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Finding True Love, Finding a Literary Agent

By posted at 6:00 am on November 27, 2012 30

Typing THE END on your first novel is nearly as epic as saying I DO. Similar to an exchange of vows, after the champagne has been chugged and the celebratory cheers have faded, you wake up to a reality loaded with questions. Most notably: Where do I go from here? This isn’t a paper Jenga on my desk. How do I get my book published? These were my questions, at least. My published author friends answered: find a literary agent.

This is no reinvented love story. Many of you are at this juncture now, so we can be honest with one another. When you have your first manuscript in your arms and are querying agents, you aren’t particularly picky. The focus is on the end result — getting the book to a publisher. So you rush the agent “dating” process. I was guilty of that. I viewed finding an agent as yet another hurdle on my way to the printing press.

I welcomed every agent suitor. Sure, I scanned credentials, but querying from El Paso, Texas, everyone in New York City looked flashy and impressive. Every agent had a Bestseller in his or her clientele list. All sounded enthusiastic in email and on the phone. Frankly, I didn’t want to sit around pondering if I emotionally clicked with my agent or not, so long as they took my novel to Publisher’s Row. I was holding my first “book baby” and eager to get it to the next developmental stage.

“Why not fly to New York to meet the prospective proxies?” one of my friends asked. I laughed. Like, spittle-flying laughter. I had mortgage payments, utility bills, student loans. I barely had two quarters left at the end of the month to buy gum from a candy machine. Fly to New York to meet these people? Only on Santa’s sleigh.

covercoverSo I did the best I could from afar. I gratefully signed with an agency, and we sold my first and second novels, The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico and The Baker’s Daughter, to Random House/Crown in a two-book deal. But within twelve months, the blush of first love rubbed off the bloom, and I discovered that my first agent was not my match. In fact, we were remarkably unmatched. I now empathize for the swept-off-their-feet celebrity nuptials that end in tears and divorce.

Your agent relationship is akin to a marriage. Emotions, finances, and trust are all tangled up and can be easily wounded if you aren’t careful. Similarly, that agent can be one of your most loyal and cherished people on earth. Your literary spouse of sorts. I spent nearly two years silently observing and developing friendships with a select handful of admired agencies until I was ready to “date” seriously again.

This month, I celebrate my one-year anniversary with my new agent and it still feels as if we’re in our honeymoon phase. I recently saw her at one of my book events. To use a canned metaphor: we went together like peanut butter and jelly. She’s editorially brilliant and has the business prowess of a tiger, yes. But more importantly, she gets me and my writing. She believes in my work even when I doubt myself and encourages me to set my sights past the moon to the brightest star. She pushes me, using compassion and insight to buoy me forward, never backwards. She’s someone my husband loves. Someone I will introduce to my children when I have them. Someone I can’t imagine not having in my career or my life.

This is what a good author-agent relationship should be like. Still, I am but one author with a subjective experience to share. So I polled fellow author friends on what makes a good literary agent, in their experience. I ended up with the three essential C’s.

1. The Click.
Definition: that intangible zing through your core alerting you this is no ordinary meeting; the kinetic energy between two people; the magnetic draw that makes you want to not just go into business with this person but invite them into your life.

Testimonials:

coverBeth Hoffman (author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt):

There was an immediate “click” between us. We chattered and laughed as if we’d known each other for years. She has integrity and exudes confidence and professionalism…I trust her completely.

Matthew Dicks, author of Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend:

My agent falls only below my wife in terms of important women in my life (when my mother-in-law is in the room, I assign her the #2 spot, but it’s a lie). She is one of my most honest critics and also my biggest fan… In short, my agent is my friend above all else.

coverMegan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories:

I live in rural VT and [my agent] is my lifeline. I love her energy and her smarts. I trust her deeply…

Sarah Pekkanen, author of These Girls:

Like dating, authors need to find someone who feels like the right fit before taking the plunge into a committed relationship. I definitely found that in my agent. Before we even met, she cracked some very funny jokes—a sense of humor is high on my list of desirable qualities…

coverLydia Netzer, author of Shine, Shine, Shine:

Having an agent that will be honest with you is wonderful. Having an agent you can be honest with is even better.

