Getting an agent's attention
A question that showed up in my in-box today:
I have now completed two SF novels and am hard at work on a third. However, I have had no luck whatsoever in piquing the interest of any publishers or agents. Do you have any thoughts on how to attract something more than a momentary "glance" from an agent? I have tried a number of formats for my covering letters, but this seems to have made little difference.The answer is simple, but not easy. The best way to attract an agent is by having short-fiction credentials. That proves you can write: that you can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end with a publishable level of competence. When I landed my own first agent, in 1988, I did so by citing short-fiction credentials, including a novelette in the September 1988 Amazing Stories (defunct now, but at one time a major SF magazine, founded by Hugo Gernsback himself).
What you're doing now is like showing up at NHL tryouts and saying, hey, I've never played in a junior league, but give me a shot. Or it's like writing a cover letter for a job: a potential employer will indeed only just glance at such a letter to see if you have appropriate education or previous work experience, and, if you don't, they will set it aside no matter what else you say in the letter.
Short fiction is very much a valid art form in its own right, but it is also the way you prove yourself in this genre. The significant SF&F magazines -- Analog and Asimov's and F&SF in the US; On Spec and Neo-Opsis in Canada; and Interzone in the UK -- are wide open to submissions from anyone, and their editors make their names based in part on the authors they discover and develop. You don't need an agent to submit to any of these magazines, and they seriously consider work from newcomers.
Perhaps you're thinking you don't want to write short fiction; setting aside the fact that that's like saying you don't want to pay your dues, there's still a way around it: find a standalone excerpt from one of your novels, and submit it (rewritten if necessary) as a short story. You've done two novels; you've got on the order of 200,000 words of fiction already written -- surely some 4,000- or 5,000-word chunk of that works well enough on its own to constitute a short story.
Once you've got some short-fiction credentials (or at least one significant one), cite that in your cover letter; it'll make a world of difference. Indeed, if you do well with your short fiction, you may find agents approaching you: my buddy Edo van Belkom is with Joshua Bilmes, a very fine agent, because Joshua approached him after noticing his short fiction.
Now, yes, there are authors who manage to break in without an agent. Typically, these are authors who have submitted manuscripts over-the-transom (unsolicited) to those few publishers who still read such submissions. Tor certainly does, but be warned that their response time for slush (unsolicited manuscripts) is two to three years; I think DAW still reads unsolicited material, too, as does Baen. Once you get an offer, it then usually is easy to acquire an agent (just don't agree to anything until after you are represented).
Trying to set up appointments with agents on a trip to New York is very unlikely to bear fruit. Some agents do show up at major SF conventions: the World Science Fiction Convention is in Denver this year and the World Fantasy Convention is in Calgary; both will have agents in attendance. But whether they'll be approachable is another matter. My own agent goes to the World Science Fiction Convention but doesn't do any programming and hangs out at the hotel bar not wearing his name badge in part so he won't be approached by wannabes.
I wish you the best of luck!