February 11, 2011

On Agents & Other Angels

Filed under: Backstory,The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:46 pm

I told you guys. I feel I have to keep the backstory coming right now.

But I realized that in so many of these posts there’s someone hovering, unseen, in the background, and I don’t know if I’ve given her her due.

Or, for your sake, dear readers, spoken enough about how to get one of these rare birds to alight.

I’m talking, of course, about literary agents.

I’ve worked with three over a period of, well, a lot more years than that, and they have been to a one, committed, devoted, enthusiastic, and selfless. How else can you explain someone working–for free–to further your dream? Even when my relationship with agent #2 ended on an abrupt note, all of the above still applied to her efforts on my behalf.

One day soon, I hope to send gifts just to say thank you.

So, how do you find a literary agent?

We’ll be talking about exactly that in the course I’m teaching this Sunday, but I thought I’d give a quick and dirty rundown here, before allowing the backstory to finally catch up to mostly present tense.

Let’s say first and foremost that you must make sure you have a great (not just good), polished manuscript that a decent number of people outside your family (unless your family happen to be your toughest critics) love and said they can’t put down.

Then, try these 3 strategies–

#1: Cold query. Websites, print guides, industry rags (such as Publishers Marketplace) are all good resources. But the single best way I’ve found to cold query is to read the acknowledgments in books by authors you admire and contact their agent. If the author is very famous, this won’t work. But if you have a handful of debut authors or mid-listers in hand, you should get a better than average hit rate using this method.

#2: Conferences. There are several where meeting agents is part of the point. Backspace. Wilamette. Check ‘em out. Conferences have the advantage of some face-to-face time. The disadvantage is that everyone there is clamoring for that time and people tend to blend into a blur for an overwhelmed agent. However, if you meet an agent at a conference, your query will almost certainly be looked at. This isn’t necessarily true for a snail mailed query–and even less true for an emailed one.

#3: Personal referrals. This is often the most effective method–although not even the heartiest referral will make an agent take on a project s/he is lackluster about; but it will get you read, and often faster–and yet the hardest to pursue. After all, not many of us know well-positioned authors with great agents. Still, you can try to grow a place yourself within a network of writers. And even if they don’t have an agent to refer you to, they may know another writer who will. So how can you meet writers? Again, go to conferences,  where authors appear. Go to author events, such as reading or signings. Take classes with published writers. Keep in mind that this is not a “method” to “get” an “agent”. Instead it’s a way to begin entering the world you hope to be part of someday. And who knows where that might lead?

So what happened after I signed with Angel–I mean, agent–number three?

She sent out the novel my second agent had been submitting, and we had a few editors hold onto it “with interest”.

For a while.

Because I knew how the business worked a little better at this point, I was hard at work on a new novel.

Which I finished.

Many of you may know that just because your agent likes one book of yours is no guarantee she will like another. Luckily my agent did.

She sent it out.

And within a month or so, no fewer than five editors were interested.

So what happened? Why is that book not out, or soon to be coming out?

One more backstory post, I swear.

Then–said with a dramatic swishing of curtain cloth–all will be revealed.


  1. You certainly are a story-teller, you devil-dog, you!

    Comment by Jody — February 11, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

  2. Argggh!! D’oh!

    Comment by Savvy — February 11, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

  3. You kill me, you know.But sigh, I will keep reading anyway…

    Comment by Judy — February 11, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

  4. Very soon I will say: “I knew her when!”

    I love your blog, Jenny – very clear, down-to-earth account of what to expect for emerging authors.

    Comment by Juanita — February 16, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

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