending some actual dialogue transpired between us. This is cut and dry information, and that’s what you need. Enjoy my interview with Anne Tibbets.
Aaron: A writer has just finished their first novel. Understanding the importance of proper editing, they hire someone like Chuck Sambuchino. Now, the book is all but perfect. Why should they seek an agent?
Tibbets: That depends on what the writer is hoping to achieve. If the writer is interested in publishing via the “traditional” route, then an agent is highly advisable. The majority of publishing houses—be them print or ebook only—will only accept submissions from agented writers, and their contracts are not boilerplate. Any publishing deals offered by these houses, even the imprints accepting un-agented submissions, should be negotiated by an agent, to best protect the writer’s interests.
If, however, a writer does not wish to publish traditionally, an agent is not mandatory.
Aside—Did you guys get that? Ya’ll aren’t lawyers, right? You need an agent unless you’re determined to go the self published route. Agents don’t simply help you secure a contract; they help you to negotiate the contract.
Aaron: Writer’s Digest often features new agents. Are there pros and cons in querying a novice agent versus a veteran?
Tibbets: The pros of querying a new agent is that they’re in the process of building a client list, so their request rates are going to be a bit higher than an agent who has a full roster. Additionally, newer agents can be a bit more aggressive when it comes to submissions. I have heard stories of some established agents who only sell to a handful of publishers, and if your book isn’t accepted by them, then they won’t go any further.
However, newer agents are eager to meet all editors and are often willing to cast a wider net. Also, a newer agent is often paired, or being mentored by, another agent at their agency, which means if you sign with a newer agent, you’re getting the hunger and eagerness of the newer agent, and the expertise and advice from an established one – so it’s like having two agents for the price of one.
Aside—That’s actually really awesome, and it sounds like going after a hungry, new agent might be a great idea, and that’s probably why Writer’s Digest tends to feature them.
Tibbets: The cons of querying a new agent have to do with sales. If the agent has not yet sold a manuscript—and it can take an agent about 3-5 years to gather enough sales to appear established—it can be difficult to gauge if the agent has the chops to pick the correct editors to submit to at the right type of publisher. Before signing with a new agent, always ask for a draft of the submissions list to get an idea of where and how they would try and sell your manuscript. If their philosophy matches yours, it might be the right choice for you.
Aside—“Draft of the submissions list” is something no writer ever thinks about. That’s a great thing to request after querying the agent—supposing the agent replies with interest.
Aaron: How, exactly, should a writer pick an agent and subsequently query them to have the best chance of getting noticed?
Tibbets: Be sure to research each agent before sending a query. Check their agency website for what types of books they are requesting, and also make note to follow their submission guidelines. Agents must sift through hundreds of queries a week. They’ve picked their submission guidelines to help them wade through the queries as quickly and effectively as possible.
If you don’t follow the guidelines, you’re adding to their time while also demonstrating that you are unable to follow basic instructions. If you can’t follow query guidelines, agents aren’t too keen to think you’ll be able to handle developmental and copy edits, should the manuscript sell. And only send what type of manuscript they request. If the agent doesn’t represent Picture Books, don’t send them a picture book pitch. You’re setting yourself up for failure by not researching.
Aaron: I know each agent and agency has their own preferences, but if a writer has just finished their debut novel, and they don’t have any sales, and they’ve never won any awards, and because the book isn’t published—I mean, that’s the whole point—they don’t have any reviews then what should they put in their query?
Tibbets: Chances are a writer (and subsequently an agent) is going to make more money selling a debut than a third, fourth, or even fifth book. Statistically, this is true.
Traditional publishers are always willing to pay more for the next “break out.” So having no publishing credits is legitimately, no problem. In fact, it’s a plus.
Aside—I have never heard that perspective. That’s truly compelling. Too many writers think they need to be successful before approaching an agency. Now, you know you don’t need any accolades.
Aaron: How should the writer organize their query?
Tibbets: That depends on the agent’s submissions guidelines, but generally speaking, you’ll want to include the manuscript’s category (Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Chapter Book, Picture Book, etc.), and the genre, (General fiction, Commercial Fiction, Non-Fiction, Thriller, Mystery, Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Magical Realism, etc.) and the word count. Not the page count! The word count. Also be sure to include a 2-3 paragraph “pitch” similar to what you’d read on the back of the book in a store—but also, be sure to include any twist endings which are unique and fresh.
Aside—I’ve advised some of you before to hire someone to write a professional blurb for your book because this is exactly what publishers do; they don’t make the writer write the blurb or establish the optimal marketing strategy.
Tibbets: Don’t be afraid of spoilers. Agents want them. A couple comparable titles of similar books are sometimes helpful—if they’re actually relevant—and a short, author bio that gives us your location, and day job, pets, hobbies—whatever (it shows agents you’re a functioning adult). And then include whatever else an agent requests. Sometimes they want sample pages within the email, some don’t. Be sure to check before sending.
Aside—Include pets, huh? That’s cute. I’m a silly guy—I think a lot of you know that by now—but my approach when dealing with professionals has usually been, well, professional. I’d never thought of talking about my fluffy friend, Spoofles, but what the heck, right?
Aaron: Oftentimes, for one reason or another, a query is rejected. Are there any circumstances under which you’d reconsider a query you originally rejected, and how should the rejected writer approach you the second time?
Tibbets: If I request a rewrite and resubmit that is the only time I will accept a manuscript a second time. Sometimes, I can spot the problem in the query and sample pages and request a rewrite and re-query. But unless I request it, I don’t want to see it again. You get one shot. Make sure it’s ready.
Aside—A harsh reply, but completely understandable when you consider agents must read one query after another, a hundred times a week, and all the while trying to actually land contracts for the writers who knew what they were doing.
