Interview with literary agent Jenny Bent

Hello everyone!

Since you’ve come to my blog today, you’re either a fan of my books (YAY) or you’ve heard who’s going to be my special guest this week. For once, I’m tempted to believe it’s the latter. ;)

Like I’ve promised you some time ago, I’m planning a series of blog posts that will give you deeper insights into the life and work of a literary agent. In fact, not just one but five of them, and then not just any, but you’ll meet some of the leading agents in the industry. I’m super happy these lovely ladies let me grill them, and you’ll be amazed about their answers.

We’re starting with the amazing Jenny Bent, from The Bent Agency!

Now lean back, everyone, and learn

THE TRUTH ABOUT SLUSH PILES!

Welcome, Jenny!

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Anna: What is your daily routine in your job? How much time do you spend for what?

Jenny: I don’t really have it broken down in any concrete way. It’s a lot of answering emails, putting out fires, submitting projects, negotiating various deals for domestic and foreign contracts, helping out the other agents in the agency with different things, talking through edits with an author, etc. The day is dictated by what is happening at any given moment for my clients. I will also tackle chores on my to-do list and if there is time (which is rare) I will do a little reading. But most of my reading/editing is done at night, not during office hours. This is why agents are usually so behind!

 

Anna: In most submission guidelines, you find the sentence: We get hundreds of queries each week. I believe this is for the entire agency. How many queries do you personally get each day?

Jenny: I get 50 to 100 per day.

 

Anna: What are keywords in a query letter that get you interested in reading the manuscript (not the genre or book length, please), and what are turnoffs?

Jenny: The only thing I don’t like is when they criticize other genres or define the book by subtly dissing other books, like telling me the book doesn’t contain vampires. Keywords that get me interested are generally comparisons to other books I really loved.

 

Anna: Do you prefer people to use your first name or last name when sending you a query letter?

Jenny: First name is just fine.

 

Anna: How should a writer structure his query? Begin with a cheesy line to break the ice, tell you about the book like word count, POV, and genre, or rather get straight to the point with a tagline and the blurb of the book?

Jenny: Queries, like books, are not one size fits all.   The best query letters communicate the essence of the book in some way and they can do that in a variety of ways.  You can search our agency blog for some examples of query letters I really liked—just enter “query letter” in the search bar.

 

Anna: How high is your slush pile right now? How many unread queries?

Jenny: I’m closed to queries right now, so can’t answer the second question.   My requested manuscript pile is very high, I’m sorry to say, but I’m trying to get caught up!

 

Anna: How many queries can you process in one day?

Jenny: Depends on my mood and level of exhaustion.

 

Anna: Many agents have a “no reply means no” policy. Does it really take that much time to send a rejection letter? Rejections are hard enough to stomach for authors, but no reply at all is just frustrating.

Jenny: I don’t have that policy myself, but I will say that some very, very successful agents have that policy.   They make money based on what they sell, not because they take the time to answer every query they receive.   They are running a business, after all, not a non-profit, and if you are someone like me who gets up to 100 queries a day, it actually does take a long time to answer all of them.

 

Anna: With so much conflicting query advice out there… what really catches your attention and leaves you wanting pages?

Jenny: This is a hard one to answer in any kind of concrete way, but again, on my blog there are some great examples of query letters that caught my attention.

 

Anna: How much control does the writer give up when they have an agent?

Jenny: You shouldn’t be giving up any control or at least not thinking about it that way. An agent isn’t your boss, an agent is someone who offers advice and guidance about your career. I have parted ways with clients who didn’t agree with the advice I was giving them and I think that’s for the best and there were no hard feelings—you have to be on the same page and not feel that there are control issues happening.

Having said all of this, you give up a great deal of control when you move from self-publishing to traditional publishing and sign a contract with a publisher.

 

Anna: What’s your submission process to publishers?

Jenny: I usually call the editors that I think would like the book and pitch the project—then I send them the project via email. I almost always do multiple submissions.

 

Anna: How soon after you sign a contract do you start pitching to publishers?

Jenny: This depends on how much editing I do with the author and what is happening in the publishing industry at the time (for instance, I don’t like to submit in August or December as a general rule).

 

Anna: Do you expect significant edits with manuscripts before you start submitting?

Jenny: It depends on the manuscript. Some need more work, others less. I do like the material to be very polished when it goes out the door, I find it maximizes the level of advance I can get for it.

 

Anna: Do you keep your clients in the loop about all the steps you take?

Jenny: Yes.

 

Anna: How often do you communicate with your clients?

Jenny: This depends on how much is happening with them at any given time.