2. Chutzpah.
Definition: the quality of being gutsy, both personally and professionally; someone who will go to the mat with you every time, as a partner, a cheerleader, a Mr. Miyagi to your Karate Kid. (I’m showing my age here.)

Testimonials:

coverChristina Haag, author of Come To The Edge:

Guidance, honesty, expertise, and chutzpah… She brings an excellent mix of instinct and business smarts to the table; she’s able to nurture a project, as well as fight for it.

Jenna Blum, author of The Stormchasers:

1. Unforced, enthusiastic love for the writer’s work. 2. Consistent and fast responsiveness. 3. Belief in the writer’s career, not just one project. I’ve been with my agent almost a decade and she is my right arm. I can’t imagine being without her. And she’s got the fiercest French accent ever.

M.J. Rose, author of The Book of Lost Fragrances:

While loving your agent is also great – this is 100% a business deal and your agent does work for you – you hired him or her – so it’s a partnership and important to have an agent who respects that and whom you feel comfortable in that role with.

Sarah Pinneo, author of Julia’s Child:

Not merely a lover of books, but a true business woman. She represents dozens of authors, yet still encourages me to copy her on every communication with my publisher, and she’s always on top of the flow… She knows how to talk to authors at those vulnerable moments when their insecurities are sticking out like porcupine quills.

coverLaura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss:

Key to a great relationship: Respect, honesty, loyalty… I want someone romantic enough to be in this crazy book world and hard-nosed enough to help me survive it.

3.  Character.
Definition: moral and ethical quality. (That came straight from Webster’s Dictionary. No expounding necessary.)

Testimonials:

Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of Somebody’s Daughter:

A need for mutual respect and ETHICS as well as a sharp literary sense helped me to the right person.

coverKristina McMorris, author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves:

An agent who: expresses passion for the author’s voice versus a single book, which sets the stage for a long-term relationship; treats the client like a partner, welcoming ideas and input in all areas; reads a client’s manuscript within days or weeks; communicates clearly and promptly, and above all, is a genuinely good person.

Marilyn Brant, author of A Summer in Europe:

Find someone you can trust professionally, communicate with effectively, and feel confident loves and respects your writing style. You want an agent who knows how to steer you well in both strengthening your manuscripts without changing your voice and in matching each of your novels with an editor who will also appreciate it and champion it within the publishing house.

There you have it. Like matrimony, your literary representation must be your better half in the publishing community. Never settle for mediocre. Take a cue from the love gurus and matchmakers: look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I’m worthy of a respectful relationship. I’m worthy of my one, true agent and nothing less.”

Image: Shelley Panzarella/Flickr





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30 Responses to “Finding True Love, Finding a Literary Agent”

  1. Holly
    at 11:28 am on November 27, 2012

    Reading this post was perfect timing for me. I am five weeks into querying agents about my debut young adult novel. I’ve been studying a few for over a year, hoping we would be a fit, only to accidentally hit send on the wrong query email message to one of my top choices! I got a no rather quickly and expectedly, my bad for sending it with a sick little one and not much sleep- but I was so excited.

    I want to find someone who loves my book and will be a champion for me and the work. I hope to be friends- that my agent will be able to handle my multiple personalities- the neurotic writer and pragmatic business person. I tell myself every no takes me one step closer to a yes. Come on yes!
    -Holly

  2. Stu Donymus
    at 12:00 pm on November 27, 2012

    It’s clear to me after writing my second novel that I’ve got the wrong agent. He won’t touch it, and I’m afraid he doesn’t understand my work at all. The trouble is that he hasn’t sold my first novel yet. I’m halfway through a third, which is YA and may be what he considers “more commercial,” but the relationship has become painful to endure.

