At a four-day retreat for writers who have completed Stanford University’s Novel Writing Certificate Program, literary agent Kent Wolf regaled 13 of us—12 graduates of the program and Angela Pneuman, a creative writing instructor at Stanford—with tales about his life a a literary agent.
Wolf is an agent at Lippincott Massie McQuilkin (LMQ) in New York, and he joined us by way of a Skype video conference call. As we sat in the Stanford Alpine Chalet in the tranquil setting at Lake Tahoe, Wolf treated participants to an hour-long discussion on query letters, marketing platforms, and his own personal style of finding and working with authors.
An agent since 2008, Wolf has a total of 20 years of book-publishing experience—seven as an agent—under his belt. Wolf is interested in representing authors who write literary fiction, upmarket women’s fiction, memoir, pop culture, all types of narrative nonfiction, and select YA.He likes working closely with writers and helping them to shape their manuscripts.
Structuring a Query
Wolf said LMQ’s querying policy depends on the individual agent. Wolf takes submissions directly, while some other agents instruct people to submit query letters to email@example.com. Before querying, he encourages authors to do your research and get to know individual agents’ histories and tastes.
Wolf receives 15 to 100 queries a week and requests three to five of them. He doesn’t mind receiving supplemental pages along with the query. For him, the quality of the writing is the most important aspect. Wolf may read ten pages and know it might not be for him. He reads until he doesn’t want to read anymore and gets back to authors within six weeks.
“The best query letter synopsis mimics the flap copy,” Wolf said. “Challenge your inner copywriter. There’s an art to it and an artfulness. Leave us wanting to know more.” He advises treating a query letter like “an invitation to us to want to request to read more.”
On length, Wolf thinks the shorter, the better, as long as you’re giving enough information about yourself and the book. He sees the basic of querying to include a
- Brief introduction in your email
- Comp titles section
Wolf suggests thinking of agents as being in a bookstore at the new releases table and figuring out what to read next. It’s important to present your book in a way that situates it in the marketplace. Before approaching potential editors, agents write a synopsis and a positioning letter.
Wolf looks for writers who have done their homework. He can tell whether or not the book is going to be good based on how well written the query is. The query letter let’s him know that a person is a disciplined, serious writer who worked hard on the query letter. A lot of people who query are not serious writers.
Synopsis: Write no more than two paragraphs, just enough to give sense of your story’s trajectory.
Comp Titles: Know the comps in the marketplace and where your book will sit on the shelves. Be more specific than to say your book is for women. It’s helpful if you mention that it’s similar/different as other titles.
“My literary style can be compared to….”
“The themes that come out of it are….”
Make sure the comp titles are for books ideally written within the past few years or books that hold some form of resonance. You can mention an author, but also add in comp titles. You can also make a TV reference. “My book is like this book that was published last year to great acclaim. But it’s also like this Oscar nominated movie from a few years ago.” Avoid the obscure, books that didn’t sell well or didn’t hit a good critical perception.
Bio: Cite publication credits as they relate to your submission. For memoirs, mention essays that are relevant. Mention that you’ve studied writing with specific people. Wolf likes to see mention of fellowships and residencies you’ve attended.
It’s also helpful to add interesting factoids about yourself.
Wolf urges authors to think about ways you can elevate your platform, noting key questions to ask yourself such as
- What kind of pre-book awareness is there for your book?
- Do you have a built-in audience?
Wolf takes on a book when the writing on a line level is gorgeous or if he falls in love with the characters. The manuscript might have to be shorter, have more of a plot structure, or better pacing. He offers editorial feedback for authors he’s signed up for and is working with.
Wolf works closely with his authors to get the writing up to a certain level before letting it go and out there into the world. It could sing on a line level, but it goes a bit wonky in spots, or your voice is great, but on a line level, your writing needs work.
His mission is to bring more artfulness to the writing.
Where Wolf Finds his Writers
Not all of Wolf’s clients come by way of a query.
Conferences: Wolf offers one-on-ones at conferences, sitting with each writer for 30 minutes. First, he says, “Tell me about your book.” Practice. “Your description is more than a pitch. You have two minutes to tell someone about your book. How would you talk about it?”
Friend Referrals: Wolf is happy to have consider writers who are introduced to him through friends or his current clients.
Literary Journals: Wolf reads fiction and nonfiction in small literary journals such as Zyzzyva, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Indiana Review, and The Iowa Review. And he reads personal essays such at Salon.com’s, and nonfiction at Narratively.com. He reaches out to people based on a story, essay, or a piece of reporting.
Wolf likes good stories and doesn’t want to be bored. His tastes are eclectic, and he likes darker topics as well as provocation on the page in a way that is not possible in the world.
Thanks goes to Angela Pneuman for arranging the meeting with Wolf.
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