(Possibly) Bad Advice I’ve Heard Lately

Like most of you, I do a fair amount of reading on the web. I keep up with what’s going on in publishing and I like to read what industry professionals are saying. However, sometimes I cringe when I read advice that doesn’t square with what I’ve experienced. It might not be wrong, per se, but it certainly isn’t true across-the-board as it is presented.

Here are a few pieces of advice I’ve read on the web lately that I don’t think are always true.

1. “If an agent asks for a proposal package for a novel (aka fiction) they don’t know what they’re doing and you should run a mile.”

Ack! According to this, I don’t know what I’m doing and you should never query me. I do, in fact, require a proposal prior to submitting to publishers.

In the past, agents and editors have always made decisions about acquiring fiction based on a synopsis and the book itself. However, these days, some agents and editors are using full proposals for fiction. When I started agenting, I asked about twenty editors with whom I do business, “Do you find a proposal helpful, or would you rather just have the synopsis and sample chapters?”

100% of the editors said they found the full proposal very helpful. When I was an acquiring editor, I was the same way. I’d read the “hook” and “back cover copy” in the proposal, then I’d skip straight to the sample chapters. If I didn’t like them, I could stop reading. If I was interested, I’d go back and read other information in the proposal, particularly the author background, his/her the marketing ideas, and the comparable books.

Bottom line, each agent and editor decides whether they want a proposal or not, and either way, it says nothing about their qualifications. I have guidelines for writing fiction proposals here and some specific tips for the competition section of the proposal here.

2. “Font: The best guide is still to use Courier unless an agent or editor explicitly requests a different font in his guidelines.”

I am not one of those people that flips out about font or other minor details. It’s the writing I care about. However, since most people use Word which has always defaulted to Times New Roman (up until the 2007 version), TNR 12 pt became the most common font. (Things can get confusing, though, considering the default font in most email programs is Ariel 10pt, and the new version of Word defaults to Calibri.)

Courier used to be the publishing standard because it was the font used on TYPEWRITERS. (Many of you have probably never used a typewriter in your life.) Courier is a fixed-width font and makes it easier to calculate word-counts without actually counting the words. That was before Word processing. And people DID flip out if writers used a different font. I’ve noticed that agents and editors who’ve been doing this for decades tend to still be “old school” and request Courier. But how much sense does it make to continue using a method that was created in the days of typewriters?

Bottom line, don’t stress out about it. I think Times Roman is more common now, but nobody should berate you for using Courier.

3. “The best way to calculate word count is the old formula of multiplying 250 words x number of pages.”

Aarrgh. What century are people living in nowadays? I think there are a few companies that still do it this way, but this method really only works if you’re using a fixed-width font like Courier. In any case, unless you’re told differently, just use the actual word-count as calculated by Word. Or if you really want to cover your bases, say: “Actual word count: 100,000. Word count via formula (250 words x #pages) = 99,000.”

Bottom line, I think it’s best to err on the side of progress and move into the 21st century.

4. “Never do business with an agent who doesn’t give you a written agency contract.”

As I’ve mentioned before, an agency agreement isn’t strictly necessary and serves two main purposes: (1) protecting the interests of the agent, and (2) making the writer feel more official because they’ve “signed” with an agent. (Read my post on Author-Agency Agreements.) The agreement in itself isn’t a sign of legitimacy. As you learn if you read Preditors & Editors or Writer Beware, most of the quack-agents DO have written contracts (and their contracts are terribly unfair to writers). So the presence or absence of a contract doesn’t tell you very much.

Bottom line, if an agent offers to represent you, ask them whether they do written agreements, and if not, ask them why. Only do business with them if you feel comfortable with their answers.

5. “Never do business with an agent who is not a member of AAR.”