    As yet, I’m unpublished anywhere, and given how distinctive (read: weird, uncategorizable, “subversive”) my work is, I don’t like my chances in the slush pile. My gut tells me to hang on to this agent until I make a sale, either on his steam or my own. It seems like without a book in the world I’ve got little chance of finding my one, true agent.

    Any advice from the Millions-verse?

  3. todd
    at 12:26 pm on November 27, 2012

    Thanks for the post. My only comment is to the line “I welcomed every agent suitor.” This makes it sound like you put out a mating call and agents came running. Truth of the matter is, most authors have the opposite problem: even hearing back from agents, who are drowning in slush piles.

    New writers need to know how difficult it is to get any agent to even pay attention, never mind picking the right one.

    I think there’s an opportunity for you to talk more about landing an agent, which involves 1) writing something great 2) that agents think they can sell and 3) networking more than querying.

    cheers

  4. Charles Schwend
    at 12:59 pm on November 27, 2012

    Too many new authors do think of their work as a beautiful new born and believe that everyone see their work as they do. If they would view their manuscript as something that has to be commercially viable as they are putting their words down or editing, the end result would be more favorable.

  5. The Millions : Finding True Love, Finding a Literary Agent | Love Advice
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  6. Sarah McCoy
    at 2:20 pm on November 27, 2012

    Thank you all for reading! I so appreciate you taking the time to comment and share your stories. It makes the process of finding a literary “match” feel less cumbersome to hear other writers’ experiences.

    Holly, good luck and keep at it! Finding an excellent representation match takes time. Like dating, the “no’s” are just folks moving aside so you can find the agent that fulfills all three of the Cs. Wishing you all the best!

    Stu, Just know (as I learned the hard way) that once your agent sells your book, you are committed/stuck to them for the duration of that contract. So, in my humble opinion, if you aren’t happy and are resolute that this is NOT your agent match, I’d chance requesting your manuscript back from the said agent and finding someone who you feel confident to “represent” your body of work and you as an author. Just my two cents to take or leave. Good luck, my friend!

    Todd, words of true wisdom! Thank you for commenting. Yes, there is oodles more to landing an agent than I’ve discussed here. There ought to be a course on it… a handbook or something! As a “new writer,” I learned from the school of hard knocks. I’m forever grateful to The Author’s Guild and their legal team for shepherding me through most of the legalities involved. I encourage all authors to do the same. Be wise and know all your options and rights! (http://www.authorsguild.org/) Thanks again for bringing up that it ain’t all roses and love songs, Todd.

    Great discussions. Thank you all again!

  7. Stu Donymus
    at 2:41 pm on November 27, 2012

    Zoinks. That’s food for thought, all right. For some reason it had never occurred to me that I might be asked to sign a contract for a certain period of time.

    Since I’m basically repping my first two novels by myself at the moment, sending them to houses that don’t require agented manuscripts (like McSweeney’s, Small Beer, and other oddball small presses open to cross-genre weirdness), I suppose I could always break optimistic and plan to sell one on my own.

    Thanks so much for your input, Sarah.

  8. Sarah McCoy
    at 3:39 pm on November 27, 2012

    Absolutely my pleasure, Stu.

    If you aren’t already a member of The Authors Guild, I highly encourage you to sign up. There’s a minimal yearly fee and they are BEYOND amazing in helping authors read between the lines of agent contracts. They were instrumental in my “love story.” Once you are a member, all of their phenomenal legal services are at your beck and call. Whatever you decide to do with your manuscripts, I suggest you check in with them. They may not be able to give you an absolute solution, but they’ll give you the finest, unbiased advice in publishing. That I can guarantee… and you can quote me to them.

    Good luck, friend!

    http://www.authorsguild.org/

  9. Stu Donymus
    at 3:44 pm on November 27, 2012

    That’s funny — I just got off the phone with them! They were wicked helpful from the first word and gave me far more confidence than I woke up with this morning. It sounds like as long as I’m in the minor leagues, I can get by just fine with a membership there, then use their advice to find the right agent.

