There are two questions authors get asked every time they speak in public:
1) Where do you get your ideas?
2) How did you get your agent?
My answer to the first one is easy – Target. I swear my best ideas occur right as I’m about to check out which means I get all dazed and glassy eyed and the poor cashier thinks hard about calling Security and having me escorted to my car.
But the second question is more complicated and it can be crazy making.
My answer, in a nutshell: my son went to preschool with a boy whose mother went to medical school with a woman who had a bestie from summer camp, who just happened to be a literary agent in New York. Lucky for me, Leigh Feldman (Leigh Feldman Literary) turned out to be brilliant, funny, lovely and just a little bit scary, all the things you want in an agent!
The point is, for most authors, the path to representative is anything but straightforward.
To illustrate, I asked some published/to be published Young Adult and Middle Grade authors to share their stories with us. There is so much to be learned here about not giving up and trusting your instincts. Aspiring authors, keep the faith! As you will see, there are many ways to get where you are going.
If you get in, you receive a one-on-one critique with an agent or editor at the conference–but the best part is the packet of contact information you get to take home with you, with email addresses and wish lists for every agent and editor who was there.
I went through and circled anyone’s name who looked like they might be interested in the book I was querying, then started down the list. A couple months later, Linda wrote back requesting the full manuscript; the very next morning, she emailed again to ask if we could schedule The Phone Call, offering me representation! And a year later, she sold my first novel, Inevitable and Only.
I did a ton of research before I started querying. I knew I’d want an agent who specialized in children’s books, and who had a soft spot for contemporary MG. After 25 agents turned me down, one said yes after an R&R. We went out on submission, but the novel didn’t sell and my agent and I parted ways. Now I was agent-less. Instead of quitting, though—which I was seriously tempted to do—I took a long, hard look at the manuscript and completely reworked it. I revamped the plot, added new characters, and changed the title. I also hired an amazing freelance editor for a full-scale manuscript evaluation.
Then I started querying all over again. Luckily, I received requests for fulls right away, and I landed agent #2. Together, we revised the novel yet again (!!!) and found a happy home for it with editor Julie Bliven at Charlesbridge. I’ve since switched agents—I’m now repped by the lovely and talented Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency—but I will be forever grateful to my previous two agents who took a chance on me.
I met my agent, Caryn Wiseman, at the Big Sur Writing Conference run by The Andrea Brown Literary Agency and the Henry Miller Library. It felt like a crash course in writing for children. It was intense, fun, and like no other conference I’d been to. Plus, I was lucky enough to be placed at Caryn’s round table. We shared our pages. She’d offer feedback. Then we could go to our cabins and revise before meeting again later on, or present something entirely new.
She had to wait on me roughly a year to finish writing Vilonia Beebe before we could go out with it, but the rest, as they say, is history. I highly encourage anyone considering this conference, to just go for it. I didn’t know a soul and was scared. But everyone was so welcoming. The critiques were fabulous. And the setting was spectacular. https://bigsurwriting.wordpress.com
I sent the first batch of twenty or so queries out, got a few form rejections right off (beginning of August), then entered my manuscript in Brenda Drake’s PITCH MADNESS contest (end of August). I ended up with five bids, in addition to a handful of “ninja” agents who also wanted to see it. Then two agents I sent queries to asked for the full. Then #pitmad (beginning of September) happened and I got additional requests from that. I also, as a result of #pitmad, got an e-mail from an agent I’d already queried who saw my pitch on Twitter and was like, “Wait, didn’t I already ask for that?”
Suddenly, within what felt like a relatively short period of time, over a dozen agents were looking at my manuscript. One of the #pitmad agents responded in a few weeks, and I really liked her. I was hoping she’d write back and she did, asking for rewrites of the first chapter to see if I could take feedback and edit well. I severely over-wrote and slaughtered that rewritten first chapter; it was terrible. But the agent, bless her heart, still offered representation.