AAR is the Association of Authors Representatives. Since there is no licensing requirement or governing body that regulates agents, people have come to accept membership in AAR as a sign of legitimacy because of its membership qualifications and canon of ethics. I agree that this is a good indicator. However, since I’ve been in Christian publishing the last several years, I’ve learned that until very recently, most CBA agents were not members of AAR. Maybe because they typically did all their business separate from the mainstream publishing industry; and maybe because they believed that as Christians, they were already bound to a biblical code of ethics and conducted business accordingly. For whatever reason, the fact is that these agents are not any less legitimate nor any less honest simply by virtue of the fact that they’re not members of AAR.

There are also some agents who disagree with the need to belong to AAR for various reasons, such as the fact that the organization is expensive to join yet offers very little advantage besides the “gold star of approval.” Also, some agents don’t meet the qualifications. You have to be agenting for two years to join (I haven’t yet) and you must have sold ten books in 18 months (I’ve sold 27).

Bottom line: If this is important to you, and an agent offers to rep you, ask them if they’re a member, and if they’re not, find out why.

Q4U: Have you read any advice lately that you thought was questionable? Let me know—maybe I can do another post.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  6. cassandrajade on November 19, 2009 at 2:35 AM

    >Thanks for sharing this advice. It is quite difficult sometimes with one website telling you one thing and the next saying something else entirely. I try to read every bit of advice and then use logic and common sense to figure out which bits of advice to follow, though I guess that doesn't always work. Some good points raised in the comments as well.

  7. Danica/Dream on November 18, 2009 at 12:24 PM

    >Hey, congrats on all the sales! That's awesome!

  8. Rachelle on November 18, 2009 at 9:06 AM

    >Stargazer: If an agent or editor told you one thing, and your critique group told you something else, who should you listen to?

    On the question of whether to mention it's been professionally edited, you're never going to find a "general" answer that works across the board because it's a subjective issue. However, I'd err on the side of leaving it out. Too often, I read manuscripts that have supposedly been "professionally edited," and there are a ton of things wrong with them. So I, like most agents, have learned to ignore the fact that you've hired an editor. Also, I end up thinking, "Sheesh, if it's this bad after an editor, I wonder how bad it was before editing?" No, it doesn't help you.

  9. authorphilipkledzik on November 18, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    >I'm enjoying the blog and advice. I've pulished twice with a print on demand publisher, not my first choice, but that is what happened. I sent queries for my second novel to many agents, maybe about 30. It was a lot of work. I probably only heard back from about 7 and the last one wrote back after my book had been published and already into a dozen libraries. I'm hoping to be a little more patient with my third novel and hopefully I'll receive some positive replies by agents as it is a different genre. Thanks for the advice!
    Philip Kledzik

  10. stargazer on November 18, 2009 at 8:49 AM

    >Thank you, Rachelle, for all your sage advice!

    I recently read on a blog that it does no good to mention that a manuscript has been professionally critiqued, that it can actually create a negative view. There are members of my critique group, however, who insist it's important to mention it. How do agents in general feel about them?

  11. Kelly H-Y on November 18, 2009 at 1:33 AM

    >Great advice, as usual! Thanks for the post!

  12. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 11:35 PM

    >One thing I find odd: While reading agents/publishers blogs, they sometimes mention that God told/led them to do this/that. Yet I've repeatedly seen the same group arrogantly say that one way for sure rejection is to say "God told me to write this book".
    I would think anyone making that claim would deserve just as fair consideration of their work as the next one. After all, what if God did tell them to write a book, yet didn't tell them how to publish it, and was allowing agents/publishers to make choices.

  13. behlerblog on November 17, 2009 at 7:33 PM

    >100% of the editors said they found the full proposal very helpful.

    Rachelle, even though we've never met, you are my new best friend. I love full proposals on novels and ask for them all the time.

    I had an agent tell me that I was an idiot for wanting a full proposal on her client's novel. I intimated that she was probably an idiot for querying me.

  14. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 4:46 PM

    >"However, since most people use Word which defaults to Times Roman…"

    FYI: Starting with Word 2007, the default font for Word is now Calibri, not TNR.

  15. Sharon A. Lavy on November 17, 2009 at 4:41 PM

    >I have critique partners who need to read this blog. (Not any from ACFW of course)

    Thanks Rachelle.

