Friday, November 13, 2009

Agent Inbox

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Yesterday, PW reported on the launch of AgentInbox, a new service from collaborative writing website WEbook (I've blogged about WEbook before).

"AgentInbox is a service that connects publication-ready authors with reputable, vetted literary agents," says the service's FAQ for writers. Writers enter their book's "vital stats," including title, genre, query letter, and all or part of the manuscript (there are several tutorials to help with the polishing process). They can then check AgentInbox's roster of participating agents and choose which ones they'd like their submission to go to. WEbook staff pre-screens submissions, then forwards them on to the agents chosen.

According to PW,

AgentInbox will focus in particular on query letters while also ensuring the manuscripts adhere to basic editorial standards and readiness, said Ardy Khazaei, president of WEbook.

WEbook’s team of in-house and freelance publishing professionals will review pitch letters, make sure that the letters match the actual manuscript and that the manuscript is properly formatted, but the company will not make any recommendations about the quality of the content.


How does it work for agents? According to AgentInbox's FAQ for agents, agents create a profile listing their interests and submission preferences. They can then check their submissions online, sort them by various categories including genre, and "[r]eject unsuitable submissions with a single click, and contact the gems directly."

At present, AgentInbox is free for writers, though in future, premium services may be subject to a fee.

AgentInbox reminds me a lot of Creative Byline (about which I have also blogged), an automated submission service targeted to publishers. Creative Byline provides not just screening, but actual editorial feedback on writers' materials--but otherwise the setup seems quite similar.

Both AgentInbox and Creative Byline are a riff on the manuscript display site, or electronic slush pile, which aims to attract agents and publishers by moving the acquisition process online, and to serve writers by promoting their work direct to publishing professionals, without the need for sending multiple queries. There are many iterations of this basic idea, from the static display site where writers' submissions hang like banners in hopes someone will come along and view them (example: BooksandManuscripts.com), to supposedly more selective display sites where submissions are pre-screened for quality before being made available to registered agents and publishers (example: OnlyOneChapter), to crowd-sourced display sites where reader rankings drive submissions to the top for consideration by participating agents and editors (example: Authonomy).

The display site idea first surfaced in the late 1990's. Despite innovations in concept and advances in technology, electronic slush piles have so far failed to establish themselves as a genuine alternative path to representation or publication (for writers), or as an alternative method of manuscript acquisition (for agents and publishers).

Will AgentInbox--which already has signed up an impressive roster of participating agents, one of whom, according to PW, has already found a client via the service--be the tipping point? Only time will tell. Worth noting, however: Creative Byline, which has been in business for more than a year and a half, continues to have difficulty expanding its publisher list (currently, only six publishers are signed up), and has reported no sales as a result of writers' use of the service. Simply because agents can be more flexible in their acquisition guidelines than publishers, I'd expect a greater success rate for AgentInbox, at least initially. But I would also guess that unless AgentInbox staff do a bit more than just make sure that manuscripts are properly formatted, agents will lose enthusiasm for the service.

(Writers take note: whether or not it improves access to agents, AgentInbox won't help with those most common of writerly gripes, form rejection letters and nonresponse. For agents, one of the advertised perks of the system is that they can "delete [submissions] or send automated rejections with a few clicks.")

24 comments:

Dana King said...

If agents have become de facto gatekeepers for publishers, does this service aim to become a gatekeeper for agents? It's easy to find agents lamenting the blast submissions some writers send; is this much different?

In the long run, I see this as a bad thing for those who are serious about getting published if it catches on. Why take the time to try to find the right agent who covers not just your genre, but has a track record for your type of book within that genre, when you can just send it in and they'll broadcast it? The amount of noise that has to be navigated is already too great; this may only make it worse.

Unless I'm missing something. (It wouldn't be the first time.)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Interesting post. Premise sounds good but again, there are no shortcuts to publication. No magic wand either.

James Macdonald said...

Actually, display sites date to the early nineties. The first one I recall was in '91 or '92 on GEnie.

