I started out looking for an agent the way many people do, by cold querying any agent who handled my type of books. I thought I had an amazing book and, honestly, we should think that of our work. If we don’t love it, why the hell did we write it. I just knew someone was going to snatch up this spectacular masterpiece. They didn’t.
I was naïve, but it’s okay to be naïve. The important thing is being able to learn and grow. In the beginning, I only researched agents and editors to make sure they handled my genre. But that’s not enough. Information is everywhere. There’s no excuse for sending something to an inappropriate agent or editor. Just handling your genre doesn’t make them an automatic fit. That’s like assuming a shoe will fit simply because it’s the right color.
When you’re looking for an agent, you want someone who will be as passionate about your book as you are. You want someone who will promote it enthusiastically to publishers. To get that, you need to care enough about your book to find the right person for the job.
How do you do this?
The turning point for me came when I attended my first conference, the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference.
One of the most important things I got out of the experience was the disappointing but crucial realization that the book I was pitching wasn’t ready.
I wasn’t thrilled about the discovery, but I had learned something that would prove to be a solid stepping-stone to getting where I wanted to go. I learned what I needed to do to make the book ready.
The second thing I learned was that meeting face-to-face and showing people that you’re serious about writing is priceless. I got submission requests from all seven agents/editors I pitched to at the conference.
Wait! Didn’t I just say the book wasn’t ready? Yep. But now I had a leg up on the slush pile. I just needed to fix the book and send it.
Lastly, I learned that ideas are simply floating in the air at a writer’s conference.
A single comment made at one session gave me the idea for the book that landed me my agent (more about that book in Writing the Right Book).
Did I get my agent from that conference?
Nope. I sent the manuscript out and received those dreaded rejection letters, but they were different now. The letters from agents and editors who looked at that book provided feedback, suggestions, and positive encouragement that helped me improve that book and my writing in general. The process also helped me understand that agents and editors really are people like the rest of us, not wicked gatekeepers cackling evilly as they hit send on a thousand form rejections a week. They want your book to be good almost as bad as you do and, if you put forth the effort to show them you’re serious, they’ll sometimes help you get it there.
The following year I attended two more conferences pitching the book I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2010, the one that stemmed from the idea I got at the first conference. I learned more, got many requests for the new book, and made some awesome friends. Every partial submission garnered requests for more and the fantastic feedback helped me polish and tune the book between sets of submissions.
During this time, I also stepped up my research and began searching out other ways to get my work out of the slush pile and in front of agents. Online contests are great opportunities. I got my work in front of several agents through contests like those run by Cupid's Literary Connection.
After communicating with numerous agents, I also began to understand that it was important for them to be someone I wanted to work with.
I started taking time before each submission to read up about agents on their agency website and to read entries from their blog if they had one. This research also gave me material with which to personalize my query letters, resulting in even more requests even from cold queries.
The quest for information led me to still more opportunities. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest online and began attending the occasional webinar, especially if the presenter happened to be an agent or editor I was interested in. I had to be selective because, while there are some free webinars, many of them cost and I haven’t found a way to grow money on trees yet (but I’m willing to learn if anyone has tips).
With all the positive feedback I’d been getting, I felt like I balanced on a fence, ready to fall to one side or the other.
Then it happened, sort of.
I signed up for a Writer’s Digest webinar, “How to Find and Work with an Agent in the 21st Century” being presented on January 19th, 2012 by Lori Perkins and Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Agency. I was interested in the agency and the subject, and a query critique by one of the agents was part of the package.
When the 19th came around, we were in the midst of Snowmageddon 2012, stranded at home with a few trees collapsed on the barn and horse shelter and, as of the time of the webinar, without power.
I plugged a headset into my iPhone, downloaded the meeting app (because there really is an app for everything), and crossed my fingers that my battery would make it through the 90-minute presentation. It did, just barely. I was impressed with both agents, but I directed my query specifically to Louise as the book was more up her ally.
On March 18th, I got e-mail from Louise (who had been out of the country) with a complimentary rejection and a referral to a new agent at L. Perkins Agency, Emily Keyes. Emily brought prior experience from the publishing world into this position and, after reading her blog, I liked the personality that came across. I submitted a personalized query the next day with a mention of the webinar and Louise’s referral.
Of course, I’d been submitting to others during this time as well. On April 27th, the editorial assistant at a larger New York publisher contacted me to let me know that she enjoyed the book and wanted to send it to their editorial director for consideration, to which I agreed enthusiastically. On June 5th, I received e-mail from the smaller local press stating that they wanted to move forward with the book.
I wasn’t sure how to handle the escalating interest. Did I jump to the small press? Did I ask them to wait and risk losing their interest? In an effort to solicit some wisdom, I sent e-mail to Emily Keyes letting her know that the book was garnering interest. She had, by this time, requested the full manuscript, but hadn’t read it yet. She provided me with some guidance and took the weekend to read the book.
When I got the offer of representation on June 10th, I finally understood what it meant to find someone with enthusiasm for your work. Emily was very excited about the book and that’s what ultimately decided me. Here was someone passionate enough about my book to put forth a real effort in finding a home for it. I accepted her offer and put her in charge of communicating with the publishers who had already shown interest.
That book is now making rounds and getting looked at by more publishers. I had the opportunity to meet Emily in person at a writer’s conference I attended in July. She is a delightful person and I am quite happy with her process of submitting the book. She’s managed to get it in front of several editors I never would have gotten attention from on my own. I also just finished making edits on another book (a much improved version of the one I pitched in 2010) per her suggestions and will soon have two books out making rounds.
What do I believe got me this far, aside from writing the best book I could (which I strongly recommend)?
- Networking and connecting with people.
- Finding ways to get my work in front of agents and editors outside of the standard cold query, such as conferences, contests and webinars.
- Recognizing that agents and editors are people and treating them as such by learning about them through blogs and other social media outlets like Twitter.
So, that’s my agent story and the story to date of my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel. Proof that NaNo novels can be good too.