    That’s it, then. My mind’s made up not to hand my new MS to my old agent. This has been a torturous month, but I’m feeling all sunshiney now.

    This is internet serendipity at its finest. Many thanks.

  10. Sarah McCoy
    at 4:03 pm on November 27, 2012

    Stu!

    I am clapping (literally) my hands for you. Congratulations! “Wicked helpful” = The Authors Guild. You penned it beautifully.

    So glad you took my advice to call them, and that you now have a plan for moving forward! Trust me: You have saved yourself months–*years* even– of heartache.

    Lord, I know we’ve just met here, but I could pop a bottle of champagne in your honor. Happy day to you!

    Most truly,
    Sarah

  11. A.K.Andrew
    at 8:43 am on November 28, 2012

    Great post! – As new authors, I think there is the urge to get somebody-anybody- who will offer to be our agent. My first novel had 15 rejections, and by that time I was onto novel 2 which is what I’m focusing , and coming to the end of now. So this was fantastic advice. In it for the long haul, like a marriage is a great analogy, and I shall definitely look into joining the Author’s Guild. Thanks so much :-)

  12. Buzz Malone
    at 12:07 pm on November 28, 2012

    As a penniless country bumpkin from rural Iowa, I can relate with the hilarity of any pie in the sky thoughts of jet setting to New York. Where I fail to ‘click’ is the part where I have the ability to pick and choose an agent. I gave up some time ago submitting cold called, slush pile queries. There may be a mere five degrees of separation between any two souls, but it appears as though I am lacking degrees number three and four to ‘network’ with anyone in New York. Currently, I am working on my fourth self-published Iowa based novella. It’s a lot of work to market and distribute, etc., but I really get to know my readers and have developed a niche market that is genuinely devoted. The whole agent query process definitely soured me. Let the gatekeepers have their keys. The modern world has tarnished the sparkle of them anyhow.

  13. Jesse Kaellis
    at 1:54 pm on November 28, 2012

    I never could get an agent. I got my book read by James Frey, Eric Simonoff, and Michael Signorelli (Harper/Collins).
    The book made the short list of the SFU/Anvil Press First Book Contest.
    I have pieces of it published in SubTerrain, a quarterly literary magazine.
    There is something missing in the above essay. Why did you have agents courting you when most novice or unpublished writers find it harder to retain an agent than to get a publishing contract?
    Are you really that good? Are you a journalist? Something doesn’t make sense here.
    Wait! Let me rephrase that. Why let the facts get in the way of your slick, breezy, dishonest essay?

  14. Danny Adams
    at 4:10 pm on November 28, 2012

    Charles Schwend wrote: “If they would view their manuscript as something that has to be commercially viable as they are putting their words down or editing…”

    I would take the “as they are putting words down” out of this sentence for a couple of reasons. Writing is hard for some, and when you’re newly working at it, inserting a self-editor at this stage might be self-defeating. Second, you’ve got to love the book you’re working on, focusing on that as you’re doing the first draft more than commercial possibilities, or no one else is going to love it.

    But for editing…definitely. If you’re serious about trying to publish, then everything you do after writing “THE END” on the first draft needs to keep “commercially viable” in mind.

  15. WRITING ON THE ETHER: Vanity Pressed | Jane Friedman
    at 9:18 am on November 29, 2012

    […] McCoy has no sweet nothings for your ear in  Finding True Love, Finding a Literary Agent at The Millions. So you rush the agent “dating” process. I was guilty of that. I viewed […]

  16. todd
    at 11:09 am on November 29, 2012

    @Jesse

    “Why did you have agents courting you when most novice or unpublished writers find it harder to retain an agent than to get a publishing contract?”

    Agreed. I posted above questioning the same thing. Sarah, this is a good, inspirational article but there is indeed something missing. 99% of authors do not have agents courting them.