  16. Rachelle on November 17, 2009 at 3:17 PM

    >MisterChris–Yes, there are still a few "holdouts" who say they don't accept simultaneous submissions, but these are probably more publishers than agents. As always, authors should check agents' websites just to be sure. But these days, the majority of agents and even editors don't require exclusive submissions, and in fact, don't even want them.

    It's better if we assume other agents are seeing it at the same time; it spurs us to move quickly if we like a project.

  17. Rachelle on November 17, 2009 at 3:14 PM

    >Marilynn–I (along with every agent I know) have made it clear time and time again that I will never look at a query for a novel that's not complete. I repeatedly stress this on the blog and in my Twitter advice. "Do not query unless your novel is complete, edited, polished and ready for prime time!"

    The fact that I submit fiction proposals to publishers has no relation whatsoever to the fact that I also require a novel to be complete before I'll look at it.

    I suppose if an agent said they'd represent first-time novels that aren't complete, they could be not legitimate, or just not know what they're doing. (Because obviously they can't sell it to a publisher if it's not complete, so it would be a lie to claim they could.)

    I stress equally as often the fact that a non-fiction book requires a proposal and three sample chapters. The book doesn't have to be completed; but these days, with the market being so competitive, many publishers are asking for complete non-fiction books from first time authors before contracting them.

    Things they are a-changing.

  18. Marilynn Byerly on November 17, 2009 at 2:43 PM

    >Poor advice number one might not be such poor advice after all.

    For many years, the submission package (the first three chapters and a synopsis) for a genre novel was called a partial. This partial was almost always from a COMPLETED novel.

    The submissions package for nonfiction was called a proposal, and the book was almost always not written.

    If an agent wants to look at an incomplete or totally unwritten novel, and you aren't a brand name in some other field (an Oprah, Brad Pitt, etc.), then I'd seriously wonder about that agent's integrity.

    If the agent uses partial and proposal in the same way and the novel is completed, then the agent is legit in that sense.

  19. Jae Baeli on November 17, 2009 at 1:31 PM

    >@Timthy Fish–I use Palatino Linotype, too. It seems easier on the eyes, and i just have an aversion to TNR and Courier. I also format my book to the 6×9 format before even WRITING the book. So my book falls just like it will in the completed version. This gives me a much better idea of how it will look, and also, i find it much easier to write on margins that don't spread out across the usual manuscript page. That way i can include my comments in bubbles to the side.

  20. suzie townsend on November 17, 2009 at 1:09 PM

    >On querying more than one agent at a time – this is a DO.

    Writers should query more than one agent. Where some agents gripe about it is when I writer sends a form email and lists multiple agents in the "to" section. Or when a writer queries 5 agents who all work for the same agency.

    The best thing writers can do is research agents and send a first round of queries to a select number, then if those come back, query a second round of agents and so on.

  21. historywriter on November 17, 2009 at 1:03 PM

    >Thanks for clearing up bad advise and the tips on proposals for fiction. I have created proposals for two of my novels. Having a marketing plan seems to be all important to a successful writing career. The authors at book talks and signings I have gone to certainly do this.

  22. MisterChris on November 17, 2009 at 12:54 PM

    >Hey Rachelle,

    I think I read the same advice you did, so I've got a suspicion where you read it.

    Thanks for giving me a stress-tab over it. I didn't like the advice I was reading.

    One thing I might add though is that I've read many requests for 'no simultaneous submissions'. Am I confusing the pubbing house reqs with agent reqs? Or are there some Agents that won't accept your query if you've sent it elsewhere at the same time?

  23. Lenore Buth at www.awomansview.typepad.com on November 17, 2009 at 12:47 PM

    >Rachelle, you continue to shine light into what seem from this side to be murky areas of the writing world. I also appreciate your explanation about Christian agents following the biblical code of ethics and conducting their business accordingly. I had been thinking the same because that's what Christians do. But sometimes I wonder whether that simply reveals my naivete. Thanks for your clarity, too.

