Now that my novel is about to come out, a lot of people have asked me about the business side of things—specifically, how did I get an agent.
I am not going to lie, landing an agent is difficult: you not only need a completed manuscript, but your novel has to be attractive. What I mean is that agents are looking at your book as a long-term investment. As soon as he or she signs you, that agent is spending time on you that may never pay off—that is why it will always be easier (and safer) for an agent to say “No thank you.” Just as you’re passionate about your book, agents are passionate about their clients. They want to be excited about pitching your novel and working with you. So give them something to be excited about!
As much as I dreamed about having martini lunches with a New York agent, I knew I couldn’t query anyone until I felt my novel was as good as I could absolutely make it. I know the stories about writers querying agents and publishers while their manuscripts are only half-completed, and that may have been true back in the 1940s, but it is not the case now. The manuscript has to be finished, polished, and ready to rock. Don’t worry about anything else until you feel you cannot improve on it anymore.
By the time I reached this point, I had one agent in mind. He and I had corresponded a while back over a previous novel. There’s nothing wrong knocking on someone’s door again—assuming you were not an asshole and burned your bridges. DON’T BURN BRIDGES! That agent wasn’t interested, so I went back to basics.
Before I contacted anyone else, I sat down and thought about what I wanted in an agent. I knew I wanted to work with someone younger. In the debate about youth vs. experience, I wanted to work with someone who would be as hungry as I was, and I didn’t want to worry about my agent retiring in a year or two. Then I did several months worth of homework. First I went through published novels by writers I admire and looked to see what agents were thanked in the acknowledgements. I looked up these men and women to see where they worked. I also picked up the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and went through each and every listing. I crossed out every place that a) was not accepting new clients and b) did not represent literary fiction. It wasn’t long before I had put together a list of names that I thought would be a good fit for me and my coming-of-age debut.
When it came time to write a query letter, I felt a huge amount of stress, almost like I was a teenager again approaching a cute girl in the hallway. And, to be honest, I handled the situation similarly: I approached with confidence, respect, and I made damn sure I didn't come off as a slob. Like I said, it will always be safer for the agent to NOT take you on—so I knew if I had typos, errors, or a general lousy attitude in my letter that NOBODY would want to work with me. I spent a lot of time on my query letter to make my book sound appealing. I let my other writer friends read it and give me feedback. I only had one page, so I focused on making every sentence, every word necessary. Then, after I had the basic elevator pitch down tight, I set a quota: every Friday, after I was done at the office, I queried five agents. Every Friday. And I don’t mean I just sent off five e-mails (never shotgun a form query letter) I mean I found five agents I would be thrilled to work with, and I tailored each e-mail to that individual. I explained why I wanted to work with him or her, and why I thought they would be a good person to represent my novel. But I kept it brief and polite. And I never gave them any bullshit reasons either.
It wasn’t long before agents started responding. One agent wrote me back, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for your project! I thought your query and sample were well-written with a strong concept but not quite what I’m looking for at the moment. Because I’m careful to keep my client list manageable, I’m being really selective about what I request. However, I think another agent is going to be intrigued enough to ask for the manuscript and I’m sorry I can’t offer a referral.” Now, that was a rejection letter, but about as nice as a rejection letter could get, so after that I knew I was doing the right thing, and I kept to my quota of five query letters every Friday.
After a few weeks of querying, I came across Mark Gottlieb at Trident Media Group. Mark had just transitioned from the audio rights department to a full-fledged agent. I thought this was a good sign, because it showed he had already been around a bit and was learning various aspects of the business. His roster of clients was also impressive, especially for such a young agent. A young and upcoming agent at one of the nation’s biggest agencies? The guy was a total world-beater.
Around this time agents were asking me to send them partials of the manuscript. I think about three were looking at the first fifty pages when Mark e-mailed me and asked to see the full book. I happily obliged and went along with my day. The very next morning I had an e-mail from Mark saying that he’d read the entire manuscript and wanted to talk with me on the phone about representation!
As thrilled and excited as I was, I knew I had to be professional and look at everything from a business point-of-view. I came up with a list of questions—some to make sure he wasn’t going to try to make me put vampires in the book, but also to see why he wanted to represent me. I know that may sound strange, but I wanted to make sure Mark was excited about the book and would fight the good fight. When we spoke on the phone, I could tell he was extremely qualified and wasn’t going to try to box me into a corner, badger me, or any of that. He told me what he liked about the book, the audience he could see wanting to read it, and about the opportunities he and his agency could offer. We talked for a little more about the book and some other stuff, and we agreed that I would take some time to contact the other agents reading my manuscript and let them know I had an offer.
A week later I signed with Mark Gottlieb. Within in the year Mark was ranked #1 in Agents on publishermarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other individual categories. That means I basically signed with the #1 agent at the # 1 agency.
So when I hear writers ask how should they go about getting an agent, I tell them to be persistent. Set a quota and stick to it. But know why you’re querying an agent. You should know why you want to work with that person. And you should be able to tell if they really want to work with you.
Good Books To Read When Researching Literary Agents
Writer’s Digest Magazine—Get a subscription
Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents edited by Chuck Sambuchino
The Short Fuse Guide to Query Letters by Michelle E. Richter
How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen
A good article on the web: "How to Get to Yes: Writing Effective Query Letters"
Writer living in the hill country of Texas