    What special circumstance did you find yourself in where this was the case?

    Elaborating on this would provide great context while also managing the expectations of your audience, who are probably beating themselves up because they dont have agents courting them.

    cheers

  17. Gabriel Squailia
    at 11:24 am on November 29, 2012

    99% of authors seem to view agents as the keepers of the magical keys to the kingdom, as if the only thing standing between them and a flourishing career is representation.

    The truth is that you need an agent once your career is already rolling. The only special circumstances I’ve seen involve conspicuous excellence and/or family members who are A-list career bestsellers.

    If you’ve got a great novel, you still need to become noticeable — through short stories, awards, or networking — before you can get an agent who’ll do you any good. Your career is in your own hands; an agent usually just manages it.

    There are exceptions, of course, but they’re so rare that it’s far healthier to take a serious look at the market and acknowledge that this is a long game indeed.

  18. Sarah McCoy
    at 1:21 pm on November 29, 2012

    A.K.,
    Thanks for sharing your struggle to find an agent. Your positivity and determination is just the kind of drive that will propel you right into the hands of the excellent agent meant to represent *you*– your writing and you as an author. Good luck and never settle!

  19. Sarah McCoy
    at 1:26 pm on November 29, 2012

    For a handful of folks who are curious about the line “I welcomed every suitor.”

    This was an essay about finding your one, true match. My first match was not, so I can’t accurately write an essay about that first process as I, obviously, completely botched it. What I meant by “welcoming every suitor” was that if an agent showed interest in my work, I *flung* open my door: “Come on in!” I’m sorry I didn’t elaborate on the painful 9 months of querying for my first manuscript (The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico). It was my thesis novel, having just graduated from a three-year, in-residency creative writing MFA program. So if you add that on top of everything, I’d say I sat alone with my writing for nearly 4 years in an attempt to get my foot in the publishing door.

    For every positive suitor/response, I received two rejections. However, I didn’t let it deter my resolve to get my book published. I pushed on… sent three new queries for every rejection. I inundated NYC with my letters. A majority, I simply never heard from– lost in slush piles across Manhattan. In the end, I probably sent my work out to nearly seventy agencies from NYC to California. So yes, I had multiple “suitors” but I cast a WIDE net and wasn’t particularly picky… as this essay warns.

    That’s my hard knocks story. Again, mine is not at all unique. Every writer has been through some semblance of this tale of desperation, frustration and nail-biting hope breaking into the biz. Many have had it far harder than I did, so I can’t write a piece expounding on the trials and tribulations. Nobody wants to read a pity party and I, especially, don’t want to write it because in my case, the ending of my first literary marriage was a sad and painful one (i.e. author-agent divorce).

    So please forgive me, kind readers, if I chose to focus on what *does* work, what I wish I would’ve known to look for, what makes a good relationship with your agent– not just from my perspective, but from all of the fabulous authors that graciously shared their own literary agent stories. My aim was simply to aid those that could use both the applicable advice and a little cheerleading in the midst of this exasperating and often very long process. Don’t give up, don’t rush, wait patiently for the one that will be your champion.

    Are we all friends again?
    Cheers!

  20. Chris
    at 3:34 pm on November 29, 2012

    Except it’s all totally different for non-fiction. I found this interesting, and sort of wished for a minuet that I wrote fiction. But I ams what I am, as Popeye wisely said.

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  23. Industry News-December 2 » RWA-WF
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  24. Linda Joyce
    at 12:48 pm on December 3, 2012

    Sarah,

    Thank you for the information in the article and for your follow up comments.

    My questions pertains to your comment: “What I meant by “welcoming every suitor” was that if an agent showed interest in my work, I *flung* open my door: “Come on in!” I’m sorry I didn’t elaborate on the painful 9 months of querying for my first manuscript (The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico).”

    So with hindsight, would you have said, “no” to the first agent? I would like to understand what you would’ve done differently.

