Mistakes I Made Part IV: Agent Quest

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I’m on my third agent. I am extremely happy with her, have been with her for almost a decade and can’t imagine switching to someone else. We have sub-agents who handle foreign rights, and another agency who handles film and TV. But getting to this place took a long time and I thought I would give you a few telling snippets from my past which we might call How Not to Get an Agent.

Agents are essential. Some folk might dispute this, especially if they are working with or targeting small presses or are self-pubbed, but if you want a major, traditional publisher, you are going to need an agent. I didn’t know this when I wrote my first novel and so sent it directly to publishers with predictable results. When I started getting a clue, I began questing after agents, and being embarrassed by what I had been doing to date, I found the closest thing to Rule Books (esp. Writer’s Market) and followed their advice to the letter.

What this amounted to was identifying suitable agents by their listings, sending the obligatory one page query, and waiting (I touched on the waiting part last time). From time to time I’d get a request for the book but there was a lot of silence. It took me three years to get my first agent this way and it was what I call the Front Door approach. It was polite, even genteel, and it was premised on not knowing the agent from Adam.

Here’s a different strategy. The wildly successful thriller writer Clive Cussler tells a story about how he got his first agent. He wrote to the agent in question as if he had known him all his life, referring to him by his first name, filling him in on happenings in his family and winding up with something along these lines: “As you know, Bob, [or whatever] I’m hanging it up this summer so am not taking on new clients but I’ve found this great young writer who really needs representation. His name is Clive Cussler.” Cussler signed the letter with some made up name, put his father’s home address on it and sent it off. A few weeks later, the agent wrote back to the imaginary friend asking to see this Cussler character’s manuscript, and right after that, Cussler had an agent. It was years before he came clean to his agent that he had been set up. The agent remarked that he figured he’d met this (imaginary) guy in a bar and been to drunk to remember…

That’s not the front door approach. It’s more like breaking into the basement with a stocking over your head, and though it makes for a great anecdote if it works, I don’t recommend it. I also don’t recommend sending the agent gifts or showing up at the office dressed in scuba gear. But there is something between the polite front door approach (mine) and the home invasion (Cussler’s).

The key, I think, is some kind of personal connection. Cussler was able to fake one, making the agent think he owed somebody a look at the work. His story appears in a little book that I have an essay in called How I Got Published, and reading it is enlightening (and a little frustrating) because it reveals how many successful writers found an “in” with their agent instead of waiting patiently for them to answer the front door. Some of them had family connections or were friends-of-friends with people in the business. Some had links through schools or colleges, all of which could be tapped to get their foot in the door. That, of course, is the key. There are exceptions, I know, but most writers finally get picked up or passed over according to what’s actually in their manuscript not on who they know, but getting that manuscript in front of the right set of eyes is crucial.

I’m going to assume that most of those reading this who don’t have an agent also don’t have the kinds of indirect links to agents which seem to work so well for some (not that I’m bitter). But you can MAKE connections. I wrote in an earlier posting on my mistakes that I had no support group, no beta readers. That post was specifically about learning my craft but it also showed a hole in what we now call networking. I didn’t do conferences or conventions. I didn’t buy pitch slots with agents or hobnob at cocktail parties building the crucial sliver of experience that would allow me to open a subsequent query letter with “as we discussed last week…” I think a part of me thought such an approach was borderline-unethical, that it didn’t really count unless you got in through the front door. I have subsequently taken that part of me outside and beaten it with a tire iron.

I continued to go in through the front door but I did learn a couple of crucial pointers which helped.

1. Do your research on the agent/agency. In particular, target those who represent things like what you have written. The internet gives up secrets like this comparatively easily, but the best way might be to look at the books of people you enjoy reading. Authors invariably thank their agents. Knowing the agent’s work might not be quite as good as knowing the agent personally, but it’s a step in the right direction, and suggests both your professionalism and the possibility of useful overlap between your work and what the agent already represents. I discovered that my present agent went to the same grad school as I had. We never met there, but I mentioned it in my query and she mentioned it in her request for the full manuscript. Was it a deciding factor? No. Did it create a sense of common ground? A little.

2. Always send pages. Even if the agency listing specifies query only. Yes, you may occasionally get tossed in the trash for not following policy, but more often than not your material will get at least a cursory look, and that’s really what you’re going for. Took me a long time to figure this out.

3. Think long and hard before firing your agent should you get one. I fired my first agent after 3 years and it took me another 3 years to replace her. I fired her because she hadn’t been able to sell my book, which I thought was her failing. It wasn’t. It was mine, or rather, the book’s. There are perfectly good reasons to part company from a legitimate agent (and a lot more to leave an illegitimate one) but their inability to sell your book is not usually one of them unless you suspect serious negligence or incompetence.

