The Sexualization of QUERY: How Snagging an Agent has Become a Game of Cupid

Make me fall in love with you. Head over heels. Full-blown crush. These are not the words of coy lovers, two gal-friends gossiping over brunch or teenagers swapping text messages. It’s what writers today are being told by the industry on what it takes to get your foot in the world of traditional publishing.

What’s love got to do with it? A fellow writer tells me one day as we trade agent woes. I want you to be my pimp.

I thought maybe I was overthinking things and just trying to find a metaphor for a bewildering process. But no, it’s full blown out of-the-closet. Querying your novel to snag an agent to represent your work to a publisher is dating. Maybe men find it easier, given they’ve found the whole self-promotion marketing thing easier to do than women. Maybe men are better at it, I wonder, because of the traditional gender roles of courtship. But I might be dating myself because nowadays it seems ladies have increasingly become advocates of their desires in the ask-out game. MFA programs seem to function as arranged marriages in an upper-class society. The majority of us are left to the luck of cupid’s arrow.

When you read through people’s “big announcements”, the equivalent of flashing a meteor-sized diamond engagement ring to the world, you’re hearing a courtship story. It plays out a lot of different ways. Agents who made assumptions about a manuscript hand-delivered to them at a writer’s conference who read the first few pages and spent the rest of the day running from corridor to corridor of the conference trying to find the writer, he was just that smitten by the words. Agents who received a query, requested a full, read it over the weekend because they just couldn’t put the manuscript down and offered rep instantaneously. I had one of those once, except it ended a little differently. I got a polite reject with the dreaded “I didn’t fall in love. Someone else will feel differently.” The equivalent of a lustful star-gazed lock of the eyes over a drink at a bar that leads to the bedroom, but winds up being a one-night stand. You’re just not marriage material. It ruins you forever, because the next queries are likely to play out a little more slowly without much pomp-and-circumstance. You compare every query to this one. It didn’t help that I was post-partum when I got that reject.

There are certaingoingoutlegs rules you need to abide by. It varies by agent, but like in the dating world where people eliminate “smokers, anyone under 5’5, people who don’t like to skydive” and a host of other preferences, agents have their own no-no’s. Misspell my name and you are banished. Write “fiction-novel” and you’re blacklisted, you obviously lack literary intelligence. These are nuns with rulers.  You have to pretend you like cats and sitcoms that make you cringe, because it’s kinda like being on a first date and seeing that he has a boogie and deciding whether you should base your whole future on this slight. I married him anyway.

There are agents who promote bestiality: posting the office pets in the staff pages, complete with a literary tastes profile. I found one once, who seemed perfect for my historical novel. I really wanted to query the dog. My online writing buddies forbade me. I was tempted though. Oh, the things querying does to your soul.

This query-dating thing is new to me because I skipped most of conventional dating and dabbled with childhood sweethearts, anthropology-partners (study abroad boyfriends) and ultimately a relationship brokered by the institute of college.

In query-dating, Twitter is your frenemy. Pitch contests allow you to strut your peacock-feathered-literary-self down the 140-character catwalk. Agent catcalling takes the shape of “starring” a pitch. Literary dating doesn’t get more superficial than this. And I love it, by the way, even though it’s given me a nasty Twitter addiction. The contests can be a big ego-boost when your traditional love-letter queries get ignored. Unless of course you don’t get the catcalls. Ouch. But the silence can also be irrelevant. There are just so many fish swimming in the sea, it’s easy to get lost. I’ve read many a authors who were ignored in pitch contests but their query-love-me-for-all-that-I-am was picked up and manifested into a full, and dare I say, full-blown agency representation. There are no rules in the game of love.

Speaking of Twitter, here’s where things can get weird. You’re expected to follow agents on Twitter to gain a sense of their wants, desires, how they spend their days…. You learn what OMG, LMAO, etc mean if you’re that behind in the new language of technology. You fawn over agents with replies to their tweets. Sounds like stalking to me. My NYC-self calls this “sweating a person” and it’s not something us natives like to do. But guess what? It can pay off. I’ve gotten my foot in the door that way, too. And if an agent follows you? That’ll fuck with your mind, for good. You’ll spend all of eternity trying to understand why, just like you try and dissect each and every word in a reject letter. Don’t.

