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secret agents

August 17th, 2009

I once wrote an essay that I never published, or even tried to publish, about the process of finding my first agent. The gist of it was this: It was like dating, but dating with a purpose—to find a spouse. You meet all these people, some you fantasize about from a distance, convinced that they’re The One, but they don’t give you the time of day. Others are all over you like a cheap suit but you think surely there must be something wrong with them if they’re so into you. And then finally, from across the darkened room, you lock eyes and find that right person. And she offers you a ring—or in this case, representation—and within in a week of your accepting, The One who would not give you the time of day before, suddenly comes knocking: He finally read your proposal and chapters. He loved them. He wants to represent you. So, in my mythical agent story/spouse hunt, The One became The One Who Got Away. (Irony here is I never obsessed so much about finding a husband!)

Anyhow, maybe one day I’ll find that essay and post it here. Because agents sure do seem to hold a lot of allure and mystery and terror for writers. I know they did for me. The night before I sent out my first agent mailings (this back in the yonder days of 2003, when we still do things through the Pony Express), I watched Jerry Maguire, hoping the TV might impart some kind of good-agent mojo. I did not, however, yell “Show me the money!” at anyone.

These days, when I get emails from hopeful writers, the question most often asked is not: How do I write a book, or market a book or which publisher should I try or any of that stuff. It’s: How do I get an agent? Which makes sense because most of the time, with the larger houses anyway, you need an agent to get your foot in the door, or your manuscript out of the slush pile, the big stack of unread manuscripts that editors (or more likely their assistants) go through when they have spare time (which is like never).

I don’t have answers to that. There are a zillion books, web sites and seminars on How To Hook An Agent, almost as many on How To Hook A Husband. And agents are in the best position to tell you how to land them and many of them, like Janet Reid, blog about it, frequently. So I do limit my answers to the following pieces of advice to people, which I shall now impart here because I’ve had two agent questions float into my inbox in the last 24 hours and I’m nothing if not responsive. And lazy. Now I can just refer back to this the next time I get this question.

1. Make sure your manuscript is ready. If you don’t have a finished book, you don’t need to be looking for an agent. Horse first. Then cart. (Unless you’re doing a nonfiction book and that’s a whole different kettle of fish—goodness, that’s a lot of animal metaphors!  Then you need a proposal.) But for fiction and for a first-time author, you’ll need a complete draft. And it should be as perfect as you can make it. Good agents will have good notes and will help you make it better, but why handicap yourself by sending in something that is less than your best? When it comes to agents, there really is no second chance to make a first impression. Sometimes agents will like your stuff but think it needs work and ask for revisions, which is promising and means your stuff has potential, but it can be hard to even get that amount of attention. So don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Send in the best of the best. If you want critical feedback, get it from friends, your writing group, a class, not an agent.

2. Scour the acknowledgements of books that your book is similar to and find out who the agent was. These days, you can often just Google to find out who reps who. But the point is, compile a list of agents who have repped books that yours is similar to. Query them first. Be realistic. Maybe you are the next Jodi Piccoult or Stephenie Meyer but Jodi and Stephenie’s agents are very busy being Jodi and Stephenie’s agents. Choose the agents of writers whose books yours is truly like, not the agents of writers who have blockbuster careers you aspire to have.

3. Make your query letter a work of art. I have belatedly discovered perhaps the Best Blog Ever, well at least since Miss Snark—the literary agent Amy Williams—stopped doing her blog two years ago (though you should still go read her archives because they are incredibly helpful and FUNNY!) Query Shark is so very helpful, unless you are on deadline and then it’s just a great big enjoyable timesuck. It’s a blog in which agents deconstruct queries, real, live queries that writers send in to agents: The good, the bad and the ugly. They show what works, what doesn’t, why. What gets a form rejection, what gets a request for a manuscript, and some of the letters go through drafts so writers have a chance to improve their work. It’s a great way to learn from other people’s mistakes—or, if you’re brave enough to submit your own—from your own mistakes. Your query letter is what makes agents ask for your manuscript, and then it’s up to your work to do the heavy lifting (which is why it’s so important to have it be is good as can be).

4. Finally, be patient and have heart. All writers have stories of how many agents or editors rejected their work (calling JK Rowling). Honestly, I think it can be harder to find an agent than a publisher because agents make their money off a percentage of their work. If you don’t earn, they don’t earn. Presumably, this is also how it works at the publishing houses, but the money trail is a lot hazier, and publishers have managed to lose money for years and stay in business. Agents can’t do that. So agents are very picky. In general they seem to want work that a) appeals to them personally and b) that they think has some commercial potential. Both of those are highly subjective. Case in point: My first book, the one in which finding an agent felt like finding a husband? Four agents wanted to rep that book. It bombed. With  If I Stay, I had to get a new agent (my old one shut down her shop). I got two rejections, two non-responses, and one response that is the sort writers dream of. Effusive, smart, insightful, with perfect notes. It was from the first agent I’d sent to. But, hello: It had taken her FIVE MONTHS to get back to me. The point of this very long story being, you don’t need the bigshot at William Morris. You don’t need 10 people begging to sign you. You just need the right person. And finding him or her can take a while. Six months. Or, really even six years.

These days, I finally get what the term “agent” means. It does not mean your spouse, your therapist, your status symbol, your validation. It means someone who is your agent, who is, at least in terms of books, your extension, the person who acts fully on your behalf in the world of publishing. No secret to that.

  1. Great post. I had someone at a booksigning come up and ask about getting an agent. I’ve decided I’m going to have a handout with some helpful places to go, like agentquery.com next time.

    Wait. Amy Williams is Miss Snark? For real? I had heard Janet Reid was Miss Snark???

  2. I think Janet Reid might be Query Shark. Amy was outed as Miss Snark a while ago, but she stopped doing that wonderful blog in 2007. Shark, Snark, who can keep them straight?

  3. gayle, this is so great..and so was your email! i haven’t been at my computer a lot in the past couple of days since it’s been so nice out (finally), but i will email you back sometime tomorrow :)

  4. Great post. I’d love your permission to distribute it (with attribution, of course) to aspiring writers in a course I teach called How To Sell Everything You Write. Would this be ok with you?

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