Everyone who has an agent has a different story of how it happened. So while this is the path that worked for me, this is by no means the only way to acquire representation. Similarly, just because this is what worked for me is no statement that this is the best (or even a particularly good) way to get an agent.
First, a little background. I know that there are authors who choose to go it alone, mailing their manuscript directly to the publisher and taking their chances with the slush pile. Some authors also choose to sidestep the traditional agent and publisher element entirely and go straight to self-publication. Without doubt, that has famously worked for some. For me, though, possibly because of the particular type of writing that I was doing at the time, this wasn’t even an option that I considered.
From about the age of 19 until I had finished my master’s degree, I was working exclusively in the field of short fiction. To get work like that published, you typically make a list of the magazines that will publish the kind of stuff you’re writing, then you just slap on a cover letter and send the work off. Rinse and repeat. You don’t need an agent for most of that. For one thing, very few magazines restrict themselves to agented work only (mainstream book publishers are a very different story), and for another, the contracts that I signed whenever a magazine accepted one of my short stories were about two or three paragraphs of basic laymen’s language.
After I received my master’s, I made the transition from short work to a book of fiction. One of the benefits of working so long with short work was that I got to spend a lot of time on the fine details of writing, like description, characterization, dialogue, motivation, and a compressed story arc. I wasn’t trying to refine those things over the course of a book – if something I was working on was just a train-wreck and had to be trashed, I was out maybe thirty pages. That’s a lot different than learning on a novel, where even something that is abandoned halfway through is a loss of at least a hundred.
So when I sat down to write my first novel, back in 2007, I had spent a long time getting to the point where I felt ready to do that. It took me about a year to write it – I was fairly hampered by the fact that I didn’t have a very clear path of where I was going, and just by the daunting task of doing it. The first time you do something is always going to be hard, simply because you’re working against the unknown. Can I write a whole novel? Well, you don’t really know until you try.
So in mid 2008, I had my first book. I’d done at least one full edit by the point that I thought it was ready to shop around, and I felt pretty good about it, so I decided to start an agent hunt.
Here’s another point to talk about – when do you start looking for an agent? Well, my opinion is that you don’t start fishing until you have good bait. This obviously depends on the field you’re working in (for example, a lot of the non-fiction writers I know were very comfortable looking for both agents and publishing houses with just a proposal), but if you haven’t sold a book before, at least have one in hand before you go looking. Otherwise you could get in a discussion with an agent, and they could be loving your concept and your sample chapter, but when they ask to read the rest of it and you reply, “Well, I haven’t written it, so I’ll get back to you in three months,” well… you’ve lost the chance to keep their interest. When you mail them that big attachment in three months, they’re probably going to have to spend a while trying to remember who you are. Better to hold off looking for agents until you’ve got something complete to show them.
Plus, looking for agents is time consuming and pretty depressing. You don’t want that particular albatross around your neck until you have gotten the first-book monkey off of your back. Rule of writing – don’t mix metaphors or animal-based depression objects.
Back to mid 2008. I made a list of the books that were both successful and fairly similar to the book I’d just completed. This doesn’t mean “both had first-person narrators,” this is mostly regarding audience. Will the person who read and loved this successful book over here be the kind of person I would suggest my book to? Once I had that giant stack, I opened up each book to the Acknowledgements page and looked for the part where Successful!Author thanked their agent. They all do. Even in the cases where it’s just a block of names in the Acknowledgements page, you can always look up that author’s website, and the agent will usually be listed under the Contact section. If all that has failed, just Google “(Author’s Name) Agent.” Because behind every successful author is an agent who put their name on their website.
After I’d ripped through my bookshelves, I had a list of about twenty names. Now came the fun part – I had to look up each and every agent. Is this agent still in business? If they’re in business, are they looking for new authors? If they’re still in business and looking for new authors, are they looking for authors like me? Run through that list of questions, and you’ll probably cut your initial list right in half. Don’t worry, though – if the agent you really wanted isn’t looking for new authors right now, look around on their website. Agents are like quail – they like to travel in coveys. From what I saw during my agent hunt, even the smallest agencies (which were usually headlined by that agent who had worked with the Successful!Author) usually have at least three working agents. Maybe the one you initially wanted isn’t looking for new authors (or new authors who are writing in your genre), but maybe one of the younger and hungrier agents that work with them is. Don’t worry too much about going with a newer agent – if they’re working closely with that older and more experienced agent, they have access to that person’s knowledge and contacts, plus, since they don’t have any big money-making authors in their stable yet, they’re probably more likely to be interested in you.
Important note: agents write up a list of the genres they work in, usually posted pretty clearly on their websites. Pay attention to that list. If you’re writing, say, historical romance, and you contact an agent whose bio clearly states that they are only interested in steampunk? You just wasted thirty minutes that you could’ve spent on an agent who might’ve read your stuff. Instead, all that happened was the agent read the first two lines of your email, deleted it because it was outside of the genre they work in, and then they felt annoyed and bitchy for the next few emails they read. Great job, troll. You probably screwed the writing dreams of the next two people in line.
Back to 2008. Write up a standardized query. This should be a short description of your book, a little biographical information, and an emphasis on how long the book is (wordcount) and the fact that it is done. You should adjust the query slightly for each agent (ie – salutation with their name, a line or two about why specifically you are querying them out of the thousands of agents out there), but to write up a fresh query for every agent is to invite Lovecraftian madness upon yourself. Always check the agent’s bio for what they want in a submission – some want just a query. Some want a query plus the first chapter. Some want a query plus the first hundred pages. Some want the query, but it has to be physically mailed to them. Some want a query submitted only through their website. Follow whatever instructions you’re being provided, because agents deal with a LOT of queries, and most aren’t going to spend much time with something that doesn’t meet their clearly expressed parameters.