4. Polish your material (query, samples, and manuscript) till it shines, and I don’t just mean fix the typos. This has to be your very best work. I used to send out batches of 10 queries at a time and hear nothing. For the book which got me my present agent I sent out 5 total, 3 of which led to manuscript requests, and 2 offers of representation.

5. Find ways to meet agents. Do conventions/conferences. Don’t become a stalker (nothing will get your work trashed quicker) but remember that agents are looking for career-writers, people with whom they can have a creative business relationship. Knowing who you are matters, and that means that the personal stuff counts for something

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22 comments to Mistakes I Made Part IV: Agent Quest

  • >>I have subsequently taken that part of me outside and beaten it with a tire iron.>>

    I nearly snorted on my tea.

    AJ, the back door can indeed backfire on you, and a little common sense is always wise sneaking in like a masked burglar. Story in point: I was at a conference once, sitting with two editors and three agents (I was buying) and this high level editor came running up to our little group, in a total panic, white faced with terror. She had gone to her room to freshen up and found a manuscript with a hand written letter atop and flowers on her pillow…. In her room. Where she was. Alone.

    She left in utter fear. We called security, who went back with her, and they found no one in the room. She brought the letter out and read it to us. It sounded like a stalker letter, flowery with praise and how wonderful the writer thought the editor. Very much like a stalker letter.

    It took a while to sort it all out, and it was totally innocent. The mother of a young writer (who couldn’t afford to attend the con) had dropped off these items at the front desk of the hotel and the staff had kindly taken them in.

    It was not wise and gained the mother nothing good to do it this way. That mother should have gone in the front door. The agents and editors all took names, and they will tell the story (and likely the writer’s name) at parties for years to come.

  • Good point, Faith. That’s definitely dangerous and prone to backfire spetacularly. But I think of the ‘manuscript on the pillow’ approach more as another breaking into the basement strategy than as a back door. I think the LEGITIMATE backdoor entry is the conference itself, and situations like the one you were in with the editors/agents. Perhaps I should say that when I say ‘backdoor’ I don’t mean to suggest an entry point that is less well guarded and can be breached illicitly, so much as the door that friends and family come through (though maybe I’m showing my age and Britishness here).

  • Firstly, another great post in this series, AJ. I’m about to go down the agent road for the second time. My first agent was good and did all she promised to do, but we couldn’t give what the other needed to make the best book possible. We parted amicably and I will soon face the whole query thing again. I’m curious if you came up with a good way to approach revealing you had a previous agent, and if you know to what degree agents care if you’ve been represented before.

    And secondly, y’all better hope nobody cuts and pastes parts of your comments out of context. If I had been drinking anything while I read AJ’s reply to Faith, it would’ve come out my nose. Especially with his capital letter emphasis. Out of context — priceless.

  • Great post! 🙂

    I can say that I’ve met agents at cons and sent them stuff–and that is a great way to do it. Some cons are set up so that you pay to meet agents (and boy is it expensive, I will say) but you get a face to face, and they tell you why they don’t like it/wouldn’t buy it. I met an agent at a con, she asked for stuff, and ended up not liking it, and that was fine, but cons do work. (Honestly, the work wasn’t good enough, and looking back I know it. BUT the experience was worth it).

    I do get very nervous talking to agents and authors (as Faith can attest–telling her my pitch at the last Con Carolinas I was shaking), and I stand up in front of people and talk for a living! So if you can give some tips (here or in a future post) about, say, how to kill the nervousness, or at least significantly maim it, when chatting with folks, I’d love to hear it. Normally I’m fine, but wow, talking about my writing I became a mess.

    In some ways that means the traditional queries are easier for me, because I think I can do well on paper. 🙂

  • Stuart, I went back, reread AJ’s reply, and had my second laugh of the day. You are right, That’s so funny!

    Pea Emily, you do speak for a living, but you are not personally, emotionally dependent on the outcome of that speaking, so you can be distanced from it and cool, calm, collected. Because you know your subject matter forward and back, you are not nervous. But with your writing, you fear you will say the wrong thing, or forget, of that you will do something foolish. Practice, practice, practice! Maybe we MWers need to do a pitch practice session at CC this year…

  • Stuart,
    well, I’d say you needed a hobby, but I know you have several 🙂 As for broaching the previous agent issue: tricky. It kind of depends on a number of things, not least is the way you parted from your agent. My second agent simply went out of business, so I said so. In the case of the first one I know that I DID mention that I’d had a previous agent when I was hunting for #2 but I suspect that that did me more harm than good. It’s understandable, given how hard it is to get an agent, that writers want to say they’ve already had one, but I suspect that in the minds of agents reading your current query, it rings alarm bells however carefully you suggest that the parting was amicable and you still send each other Christmas cards. People might mention former agents to buy credibility, but I think doing so is risky,a nd if you have other ways of establishing credibility (as you do), I wouldn’t even mention it.