I take solace in an online loser colony where fellow writers trade stories of always being the brides-maid and never the bride.  Are you on there again? My husband shouts out, seeing me hunched over a keyboard my face buried in a glowing computer screen, the infant sleeping soundly in her crib. They are my people… I tell him. What are we without community?

Take a look at the acronyms of genre labeling and compare it to the classifieds. BF seeks WM (who likes cats) has become LF seeks A-icon (who likes cats). SF seeks YA powerhouse. Every day I discover a new identity of my writing because it’s what agents say they like. Wow, I can market myself as Speculative? I had no idea such labels existed. I’m just a wallflower if I call myself plain literary fiction. I gotta be flashy and exciting. I gotta put-out. So I’m Literary Fabulist.  I’m Speculative. I’m Steampunk. I’m Historical…. Oh no, that screams grandpa, take a Viagra pill, puh-lease. Historical Thriller? YES!

Query letters often work like this:

DEAR AGENT X:

Paragraph 1: We both like to paint our toenails green, we’ve starred exactly the same types of things on Twitter, and so here’s my book.

Paragraph 2: Insert literary genius here….

Paragraph 3:The wrap up. Your platform:

I AM THE WHORE OF BABYLON AND ALL WILL LUST FOR MY WORDS.

And I totally understand that it might take you a year to get back to me, if at all.

Not getting a response on a full is like unbuckling your trench coat and flashing your naked body in a well-lit bedroom, then the audience to your nakedness walks out of the room without saying a word. You stand there, coat open, and wait until the polite six month rule for a nudge. When one year rolls around with no response, you relent and give up the ghost, shamefully shaking your head as you wrap the strap of your coat around your waist, with a double-knot, the wait having aged you another year and chipping away at your self-confidence. What just happened? Am I really that bad? At this rate, you’ll be lucky to snag an agent with an old-lady fetish.

Celebrating ten years of marriage I look at my husband, savoring a morning coffee not yet cold.

Did I give you such a hard time?

You were worse. I pursued you for four years. I sat through silly boyfriends.

It was worth the wait, I snicker, then remember my literary quandary.

What happens when you enter the next circle of literary hell, the editor-writer relationship? Whips and chains? Black leather boots? It’s what I hear, anyway.

Write on.

Stephanie Nina Pitsirilos is a  public health crusader, writer and mom. Her work is now represented by Sarah Burnes of the Gernert Company. You can read more about her writing here

4 thoughts on “The Sexualization of QUERY: How Snagging an Agent has Become a Game of Cupid”

  1. What happened to the simple concept of an agent being able to sell a product? Surely they are no more than brokers between the writer and the publisher? A good middle person should be able to sell anything to anyone, whether they “love” it or not.

    1. Hi Misha,
      Thanks for the comment (I’ll post in your linkedin discussion too). That’s what I assumed going into the query game- a simple metaphor of a middleperson to sell a product. Though, I think there is some resistance to reducing books to a product like an iPhone because people have more complicated emotional attachments to them, right? nevertheless, I’m sure this is how things are seen once you get to the big traditional publishers. That said too, I wonder if part of the language I feel is being circulated now with querying is due in part to the rise in the young adult market of books. Coupled with, in general, an adolescent way of talking in social media (as in young, cool, self-absorbed). I think I would be more understanding if an agent says, look I don’t love this but I think I can sell it. Maybe that’s a different type of agent and maybe that’s not good for your career. But you would think, right? What’s worse, being sexualized or commodified? Dunno.

  2. Hey Stephanie – it’s Ida Siegal from high school. I really liked this piece — and I get it. Took me two years to get an agent/book deal. We should talk … @idasiegal4ny …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *