A literary agent is an excellent ally for writers in traditional publication. Literary agents look after the interests of an author and take a cut from the author’s advance/ royalties. If you ask me, a good literary agent is worth every penny of that cut. Getting a literary agent takes perseverance, strategy, talent, and perhaps a large helping of luck. To help with the strategy part , today I’ve invited Anne Tibbets, who divides her time between writing and working as a literary agent with Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Recovering TV writer Anne Tibbets is the author of space horror SCREAMS FROM THE VOID (2021, Flame Tree Press) and the forthcoming sequel, BEYOND THE VOID (2024, Flame Tree Press). Anne is also the author of the YA Contemporary SHUT UP (Open Road Media, 2012), and of the New Adult speculative series The Line: CARRIER and WALLED (Carina Press, 2014). Anne is also co-author of the first book in the military science fiction series EXTINCTION BIOME: INVASION (Abaddon Books, 2016), and authored the second, EXTINCTION BIOME: DISPERSAL (Abaddon Books, 2017), both as Addison Gunn.
How and why did you become a literary agent?
I was an author first, but as many writers know, there can be large gaps of time between contracts, while your book is out on submission, when you are burnt out on drafting and just looking for another way to scratch your creative itch. During those times, I volunteered as a reader for a couple literary agents and supplied them with summaries and brief editorial opinions on the manuscripts, including my thoughts as to comp titles, and which houses had purchased manuscripts like them. The agents I read for told me I was in the wrong line of work and should consider becoming an agent. I sat on the notion for a few years, gathering courage. Finally, I took the leap in 2018, and I’m so very glad I did. I only wish I had started doing it sooner.
As a literary agent, what is at the top of your wishlist right now?
I’d love to find a Thriller police procedural, female driven if possible. I’m also on the hunt for Historical Women’s Fiction, Historical YA, and a Contemporary Mystery series. I’m open to queries now, via Query Manager, to Suspense, Horror, and Romantic Suspense as well.
What is the one thing you are tired of seeing in queries as a literary agent, and what would make you pass on a good query?
I think the trope of the hungover male detective or former spy or solider, etc., plagued by a dead wife or a kidnapped daughter, or various other traumas, is done to death – if you’ll forgive the pun. I’m also not particularly interested in Thrillers from the killer’s point of view, which I often, but not always, find unnecessarily gruesome. Violence against women is indeed a part of this world’s society, but not something I wish to immerse myself in if the only purpose is to further the character development of a macho and masculine presenting character. If we break that stereotype apart, I think the genre would be the better for it.
What do you look for in a synopsis? In what order do you read the query package as a literary agent?
In a synopsis I’m looking for spoilers and a plot that stays strong through to the end. I want to know that the mystery pays off. I want to know who the killer is, and if the manuscript concludes in a satisfying way. I want to see what twists the story takes, and if it’s original and interesting to me.
The order in which I read the query depends on my mood and on the genre. If it’s a Historical, for example, I’ll check the time period, the general plot in the pitch paragraph, word count, and then skip the synopsis and go straight to the sample pages. This is because I prefer Upmarket prose in Historical and I want to see if the sample delivers. In Thrillers, I read the query first, then the synopsis (since Thrillers are primarily plot driven), and then the pages, last. I will also always, before requesting, check the author’s bio and search out their social media. I only want to work with respectful and professional people and if their Twitter is a train wreck of heckling and rage tweets, I’m likely to pass just because of that.
As a literary agent, what is your advice to writers in the querying trenches?
Querying writers should query far and wide. Start with a batch of ten. If you don’t get any requests from that batch, rework your query AND rework your sample pages, and then send out another batch of ten. Keep repeating the cycle until you reach about 100. If you’ve honed your query and pages well enough that you start getting requests, then you’re doing something right. If you don’t have any requests at that point, you’ve either hit the market at a really bad time for the category and genre you are shopping, or your manuscript just isn’t ready. Write something else and begin anew. Rinse and repeat. It was my 4th book that eventually landed me my agent. It takes time and practice to hone your craft. Keep working and keep improving, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that agent match that will change your career.
Could you comment on what kinds of diverse stories appeal to you as a literary agent?
I prefer diverse stories which take me and the readers like me (white, straight, privileged) outside our “comfort zones” and show us an environment and experience we’ve not touched in our own bubbles, and that expands our understanding of the world at large and the people in it. I want immersive reading experiences and points of view which are authentic and true. I want to feel the joy and hardship of those points of view which celebrate diversity and avoids negative stereotypes and tokenism.
What are the dos and don’ts of pitching to a literary agent at a conference? Will you be at any upcoming writers’ events, festivals, or conferences where writers are able to meet/ pitch you?
Do: Be professional and courteous. Come prepared with a succinct, quick pitch, or “log-line” (one to two sentence which covers basic plot and main character), and be prepared to answer questions with short replies, if the agent or editor asks them.
Don’t: Ramble, or take it personally. Literary agents at pitch events must make snap judgement and are fallible, as all humans are. Sometimes we can pass on great stories and great writers based on a 3 minute first impression. It’s a flawed system for sure.
I recently attended PitchFest at ThrillerFest 2022 in NYC and had a blast! I requested quite a few partials. I don’t have plans yet to attend any more this year, but that can change if the right invitation arrives in my email.
Do you participate in twitter pitch parties, and has it led to signing with a client?
I have requested off Twitter events in the past, but find myself doing so less and less. I find there just isn’t enough information in a Twitter pitch for me to judge if I want to read it. Above all else, I believe it’s the writing that counts more than the concept, and with Twitter events concentrating solely on the concept, it doesn’t give me enough to go on. I have yet to sign a client based on a Twitter event, although I know plenty of agents who have and then ended up selling the manuscript. I’m more the exception than the rule in this regard.
Could you describe your agenting philosophy? Are you an editorial literary agent?
My agenting philosophy is that the writer is driving their own career, and I am here to supply “navigation,” by way of information about the publishing industry and the markets, logistical support, career guidance, and the occasional pep talk, when needed. Tell me what kind of career you want, and I will do my best to help map that out.
I am editorial when I need to be editorial. If there’s structural issues with the plot, or a line edit needed, or the occasional proof-read, I’ll dive in – but I try not to inject myself too much into the writer’s work, because ultimately, I’m not an editor. I don’t want to get in the way of my client’s natural voice and talent. If all goes according to plan, that client will be working directly with an editor in the future, without my editorial interference, and I need to know my clients can hold their own without me stepping in during the writing process.
What qualities do you look for in a prospective client, other than a good story and writing? What would be a deal-breaker?
I’m mainly looking for responsible, functioning adults, who act professionally and take their craft seriously. A basic understanding that publishing is a business as well as an artistic endeavor, also helps.
A deal-breaker for me is someone casting a disparaging light on any particular culture in their writing. Casual sexism, racism, and bigotry are all out, even if it’s indicative of the time period. Unless it’s a major factor of the plot, none of those things are fun to read and are potentially harmful to readers. Twitter rants and social media anger toward publishing is generally fine, if the threads are handled tactfully, and not used to further their own profile by squashing others with marginalizations and/or less privilege.
You’re an author as well as a literary agent. How do you balance the two careers? Where can we find out more about your books?
Balancing agenting and writing as two careers is an act in ebb and flow. Sometimes in agenting, multiple clients deliver manuscripts in a short period of time and my attention is spent reading and editing, creating submissions lists, and reaching out to potential editors for these manuscripts. When these projects finally go out on submission, my main focus becomes reading queries to look for new clients, and taking editor and talent agency meetings. The agent workload can ease up a bit at that point and allow more time for writing…that is, until a client’s project sells, and then it’s negotiations which consume the majority of my time. I tried working as an agent in the morning and writing in the afternoons, and then swapping that, but that didn’t quite work for me either. Then I tried writing at night, and my brain was exhausted. And don’t even get me started on how complicated it is adding a day job to that shuffle. Sometimes there’s just too much of one job to do than the other and fighting that is fruitless. I find it more effective for me if I just follow the workflow. If I ever figure out how to balance them, I’ll let you know the secret. I haven’t figured it out yet.
What are you reading right now? Which books from 2021-22 would you recommend?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my client’s books which are launching in 2022. Jaime Lynn Hendricks’s IT COULD BE ANYONE, Rus Wornom’s GHOSTFLOWERS, Emily J. Edwards’s VIVIANA VALENTINE GETS HER MAN, and W.A. Simpson’s TINDERBOX. For pleasure I’m reading MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW by Stephen Graham Jones and the voice in this book is killing me in the best way possible. Highly recommend
Do you have questions for a literary agent? What sort of literary agent would you look for?
My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out this October with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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