I was over the moon, but still knew the professional thing to do was let all other agents who had my manuscript know that I’d had an offer. About 2/3 of the agents very politely and warmly stepped aside, citing various reasons they weren’t personally as excited about it as they’d hoped to be. The last third asked for more time to finish. Of this third, most ultimately passed, giving me good feedback, but one had a full page of notes that ended with, “If any of this resonates with you, I’d be happy to talk, but do know that I would expect a lot of additional edits.”
I couldn’t quite tell if she was very interested or not, so I wrote back and said, “I agree this needs additional elbow grease. Um, would you want to represent the book?” That’s a paraphrase, of course. Actually when I look back on some of these e-mails to both agents, I cringe. I, at least, can tell that I was a screwed up ball of anxiety.
In short, second agent and I talked on the phone, lots of her edits did resonate, and I was left in an unanticipated situation of having several good options. I also knew my novel was going to drastically change. What if I signed with one agent, made the changes, and they hated the new draft?
If the cringe-y e-mails weren’t bad enough, it was nothing compared to the second phone call I had with the second agent, where, in retrospect, I think I was presenting ideas and subconsciously trying to wring a confession out of her to admit she would like the changes (before I’d even sent them) and be happy she signed with me and we’d ride off into the sunset. Which is crazy. And I remember getting to the end of the phone call, when she was maybe starting to see through the fog of my crazy, and she said something to the effect of: “You know, I get how important this is to new writers, but at the end of the day, you can say no to both of us. That’s not the end of the world. And if this book never finds an agent, then you’ll write a new book and try again with that one. The fate of your career doesn’t have to be decided in the space of this phone call.”
It was good advice in general, but really good advice for me personally. Plus, she’d sort of talked me off the crazy cliff, which I suspected might be a useful skill for a future agent of mine to have.
Thus . . . I said no to both, because clearly it was important for me to relax and rewrite this book on my own terms. So I rewrote my manuscript, incorporating the plethora of professional feedback I’d received. It was a massive undertaking, almost 80% new writing. During this time, funnily enough, two other agents I’d queried asked for the full ms, one who later declined and one who I later declined. Then I waited for the first two agents to read the rewrite and while I waited I cyber-stalked them. If they uttered a word on the world wide web, I probably read it. I’d also made sure to ask them questions about their clients, what they envisioned for the book, are they a member of AAR, etc., etc.
In the end, they both were still interested and, honestly, it just came down to what felt right in my gut, because they were both genuine, qualified, lovely people. I looked at it from a business angle as well as a personal angle and chose the second agent, the indomitable Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates, who is pretty much fantastic. I love that she is an editorial agent and is never going to tell me, “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,” when it could be better (I also like that she thinks I’m capable of making it better). I used to read the acknowledgments of books with authors describing their agents as ninja/sword-wielding/super people, and thinking, ‘They can’t all be like that.’ And maybe they’re not, but Katie is (after our first phone call I described her to my friend saying ‘she has a lioness quality’). She was also the agent who I sent a regular cold query to, but who e-mailed me back after seeing my pitch on #pitmad, so I never know to which venue I should attribute the contact.
So in 2011 I began posting my writing on the online platform Wattpad. It wasn’t until 2015 that I was contacted on Wattpad by my editor from Blink/HarperCollins, who was interested in my story In 27 Days. At the time I was totally new to the whole publishing process, but I absolutely wanted to pursue traditional publishing, so Jillian, my editor, got the ball rolling.
It took from August to December of 2015 for me to finally be made a publication deal, and I was given my official contract that following January. I still had relatively little idea of what was going on, but I knew I needed a literary agent. One of my professors from college even helped reach out to his contacts to get me a meeting with a new agent, but sadly it wasn’t a good fit. I was sending out queries like you wouldn’t believe. I was told that because I’d already been offered a contract I would automatically receive interest from agents, but that was so not the case.
It was in about February I was chatting with Christina June, author of IT STARTED WITH GOODBYE, also published by Blink/HarperCollins, and I mentioned that I was having a difficult time finding an agent. She offered to have her own agent, with Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, pass my manuscript around their office to see if anybody was looking to acquire new work. My manuscript was passed around to a few people before it landed on the desk of my now agent, Shannon Hassan.
