Saturday, April 14, 2007

Finding an Agent - Authors Tell You Their Own Stories

At the end of March, I posted some suggestions for those who are trying to find an agent — so if you're looking for representation, you may want to read that before you dive into this post.

You may remember that the March post was inspired by someone who believed that you needed an author recommendation to get anywhere in the agent hunt. I disagreed. Whole books have been written on this topic, and I don't intend to replace them with this blog. I only hope these comments from other writers about their experiences will encourage some of you who are looking for agents. Especially if you've been feeling that your chances of getting published are nil just because you
    • never saved an author from drowning,
    • don't hang out in bars with leading literary lights, and
    • haven't located a copy of the Harry Potter book of spells to help you ensorcel a writer by e-mail into being your champion.
Maybe one day the AAR will publish a scientific study whereby agents list their clients who were "discovered" by them — their first-time authors only — and specify how those clients came to work with them. This might provide something more than guesswork on the number of unknown authors who were referred by other clients, were brought to their attention by writing instructors, made the connection through queries, were met through conferences, etc. (To the best of my knowledge, this isn't available now.)

I will readily admit that what I'm posting here is anecdotal. My intention is to show that writers find agents in lots of different ways, and to dispel the myth that the world of publishing is closed and "members only."

Please understand that I am not saying that it is easy to get an agent. Many agents get over a thousand queries a week, and of course they don't take all of those folks on. But here are a few stories from some people who didn't have any special insider help:

From Denise Swanson, national bestselling author of Murder of A Botoxed Blonde and eight other novels:

I found my first agent using a query letter, although I did have the permission of [the late, renowned Mysterious Press editor] Sara Ann Freed to use a quote from the critique she did of my manuscript at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference.

The book I used to come up with the list of agents I eventually queried was the Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman.

From Meg Chittenden, bestselling author of over 100 short stories and articles, a book on writing, three children's books, and 33 novels that include romance, suspense, mystery, and mainstream — her latest suspense novel is Snap Shot:

Way back in 1971 — would you believe it, I must have been in kindergarten — I received a manila envelope back in the mail — one of my SASE that I was sending out with all the submissions I was making. Disheartened, I let it sit on my desk a while. Luckily I opened it before going to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference. Inside was a contract from Follett for my first children's book. I took it to the conference, talked to an agent who was there, who agreed to represent me (hey, they'd already mentioned money!) and actually got me more money than they had offered. She then repped me through my GH short story days, another children's book and my first novel, which she suggested I write....

[Unfortunately, her first agent died. Meg tells how she found her next agent:]

I wrote to Emilie Jacobson at Curtis Brown, who took me on right away and is still my agent. I wrote her because she was Willo Davis Roberts agent and Willo was doing pretty good, seemed to me. Note that I did not ask Willo to recommend me. I did not tell Emilie I was a friend of Willo.

Because, and this is what I tell people who want me to recommend them to my agent — I believe a writer needs an agent who is enthusiastic about his or her work. I didn't want an agent to take me on because so-and-so asked her to and she maybe felt she owed so-and-so something.

From Toni L.P. Kelner, award-winning author of nine novels, including the forthcoming Without Mercy, as well as numerous short stories:

When I was going to events, trying to figure out how this business works (thinking that I could figure it out), I used to ask writers, "How do you get an agent?"
The usual answer was, "Consult one of the books that list agents and their needs, and query them."
Then I'd say, "Is that how you got your agent?"
And they would almost always say, "No, I knew somebody."

Well, I did NOT know anybody. I actually got my agent via one of those guide books. She was the sixteenth I queried, as a matter of fact, and we didn't meet in person until a few years after we started working together.

So if anybody asks, those guidebooks work!

From Jerrilyn Farmer, award-winning author of seven novels in the Madeline Bean series and short stories, and member of the faculty of the UCLA Extension Writers Program:

The best advice I read was to research which agents rep which authors (by checking the Acknowledgments pages of their books), and to send query letters to agents whose authors are similar in style/genre to yours. In addition, I found the Writers Market and other guides to Literary Agents helpful for their listings of agents who specialize in particular kinds of books. This is how I found my agent.