  24. T. Anne on November 17, 2009 at 12:02 PM

    >Great wealth of information Rachelle. I don't have anything questionable to ponder but I was wondering if an author waned to hire an outside publicist in addition to the in-house (if the publisher provides one) would that be frowned upon? My wheels are always churning in the marketing department and I've wondered that for a while. It's OK if you don't have time to answer. Thank you!

  25. Julie Weathers on November 17, 2009 at 11:58 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks for posting this. It was interesting to see the proposal discussion. I was talking to one of the managers last night who stopped to tell me about some new books he bought. His wife took him to some garage sales and he founds some books by an author similar to Sue Grafton.

    He read the back copy on a couple of them and bought them all. He's read two so far and really likes them. That author has a new fan based on her back copy. Knowing Brian, he will now be haunting bookstores, looking for new releases from her.

    Paul Stevens (TOR) asked me about marketing when I pitched Far Rider to him at Surrey. I think it's a good idea to be thinking about these things and have a proposal ready if someone requests it.

    Anon 12:19. Is this bad advice you have heard somewhere? It seems to be out of left field. However, no one said it was OK for agents to leave authors hanging for several months.

    Most agents post what their wait time is. I would give them a little cushion on that. If you've inquired after a respectable time and they requested more time and missed that deadline also, then move on. They are very busy, but you need to set some of your own guidelines. When you're hanging all your hopes on one agent, it's too disappointing if they reject you. Spread the pain out, it's easier to swallow that way.

  26. AM on November 17, 2009 at 11:09 AM

    >I think it’s terrific that the author and agent can create a proposal that may be used to drive the novel’s marketing strategy and campaign.

    I've been concerned that after we write our novels, no matter how well written they may be, marketing will ultimately determine the sales figures. I thought that this critical factor was really out of the authors’ hands. So I am relieved to learn that I may have the opportunity to significantly influence this aspect of my novel’s success.

    I did not understand what agents meant when they said authors must promote their fiction novels. I envisioned myself sitting at a bookstore entrance and I wondered how that would make an appreciable impact on my sales.

    Your previous posting about creating a proposal and your comment that “this is the place to tell what you've already done, what contacts you already have, and what plans you've already made to help market your book,” has helped me understand.

    I have to know my target audience and develop a branding that will reach ‘my readers’. When I have completed this step, then I will be ready to search for an agent and a publisher. And I will search for an agent who expects me to help create the proposal package.

    Thank you.

  27. Anita on November 17, 2009 at 11:09 AM

    >Very good post. When I'm ready to get my manuscript off the shelf again, I definitely have to come back to this post and to your whole blog. 🙂

  28. Laura on November 17, 2009 at 11:09 AM

    >REgarding the comment about OpenOffice's lousy word count program, this information was actually very encouraging to me. My novel is written on OpenOffice and the word count program claims my novel is 111,000 words long. So if Word drops a couple thousand words, that will make my job a lot easier. At this point, I was wondering how on earth to cut 11,000 words to make the novel a more acceptable length. I'll have to check what the word count is in Word, but I'm already breathing a sigh of relief.

    I've read some advice on the web that seemed a bit fishy, so I'm glad to have found Rachelle's site and read her reliable advice. Thanks.

  29. Eric J. Krause on November 17, 2009 at 10:37 AM

    >Great advice! I've wondered about word count and font. I've been using courier and a formula, but I'll start with Times New Roman and Word's word count (and check the guidelines when I submit to make sure). Thanks!

  30. Peter P on November 17, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    >Great Post, Rachelle!

  31. GunDiva on November 17, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    >Thanks for all of the great information. One piece of advice I've read repeatedly is not to use MS Word, as its typesetting doesn't play well with "real" typesetting used by publishers. Is this true? I would think that with the wide-spread use of Word that typesetting wouldn't really be an issue any more.

  32. M. J. Macie on November 17, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    >Great article and very informative. I found you answered several questions I'd had in this piece. Thank you so much for the information and great advice. Boy, have times changed in communications or what? I feel agents and editors are more approachable, understanding and real than ever before.
    M.J. Macie

  33. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 9:57 AM

    >Thanks, Anon! I know agents are busy but it's frustrating when they REQUEST a ms., then keep writers in limbo indefinitely. Why can't writers ask to hear back within a certain time frame?