Like later iterations of the idea, that one foundered on the question of what would make editors and agents want to go there, when their inboxes were already filled with manuscripts and queries that were addressed to them personally and delivered by a uniformed government employee.

The best that can be said for display sites is that authors who use them never get a rejection letter. If avoiding rejection is your goal, they're great.

Kittie Howard said...

Technology has thrown the various relationships involved in manuscript publication into a state of flux. Once the brouhaha settles, a middle ground will emerge, with something for everyone.

Mags said...

Or, you could just send a query letter. I don't see how this is an improvement.

I think people get too hung up on query letters. Just follow the directions given by the agent. It's not that hard.

Anonymous said...

I hate writing query letters. I hate the idea that the query is more important than your book. I'm looking forward to new models where the agent and the publisher become obsolete. I know it's still some way off, but it will come sooner or later. And when I see an agent on the sidewalk with his hand out, I'll tell him that I'll only help him out if he can provide a creative query telling me why I should, and that he should accompany it with a more detailed description in 30 pages of double spaced typing. Then I'll tell him to go to hell.

Anonymous said...

Interesting... I was expecting a more 'damning' critique. ;) As an author, the concern I would have is which agents would have access to my contact info. Unless the agents are screened, it seems like a great way for some less-than-savory types to prey on hopeful authors. But maybe I'm just too paranoid.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a great idea. I don't know about you, but I spend great quantities of time crafting my work, pouring my heart and soul into it, making sure it's polished and perfect, and then I have to spend an hour or so on EACH agent's site trying to figure out what they're good for and how to send a query letter? I mean, if WE could use form letters, that'd be nice, but no two agents want the exact same process. It's like we're living in a thousand different countries, some of which will fine us if we walk on the grass, and some will fine us if we DON'T walk on the grass.

I really don't have the time to learn what amounts to a thousand dialects of the same language after I spent God-knows how many man-years of my life creating a compelling story.

So anything that takes some of the ridiculous burden imposed on the process by self-important gatekeepers who want to feel needed is a great idea. Simplification is great.

From the agent's point of view, I can't see how it's bad either. Your inbox is no longer flooded, and you only work (find new customers) when YOU feel like it, not when it feels like coming to you. (Well, assuming you're allowed to browse the projects up for grabs.)

Robert Michael said...

Although it may seem the burden is always on the writer, the crafter, the blood-sweat-and-tears artist, the burden is shared throughout the publishing process. The lion's share does fall to the writer but that is to be expected. It is our responsibility as professionals to ensure that our product is publishing worthy.

The sad part comes in that regrettably, "publishing worthy" is subjective. "What might sell" to one agent is a "never in a million years" to another. And the process is repeated at the publishing house.

Now, these sites come along and offer what the writer supposedly wants to hear: a simplified way of getting published. They are also offering to the agents what they want to hear: no more queries for material you don't want to see. My guess is that they will accomplish some of each goal and there will be satisfied clients at both ends of the spectrum. But my gut feeling is that for most people, this will just be one more step separating the writer from the publisher.

Professional writers have become so accustomed to understanding their odds at the slushpile are exponentially lower than at an agent that any writer with understanding will move their manuscript in that direction. Now, the frustration level has increased since now the critical mass of query slushpiles has reached the agents.

So, the logical thing to do is to add another layer that doesn't mind mindless backlog of manuscripts? Don't count on me.

Victoria Strauss said...

It's interesting to see the hostility toward agents in some of the comments. I've opined before on why that kind of hostility seems to be so prevalent, but it's interesting to see it aimed at a service that supposedly is designed to make agents more accessible.

I agree with those who feel that it doesn't make a lot of sense to add another layer of gatekeeping to the agent-hunting process. I think that for both agents and writers, it makes targeting less precise--which may actually increase the odds against getting an offer/finding a client.

But I think that the main issue with Agent Inbox--as with all electronic slush piles--will be the service's screening procedure. Given agents' already-existing slush piles, I don't see that there's a lot of incentive for them to use a service like this unless it really screens out the dross. Will it do that? Not based on the info I've seen. But again, time will tell.