  • Pea,
    I’m with Faith. To refloat one of my favorite words, I think there’s much to be said for sprezzatura: the ability to pass off as casual and natural what is actually studied. Practice. Get used to talking about your writing as if it’s something real, that the characters are people you know (so long as you don’t start to look delusional). Try your pitch out on people and adjust it so that the “grabber” moments are up front and conspicuous. Try doing log lines or other super dense throwaways (“It’s JAWS meets SISTER CARRIE”) and then expand into specifics. Figure out what other writers (successful writers) you are like and reference them. Don’t tell the story point by point, and be receptive to criticism or suggestions. My agent did Thrillerfest’s Agentfest this past summer and she agreed to look at work from most of the writers who pitched her. The exceptions were those working in genres she would never touch (which they should have known) or those who were obviously sociopathic. In writer’s terms that usually means those who come in saying their book is better than anyone currently working in the genre and “if you think I’m going to change a word, you can forget it.” No. Thanks for playing. On your way out you can take one of our fabulous consolation prizes of…er…nothing at all.

  • Another great post, AJ; this is a wonderful series full of the best kind of brutal honesty.

    I’ll add this to the mix: whether you use the frontdoor approach, the backdoor approach, or you break a window and go in sideays, in the end, your novel still has to stand up to scrutiny. Getting in front of an agent is still only one part of the battle. I had a good friend who went to a workshop taught by one of the biggest agents in the business, and she became such good friends with him and his then fiancee that she was invited to their wedding. But when she sent him her novel, all that networking only got her a faster rejection. The work simply wasn’t up to his standards. Sadly, she took it badly and got really bitter about it and pretty much quit the business for several years. She’s finally written a new novel and I’m hoping she’s learned enough from her last experience to take things to the next level.

  • Absolutely, Ed. Sometimes I read a mediocre book which is being hyped to the skies and suspect insider dealing, and I confess that those who tell tales of being rejected for weeks before remembering that their dad was Tom Clancy’s agent get precious little sympathy from me, but on the whole I agree: what gets you representation and publication is your work. By that I don’t mean that what gets published is good and what doesn’t isn’t. You can’t measure quality without reference to market concerns: some not so great books may be more obvious buys than “better” material because the publisher knows he/she can sell them. Agents take the stuff they think they can sell. That is, after all, how they make their money. So whether or not its an abstract concern for quality or something more rooted in marketability (and it’s usually both) it’s finally the work that will get you representation.

  • Great post and excellent point Ed. I couldn’t agree more! I went about getting an agent the traditional front door route — he didn’t know who I was and vice versa. However, I did a TON of research and polished my query and manuscript as much as I could.

    The only part of your advice that I somewhat disagree with is sending pages regardless of guidelines. It’s so tough because I totally agree with you that pages can make all the difference, but I’m also a big stickler for following agency guidelines. If the guidelines are silent, then include the first five pages — absolutely. I actually sent my agent a snail mail query rather than equery because he allowed sample pages via snail mail so I was able to follow the rules and get the pages in front of him.

    The other advice I have: sometimes thinks work out when you don’t expect them to. I spent two years desperately thinking I wanted particular agents and now, in hindsight, I think every one of them would have been a poor choice. At the time when I got rejected I was upset, now I couldn’t be happier.

  • Thanks, Carrie. Yes, I know that people argue over whether or not to send requested material, and you’re right: sometimes doing so when told not to will cost you. But, it’s so easy for agents to pass, and I’ve heard many say that when they are looking over a query letter they are actively looking for reasons to pass. I guess it could work either way, but if it’s the manuscript that will eventually get you signed, I’d do what I could to ensure they see some of it right away. Otherwise you have to clear another hurdle just to get pages on their desk.

  • Great post, A.J., and I would second Ed’s comment: Your willingness to share these stories is enormously generous. These are valuable lessons you’re passing along.

    I was one of those lucky ones who had an “in” early on and so my search for a first agent was not really a search at all. By the time I switched to Lucienne, I had a trilogy under my belt and was able to choose from several interested agents. I feel like I owe you an apology….

    I have to say that I’m with Carrie on the sending pages thing. Following GLs is the first bit of advice I give to aspiring writers; I’m leery of suggesting that they ignore them in this case. I’d love for Lucienne to weigh in on this. But again, wonderful post.

