Finding the Right Agent

I'm borrowing this month's topic on how we found our agents because I'm not sure that I've ever blogged about it. On the surface, it isn't all that interesting because it was a fairly typical process, as by the book as you can get: I sent query letters to a bunch of agents, and eventually I got an offer. Of course, it sounds simple—perhaps even easy—when you describe it that way, but during the actual process it is simultaneously all-consuming, exhilarating, and devastating. You are thinking about it obsessively while trying not to think about it at all. As with most stages of publishing, it's a roller coaster ride with many emotional highs and lows; the key to making it to the end of the ride is staying on the coaster with your eyes wide open. Strap yourself in, don't look down, and hold on tight!

I was on that coaster for about seven months. The "bunch" of agents I queried was, more specifically, a total of 33. By many accounts, I got off easy. Fair Coin was the first novel I'd written, and though I'd heard many people trunk their first novels, or their first several novels, I didn't want to put all that effort in just for practice. At the time, it was the only novel idea I had, I thought it was a good one, and I was determined to give the book its best shot at publication. I also knew I wanted to follow the "traditional" publishing route with an agent to represent me, rather than submitting directly to editors. Besides, I would always be able to send the manuscript to publishers myself later if things didn't work out.

I was kind of excited to be querying. I'd been submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies for six years and I'd pretty much gotten the hang of it. This was a whole new side of publishing that I was learning about for the first time. I read every website I could find about finding agents, writing query letters, and writing synopses. While I worked on the query letter and synopsis—a torturous process that itself took around a month of writing and revising until they were as polished as I could make them—I started researching agents.

Since my novel was a young adult science fiction book, that helped narrow my options a little. Once upon a time, you would consult Writers Digest or other books for a list of agents, but they were often outdated by the time they were published, so the internet was the more reliable source of information. My starting point was Kat Feete's Agent List, the most valuable, up-to-date resource of speculative fiction agents out there. I built a list of all the agents I was interested in and added in others by looking at acknowledgments pages from my favorite books, hearing about agents from friends, and eventually subscribing to Publishers Marketplace, a database of agents, authors, and publishing deals. It was well worth the $20 monthly subscription fee. (The fee was just increased to $25 last month. Still worth it.) I also relied on Agent Query and Query Tracker for all my agent-stalking needs.

Once I had my list, I researched all the agents in the order that I wanted them and made notes about submission guidelines, their clients, books they'd sold, books they loved, their hobbies and interests, favorite movies, what books they were looking for, etc. I read their blogs and interviews with them online. I decided on a mix of established agents and newer agents, figuring there are pros and cons to each. Mostly, I didn't want to limit myself.

I queried agents in small batches of three or four, and as I collected early rejections, I tweaked my query letter, but it didn't change much along the way because I'd done so much work on it in the beginning. Whenever a rejection came in, I sent another letter out, some of them through snail mail and many more through e-mail. I received enough partial and full requests that I was reassured that my query letter was working and the manuscript was ready—most of the passes were a matter of taste: This feels too middle grade, I don't like science fiction, I don't like fantasy, and so on. Fair Coin is kind of a weird book, so this was expected. I thought it was just a matter of time, that I needed to find that one person who really loved it. It was definitely discouraging at times—seven months!—but I was right.

Finally, I got a different sort of partial request, one which asked for the first 50-75 pages and "a good outline for the rest." Huh? What's that? I'd already sent my synopsis, so this had to be something else. The consensus of my writer friends was that this was a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book, which I didn't have because no one had ever asked for something like that. Seriously, the internet had not prepared me for this!

So I spent a couple of grumbly days writing that up, complaining that this had better pay off because no other agent was ever going to ask for such a thing. It was not really a fun writing assignment, to be quite honest. Happily, it did pay off, with a request for the full manuscript! In hard copy. So I printed that out and mailed it, and after more weeks of sweating... One day I got an e-mail from Eddie Schneider at the JABberwocky Literary Agency asking me when would be a good time for him to call to discuss the book. Yes!

I was excited! But his e-mail was also kind of vague and noncommital... And I was sad that The Call had turned out to be An E-mail. But we scheduled a time to talk the next morning and I scoured the internet for information on how that conversation was supposed to go and I was nervous like this was the most important interview of my life.

And when The Call came, we had a great conversation in which it seemed Eddie wanted to make sure that I wasn't some kind of fluke writer who only had the one book and expected to get rich off it and quit my day job (I wasn't), and I had the opportunity to ask him about how he liked to work, and what made him so smart, and whether he would be okay with representing all the other weird books I might write in many different genres. And at the end of our talk I still wasn't sure if he was actually offering representation until I asked him. It was kind of cute, the awkwardness! So he said yes, he was offering, and I said... I would think about it.

See, I had a couple of full manuscripts out there, and it's good form to let those agents know when you have an offer. Even if I was pretty sure I wanted Eddie to be my agent, I wanted to do this "right." (Based on my concept of the proper procedure, gleaned from the internet.) And while I waited for the other agents to respond that weekend, which they did quickly, Eddie had also sent me a wonderful letter explaining why he loved Fair Coin so much. Who could turn that down? So I happily accepted Eddie's offer of representation, and I became his first client, and so far, it's working out even better than I could have hoped for.

The funny thing was, even though JABberwocky was near the top of my list, they were one of the last agencies I queried; they were closed to submissions when I first started querying, and Eddie had only been hired recently. In fact, I hadn't queried him in the first place, because I didn't know he existed. But a wonderful intern found my letter and synopsis in the slush and enthusiastically passed it on to him, since he was the YA person at the time. This just goes to show that timing really is everything, and it does only take one person—the right person—to say yes. And maybe the right intern to get your query to that right agent.

Selling the novel would take us... a while longer. That story's for another time, but it has the same moral and, of course, the happiest of endings.


Katrina L. Lantz said...

Wow, the long story really is a lot more complex than the short story. Go figure! It sounds like Eddie had a bad experience or two with writers who want to get rich quick. That was a lot of hoops you jumped through, but totally worth it, of course. Now I'm off to investigate Fair Coin. Intriguing. :)

E.C. Myers said...

Thanks, Katrina! I think he was just making sure that I understood the realities of publishing, because a lot of people have high expectations and hope they can quit their day jobs as soon as they sell a book. I figure the more people who know that's the exception and not the rule, especially when querying and going on submission, the better.

Lou said...


I'm behind you, about a lap or so, because I haven't yet written the novel, just a couple of published short stories. But your journey is enlightening and I thank you for taking the time to write out how it went for you.



Lou Berger
Denver, Colorado

Fran Wilde said...

Eugene - thanks for posting this! I've heard you speak about the process at Arcadia with Amy G. and others, but somehow seeing it in print helped a lot. As always, E.C. is Wise.

Catherine said...

This was really well written. Thank you for the awesome read.