Aaron: That said, it’s commonly expressed that when a writer provides sample pages from a novel, there needs to be some kind of hook, or just some beautiful poignant writing within the first few sentences to truly capture the agent’s attention. I understand why this claim is made; an agent could well receive hundreds of queries a day, and certainly good books are looked over—it happens—but we’ve all read books published by the major houses, which absolutely do not grab the reader’s attention until the second or third chapter. How do you personally feel about this? What grabs your attention?
Tibbets: What grabs an agent’s attention is going to be different for every agent. Agents are people, after all, and not everyone likes the same types of writing and/or books.
Aside—Just because one agent from one agency isn’t inspired doesn’t mean you suck!
Tibbets: Personally, what I’m looking for in the beginning pages of a writing sample is a polished, tight, professional prose, and an interesting narrative voice. Also, I want a sense—not an entire backstory, just a sense—of setting and character. I want to see that the writer knows how to build a story, and that by the end of page 10, I want to read more. If I don’t want to read more, it’s a pass.
Aside—That’s the real answer, boys and girls. A ten page chance to blow an agent’s mind is beyond generous. Most agents give you that 3,3,3 rule crap; if the first three words don’t hook them, they pass. If the first three words do, they’ll read the first three sentences. If those don’t grab their attention, they pass. If they like the first three sentences, they’ll read the first three paragraphs, and they’ll pass if they don’t like those.
That’s pretty crappy. I think a real agent is willing to give a debut writer a shot, and ten pages is more than ample to decide whether or not a book is worth their time. Honestly speaking, that should be the whole first chapter. Just keep in mind that I’ve told all of you numerous times to avoid beginning your novel by telling us everything about the protagonist—agents and readers alike don’t want a dossier.
Aaron: What’s your personal approach to attracting the attention of publishers? I don’t think too many people know what agents actually do after they like a book, so if we could dive into that a little bit, I’d really appreciate it.
Tibbets: After an agent likes a book, they make an offer of representation to the writer. The writer then has to notify all the agents that still have outstanding queries and/or partials or fulls. Once the writer chooses which agent to sign with—if there’s multiple offers—a contract is signed and the writer begins on any revision notes that the writer and agent have agreed upon.
When the writer is revising, the agent is now researching editors and imprints in great detail. Just as the writer should research an agent’s submission guidelines, so must an agent do the same for editors. Agents will sift through MSWL, personal emails and communication they’ve had with editors, check homemade spreadsheets or charts, and comb Publisher’s Marketplace for what editors have requested and bought in the past. Then they write a pitch letter which is part of the writer’s query, and part of the agent’s specialized sales technique, specific to each editor.
Once the revisions are completed and agent approved, the agent will contact each of the carefully researched and chosen editors, and pitch either by email or phone (depending on the relationship and best methods for each editor). Manuscripts will be sent out. Fingers will be crossed. Submissions can take anywhere from two days to a year.
It’s the agent’s job to “nudge” the editor every once in a while, to remind them they have the writer’s manuscript, and hopefully to get them to read it, and offer. If a rejection occurs, the agent will notify the writer per the writer’s request. Either once it happens, or not at all (if the writer wants it that way). The agent then keeps track of each editor, of each imprint, and maintains a steady flow of submissions until all avenues are exhausted.
If similar notes keep coming back after a few editors pass, the agent may suggest a re-write before going out to more editors. If an offer comes, the agent negotiates the terms. If an offer doesn’t occur, it’s then up to the writer if they want to trunk the manuscript or self-publish. The agent, at this point, is hoping the writer is working on a new book, and when they finish it, the process begins again.
There you have it, folks. That’s some really great information. It sounds like writers have a ton of opportunities to land that publishing contract if they truly want it.
On a personal note, when I first set upon my writing sojourn, I didn’t know how to sell myself to an agent. After some work and research, I managed to get a few responses. Unfortunately, those agencies felt that the book in question didn’t appeal to a wide enough audience in order to receive a contract.
This, however, was my journey and I have done well enough for myself publishing my books on my own. You may not want to self-publish; it’s a lot of work. Many people don’t realize it, but I work something like six or seven hours a day six days a week reading, writing, editing, researching, marketing, building connections, and often never publishing what I write.
I must have acquired thousands of written pages that will never see the light of day. On the other hand, for those of you who must have that traditional publisher, you can do it, but the first thing to do is finish your book. Then, hire a professional editor. You can find them through Writer’s Digest, or you can straight hire Chuck Sambuchino; there is a reason I always recommend him.
You can learn more about what editors actually do by visiting my Editing Services and Free Resources tab. No. Your editing software doesn’t cut it.
After your manuscript is professionally edited, you can query an agent, but like Mrs. Tibbets told us, you need to do your research on the agency, the agent, and the books and authors they represent.
You can find agents on Writer’s Digest all the time, and you might want to go with a new agent because they’ll be hungry for success.
On the other hand, you might want to begin with Mrs. Tibbets and D4EO Literary Agency. I mean, she just told you what inspires her, so be sure to check out D4EO, who they represent, and what they’re looking for.
Once you’ve chosen a handful of agents, query them just they way Mrs. Tibbets explained; she’s an agent. She’s telling you how to land an agent!
Finally, don’t forget to keep on writing. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have an award, reader reviews, or recommendations from anyone; just submit an edited manuscript to the proper agencies, and keep plugging away.
I want to give Anne Tibbets a big thank you. I hope you thank her as well. She literally took time out from her busy schedule to indulge me and you.
You can learn more about Mrs. Tibbets and D4EO literary agency here. You can also find more information about reading, writing, editing, publishing, and marketing by checking out my website. Thank you, everyone, for reading.