Friday, June 13, 2014

16 So You're Desperate to Get an Agent? Here's What I Learned Before I Got Mine and Got a Book Deal

Photo by Quinnanya
I was at BEA two weeks ago (has it been two weeks already?!) and went for coffee with my agent after my autographing session. The BEA badge pinned to his shirt had LITERARY AGENT written across it, and I was shocked to witness people interrupting our conversation--literally interrupting--to pitch their novels to him.

Sure, I remember the urgency, the desperation, to get an agent and get published. Partly that's because I'm not twenty-something anymore, and partly it's because I wasted spent a lot of years telling myself I needed to have a real money-earning job and therefore I didn't have the time courage determination to write squeeze in a little bit of writing every day. Mainly it's because writers write to communicate and that generally requires us to have (cough, cough) readers. When you don't have any luck getting a manuscript represented, it's demoralizing. I get that. I've been there. I made every mistake in the book before I managed to get through the gatekeepers, snag an agent, snag an editor, and land a book deal.


Having been through the trenches and having gotten more rejections than I can count before getting an agent myself, I'd like to share a little bit of what I learned. Let's start by busting some myths.

  1. You have to know someone to get an agent or get published. Most agents are open to receiving queries provided you follow their guidelines. Get on, search the genre you are looking for, and you'll get the email address and submission guideline information right there. Or at least you'll get the web address where their submission guidelines are posted.

    For a nominal fee, you can even mark and track your submission there to find out what you have outstanding and where it is in the agent queue--i.e., how many other submissions have gone to that agent and are being tracked on QueryTracker. (Bear in mind that this isn't by any means anything more than a fraction of the queries and submissions the agents are looking at, but it lets you see approximately how quickly they are likely to get to yours.)

  2. To get attention for your manuscript, you have to jump through hoops or make yourself stand out. The only thing that needs to stand out is your manuscript. Accosting an agent at a conference or trade show, sending them chocolate along with your query letter, or even going to their offices in person, isn't going to change how they feel about your manuscript when they read it. Unless they love the manuscript and think they can sell it, they're not going to take it on even if you knock their socks off with your winning personality.

  3. The odds of getting an agent are so slim, you should query a hundred agents at once. Um, no. Trust me, I learned the hard way that a good query letter and a solid opening to your manuscript will get requests. If you send to fifteen agents you have carefully selected because they are looking for the kind of manuscript you have written and you don't get several requests, there is a problem with either your query letter, your story premise, or your writing. Don't query more until you figure out which. Take one of the inexpensive Writer's Digest workshops where agents review query letters and sample pages, attend a conference and pay for the critique, go through an online contest, or even go through our free First Five Pages Workshop. These will all help you figure out whether the problem is with the beginning of your manuscript or with your query letter.

  4. A query letter doesn't have to be perfect. Agents are going to look at the first pages of the manuscript anyway. Some agents will read the opening pages of your manuscript first and some will read the query letter first. But the chances are, even if they love your opening and see that you can write their socks off, they still need to know that you have an actual book that they can sell. That means they have to see that you know what your story is about. It took me a while to figure out that the trouble I was having putting together a hook and brief synopsis of what my book was about was because my book wasn't really clear enough yet and the hook wasn't strong enough. For the manuscript that landed an agent and a book deal, I wrote the query letter before I started writing the book. That query letter basically became the pitch my agent sent out on submission, and it is, in large part, the copy that's going on the book jacket. I still can't come up with a good query letter that accurately describes what my first two books are about. Which means I still need to work on those books. (And no, I don't need to query those books any more, but if I ever decide to resurrect them and send them to my agent, I would still want to be sure that I had a good, solid pitch. The fact that I can't define them well means they're not really ready for human consumption.)

  5. Agents (and/or editors) don't really know what they're doing, so you should just go ahead and self-publish if you've been rejected by everyone. Self-publishing is not a solution to rejection. If your book is good, it will likely find a home in traditional publishing, even if it means going to a smaller press. But that doesn't mean that traditional publishing is for everyone either.

    The bottom line is that you have to examine what you really want out of publishing, and you have to:
    • know the strength of your manuscript,
    • your ability and willingness to market it,
    • and your ability to write additional work very quickly.

    Independent publishing works best for writers who have:
    • a manuscript that agents (or editors) are saying they love but can't sell,
    • manuscripts that need to get to market very quickly,
    • authors who have an established network of potential readers already,
    • very motivated and entrepreneurial authors who are willing to spend a lot of time and possibly money to market their own work.

    Indie-publishing also requires hiring a professional editor, a professional copyeditor, a professional proofreader, a professional cover-designer, and a professional book-formatter. Some of these may be the same person, but the steps can't be skipped.

    Readers deserve good content, and putting out a manuscript that is less than professional, and less than it could potentially be, isn't going to help you in your career as an author. And yes, I'm assuming with all of this, that if you are/were looking for an agent, it's because you want to publish more than just one book
Most importantly, what I've learned after getting an agent and a book deal is that if you want to get published, you have to: 
  1. Write a lot and write mindfully, accepting critiques and learning from them until you can write a good, solid book.
  2. Read extensively in your genre, read widely overall, and read critically so that you are learning as you are reading.
  3. Focus on making your work the best it can be rather than on getting published quickly.
  4. Learn your craft as well as you can before trying to get a book published, because once you have a book deal, you have less time to spend on learning and your next book will need to be done in a year, not in two or five or ten years like your first book.
  5. Realize that getting published isn't going to magically make you rich or make you a rock star author. Your book still has to be read and loved by readers. Which means you have to have written a good, solid book. (See item 1) in this list. Rinse repeat.)

