A few of you have asked me to be more specific on how I got my agent. I’ve tried to put something together that will be of help to those struggling to find representation. However, a warning for those of you who read my blog “just for fun”: you might want to stop here and wait for my next, more entertaining, installment. Because finding an agent means getting down to the nitty gritty grunt-work part of publishing. It is not entertaining. Painful would be a better word. But no pain, no…book contract. So this is how it happened.
Some asked (in a nice, non-accusatory way) if any of my literary or film contacts introduced me to my agent. I would not mind telling you if the answer were “yes”. I had a ton of advice and constructive criticism from my very qualified friends and family. But none of them passed my manuscript to their agent or gave me a direct introduction – I had to send query letters like most people. Nepotism is not a bad thing. But I wasn’t able to profit from it.
I began looking for my agent in 2008, after writing my first book, an unpublished memoir called A YEAR IN THE VINES.
First of all I bought the indispensable tome, WRITER’S MARKET, and started with their “Query Letter Clinic”. There’s a pretty specific formula to use when writing query letters, and I worked on my letter for a long time before coming up with something I thought was presentable.
Now, when I read the first incarnation of that letter, I cringe. The first sentence, the “hook”, was something like, “How do you say ‘up shit creek without a paddle’ in French?” Oh, the shame. Luckily, only one agent got that letter. She never answered, and I don’t blame her one bit.
I looked up other query letters (both successful and unsuccessful) posted by authors on the Internet, which was also a big help. I won’t give you the specifics on how to write your letter, since WRITER’S MARKET does such a good job of it.
What was frustrating to me was knowing that, for most agents, the query letter was all they would ever see of my writing. Unless specifically requested, you don’t enclose a sample of the manuscript with your query letter. I thought this was terribly unfair, since I didn’t feel skilled in self-promotion, but rather in writing long, whimsical descriptions mixed with funny anecdotes. I learned that you have to be able to do both. Too bad if you don’t think of yourself as an ad-man. You have to get good enough at it to get that foot in the door, or in this case, that manuscript in front of the agent. Just bite the bullet and do it.
After I had my query letter, I flipped back to WRITER’S MARKET’S chapter on literary agents and made a list of the ones who accepted memoirs. I then cross-referenced my short-list with a few Internet sites that gave “grades” to agents and agencies. One was “Predators and Editors”. I can’t remember the others. But there is a lot of information out there, and you can benefit from the experiences of other writers who have gone through the same process.
I then went to each of my chosen agency’s websites and read their submission guidelines. You have to find an agent that accepts unsolicited manuscripts. You should find someone who is searching for manuscripts in your field. (Don’t send a memoir if they only work with science fiction. Unless your life has been extremely weird.) And then you should choose one person in the agency that you think is your best bet, and tailor your letter to fit them. (Many have agent bios or blurbs.)
From my research, I chose my top seven “dream” agents or agencies – the ones I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of getting – and decided to start with them. Why not start big? I thought.
I had read that (understandably) agents don’t like you to flood the marketplace with your queries. They want something fresh that hasn’t been shopped around to everyone and her brother. So I limited my first queries, sending them out two at a time. After waiting a week for the first two to respond, I suddenly realized that they might never respond, and I would just be sitting here in the middle of the French countryside twiddling my thumbs and waiting for something that was never going to happen. So I sent two more out, waited a week, and then sent another two. I got one rejection back right away. The others took months to respond.
I will admit that I only sent one snail-mail letter. I’m too impatient to wait for the transatlantic post. And I couldn’t enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope because I couldn’t buy American stamps here in France. So I enclosed a dollar bill and said it was for stamps. After that, I crossed out anyone else on my list who didn’t accept emails.
The one agent that I felt the very best about was with Dystel & Goderich. My book was about an American mom living abroad, and this agent’s bio said that she had kids and had lived in Spain. Perfect! I thought. Someone who will understand me.
I emailed her my query letter and my five-page prologue, as specified in her agency’s submission guidelines. And an hour and a half later I got a return email asking for the entire manuscript. She said she would read it “promptly”. All I could think was, What does “promptly” mean to an agent? A week? Three months? I gave her the benefit of the doubt, stopped sending out queries, and waited for her response.
Exactly two weeks later, I received an email from Stacey Glick, another agent at Dystel. She said, “[My colleague] shared your memoir with me and I had a chance to read it this weekend. I really enjoyed it and would love to discuss it with you.”
During our phone conversation she told me she had loved the book and wanted to represent me. She DID ask how many other people I had sent it to, at which point I was grateful to honestly be able to say “just a handful”. And the next morning I had a contract sitting in my Inbox.
I realize that this is the dream story. That things usually aren’t this easy and don’t move this fast. A friend who has now been published thrice told me that he wrote over two hundred agents in order to get his first book represented. What I do think helped me, though, was:
- advice from a few people who had already gone through the process and learned the hard way;
- banging away at the query letter (and getting several qualified opinions on it);
- being extremely picky with the agents that I approached;
- choosing one agent out of each agency to concentrate on and tailoring my query letter for that individual;
- reading each agency’s guidelines and following their rules;
- making my book start with a bang, knowing that the first few pages might be all that the agent would read.
There are other ways of getting agents, such as conferences and referrals from published authors. (And my agency has a wonderful blog at dglm.blogspot.com with lots of invaluable advice!) But this is how I got mine, and I can attest that the result has been far more successful than I could ever have imagined.