 

Anna: Do you believe traditionally published books are better than self-published ones – not for bad editing but because the publishers are so very selective?

Jenny: No, I don’t believe in objective criteria or blanket statements like this. A book is “better” than another book because someone likes it better, not for any other reason that has to do with some supposed objective level of quality. It’s a matter of taste and everyone’s tastes are different.

 

Anna: Do you prefer submissions by referral?

Jenny: No. Many of my clients queried me without any kind of referral at all.

 

Anna: Have you ever turned down a book that later turned into a bestseller?

Jenny: Yes, of course. Probably everyone who has been in the industry any length of time has, in fact. It’s practically a badge of honor.

 

Anna: Most agents’ average response time is about 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes 8 to 12. Why so long? What happens with a query in that time? Do they just sit in your inbox, waiting to be read, or do you sort through them once and later get back to them a second and maybe even third time before you make a decision?

Jenny: For queries? That’s not my response time so I can’t speak to why it would take so long for others.

 

Anna: When you read a query, are you foremost interested in publishing that book, or do you consider its potential for movies straight away, too?

Jenny: Well, I’m not a publisher, so I don’t read it that way. Instead, I read it with an agent’s eye, thinking about all the different ways I could market it—to book publishers, audio publishers, for translation and for film.

 

Anna: Do you sometimes check the market for epic self-published books and reach out to the writers with an offer?

Jenny: There’s become such an industry of people who do this that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the process myself, anymore. I represent a book because I love the author’s writing, not because it’s sold X number of copies already. That’s the process I feel most comfortable with. So if I come across a self-published book where I absolutely love it, as was the case with Ingrid Ricks’ HIPPIE BOY, then I do offer rep, but I don’t do that blanket thing where I just email everyone who has hit a list.

 

Anna: Is it possible to sell already self-published books to big publishing houses for a re-release? Did you ever do that?

Jenny: I have done this yes, but in the days before electronic publishing. My author Laurie Notaro self-published her book via print on demand after trying for seven years to find a publisher. I saw it on Amazon, read it, fell in love, and sold it to Random House. When they re-released it, it debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. This was back in 2002. And I sold HIPPIE BOY, which I mentioned above, to Berkley for a re-release.

 

Anna: When agents ask writers for material and give a turnaround time, they very often don’t make it. Are you likely to miss deadlines, too? If so, what are the reasons?

Jenny: I try to always make deadlines or have a very good reason (such as illness) to miss them.   Part of that process is setting realistic deadlines.

 

Anna: With all the reading you have to do for your job, is it still fun for you? Do you still have time to read and enjoy a book that hasn’t been submitted to you?

Jenny: Yes and yes. Emphatically.

 

Anna: How many book pages can you read in an hour?

Jenny: I honestly have no idea.   I am a fairly slow editor however, much to my chagrin.

 

Anna: What do you advise your clients – to go for a big advance payment or rather for higher royalties?

Jenny: Depends on the scenario.   A higher advance is more of a sure thing, higher royalties are more of a gamble. Having said that, agents are natural-born gamblers.

 

Anna: Which of the above happens more often?

Jenny: Traditional publishers don’t vary their royalty structures very much, so I guess the first one?

 

Anna: Once you land a great book deal, what happens with the book? How long until it’s being released and how does the payment work? Advance payment in little bits?

Jenny: This depends on the publisher. Most contracts specify that they have to release within 18 months. The advances are split anywhere from halves to fifths.

 

Anna: Did J.K.Rowling pitch to you? ;-)

Jenny: Oh my god, I wish.

 

Anna: What if a complete dork writes to you, being arrogant and awkward, but delivers a brilliant manuscript? Are you more likely to take him on or pass?

Jenny: This has honestly never happened. Having said that, if I get warning bells about a person, I am likely to pass. Falls under the life is too short category.

 

Anna: The funniest thing that ever landed on your desk?

Jenny: I’m trying to think of something but can’t…

 

Anna: Would you share one epic query letter with us?

Jenny: http://jennybent.blogspot.com/2012/06/its-really-not-about-who-you-know.html

 

Anna: Agents intimidate authors. What intimidates you?

Jenny: Great question. Nothing in publishing, anymore, but when I first started out I was probably intimidated by everyone I came into contact with! Pitching books used to be terrifying to me.

 

Anna: And finally, what’s your favorite TV show?

Jenny: Top Chef or Girls.

 

Thank you, Jenny, for taking the time to answer all our burning questions. It was a pleasure to get in touch with you!

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Find out more about Jenny on her Website

Check out her Submission guidelines

or follow her on Twitter

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Summer of My Secret Angel

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