What's **really** a referral?
How to know if you have one or not
You might know, but I’m closed to new queries right now, while I try to catch up on the ones I already have. I’m making good progress! I’ve written before about why agents close to queries and I actually send this post to writers when they query my while I’m closed, so they know what’s going on.
I talked a little about what a personal referral is there, but I think it’s time to go further into it. I’ve also been thinking about whether referrals are even good, and if I should accept them. Do referrals perpetuate a culture of it’s all who you know? Or are they valuable tools to share information and access to those who need specialized consideration? Like, if you are part of a vulnerable or marginalized community and you need an agent who is sensitive in specific ways, you’d want a referral to someone vetted, who you can hopefully trust will be sensitive to your needs! On the other hand, it can be away that only the buddies of this one person have access to a gatekeeper. I don’t know that there is a system where one exists without the other. All systems are imperfect. I’m still thinking about this one.
Why even accept referrals? Well, for one it’s a professional courtesy. I will accept referrals from other professional contacts as a favor, and they will do it for me. Sometimes it’s about getting the writer information, not necessarily about the chance for representation. Sometimes those referrals pan out to wonderful, long-time agent/author relationships! Sometimes they do not. I think referrals can carry more weight depending on who they come from and my relationship to that person. It doesn’t change what I think of the work—I still have to believe I can sell it—but a referral from someone’s taste and judgement I trust does carry some weight.
And that’s the rub—you don’t know what I think about the person who has referred you, and you most often can’t know! That’s ok! That’s between the refer-er and the refer-ee! All you can do acess if the opportunity is right for you and hope it works out best for everyone. Sometimes a rejection is it working out best for everyone.
What I consider true referrals come from:
A person with a direct connection to me
A former or current client
A colleague—editor, fellow agent, or other publishing professional
A personal friend
A former teacher
What I DON’T consider true referrals come from:
Just someone who knows my name from the internet, even if I am also aware of them
A person I DON’T know, but who knows me (likely from the internet)
A true referral usually reaches out to me to let me know its coming, or sends it themselves. For example, if a client wants to introduce me to someone in their writing group, they will usually send me an email that says hey I think this person is great, they are sending you a query. Or This is the query from my friend who I think is great! They know that there are no promises, but it is a nice way for everyone to get what they want. My client gets to do a nice thing for a friend, the prospective writer gets a little of my attention, and I get the chance at something great. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s true all the time, referral or not.
If you are not sure if the person who has referred you to an agent is a true referral, ASK. How are you acquainted with Agent X? Have you worked with them before? When I reference your name to Agent X, will they recognize it? IT IS OK TO ASK THESE QUESTIONS. YOU ARE NOT BEING UNGRATEFUL. It’s best to have this information going in, so you understand the context under which your work will be received! When I give a referral, I am very clear about whether that person is just someone who’s work I am aware of that you should check out, or if you can use my name and say specifically that I sent you their way.
There was a time a while back when someone I didn’t know, not even just by name on the internet, was giving out my name a lot to queriers as “a referral.” I got a good number of emails saying this person “referred” them to me, even categorizing the query in the subject line as a “referral.” I didn’t know this person at all. I googled them and figured out they were giving online classes—probably good ones!—and I must have been one of the agents they mentioned. This is flattering and good! I am pleased they pointed people my way. But it’s not a personal referral. I didn’t know this person. And they did it a lot, which made it even LESS personal. I hope they did not make more of our (non-)relationship to their students. I treated these queries as normal queries, as in, if I was closed to queries, I told them as much, and if I was open to queries, I considered them in the order they were received. They weren’t tarnished by their teacher’s liberal use of “referral.” But it didn’t have the extra boost they might have been hoping it would.
Referrals work the same way going out as they do going in. That’s why I can’t give you a referral to another agent after I’ve rejected your book. I have likely only read a few chapters, and without knowing more, I wouldn’t be able to give you an appropriate or effective referral. And also, I can’t give out 100 referrals a month or I would wear out my welcome to the people I am referring you to. I know it sucks. I know when you ask you are just asking me to point you in the right direction. But I could just as likely point you in the WRONG direction and that would be worse.
I use referrals sparingly. I take them as they come in the context in which they come. Sometimes your good friend asks you to look at their cousin’s picture book and you do it because they are your good friend and hey, it might be great! Sometimes you referral a fantastic writer to an agent you know well because they are the exact right person for that book and you are not. Referrals are nice to get and give. They are not the only way in the door. Even to an agent who is closed to queries, like I have been for a while now. Yes, you can’t send me a query without a referral but I am but one agent! There are HUNDREDS of others out there. You might think I am the only and best agent for your book, but I actually highly doubt that! There are so few books out there that are so specific that they are only right for ONE (1) agent! So try other agents and you will likely be surprised. I’m flattered you think that about me, but really, it’s not true. Go forth, with or without a referral!