Shannon contacted me the Monday after she’d been given the manuscript and said she’d read it in two days, that she loved it, and that she was interested in representing me. I was so unbelievably excited, and so happy it seemed like it would be a good fit, so a few days later I signed on with Shannon and Marsal Lyon!
A bit unorthodox that I had an agent hop in so late in the game I’ve been told, but she’s fantastic, and it’s been a great experience.
One thing I’d like to emphasize about how I landed my (second and current) agent: a year or two before I signed with her, she requested the full manuscript of an earlier project, but ultimately rejected it.
Though some would take this as a sure sign that this relationship was not meant to be, I still kept her in the top section of my wish list when I was later submitting something else. And I’m so glad I did! As she shared at one point (I’m paraphrasing), she always likes when writers resubmit even after she’s turned them down, because it shows they are at least willing to work through the criticism and rejection that is such a big part of the writing life.
To sum up: lick your wounds, but don’t take them personally, and certainly don’t burn bridges.
I got my agent the old-fashioned way- through the slush pile. Of course, I started querying way too early. (Doesn’t everyone?) I wrote my first draft in about 6 weeks, and after sharing it with a few select friends and editing for about 3 months, I started reaching out to agents. My first queries were awful and rightly rejected. After some improvement there was a nibble or two. The best I got was an agent requesting the full manuscript, but she said it would probably be six months before she could even start reading. A small press showed interest, and I didn’t know at the time that searching for an agent at the same time as a small press was a faux pas. Oops.
In any case, after a few months of querying, I became self-aware enough to see my baby needed major work. I tore the book apart and sewed it back together, then sent it out to some fresh readers. Just as I was absorbing the final feedback, I got an email from that agent who wanted the full before. She wanted to know if I was still looking for representation, and if was, could I send the most recent version. Figuring she would reject what I had sent six months ago, I had nothing to lose by asking for a little more time to finish polishing, and she agreed.
Two weeks later I sent her the full manuscript and also started querying in full force again. I got a few full requests, and then a couple rejections on those, but I felt like I was on the right track. The first agent sent me a note saying she was going to start reading this week, and I would hear from her within a few days. (By the way, those updates were so kind to my fragile writer’s heart. We spend so much time in the dark, agonizing, only to find out the agent hasn’t even looked at the submission yet.)
To make a long story short- four days later I got an email saying I’d kept her up all night reading and she wanted to talk! Our conversation the next week went great, and she offered rep. After doing the whole “I’ve been offered rep, do you want a piece of this action?” circuit with the agents who still had the manuscript or the query, I circled back to agent #1, Valerie Noble.
What’s funny is I had seen on twitter that she-an agent who rep’d my genre-was closing to queries in about 24 hours, and I had thrown that query package together so last minute that I didn’t log it in my query/agent spreadsheet. When her full request came in, I had to go back and look her up! Thing was, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have gotten in her reading queue and had a much-improved manuscript right when she was ready to read. It was like fate.
Valerie and I did some revisions and went on submission about four months later. I still remember the day she said it was time to go out to publishers and how panicky that made me. That was early November, though, and I figured the holidays meant I wouldn’t get a quick answer. I was in it for the long haul, but early in January I got an offer from a Big 5 publisher. A week later, I had another. It was surreal. Seven months later, I sold two (unwritten) sequels.
So while everything happened faster than average, overall, my journey was a pretty traditional one.
My agent story is pretty much a SCBWI regional conference fairy tale – and a lesson in trusting your gut. I finished my novel in the spring of 2015. I wasn’t planning on attending the Oregon Conference that year. I’m way less awkward on paper than I am in person, so I figured I’d have better luck looking for an agent the old fashioned way than nervously pitching my story in a conference setting.
But one day I sat down at my desk and had this overwhelming feeling that I needed to sign up – and not just for the conference, but for a manuscript critique as well. So I followed my gut. I registered for the conference and an opening pages critique. I chose Kerry Sparks for the critique because she looked so friendly in her picture and I liked her bio. Two months later I sat down with her for our consult session – where we talked for a moment about how much she liked my pages and then visited for ten minutes about life and Oregon and the strangeness of growing up in small towns.
