It was nearly a year ago that I signed with my agent, Marlene Stringer of The Stringer Literary Agency, www.stringerlit.com. She is a fantastic, hardworking, dedicated advocate for my books, and I realize how fortunate I am to have her on my team. Since last year, many people have asked me how I found Marlene, and I have to admit it was a combination of preparedness, research, and pure, dumb luck. I can’t help you with the dumb luck part, but I can share with you what I have learned about the process.
For me, this journey began in September of 2011, when I began looking for an agent to represent my first book, AMAZONS. I wanted an agent, because I had learned very early on that publishers are far more likely to look at a book represented by an agent than a random unsolicited manuscript rotting away in their slush pile. It’s very simple. If an agent sees something in that manuscript worthy of representation, the publisher is more willing to give it their attention. Also, agents work very hard to cultivate long term relationships with publishers. They know what different publishers are looking for, and try to provide it. Someone once told me it is harder to get an agent than it is to get published. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I was sure I didn’t want to go through the complicated and overwhelming publishing process on my own. I needed help. I needed an agent. And so my search began.
I knew nothing at all about finding an agent, so I read everything I could on the subject. I bought books and magazines. I listened to what more experienced authors told me. Finally, I felt I was ready, and I began sending out my book. In the course of a few months, ten agents asked to see my full manuscript for AMAZONS, but I had not signed with anyone yet. During this time, I finished my second book, SO PRETTY, and began sending out queries for that book as well. Ten days after I started, I signed with Marlene.
My story is not typical. For some writers it takes a lot more time and effort to get to where I am today. I still have a great deal to learn, but there are some things I would like to pass on to those people just starting out.
1. Don’t send out a manuscript until it has been edited, revised, reread, and made into the best possible version of your story that you can create. Have others take a look at it, too. I have a trusted friend, Andrea, who has painstakingly gone through each page of my books for typos and inconsistencies. I have rewarded her occasionally with lunch, flowers, or chocolate, which is far, far less than she deserves. Find a friend like Andrea. I also use my children (shamelessly) to judge if a story line I am playing with is really working on not. If I catch their interest, I have a chance of catching the reader’s interest. If my twelve year old sees holes in my plot, then my manuscript is definitely not ready for submission.
2. Learn how to write a query letter. This is really, really (can I stress it one more time?), REALLY important. If your query letter sucks (excuse my French), then there is a very good chance the agent will not even look at your story. I bought books on writing good query letters. I researched it online. I looked for examples of winning query letters so that I could see what worked and what didn’t. Your manuscript must be as good as you can possibly make it, but your query letter must be perfect - no typos, no spelling errors, and no grammar mistakes. Don’t misspell the agent’s name. Don’t send out mass emails and expect a personal reply. Don’t brag about how great your book is, show how wonderful it is by writing a fantastic, and yet concise, description of it. Imagine you are writing the paragraph that will be used on the back of your book to entice readers. This is what you should put in your query letter. Write about your book, let the agent know if you’ve been published before, and, perhaps, list any professional affiliations you might have. The query letter is not about you, it is about your book. Don’t lose sight of that.
3. Research agents carefully. You can buy books with information about agents, but these are usually not up to date, and you have to buy new editions every year. Instead, I used a site called www.querytracker.net. This was extremely useful and also free for basic service. You can be very specific with this site, and the more specific you are, the better chance you will have of finding the agent who is right for you. For SO PRETTY, I looked for agents currently representing Young Adult (YA) and Science Fiction, and that is how I found Marlene.
4. Research the agency as well. Once you find an agent, don’t stop there. Go online and look into the agency. Each agency has different submission guidelines. Follow them exactly. Some agencies want to see the first ten pages of your manuscript, others want the first chapter. Take the time to give them what they ask for, and be certain you are sending a query to the right agent inside the right agency. You will be happy that you did, and so will they. Rejection is not fun.
5. Get used to rejection. This is the central truth to being a writer. Don’t take it personally. Not every story is a match for every agent, or every publisher. It might have nothing at all to do with your story, or your talent as a writer, or your worth as a human being in general. Finding the right person for your book is as much as matter of luck as it is skill, but if you don’t have the skills to back it up, you don’t have a chance at being lucky.
6. If the agent likes your query, the agent will ask to see a full manuscript. This is the reason for suggestion number one on my list (aka make sure your full manuscript is ready). If an agent likes the first chapter of your manuscript, and wants to see a full manuscript, they will not be happy to hear that is all you have written so far. Just to give you an idea about how hard it is to get to this point, I was so excited about the first request I had for a full manuscript that I immediately Googled the agent to see what else I could learn about him. I found an interview in which he said he got about 400 query letters each month. Out of those, he sent out about 3 or 4 requests for a full manuscript. From those, he signed with about 5 or 6 new writers a year. Those are not good numbers, but I tried to see it in a positive light. I was one of those lucky 4 out of 400 writers who sent in query letters that month, and that is pretty amazing. The good news is, if I could do it, so can you.
7. If the agent likes your manuscript, they may ask to represent you. Oh, glorious day! But before you sign on that dotted line, make sure you are a good fit for your agent, and that your agent is a good fit for you. Once you sign with them, your agent will represent your full body of work (not just the book you are currently submitting, but your other books, as well). Make sure that person is someone you want to be working with for the long haul.
The most important advice I can give you as a writer, is to keep writing, keep learning, and keep trying. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either. I’ve encountered so much negativity from other writers, many of whom told me with definitive authority that I would never get to where I am today. I think this is the same mentality that makes some women tell expectant mothers horror stories about their own childbirth experiences. Just because it was bad for them, doesn’t mean it will be bad for everyone (although going through the publishing process can feel like giving birth to a ten pound baby over and over and over again, trust me, I know). But just like childbirth, the rewards are well worth the time and effort you put into it. Yes, you are sending your newborn off to be judged, criticized and probably rejected right after it is born, but there is a chance you might be sending it off to be cherished, nurtured, and maybe even loved. You’ll never know, unless you try. And Andrea, please let me know if there are any typos in this. I’ll owe you some chocolate.