The question I get most frequently other than, "When is your next book coming out?" is, "How did you get your agent?" I think it's about time to share my highly unglamorous story. At some point a few years ago I decided it was time for me to start taking my writing seriously as a career. That meant finishing the historical romance I had been writing off and on for years and then revising and polishing it. It took me months. When I finally couldn't look at that manuscript any longer, it was time to try to find an agent.
I knew straight off that I wanted to try to develop a traditional publishing career, and for me that meant querying agents rather than going it alone. My primary reason was that agents know the book business a lot better than I do. I work full-time in a demanding industry, and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to develop the contacts I would need to get out of the slush pile with any efficiency. I wanted someone who was going to advocate for me in sales and negotiations.
I didn't know anyone in publishing except my sister who interned for a big, fancy literary agent. He didn't rep romance at the time, so that wasn't going to help me get ahead. Left without any connections, I went to Barnes & Noble and bought The Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Then I went home and tagged every single agent who represented romance. My book had many, many pink Post-Its sticking out of it.
I put every romance-friendly agency's name into a Word document and started seriously researching and narrowing my list. Here's who I struck from my list:
-Any agency that did not have a website and social media presence*
-Anyone who did not represent historical romance
-Anyone who was not accepting submissions
-Anyone who popped up on the Writer Beware website or whose submissions guidelines had red flags that popped up on that list. It's a great resource that you should familiarize yourself with before submitting to anyone
After those cuts, I went through and read the bios of every agent for every agency and ranked my top five, top 10, top 15, etc. choices. I made up my query packet and customized it to every agent based on their submission guidelines.** I then emailed my top five and waited to hear back.
What surprised me about the query process was how fast the rejections started rolling in. Agents in general are efficient. They know what their client list looks like. They know what is selling at that moment. If you are not a fit for them, they will reject you fast. This isn't a reflection of you as a person. They aren't hateful people who aren't willing to give you a chance. Something about your manuscript doesn't work for them. Take a breath. Move on. Do not send a nasty response or vent all over social media. Save that for your critique group, your mother, your dog, whomever you vent to.
As the rejections started rolling in, I would take a breath and move on. I started to send off queries to the rest of my top 10. I got a lot of rejections. I kept sending material out and waited on the two agents who were right up at the top of my list that I hadn't heard from yet.
Finally one of the agents I was really excited about emailed me back. She requested the first 100 pages of my manuscript. I sent it off to her, and shortly after that my other top agent pick asked me for a full manuscript. I waited some more (notice a trend here?).
I got a rejection from the agent who asked for the first 100 pages of my book. That was the hardest rejection to deal with because I liked this woman's attitude about the publishing industry, and I thought we would be a good fit working together. I also had gotten my hopes up. I let myself feel sad about it for a day, and then I forced myself to get over it. It wasn't worth derailing productive writing because I'd been rejected by a professional I didn't know.
By this time, the rejections started to slow. I stopped getting excited every single time an email dinged through to my phone. Ironically, that was exactly when good news landed in my inbox. Emily Sylvan Kim, the president of Prospect Agency and the agent who requested the full manuscript from me a couple months earlier, wanted to know if I could speak over the phone. I had a brief lull at work, so I emailed her back immediately. She called me on my cell phone, introduced herself, and told me she loved my book and she wanted to represent me. Then she wanted to talk to me about my long-term goals as a writer. That was the moment I knew I'd likely found the right person. After speaking, she emailed me contracts and we met in Murray Hill for brunch a couple weeks later to sign.
A lot of authors have different stories. Some find their agents through connections. Some meet them at conferences. Others write for years before deciding to get an agent. Some never do. My two biggest pieces of advice would be to go into the querying process knowing what you want, and remember that you're looking for a business relationship. You want someone who is excited about your work representing you. Do your research, get ready to take your hits, and keep your faith in your own writing.
*It seems inconceivable to me, but they are out there.
**Don't cut corners on this. Do your research. Submitting incorrectly to an agent who has clearly stated guidelines on their website about genre or submissions materials is disrespectful and unprofessional.