  • Hi David. Well, I guess it’s like a lot of things in writing: if you are going to break rules, at least know you are breaking them! I’m not suggesting that people send a large amount: just the first few pages. I got a bit ticked off with all the rules and regulations I heard at one wruiting conference years ago (and it’s even worse in screenwriting circles). I found myself wondering if I would want to be represented by someone who would reject a query letter they liked because there were a few pages of manuscript with it… As ever, this is just my two cents.

  • Sarah

    I hate talking to strangers. HATE it. I’m a social mole. But the only progress Pea and I have ever made on getting an agent is going to cons and talking to people, in other words, networking. I always feel awkward and grubby when I do it, like I’m trying to cold call potential sales targets for AmWay. The good news is that it does get a bit easier as time goes on and as people don’t rear back and scream, “go away you talentless hack!” No agent or editor we’ve talked to yet has been anything but polite and encouraging, even when they were saying no.

  • Sarah,
    that’s a good point. Young writers always feel like outsiders, and that fuels an us v. them attitude towards agents which is neither helpful nor accurate. It helps to remember that the writer and the agent are both looking for the same thing: a productive working relationship. And while there may be some less than nice agents out there (as there may be some less thna nice writers) my experience of agents as polite, professional and considerate backs up yours.

  • This is a wonderful post; it really struck a chord. I’m very much at the querying agents stage myself and finding it immensely frustrating. I’ve done all the polishing I can on my MS etc and I’m researching agents carefully. But I’m getting nowhere. The “front door” approach doesn’t seem to work to me either. I’m not blaming the agents – I’m sure they get overwhelmed – but I just don’t feel anyone I’ve contacted has connected with me, got to know me, seen my potential.

    SO, yes, I guess I do need to find ways to meet agents. Right now I feel like I’m bashing my head against a very indifferent wall!

  • cbranch

    Wow – I’d never heard that Cussler story before. Hope this isn’t too harsh a response:

    If we, as a society, choose to reward those who lie and cheat in order to achieve success, we’re going to become a society of successful liars and cheaters.

    I guess some might say we already are, so there’s nothing to be done but join the crowd.

    You know, I think there might be a story in there… 😉

  • The convention / conference route helped me because the one I’m headed to next week provides, as part of the registration fee, 15 minutes with a published author reading your work and 10 minutes with an agent or editor to pitch your work. This is my fifth one, and my confidence levels are in a much better place than they were when I started. It also helped me get out of “fangirl” mode, where I put everyone I spoke to (agents, editors, and authors) on pedestals.

    Another great way has been posting snippets of my work websites (when invited to do so) that agents follow, such as at Miss Snark’s First Victim. An agent noticed and expressed interest to Authoress, the site owner. I got an e-mail from Authoress. I am furiously trying to finish rewrites.

  • Simon,
    I feel your pain. And yes, I would advise finding a way to reach agents through cons and the like, but here’s another piece of advice: don’t let the agent search become an end in itself. Work on it, by all means, but get working on a new piece of writing so the agent search thing doesn’t become the sole focus of your life as a writer. However topical your work might feel, it probably doesn’t matter that much whether you sign with an agent now or a year from now. And if you are like me, you’ll also find that your work gets better as you produce more of it, thereby making you more attractive to agents.

    cbranch,
    of course you could also look at it as a great instance of a story teller at work! What better way to prove your a competent fiction writer than to invent an entire back story for yourself? I’ve been reading a lot about Orson Welles lately, and one fo teh things that emerges is that he’s a biolgraphers nightmare because so much fo teh stuff he said happened to him was embelished or just plain made up. He built an Orson Welles myth, and there’s no question it helped him. tehre’s also no question that people liked him for it, that he wasn’t condemned as a liar, but celebrated as a playful raconteur even when people knew what he was giving them wasn’t structly true.

    Good luck, Moira. And yes, any way you can get your prose in front of an agent is good. That, as David and Carrie point out above, is what finally will get you signed.

  • Young_Writer

    I have about five agent’s websites bookmarked and I’m still looking, they’ll come in handy when I get older. And I hope *my* mom never does that!

  • harmonywind

    Wow, this has certainly been useful … both the article and the comments. Thank you. I am an aspiring writer about to complete and begin rewrites of my first novel. I will keep all of this in mind as I head out into the great big world. I had thought to just send out letters and manuscripts but see there is much more to it than that. I have my work cut out for me. Thanks!

  • Julia

    I’m new here and feeling rather sheeping for not finding this blog sooner. I’ve only sent out a scant handful of queries thus far, and I’m chuckling because I am who you used to be. Polite, rule-abiding, no apparent connections. Your post has inspired me to shake things up a bit and maybe send a few pages out with my next query. Maybe. Risks vs. benefits, right? Thank you for a great post, and for helping me along in my quest.