Michael Bourne posted a thoughtful, honest, anxiety-inducing article over at The Millions, on navigating the world of literary agents: http://www.themillions.com/2012/08/a-right-fit-navigating-the-world-of-literary-agents.html. I read the whole thing and felt incredibly lucky while I had unpleasant flashbacks of my year of continuous rejection.
I’ve had a few people ask me about the publishing process, and my experience has been that the hardest and longest part is finding a literary agent. I am just one data point, but I want to share my thoughts on this particular ordeal. I didn’t really know anyone who had gone through it when I started, and since I would have loved to talk to someone who had, I’m going to post this in the hopes that someone finds it useful.
Without gloating too much (this post will be mostly angst with a happy ending), I’ll say that I started the query process with no writing credits and almost no connections – the odds are not great, but it can be done.* I finished the first draft of my manuscript in December 2009 and started querying in earnest in March 2010. I signed with my agent Ethan on my twenty-fifth birthday, January 14, 2011. It felt like a long time, but I know I was very lucky.
The first thing I did after finishing my manuscript was try to find a connection. I had none, so I contacted someone I thought might be able to help. I hand-wrote a letter to the headmaster of my fancy private high school asking if he knew anyone who could help me publish a book. I slid it under his office door. Does this sound ridiculous? It absolutely was. I had no relationship with my headmaster while I was in high school, and I had no reason to believe he would take an interest in me seven years later. To my delight, he replied to my letter about a week later and put me in touch with another alumnus from my high school, a big agent at William Morris. I queried her, and after more consideration than I deserved, she rejected me, listing a few good reasons. This was extremely generous of her – she gave me some great criticism, pointing out flaws I later addressed with my current agent. She wished me luck.
It was only at this point that I started querying left and right. In retrospect, I should have mixed that one agent in with dozens of others from the start, but I knew nothing about the process. I educated myself using Google, found Agent Query, and wasted money on a physical catalogue of Literary Agents that I could have culled online. I read a few threads on Absolute Write and kind of got going. I made a spreadsheet (I rarely use Excel, but this was very helpful), listing agencies, agents, email addresses, and little tidbits I could use to personalize my query letters. I made a point of querying a few a day for a while, and I kept track of my query dates and query statuses in my spreadsheet. It was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even get to the agencies that didn’t accept e-queries.
In this first wave of queries, I hit around three dozen agents and got five requests for partials/fulls. I was thrilled with this success rate, and I remember thinking, “Maybe it will be this easy. Maybe this agent will read my book and fall in love and we’ll sell it before graduation.” Ridiculous. So ridiculous! But it’s hard not to fantasize when you’re dealing in dreams.
I got my first rejection on a full manuscript on March 31, 2010, which was my then-boyfriend-now-fiance’s birthday. It was the first time I’d gotten feedback on the novel as a whole, and it was a short letter that said, “Although you have a thrilling story, I did not fall in love with the characters as much as I had hoped for.” I was devastated. I picked a fight with my boyfriend and cried a lot and basically ruined his birthday. (I did make him a cake and a pizza from scratch after I realized I was acting out like a child.) Until that rejection, I thought my book was really good and that if someone would just read it cover to cover, things would fall into place. Of the remaining agents, one never replied, and another replied with a rejection when I followed up nine months later. One responded to a follow-up with a request to resend – she said she’d forgotten all about it, and it was the right decision to nudge her (nudging agents is a topic for another blog post, probably by someone who knows more about it than I do). She eventually rejected me when Ethan offered me representation and I forced the decision.
I signed with Ethan in January 2011, but my relationship with him started in March 2010, when he responded to a query I had sent to another agent in his agency. He asked for a partial, then requested a full two months later. A week after that, he emailed me to say he enjoyed my book, and asked to speak on the phone. We spoke, and he invited me to come to the agency office to talk about the manuscript. I put on my best interview dress and took a train to New York a few days later. We had a long conversation about books (I was reading Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and had the third volume of 1Q84 in a shopping bag – the office was very close to Kinokuniya, and if I’m being honest, I also thought it might impress him) and then he gave me his extensive notes on my manuscript. Looking back now, I can see that my first draft was severely lacking in several departments, such as character development and plausibility. I’m lucky that Ethan saw a kernel of something he could work with because it needed help and I was too close to see it. He gave me a lot of praise, but noted that he couldn’t take me on unless he knew I could edit my writing. I left feeling hopeful, and told him I would get him some sample chapters and a revised draft in the fall. In between, I studied for and took the California bar. I sent him my first revision in September 2010. He sent me an email in December 2010 apologizing that he hadn’t gotten to it yet, but that he planned to very soon.
That stretch from June to December was pretty stressful. Because I had met with Ethan, I felt very much that he was my one point of entry into the publishing world, and I kept thinking I would never succeed if he decided to drop me. At various points, I thought he had rejected me silently, and that I would never know for sure what had happened.
With Ethan’s help, my manuscript had become a lot more presentable, and I decided to send out a new round of queries, between December 2010 and January 2011. This time I emailed around two dozen agents, and my success rate was much higher – my query letter was stronger because my book was better. By the beginning of January, I had partials or fulls out to six different agents. (I used a connection to get in touch with one of these agents – when I went to my fiance’s swearing-in ceremony, I met one of his co-workers, who, coincidentally, had been in my dorm our freshman year of college. His mother was, incredibly, Lisa See. We talked and she referred me to her agent. Nothing came of it, but it would be weird to omit this anecdote. As Michael Bourne notes in his article, the easiest way to get an agent is to know someone who can help you.) On January 12, I received an offer of representation from a well-known agent who wanted me to take my book in a more commercial direction. He was a bigger name, but by that point I was quite attached to Ethan. He understood what I was trying to do, and he knew how to push me to do it better. I followed up with Ethan and he offered me representation on the spot.
It’s been over a year and a half since I signed with Ethan, and everything has been pretty easy since then. We edited together and sold the manuscript to St. Martin’s (that was also a process, but a less difficult one that I may cover in a future post) less than a month after it left the house. Getting Ethan on board was the most difficult and most essential part of my publishing journey. I think writers and artists of all stripes struggle with the same persistent fear that we don’t have talent, that people will laugh behind our backs when all our efforts lead to nothing. I still have that fear, but it’s become a lot more manageable since my 25th birthday.
Anyway, this is my agent story, and I hope it’s been somewhat informative. The process went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, but it still felt long and painful while I was in it. There’s an easy parallel to dating here. I haven’t been single for a while, but I remember sitting around staring at my phone, waiting for texts from guys I didn’t even fucking like. It was terrible, and the agent process was terrible in a similar, magnified way. There were times when I sat staring at my inbox waiting for the smallest communication because I’d put out dozens of missives and a response could come and crush me or change my life at any time.
So. If you’re about to start querying, just know that it is a frustrating, soul-crushing, and sometimes fruitless effort, but that if you succeed and get the right agent, it will be the hardest part to get through. Also, if you need someone to talk to, I will answer emails.
*I did have one hook, I think, though no one has said as much. I was a Yale Law student, and I think that prestige sticker might have given me a little push. On the other hand, I’m guessing I would have been in better shape with an MFA or any sort of publication to my name – as I found out when I was roundly rejected from every MFA program I applied to during my 3L year, no one in the literary world gives a fuck if you went to a fancy law school. And why should they?