    I’ve signed with a small press for two novels. They specialiaze in romance. My women’s fiction manuscripts do not fit their niche, and I’m seeking representation for those works. How do I avoid the pitfall of “first agent divorce”?

    Warmest Regards,

    Linda Joyce

  25. Shelley
    at 11:52 am on December 4, 2012

    Thanks. One of the more helpful pieces I’ve written on agents, a subject that bewilders me.

    Ms. McCoy, is there a place or a way to find agents who specialize in taking stories to film?

  26. Sarah McCoy
    at 4:35 pm on December 5, 2012

    Dear Linda,

    First off, congratulations on your upcoming two novels! Thanks for reading this essay and taking the time to reply so thoughtfully.

    To your questions: What would I have done differently? How do I avoid pitfall of agent-author divorce?

    A: I’m a woman who believes that every event has a purpose–even the ones that may be perceived as “mistakes” and “bad.” The bottom line for my Ex agent was written in dollar signs. I’m eternally grateful to her for negotiating my first two-book contract with Random House. I count myself entirely blessed to have gotten my foot into the publishing world with such a phenomenal start. However, where we failed to see eye to eye was on the personal level. She didn’t fit the three C’s for me, personally. Irreconcilable differences, to use a divorce settlement term.

    I wish I would’ve known that business deals and being a power negotiator are excellent attributes for one’s literary representation; however, if that’s the total package, you’re in for some heartache. It’s like marrying someone because they look fabulous on paper. They’ve got a good pedigree. Well off. Good credentials. Good family. Good job. They present all shiny and smiling. You say the vows, make it legal, then move in together and realize you simply do *not* click.

    Clicking, chutzpah and character are as important as being able to sell-sell-sell. Thus, this essay’s content. Doing it differently… if I couldn’t have met them in person, I would’ve had more telephone conversations with all my prospects. Chatted with them more than just a couple of times to see how they were over time. That’s what I did during my two years of “dating” to find my treasured, current agent– my match.

    I hope that helps somewhat. Good luck, Linda!

    Yours truly,
    Sarah

  27. Sarah McCoy
    at 4:48 pm on December 5, 2012

    Dear Shelley,

    To be honest, I’m not terribly familiar with literary agents who deal exclusively in book-to-film. I assume that many of those might be located in Los Angeles/California so it might help to focus on researching specific agents in that area.

    Also, it helps to simply ask. That’s another great piece of advice I wish I would’ve taken– ASK QUESTIONS. Ask the agent all the questions you like. If they are your match then they want to hear them. As your possible “representation” in the broader publishing community, they need to embody all the factors that are important to you.

    So, Shelley, if book-to-film is high up on your list, ask what book-to-film projects they’ve worked on and get the name(s) of their dramatic/film sub agents in Hollywood. A quality literary agency will be open with sharing that information. Once you have a name/company, you can Google around and decide if that suits your career vision.

    Also, you could look at the contemporary books that have been made into films already (Ex. The Help, Lincoln, Brokeback Mountain, Twilight). Find the authors and their agents. There’s a place to start!

    I hope that gives you some ideas. Happy agent dating, Shelley.

    Yours truly,
    Sarah

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  29. Toby White
    at 8:08 pm on February 16, 2013

    You people are pathetic if you akin your agent to a partner. They are just an ugly part of an even uglier wall of pretenses which make up publishing. I find that agents juggle you on their own terms not yours–how is that like a marriage? Sure I get along with my agent but unlike you people I actually understand that it all falls on my shoulders. It’s my book. My career and I’m only a fraction of my agent’s thoughts. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll start thinking about them in the same way.

  30. Jesse Kaellis
    at 11:36 pm on June 15, 2013

    I did get a publisher for my book. I have some bitter experiences with agencies but I can’t relate them here because my publisher doesn’t want me cutting loose with the pathological stuff anymore. It alienates people.
    Early Out, published by Mountain Springs House. Nice new cover, new day, new me. Different you. Maybe.

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