Want to know how to write a good query letter? Read this. 

Want to know what not to put in a query letter? Read this. 

Want some encouragement? Read this or this.

Want to smile a little about rejection? Read this.

Want some support because the road is long and hard? You've got mine. 

If you're struggling and wondering if you will ever get there, my heart goes out to you. I've been there. I know what you're feeling. I'm sending you huge, huge hugs and love. And I'm telling you that you can make it, despite the overwhelming odds. It may not be with the book you are working on right now, even if that book is wonderful. 

The truth is, there are a lot of really, really great books written and submitted to publishers every year by agents and authors who love them. And many of those books will not get published even if the editors love them too. 

To a certain extent, getting a book deal requires luck and great timing as well as a solid manuscript. But that doesn't mean you quit. It means you write the next book and hope that the luck and timing are going to be better. Your next book will be better than the first, and that first book won't go away. 
Once you have a book deal, you many want to resurrect that first dead manuscript and breathe it back to life after applying what you've learned since you first wrote it. 

No writing is ever wasted, even if it doesn't ultimately make it onto the page of your published novel. So keep writing. Keep believing!


  1. Martina, I agree with you on writing the query before writing the book. That's one of the tips in James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. I even like to write the one line pitch, something that could fit in a tweet. That keeps me focused!

    1. Yep. Great tip, Julie. I actually did that too! : ) But ultimately, it was hard to come up with the right one line pitch, so I went with the tagline option that I'd had suggested in a workshop with Marietta Zacker and Dorian Cirrone. It really worked more easily for me in summing up the book. That tagline "Three plantations. Two wishes. One ancient curse." is actually getting moved to the cover now.

      We forget that all of this stuff ties together, but it really, really does. When we, as authors, can sum up our books, it makes it a whole lot easier to write them, sell them to publishers, and sell them to readers. : )

      I didn't remember that from Plot & Structure, but I literally just downloaded his Writing from the Middle book based on recommendations from Angela Ackerman and Stina Lindenblatt. So excited to read it. (As soon as Book 2 is off to my editor! :D)

  2. Ugh. I needed this today after another pass on a partial. Ive queried 44 agents. One said my start was too slow and to get to scene x right away- so I cut those chapters and did what she said. Agent two said there was a lack of world building (which was in the chapters I'd cut for agent 1) I'm so frustrated and I know my books is good but it's like you said- I need to be on the right place at the right time with the right person. It's just a matter of WHEN.

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      I'm so sorry that you're frustrated. World building is one of the things that's hard to get right in terms of balance. But you may just need to weave the world building into the scene. A great example of that is Black Juice by Margo Lanagan. Look at Singing My Sister Down, it's seamless. The world building unfolds with the story and it's just so much a part of the action that the reader doesn't question it for a second.

      One of the most frustrating things about world building is that it's hard to divorce yourself, as the author, from what you know thoroughly enough to know what the reader doesn't know. One tip I can suggest is that you try getting a fresh reader to help you. Ask them to read a scene and then describe the world to you based on what they've just read. If their description doesn't match what's in your head, you know where to add additional details and information.

      Good luck! And hang in there.

  3. Wow, so they interrupted you and your agent while having coffee. Even when I've been to conferences in the past, I can't recall wanting to interrupt an agent while they were in the middle of conversation with someone else lol!! i suppose there's a lot people will do to bring their dreams to fruition.

    1. There are! And I feet for them. Like I said, I've been there. But desperation won't sell books.

      One guy actually had a great pitch--I mean, I seriously would have read his book. But the other guy just kept saying his book was going to be the biggest blockbuster of our generation, or words to that effect. Um? No. Of course, I've heard the stories about agents getting passed manuscript under the walls of bathroom stalls, but I'd never actually seen this stuff in action.

  4. Great post, Martina. I will be linking this on my blog. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing your insights - this is helpful...

    1. I'm glad to hear that, Sue! Thanks for taking the time to let me know. :)

  6. I'm glad to know it's a game that can be won. Reminds me of a dart board with a too small bulls eye. First throw - rewrite your opening. Second throw - rewrite your query. Third throw – a few requests. Writers need to be prepared to have a lot of darts.

    1. Unless they happen to have got it right in the first place. And truthfully, I think that's possible. Knowing the craft, nailing the opening, and knowing what your book is about and making it sound appealing so someone would want to read it -- but in a way that shows and doesn't tell -- isn't that much to ask for on the part of agents and publishers who are going to invest a lot of time and money into getting that book into the hands of readers. For us writers, when we are just starting out, it seems like an impossible task.

      Remember, though, that we are all (or most of us, including me!) still learning. Violinists will practice for hours a day and take several lessons a week for years before they can play with a professional orchestra. Doctors go first to college, then medical school, then have to complete a residency and take their exams before they are licensed to practice medicine without supervision. Yet we writers think we can learn our craft by going out an writing a single book, or two, or three. We think because we read that we can write. That's like saying that because someone has seen every episode of HOUSE they should be able to go out and work in an emergency room. :D. So give yourself a break. Consider every one of those darts a week of medical school and maybe it won't seem so bad!

  7. A great reminder! Thanks for sharing your agent experience with us. It really does all come down to the writing, doesn't it. :)

    1. Yes. It's as hard and simple as that--and I wish I could say this was a lesson we have to learn only once. I know I somehow felt like this second book should have been easier, but it comes back to basics and hard work. :D

  8. thanks for all the info. Will save when it's my turn… and then follow your advice carefully!


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