The next week I sent her my full manuscript. The following week she emailed that she loved it (and, best of all, that it made her cry). We talked on the phone later that day – and her insights about the story and how to make it better were just so spot on that I knew in my gut that she was agent for me. And that was that. I signed the contract in June. We did some revision work over the summer, and THE TRAGICALLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF KIT DONOVAN was on submission that September. By March we had a book deal.
I was climbing Haleakala in Maui, when a bunch of us got stuck in one of the narrow passageways and…just kidding. I wish this is how I got my agent – in some rare, exotic way that will make for a great icebreaker at stuffy dinner parties. That we bonded during a harrowing event, during which I sold her on an unread manuscript, and she signed me on the spot. Instead, I got my agent the old-fashioned way, by much less romantic means, far from any volcanoes on the pacific coast. I sent her a query letter, and an assistant replied on her behalf.
Now, that’s actually the best part of the story. The assistant. Because if writers (especially unpublished ones) are anything, we’re paranoid, filled with fear that our hard-earned work will be stolen from pages still soggy from blood, sweat, and tears. So the reply email was not from the agent, but from someone else whose name I didn’t recognize. I Googled her, hoping to find “I am the assistant to Literary Agent X” somewhere in a corner of the Internet. But no. All I found was tangential information: she was a writer, a reader, a blogger, someone like that. This was good. At least she was a legitimate part of the writing community. But without finding a direct link to the agent, I was still leery. I hesitated, waiting a little over an hour to respond (which is an hour longer than I would have normally waited to send back requested material to an agent). And honestly, I was nervous for days that I had just sent my entire manuscript – my baby! – to a complete stranger who was going to call my book her own and make a zillion dollars off it.
If Ilana Masad—assistant literary agent extraordinaire—is reading this, she’s laughing and calling me a dope. But back then, until I heard from her boss, Leigh Feldman, I was a wreck. Two weeks later, I did. The three of us had a conference call, during which I was offered representation. That was April 2015. As I write this, it’s May 2017. My debut young adult novel, Rosie Girl, comes out with Penguin/G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers in July. This wouldn’t have been possible had I not trusted the validity of an assistant’s request and the power she had to push my manuscript through the gate. I’ve heard grumblings from some writers, claiming if they’re not contacted directly by the agent, their chances of ending up on the agent’s desk are slimmer. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Literary assistants are the true gate keepers. If anything, hearing from the assistant increases your chances of winning over their boss who now has the endorsement of someone’s opinion they value.
So next time you get a request from an assistant, consider it a gift. I’m really glad I opened mine!
Getting an agent is a wonderful way to get your novel into the hands of editors and publishing houses. But it isn’t the only way to reach the goal of publication.
Road to Eugenica was the 2016 NJRW Put Your Heart in a Book contest winner. While I was there at the conference, I met Jennifer Mishler from Entangled, and we really hit it off. She requested a full – along with a few agents. As soon as I got home I went back through my manuscript (because really, isn’t that what we all do) and took a week before sending it out. I didn’t want to seem too eager, and I wanted to make sure it was perfect. Or as close to perfect as possible.
About a month later I was contacted by Entangled saying they needed a little more time with my MS. I had no idea what this meant, but it was still exciting just to hear from them with something other than a pass.
It felt like forever later (but really it was about two weeks) Entangled came back and said they were interested in bringing Road to Eugenica to submissions and asked if I was still interested. Now this wasn’t a yes, but holy moly, it was farther than I’ve ever gotten. I of course said yes, and started freaking out. What was I going to do? I didn’t have an agent. This was potentially my first book deal.
I reached out to everyone who had my manuscript but in the end, I got a contract from Entangled without having signed with an agent. Right then I had two choices. 1) Freak out – sign the contract and call it a day. Or 2) get someone to help me understand what I was signing.
After careful research, I hired a literary attorney who walked me through the contract made sure I understood everything, and helped me negotiate the deal.
So I ended up signing on the dotted line for my first book deal without an agent.
Just like everything in life, there isn’t one way to do something, and the path to publication is a true testament of this. The destination is the same (getting our book babies into the world) but the road each of us take doesn’t have to be the same. So take a moment and enjoy the journey.