    I wasted half a year on an agent who kept asking for "more time," but meanwhile kept going to conferences looking for new clients.

    I hear you're not supposed to bug an agent or give them a deadline but many have open-ended policies or else they fail to adhere to their own deadlines. If agents only request 1% of their queries, why the cold shoulder?

    SO many rules for writers to follow, but none for agents? Seems like an unfair double standard!

  34. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 9:27 AM

    >Oh, and after six weeks, feel free to send us an e-mail to politely ask. You probably will jog us into at least finding your proposal in the queue. That's how Harry Potter was found–JK Rowling called to ask for her fancy packaging back, the editorial assistant pulled it out, took a second look and the rest is history.

    And I'd query other agents at the same time. If we're interested and excited, we'll get back to you quickly.

  35. Sarah Forgrave on November 17, 2009 at 9:25 AM

    >Thanks for clearing up some of the confusion, Rachelle! I had read the word count rule you mentioned and wasn't sure what's the standard these days. I'm glad to hear using word count in Word does the job. 🙂

  36. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 9:24 AM

    >I work for a literary agent and we're very sorry when we get backed up and don't respond to requested proposals in a reasonable length of time. Life happens, pressures mount, it's hard for the readers to get the face time to present, we're thinking about the manuscripts, situations change within the industry to make us second guess our initial thoughts, and more pressing work intervenes.

    We're not malicious, we're just very, very busy. I personally processed 170 queries on Thursday night. Four day's worth of e-mail . . . you just have no idea what goes on in the office.

    Thanks for your insights, Rachelle. We read them in our office. 🙂

  37. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 8:55 AM

    >I was actually told by someone who's never researched anything about the world of writing/publishing that I should do self-publishing first, and that only try to get an agent or go straight to a publisher if that doesn't work out. I know it's not a bad route to take, but I'm not an agent, editor, or publisher, so I think I'll stick with finding an agent!

  38. Rachelle on November 17, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >Regarding font and Word 7–yes, it does default to Calibri, I'd forgotten since I changed the default on mine. And pretty much everything about Word 7 bugs me so I've tried to block it out.

    On querying multiple agents or one at a time: yes, the industry standard is to query as many as you want.

  39. BJ on November 17, 2009 at 8:50 AM

    >I know it's possible to change the default font in Word 7, but I thought Rachelle should know that her statement that TNR is Word's default is not completely accurate.

  40. Glynis on November 17, 2009 at 8:42 AM

    >My head is spinning with the advice out there. I have just changed my font BACK to Times as I was told differently. I will listen to you from now on Rachelle.
    I have also just checked my word count and am 275 words down on open office compared to word…hum as if I am not struggling enough.
    Thanks for the listing and I have printed it for my file. I am going to have a lovely bonfire with the rest!!!

  41. birdermurdermomma on November 17, 2009 at 8:22 AM

    I always heard you were supposed to query one agent at a time as well. This takes forever, as you noted. This past weekend, I was on a panel with two well-published authors at a Mystery Conference, and they said to query as many as you like at one time! Only when an agent responds do you have to inform them that you have queried others, and only do that if someone else has responded to you. I thought this made a lot of sense, and from now on, that's what I would do.

  42. Lisa Jordan on November 17, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    >I've heard this mainly from ABA authors, but real agents live in NYC where all the publishing action is. Same with decent publishing houses…

  43. J. S. Watt on November 17, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    >Thanks for being so honest. Your blog helps quite a bit in the ongoing search for better quality querying,etc.

  44. Krista Phillips on November 17, 2009 at 8:11 AM

    >Personally, I like the look of calibri, not sure why… but since it was the default I wrote my latest book in it. But… I change it before I submit to anyone:-)

    No bad advice that I can remember off hand, just lots of good stuff!