There are two typically accepted approaches to an agent hunt – the Goldilocks approach and the carpetbombing approach. Goldilocks is where you send out one query, then wait anxiously (is this the perfect porridge?) for the reply before you send out another query. The pro on this is that it is typically viewed as more genteel and polite. The con is that you can sometimes wait six months for a form letter rejection. Carpetbombing is exactly what it sounds like – you make up a big list of agents and you send each and every one of them a letter at once. The pro on this is that you don’t waste all that downtime between rejections, and the con is that it’s generally viewed as rude and unseemly.
I’ll be honest. I prefer carpetbombing.
Well, within reason. When I was looking for an agent, I made sure that I had ten active queries at all times. Whenever I got a rejection, I’d just send another query out to the next name on my list. Also, even when carpetbombing it is considered good form to only query a single agent in an agency at a time. Not only is it mannerly, but it makes your carpetbombing chicanery somewhat less obvious. (and, really, emailing identical queries to ten people who work in the same offices and probably have lunch together all the time? Even I have to admit that that is a little crass. And stupid.)
Back in late 2008, I queried a total of about twenty agents. I was rejected by all of them over the course of about five to six months, but a few of them did read selections (or, in a few cases, the whole thing) before they turned it down, and some were extremely generous and offered me some constructive criticism. These were professionals in their field offering me their opinions, and you can bet that I paid attention.
With those things in mind, I took a break on querying and went back to the manuscript. It took another year, but I did a thorough revision of it, coming out with a new and polished manuscript in late summer of 2010. The first thing I did was send it through my original list of twenty who had rejected it the first time around (remember, this was my wish list of agents – they worked with bestselling authors), being clear in my query that they’d seen this thing before. They all turned it down again, this time in about six weeks.
But this time I knew that my manuscript was a lot stronger than last time, so I expanded my list of agents. There are some really good websites you can use to make a list, and I also suggest looking into the yearly Writer’s Market publications. Check out large genre organizations like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (or whatever your genre is), and pay attention to any sections titled “Writer Beware” which are usually devoted to the kind of charlatans and users who love nothing better than an aspiring writer desperate to be published.
All of those places offer good warnings, but here’s the guiding principle I held to when I was looking for an agent: if they asked for a single penny of money up front, I looked elsewhere. No reputable agent is going to ask you for fees before something is sold. An agent for an author is a lot like the agent you get when you buy or sell real estate. Basically: they don’t get paid until you do. This has a lot of good benefits to it – namely, they are as committed to seeing you published as you are, since that’s the day that all the hours they’ve spent on you finally come with a paycheck attached. If you ever even think of handing your money over to anyone in the process of getting published, remember: you’ve just taken away any incentive they had to try to get you published. If they can make you pay for nothing once, they are going to figure out a way to make that happen again. Don’t become someone’s cash cow.
Also, you’re never going to write a check out to reputable publishers and agents. You earn for them, you don’t pay them. In the case of the agent, her pay will be a percentage of the advances and (hopefully) the royalties that the publishing house agrees to when they purchase your book. That’s also a good incentive for your agent to negotiate the best deal possible for your work.
But back to getting that person.
It was a lot of work, and it was very frustrating. It took a long time. There were a lot of times when I thought it would never ever happen. There were several close calls, where the agent read the entire book and “liked it, but didn’t love it.” If the devil had walked up to me at some point and offered to be my agent, it would’ve been really hard to say no.
But here’s the thing about anything regarding getting your book published. You can have thousands of people say no to you, but all it takes is one person who will say yes.
In October of 2010, I sent a package of materials to Colleen Mohyde, who worked out of the Doe Coover Agency. Now, I’d looked into this agency before, and I’d really liked the sound of Colleen’s bio, but I hadn’t queried her before this simply because she was asking for something that I really didn’t want to write – a synopsis. Oh, I really didn’t want to write that thing. But what happened is that another agent who was looking at my stuff had asked me for a synopsis, and since I was already in the front door with him (so to speak – I never in all of this process actually called or spoke to an agent face-to-face), I wrote the damn thing. Oh, I hated every minute of writing that god-forsaken document. I don’t think I hate any one thing more than having to write a summary of something I’ve written. You know Gollum reacts in the second Lord of the Rings movie to the elf bread? That’s what I do.
The agent who I’d written the synopsis for ended up passing on my manuscript, but now I had that horrid thing in hand, and once you’ve got it, why not use it? So I sent my query, the synopsis (hates it, precious! hates it!), and the first fifty pages of my book to Colleen, as per her submission guidelines. She emailed me back the next day, asking for the full manuscript on an exclusive 10-day basis. I agreed to that so fast that I probably looked like that cartoon roadrunner. Ten days later, she told me she wanted to represent my book, and we signed a contract.
After that, it was smooth sailing to publication!
Seriously, no. Getting an agent is difficult and important. When I was trying to get my agent, I couldn’t imagine anything harder or more frustrating. Then we actually started trying to get the manuscript a publisher. This has been a massive post, so I’ll cover the hunt for a publisher (now with extra spearholders!) next week, but here are two basics to consider:
- Colleen Mohyde accepted me as her client in October of 2010.
- Roc Books bought an entirely different book in a completely different genre than the one Colleen originally agreed to represent in June of 2012. I hadn’t even written Generation V at the time that I signed a contract with Colleen.
After all of that, I hope that no one is discouraged about finding an agent. Believe me, it can happen. But when you start looking, keep in mind that it’s going to be tough, and you need to be prepared for a long haul. That way, if the best happens and you get an agent immediately, fantastic! But if the best doesn’t happen, then you won’t get completely discouraged and give up too early. Because if you keep trying, it could happen.