I began looking for my agent in 2008, after writing my first book, an unpublished memoir called A YEAR IN THE VINES.
My first step was buying the indispensable tome, WRITER’S MARKET. I 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 days before coming up with something I felt 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.
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 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 site 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 agencies’ 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 sites have agent bios or blurbs.)
From my research, I chose my top ten “dream” agents or agencies—the ones I didn’t have a hope in hell of getting—and decided to start with them. Why not start big? I thought.
I had read that 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, 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. 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.
The one agent that I felt the very best about was with Dystel & Goderich. My memoir 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.” I had no idea what “promptly” meant to agents, but 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 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 honestly able to say “just a handful.” And the next morning I had a contract sitting in my Inbox.
I realize that this is a dream story. That things aren’t usually this easy and don’t move this fast. A friend who now has three books published wrote over two hundred agents before signing. What I 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 my agent, and the result has been more successful than I could ever have imagined.
And if you want to know how I felt when I signed with Stacey, this is the blog post that I wrote that day, back in 2008:
DREAMING OF BOOKS
Last night I had a dream.
In the dream I finished my book and, instead of sending a query letter to a million and one literary agents, I chose just a handful. I heard that the process of finding an agent was like dating, so I looked at each person and agency carefully. And I asked myself if I would be able to sit through a long dinner date with the person, leave the restaurant with a smile on my face, and still be chuckling hours later about things we had said.
Mind you, in my dream I was a bit of a lesbian, because with this particular dating situation, I felt like I only wanted to see women. Who is able to put up with two men in their life, especially if one of them is French?
There was one woman from an agency owned by another woman who I thought would be the perfect date. An hour and a half after I sent her my letter and 5-page prologue 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 in the agent-dating world? A week? Three months?” I tried to set my mind on “pause”, and refused to give in to my impulse to query other agents until I heard back from her.
And then, in my dream, the agent called me. Well, not her, but another agent from the same agency. I listened as she told me that she loved the book. That it had made her laugh out loud. That she wanted to represent me.
I wanted to know more about her, and she described herself. We had a lot in common. Even more than I had thought I would have with her colleague.
I hung up the phone in a daze, thinking, “This is one hot agent.” Just thinking of what I would wear to our hypothetical dinner date sent me into a tizzy.
This morning I awoke and wondered if I was still dreaming. I blearily opened my email Inbox. And as proof that I was actually awake, and not lingering in the bliss of my literary dream-world, there was an agency contract sitting right there, waiting for me.
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5 Comments to Road to Publication, Mile 2: Getting my agent
by nola d - On December 8, 2011
hi thank u for sharing,, my daughter writes stuff, she’s 11 now but i know one day she will finish one of her story’s and it will be great, i had no idea there was a thing called query letter, there is so much i need to learn to help her out one of these days when she id ready.
by Jami Montgomery - On December 12, 2011
Thank you so much for the helpful information and the wonderful story 🙂 I am about to start querying with a book this spring, and I am currently waiting on replies from a couple of people who are reviewing my query letter for me. It is so great to know that it can be more than a dream for someone with no prior publishing experience. Your story was a great one, and it is very inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing!
by Jami Montgomery - On December 12, 2011
Thank you so much for the wonderful information and the story! I am about to start querying with my book in the spring, and it’s great to see that someone with no prior publishing experience can still live the writer’s dream. I am waiting on my query to be sent back to me from an editor, and I am so glad you said that getting expert insight on a query was a great way to go. Again, thank you so much for sharing your story with those of us who are still dreaming.
by amy - On December 13, 2011
Jami and Nola – I would highly recommend buying Writer’s Market. That was a huge help to me since I was starting out completely clueless!!! Good luck to you both!
by Nicole Toms - On December 22, 2011
I am not sure where to do this but I love your blog! And all your stories you have for us! So I am requesting that you tell us either some history of Joyeux Noel in France or a story of one of your Christmases! Please if you have time that would make my holiday season(: