Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Query Questions with Margot Belet

Writers have copious amounts of imagination. It's what makes their stories so fantastic. But there's a darker side to so much out-of-the-box thinking. When a writer is in the query trenches, their worries go into overdrive. They imagine every possible disaster.

Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a series called Query Questions. I'll ask the questions which prey on every writer's mind, and hopefully take some of the pain out of querying. These are questions that I've seen tossed around on twitter and writing sites. They are the type of questions that you need answers from the real expert--agents!

I'm so happy to bring Query Questions back from the dead with new interviews. Since I stopped doing interviews, a whole new crop of agents have settled into the business, and I'm sure people would like to know more about them.

Today we learn a little more about foreign agents with Margot Belet of agentur literatur Gudrun Hebel in Germany. 

Is there a better or worse time of year to query?

I read submissions whenever I find a spare moment, so the short answer is no. However, I would avoid sending out submissions during the holidays (for us in Germany, that's mainly Christmas, Easter, and a few weeks in July-August) as well as during the weeks leading up to the major trade book fairs (Frankfurt in October, London in March, BookExpo America in May). Nobody wants their submission to end up at the bottom of an agent's inbox.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?

As long as the query fits the genres/themes I'm looking for (or is somehow intriguing enough to make me forget about those genres), I'll always read the sample pages. Most authors, especially those new to the business, have a hard time writing the “perfect query” (if there even is such a thing). That doesn't mean that their book won't be awesome. Right now, I still feel like those judges on “The Voice”, when a new singer walks up the stage – every time I open a new manuscript, I hope to be swept off my feet and to want to “push my button” to get that author on my team! I just started building my author list a few months ago though, so there might come a time when I get less curious and excited, and more cynical.

How open are you to writers who have never been published?

Very open. Writers who have never been published will probably have less trouble finding an agent or a publisher than those who have already published some works that did not sell well. Every first-time writer might still turn out to be the “next big thing”. If previous works exist, however, publishers will want to know why these weren't (that) successful, and why the new work is going to be different.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query? Are movie/tv reference okay as comp titles?

That depends on whether decent comp titles are available. If you've written something boundary-breaking and genre-defying, don't try to define it with comp titles. If, on the other hand, you've written something that clearly fits one genre or is inspired by a certain tradition, comp titles might really help me decide quickly whether your query fits my tastes. A warning here: comp titles raise an agent's expectations, so don't use very famous/brilliant ones if your work does not closely resemble them – the agent will only be disappointed once they start reading. And please be more creative than “the next Harry Potter”. Unless that's exactly what you've written – in that case, send it my way immediately!

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

The more you can tell me about the manuscript without wasting too many words, the better. That obviously does not apply to “personalized chit-chat” that helps convince me why you're the perfect person to tell this particular story. If you've written a murder mystery and you're a forensic pathologist in real life, that would be extremely interesting to know.

Many agents say they don't care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?

Perhaps it's because I'm part of a newer generation of agents, or because I've worked at a nonfiction editorial department before becoming an agent, but I think it does help if authors already have a fan base on blogs/social media. Especially for nonfiction books, where authors usually need to be experts on their topic. Many fiction authors are not active online, and some make the conscious decision not to get distracted by all of that, and that's fine too. But if an online presence is something that defines/excites you, why not highlight that in your submission?

What themes are you sick of seeing?

I used to really love romantic comedies, but lately many of those stories just feel so exaggerated – I'd like to read more genuine feel-good romance about real relationships. Apart from that, I am only sick of seeing submissions that do not fit my wish list (see below), that don't address me or at least the agency by name (“Dear Mr./Mrs.” just won't do) or pretend to be personalized messages but actually aren't (“I think my work would fit your agency's profile really well!' – really? Why?). I expect authors to do some research before submitting their work: sending the same email to a hundred agencies rarely works.

Do you look at trends or editor wishlists when deciding to sign a manuscript?

My colleagues and I talk to editors regularly. Even when we're trying to sell a specific title, we  might get the reply that an editor is not interested in that right now, but would be excited to read genre x or topic y. If a suitable submission then appears in our inbox, that could influence our decision to sign that manuscript. More often than not, however, it works the other way round: I read a manuscript, my gut tells me that this is something special, I will sign it and then find the right publishing partner for it.

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent? Does a manuscript have to be sub-ready or will you sign stories that need work?

I'm definitely an editorial agent! Working together with authors to make characters more believable, to speed up (or slow down) the story's pace, to solve plot holes and avoid style mistakes is the most fun part of my job – I could never stop doing it. I might not have the time to make manuscripts 100% perfect before sending them out to publishers (that last step will be your editor's job), but I try to get them as close to perfection as possible.

What things are at the top of your submission wish list? What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?

I'm currently open to queries in the following genres:

- Quirky, contemporary fantasy, often with a fairy-tale touch and/or a portal that leads to a world filled with wonder. Some of my recent favorites include The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, The Night Circus, The Hazel Wood, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the Caraval series, and anything by Neil Gaiman. I'm also a massive Harry Potter fan – for me, fantasy is less about swordsmanship and epic battles than about cozy armchairs and talking animals.  

- Believable, subtle romantic comedy that doesn't focus on the world of fashion or on slapstick scenes (like the female lead clumsily tripping over her own feet). I'm also looking for other optimistic narratives about navigating life. My favorite titles include The Keeper of Lost Things, The Memory Shop, The Reincarnation Blues, and most of Jill Mansell's and David Nicholls's work. My all-time favorite movie is Love Actually.

- Murder mysteries rational enough for the reader to guess along (anything inspired by Agatha Christie, escape rooms, and puzzles). I'm currently reading Stuart Turton's high-concept murder mystery The Devil and the Dark Water and loving it. Movie-wise, I recommend Knives Out. I also enjoy a good, unexpected twist towards the end, like in many M. Night Shyamalan movies.

- Select nonfiction, especially about animals (from extinct to unexpectedly cute, like in Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus) or other living things (trees, shrubs – surprise me!). The best TV equivalent is anything by David Attenborough, especially the mind-blowing Planet Earth II (which has better story lines and more believable characters than some books out there).

Margot Belet moved from Belgium to Berlin, Germany to join the “agentur literatur Gudrun Hebel” agency in June 2020. Although Dutch is her native language, she was brainwashed early on by her anglophile parents. Her love affair with English-language literature started with “Jane Eyre” at the age of 12 and despite this being just slightly overambitious, she has never looked back. After two MA degrees – in Sociology from a Belgian university, and European Culture at University College London – Margot went on to complete a PhD in Cultural Sociology, during which she developed a Twitter roleplay exercise that helps adolescents enjoy reading. Of course, she also gathered publishing experience: at literary agencies in London and New York, and as a fellow at the nonfiction editorial department of the German trade publisher Rowohlt. 

As Margot is not yet added to her website there, she has given me her submission information. Any writers whose work fits my wish list are welcome to mail a short author bio, synopsis (the whole story, with spoilers) and the first 40 pages to:

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