Sometimes it feels like you need a special introduction to get noticed, but I agree with Meg who said that an agent shouldn't be doing anyone a favor to take you on, but be completely enthusiastic about your books.

From Robin Burcell, Anthony Award winner and author crime fiction novels, including Cold Case:

I went about the whole agent hunting thing backwards.

I sold my first book on my own (a process I do not recommend) and acquired my first agent after being introduced via phone by another writer represented by the same agency. Right around the time I switched genres, my agent left the agency. I sent my first mystery to the same publisher, who was very interested in it.

In the meantime, I was introduced to a second agent at the same agency, who said she was
interested in seeing the mystery. Sent it off to her, then got a call from the publisher saying they wanted to buy it. Second agent negotiated this book. And then my editor said she wanted to buy the second mystery in the series, which she'd read, but needed to wait until
her return from medical leave. During this medical leave, my second agent left the agency, and I took that as my cue to find a new agency myself.

After several queries, I wasn't able to find an agent before my editor returned, and I finally called her, asking if she was still interested in the book, because I was now agentless. She was, asked me what I was looking for, and I gave her my wish list. She gave me a list of agents to query based on that list. I interviewed several while at Bouchercon, then made a decision.

We've been happy ever since.

Paul Guyot brings a slightly different perspective, from the world of television writing — considered by most to be nearly impossible to break into. Shows he has written for include Felicity and Judging Amy.

I found my agent the old fashion way - query letters. I had ZERO connections in Hollywood. None. So I sent a dozen queries out and was rejected or ignored across the board. So then I began to query managers - in Hollywood a manager is someone who acts just like an agent, but isn't accredited. They can get your stuff to maybe 75% of the places an agent can, but 75% of something is better than 100% of nothing. For a complete newbie like myself, managers - especially newer just-starting-out managers - were more willing to read a new writer. Of the approximately four or five queries to managers, only one was interested, so I figured we were a match made in heaven, and I signed with him.

Well, he was able to get my material in front of studio and network executives who put me on their "approved" lists - executives love lists - and from there I was able to very quickly secure an agent, then my first job, and have never been unemployed since. I subsequently fired the manager within my first year of employment. It was perhaps a bit mercenary of me (though there were other issues), but once I had the accredited agent and employment, the manager became superfluous.

I agree with what Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and several other major writers believe - good writing always finds a home. If you write well, you eliminate a huge variable, and thus reduce the importance or need for connections and recommendations. Unfortunately, many aspiring writers (screen and prose) put more effort into getting an agent or getting published than they do the actual writing.

From Sharan Newman, author of the fabulous Catherine LeVendeur historical mystery novels, nonfiction including The Real History Behind the DaVinci Code and (forthcoming in July) The Real History Behind the Templars, as well as short stories and other works:

I published my first three books without an agent, something I don't recommend. I didn't know any other writers. I got mine by going to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, listening to and talking with the agents there. One of them liked me. That was 1984 and we've been together ever since.

I might also add that, although I have suggested other writers to my agency none of them have been a match.

Sorry, I still think the best way to get an agent is to write a good book, then go to a couple of the conferences or start writing query letters. Knowing another author is not really that useful.

So there are just a few examples of published writers who found agents without recommendations from other writers. My thanks to all of them!

I hope you'll take note of something several of those above have said — having an author recommend you isn't as important as finding an agent who is genuinely enthusiastic about your work. And I strongly agree that your focus must be on creating a work of quality. A recommendation from the hottest author on the NYT list will not help you if your manuscript is weak. If you've written an original and engaging story with a fresh voice, your manuscript will provide what you need most in your quest for an agent.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I found it very helpful.
MF Makichen

Jan Burke said...

Glad you did. Thanks go to these generous writers who took the time to respond to my request.


Joyce said...

Although I'm not published yet, I got my agent the old-fashioned way-by querying. I queried for two years and got a lot of "I like your writing, send me the next book." I kept polishing the manuscript while writing the next book. Maybe I was just too dumb to quit, but it worked.