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