WEbook said...

Hello there, from WEbook…
Thanks everyone for the the discussion around AgentInbox, our new service.

We’ve been seeing that the article may have left readers with a few incorrect impressions that we’d like to clarify:

- Writers do pick which agent they send their work to — the choice is completely up to them. We simply show writers the list of agents who are currently accepting submission in the genre(s) of the particular manuscript. A leading agent at Writers House has already signed on one of the writers from the community who used the service.

- We do in fact screen agents before they gain access to AgentInbox. (Some requests have been turned down.)

- WEbook also screens submissions for agents with two goals in mind 1) Agents receive higher quality submissions overall, 2) If the WEbook staff determines that the submission is not agent-ready, we return the query to the author with corrections and suggestions for resubmission.

- Writers receive rejection letters through the service, but directly from the agent. Just like an email/snail mail submission, it is completely up to the agent how much time he/she puts into the letter. We provide the web platform to make the process more straightforward and faster, but the letter comes from the agent.

AgentInbox was developed in consultation with leading agents and aspiring authors. The goal (and the challenge) was to develop an application that benefits both group – and we continue to take feedback. If you use the service (as an agent or as a writer) please let us know your thoughts.

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks to the WEbook folks for leaving a comment.

It's clear that Agent Inbox does carefully screen the agents it works with--as I noted in my post, the list signed up so far is impressive. That's something that puts Agent Inbox ahead of most similar services.

I still think that the screening of writers is a potential major pitfall for the service. Along with agent screening, this is where electronic slush piles stand or fall. If Agent Inbox becomes just another slush pile, with large numbers of unready manuscripts that must be sifted through to find the gems, I suspect that the niftiness of the web platform won't be enough to make agents want to use it, given the slush piles they already have.

I'll be interested to see if the next year or so proves me wrong.

clindsay said...

I'm an agent who is considering using the Agent Inbox service for one reason and one reason only: sloppy/badly-researched submissions.

When I was open to queries, I was receiving between 400-700 per week. Fully 85% of those queries were either for subjects I don't represent or were queries that in no way resembled a professional business letter.

(See Janet Reid's list of ways to get instantly rejected by pretty much every agent on the planet - very helpful!)

I spent more time on rejecting these sloppy queries than reading good ones. Why should I waste my time when it is clear that the writer hasn't bothered to spend even the slightest bit of time researching submission guidelines?

Agent Inbox is designed to weed out those queries before the rest hot my inbox. Which can only be a good thing.

My two cents.

Colleen

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for your comment, Colleen. If you do decide to use Agent Inbox, I'll be interested in knowing what you think of it.

Victoria Strauss said...

Writer S.K. Williams posts about her experience with Agent Inbox. It's a mixed bag: the process is speedy but has a few glitches.

Victoria Strauss said...

Another review of AgentInbox from Shannon Yarbrough, who used the service and concludes,

So, in the end, I wasn’t overly impressed with the program, but didn’t find it to be any different from the traditional query letter/email process. I still sweated bullets over trying to cater my uploads to each specific agent, and still cursed at the lack of information provided and worried over if I was providing too much information or not. And when it was all said and done, I sighed with relief and still found myself lost and blind in a query snowstorm.

Victoria Strauss said...

AgentInbox reports one success story to date, a YA writer who found an agent via the service in October.

GalaktioNova said...

I'd think, the true reason behind these display sites in whatever form is that writers would rather publish their work somewhere, anywhere, than go through the painful and lengthy process of submitting-getting rejected-resubmitting, etc. This is something I can understand, but not relate to. To me, unwillingness to market one's work properly is a complex mixture of fear, laziness and self-indulgence.

I know an enormously talented writer who openly says he finds the idea of having to submit his (admittedly excellent) work to a hundred publishers in a row humiliating. He'd love the idea of these display sites. But no sales in a year and a half speak for themselves, don't they?

Aimee LS said...