  45. Timothy Fish on November 17, 2009 at 7:35 AM

    >Personally, I don't think Calibri is so ugly, but in Word you can set the default to whatever you want. Press Ctrl+D to bring up the Font dialog, make your choices and then select the "Default…" button at the bottom to have it use your preferred font for new documents.

  46. Kelley on November 17, 2009 at 7:31 AM

    >Love this topic of bad advice on the web. This one drives me nuts–there's a forum where I keep seeing writers being advised to query only one agent at a time, regardless.

    Soooooo, what if one doesn't respond? Or takes a reallllllly long time? But no, they're adamant. One at a time. *sigh*

  47. Pam Halter on November 17, 2009 at 7:30 AM

    >Anonymous 12:19 – to answer your question about agent/editor deadlines … most will tell you: if you don't hear from us in 3 months, we're not interested.

    It's usually in the guidelines.

    That's better than wondering for months, but still a little frustrating because it's so very easy to send a quick "no thanks" email or even a form email.

    At the same time, we writers have no idea how incredibly busy editors/agents are. Imagine replying to a hundred emails a day with a "no thanks" and still have to respond to the other two hundred various emails. It's easy to understand when you think of it in that way.

  48. BJ on November 17, 2009 at 7:08 AM

    >Just a note: Word 7 has a new default font: Calibri 11, which is pretty ugly. Of course, all of Word 7's defaults are counter industry standard.

  49. Timothy Fish on November 17, 2009 at 6:41 AM

    >I don't know of any bad advice because I think we should ignore all advice like this anyway (how's that for bad advice?).

    Concerning word count, while I rely on MS Word to give me an accurate word count, when I’m writing, I format the pages in such a way that the average word count falls between 250 and 300, whatever my chosen font. Which in my case is Palatino Linotype. When working from an outline, I find that it’s easier to keep up with where I am by using the page count than what it is to keep checking the total number of words. It also makes it easier to work the sections out of order because to know the length I need only subtract one page number from another rather than select the text for that section and then have MS Word count the words.

    Gary, given my experience with OpenOffice, I’m not surprised the word count feature doesn’t work.

  50. CKHB on November 17, 2009 at 6:34 AM

    >The general wisdom on font is: no one will get rejected for using Courier or Times New Roman. Just don't get " kre8iv".

    And I've read mixed messages on word count. Some big and modern agents still prefer it! My understanding is that this is one place where you can flatter yourself: choose actual count, or calculate 250/words/page (in Courier 12-pt!!!) and then use the one that better fits the agent's or genre's desired length.

  51. Jessica on November 17, 2009 at 6:23 AM

    >I don't remember any bad advice, right now, but my kids are jumping on the bed and laughing so… LOL!

    Good stuff here. I'm so glad I can go by computer count and TNR. I have heard people on loops say that we're supposed to add up the words somehow, but I never tried because I'm horrible at math and formulas.

    Thanks for sharing!

  52. Gary Corby on November 17, 2009 at 4:43 AM

    >If I might add to point #3 about word count…

    For those using Writer from OpenOffice instead of MS Word, be aware the OpenOffice word count function is wildly wrong. I use both and found out the hard way.

    The link is to my own post on the subject, btw; I don't want to self-promote but it has the best description I've seen of the symptoms and cause.

    If you're using OpenOffice, you'll need to open the file at least once in Word when you're done to get an accurate count. Be prepared to see the word count on a novel drop by several thousand.

  53. Aimee LS on November 17, 2009 at 2:46 AM

    >Thanks for yet more informative and helpful blogging!

    I read recently that writing a query letter in the first person Character POV is 'gimmicky' and agents will dislike it / probably reject it simply for that reason.

    I don't have any idea if this is good advice or otherwise. Thoughts?

  54. Anonymous on November 17, 2009 at 2:19 AM

    >Why is it OK for agents to leave writers hanging for months while they *consider* a ms.? Why can't they meet deadlines like everyone else? Say if you haven't heard from an agent in 4-6 weeks for a partial or 2-3 months for a full, you can assume they're no longer interested. That takes the pressure off the writer and agent. Some industry guidelines, please!