Over the years I’ve really appreciated the “How I Got My Agent” stories that other writers have posted, and so I wanted to share my own. The whole process of signing with an agent moved way more quickly than I anticipated. Here’s how it happened:
When I reached the point where I believed my novel was ready enough to go out into the world, I sat down and looked at my list of all my dream agents. This was actually something I had been slowly compiling over the last few years in a giant Excel grid. I found it so much easier to just pay attention on a daily basis to who was making which deals and who represented which books/authors that I loved, rather than trying to do a whole chunk of overwhelming research at once.
The list of dream agents was not terribly long, but also not particularly short. I cut it down to what my first batch would look like by first eliminating agents I was friends/acquainted with. I was a little worried about an initial friendship complicating the professional relationship. And part of me wanted to prove that my work was strong enough to stand on its own — I didn’t want to get an offer of representation just because an agent already knew and liked me. I tightened my initial list further by looking to see who had worked with specific editors and imprints I admired.
It was the end of September / beginning of October when I began emailing the queries out. I sent them slowly and carefully and one at a time, to make sure I was really sharpening the individual messages and not making any typos or getting anyone’s guidelines wrong. I started getting responses pretty quickly, and by the second week of October I had the full manuscript out with four agents.
Throughout October I continued sending queries here and there, until I had nine of them out in the world. There were a few agents who I really didn’t expect to hear back from anytime soon for various reasons. For some of them, QueryTracker (a great tool for obsessive queriers) showed that they often didn’t respond to initial queries for several months or even over a year. A couple others had closed to queries right as I’d sent mine out, and it sounded like they probably weren’t going to get to me.
Jump to the last full week of October. That Thursday night, as I sat in Rite Aid waiting for my husband to get his flu shot, an email rolled in from an agent who had requested the full manuscript only about three weeks earlier. He’d told me it would take him nine or ten weeks to read, so my heart dropped. I was convinced it was a rejection. But no — it turned out to be a wonderful message saying he’d loved the book and wanted to talk. I started crying right there next to the over-the-counter supplements.
My husband bought me celebratory rainbow cookies — which if you know me well you know that I am a rainbow cookie FIEND — and I couldn’t even eat them. I was so overexcited my stomach was a pretzel and I didn’t sleep at all.
So I talked to the agent that Friday morning. I had a great call, received my first offer of representation, and was pretty much a useless and glowing ball of excitement for the rest of the day. I emailed all the other agents I had contacted — the ones who already had the full manuscript and the ones who had not yet replied to my queries. I immediately received requests for the full manuscript from all but one of the remaining agents.
The bizarre thing was going from weeks of radio silence to suddenly getting the play-by-play. Agents were emailing to tell me they were 8% in, or already at Part III, or on page 152. “That’s publishing from the author side,” my friend Melissa texted me. “Nothing happens until all of a sudden everything happens. Then you go back to nothing happening until your next spike of activity. It’s maddening.”
I ended up with three offers — literally from the three people at the very top of my Dream Agent Grid!!!!!
Here was my query response breakdown:
- 8 out of 9 of the queries I sent had gotten me full manuscript requests.
- 3 out of those 8 offered representation outright.
- 2 of the agents who stepped aside sent wonderfully generous emails saying that they loved a lot but would want to make major revisions — which were in fact changes I disagreed with. (One of these agents later sent the sweetest email expressing regret for passing, and then messaged me again with congratulations when I announced who I’d signed with. A lot of the agents out there really are the nicest humans!)
- 1 of the agents said that the book was great but she was turning me down because her client list was too full.
- The other 2 agents sent the kindest emails telling me how much they loved in my book, but they were passing because it wasn’t right for them, and they were excited to cheer me on from the sidelines.
I thought that would be interesting to share so that other querying writers out there can see: just because an agent says no to your book doesn’t mean you’re a failure!! There are a million ways in which someone might think what you’ve written is great and still not take you on as a client. (And this is not meant to be discouraging, though I realize the other side of that coin is that it sounds like a pretty bleak and impossible endeavor. But really, it’s not. And anyway, you want to find the agent who is the best match for you — the agent who has fallen so head over heels in love with your book that they want you as their client even under circumstances where they thought they wouldn’t be taking on anyone new.)
I was seriously blown away by the responses. It was an embarrassment of riches, and I had a difficult decision to make. But talking to each of the three offering agents on the phone was really what helped me decide. I had a great rapport with them all, but there was one agent in particular who felt like an extension of my brain. He pinned down all the things most important to me. He seemed to understand my novel even better than I did. It was unreal — he was truly The Dream Agent!
I slept on the decision, and then first thing in the morning on November 10th, I signed with Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. And since then it has been quite the celebratory week!
This was actually my third time querying. The first round was over a decade ago, when I was one of those obnoxious teenagers who thought I’d written the next Lord of the Rings. It was back when agents only really took snail mail queries, and most of the time it had to be a proprietary submission. I had to do the whole SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) thing, and the manuscript had to be Courier font and to indicate italics you had to use underlines and to denote breaks you had to use the pound sign (or octothorpe, or whatever you want to call it; it certainly was not a “hashtag” back then). I remember my dad driving me to the post office — because I couldn’t even drive yet, that’s how much of a baby I was — to send out my next query packet every several months.
In 2013 I sent out a small batch of queries for the second time, and it was so weird how fast it was to just shoot out an email. I got so many full requests, and then just as many rejections. But I also got encouraging feedback. Agents generously sending editorial notes. Agents telling me to revise and resubmit. I felt like I was so close and yet still so far away. I tucked the novel in a drawer, planning to rework it after I got some distance, and wrote a new novel. And then revised a ton. And then wrote another novel. And revised a ton again. And here we are.
Third time’s the charm and all that. But really, I’m so grateful to have had those rejections. I would not be the writer I am today without them. And this little bit of success would not taste so sweet if I hadn’t before experienced that gut-wrenching disappointment, that feeling of failure, and that determination to start all over and try again.
8/3/16 — Edited to add: I’ve written a “How to research and prepare for querying literary agents” blog post that might also be useful.