I stumbled on the AgentInbox and didn't take it seriously, submitted to 12 agents and had requested submissions from four! (Still waiting to hear back from WH!)

I would add to your post that, though the rejection responses may be form (some of mine were, some weren't), you are able to see exactly what material was viewed before the rejection was sent.

For me this was useful as only six agents viewed my sample pages and four of those requested submissions. So...clearly my query / synopsis needs some work.

This can be a very useful service IMHO to us "debut" writers. I rate it very highly!

Mayowa said...

These sites flourish because writers are searching for alternatives to the status quo.

The real issue here? Writers are the weak half of the Writer/Agent relationship. They tell us what to do, we scram to do it.

Until that dynamic changes, the process will be just as frustrating and inefficient.

Writers and Agents: The Tough Questions

Anonymous said...

Agent Inbox is now charging.

From their Blog:


"Starting today, AgentInbox is temporarily closed to new submissions. We will re-open for new submissions the week of May 2, 2010. With the re-opening of the service, our introductory period is officially over and there will be a fee to use AgentInbox services. Important to note: For those of you who have submissions pending review by WEbook, you can still revise and receive edits through April 29th free of charge."

>snip the advertising bits...<

"The pricing options are as follows:

For $39.95, authors can submit to all participating agents with relevant genre interests for up to six months. As an introductory bonus, this package also includes one free submission to PageToFame.

First time users of AgentInbox have the option of using AgentInbox services to submit to one agent for a fee $9.95. After this, you will have the option of upgrading to the unlimited package at any time for $29.95.

For authors with submissions pending review by WEbook, you can revise and receive edits free of charge April 19-April 29. After that date, you will be asked to make a payment of $39.95 before your submission is passed through to agents."

I was wondering what you thought of this?

I have been told that if an agent ever asks for money up front--RUN. In this case, perhaps the website keeps all the money, and perhaps not, but you have to admit, it certainly gives the illusion of agents profiting from this. After all, how far is it from "give me $40 to read and edit your manuscript" to "give this website $40 and I'll read and edit your manuscript for a cut of the profits."

If it is considered unethical and even downright shady for an agent to charge for services, should the same rules apply for a service that is, in essence, an agent's agent?

Anonymous said...

I may have forgotten to include the link in my post, questioning about the Agent Inbox charges. Here it is:
http://blog.webook.com/webook_blog/2010/04/changes-regarding-agentinbox.html

WEbook said...

I work at WEbook. I noticed that the above poster cut out a portion of our announcement regarding the fee for AgentInbox.

While I can see how this may have seemed like marketing copy, we feel this information is actually vital in order to understand exactly what we are charging for.

Most importantly, we want to make it clear that we are charging for the online tool WEbook provides, not access to agents. In fact we link to agency websites within WEbook agent profiles, providing clear transparency to direct, free options.

Some more details about the services WEbook provides:

The AgentInbox services include:

Basic editorial review of your query letters.

A personal dashboard that allows you to track when agents open your queries.

Matching of your submission with agents who are interested in representing your genre(s).

A tool for submitting multiple manuscript samples of different lengths to agents.

We just want to make sure all information is available for the conversation.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the idea, in general, of money being charged to prepare a manuscript to be seen by an agent.
Years ago, an "agent" said for a fee, he too would read and evaluate my writing before sending it to a publisher. Something felt wrong about that and I turned down the offer and am glad I did. I found his name later on a warning list of not so reputable people.
At the time, I had not heard of the very fine group A.A. R. and they are the only ones to whom I'll send my manuscripts now.
I like sending queries the old fashioned way, and to the A.A.R. agents who have high standards including charging no fee to read.
Writing queries, accepting rejections and trying again are all part of the writer's work.
I've found A.A.R. agents, with a few exceptions, to be quite welcoming, polite and encouraging.
Those who I found to be otherwise were noted and deleted from my list the next time I had another ms. Who wants to work with someone who can't respond graciously in a simple email? It's a good way to learn who's who and who's genuinely interested in writers.
This is America, where people have the right to offer all kinds of services, but I will definitely pass on this idea.