How I Got My Literary Agent
BOOKS ARE PORTALS
In the fourth grade, I was obsessed with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. I remember the pleasure of running my fingers across the raised lettering of the logo, and imagining what creepy tale lay in store by studying the cover art. I loved breathing in the smell of freshly printed pages. Whenever I got a new book, I’d plant my nose in it and take in the scent of imagination and possibility. For me, books have always been portals. The first time I left planet Earth was when I read A Wrinkle in Time. First time I cried, probably Bridge to Terabithia. Characters became as close to me as real friends by the end of many stories. It wasn’t long before I realized that the magic I felt when reading someone else’s story could flow the other way also—that I could be the magician.
It’s every writer’s dream to walk into a bookstore and see their own book on the shelf. Realizing that dream usually includes the work of a great literary agent. Here’s how I ended up getting my agent, and some of the things I’ve learned.
GETTING SOMEONE TO READ YOUR STORY
For a long time, I imagined what it would be like to write and publish a book—to give someone else the ability to teleport from this world to one that I created.
Before I wrote my first book, I thought finishing a novel would be the hardest part. Then, it became pretty clear: getting someone to read your story can be even harder. Especially if it’s your first effort. If that’s the stage you’re at, then seeing your book in print can feel impossibly far away.
For most writers, the first book isn’t the career highlight: After I’d written two books, a friend of mine casually repeated some depressing advice he’d heard somewhere: Throw out your first million words, and then you’ll be ready to become an author.
THE PATH I TOOK TO AN AGENT
My journey toward publication started almost twelve years ago. I submitted the manuscript of my first novel to a local publisher, just one town away from my home. It was a small publishing house that rarely published fiction. I drove over there, dropped it off to a secretary, and never heard back from them.
Several months later I went back to ask about the manuscript. The secretary said that they’d passed on it. Surprisingly, she returned it to me. The first forty pages were marked up. Whoever had been reading it must have given up after page forty. I saw a lot of PVs written next to circled sentences. I later figured out that whoever was reading it was marking my constant use of the passive voice. This was back in 2006, and most publishers and literary agents didn’t accept electronic queries yet. Disheartened, I stopped writing for a while and reassessed what I should do with my creativity. For a while, I focused on music.
Then, when I started getting deep into studies as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, focusing on English literature, I decided I would write a sequel to that first book (even though at that point, only my brother had read book 1 to completion). Those first two books—the first one admittedly a Tolkien clone—were the books where I proved to myself two things: I could complete and revise an entire novel, and, that I got better at writing with each book.
I started teaching high school English in 2010. A colleague told me about self-publishing. I started to look into it. The more I read, the more it sounded like a bad idea. Self-publishing carried a horrible stigma. I decided to print a paperback copy for myself, just to smell the pages, but outside of that, I didn’t follow through with self-publishing.
I did keep writing and honing my craft. I was teaching English, going to graduate school for English, reading and writing all the time. Total immersion. Meanwhile, TIME magazine ran an article about “The 99 Cents Bestseller,” covering the changes in the publishing world. Much of the so-called self-publishing “gold rush” had to do with Amazon and its new Kindle Direct Program. Digital distribution was now accessible to anyone, and more and more readers were reading electronically.
Finally, I came across an article about a bestselling author named Amanda Hocking who had done really well self-publishing her books. From that article, I jumped to one about J.A. Konrath, and then Lindsay Buroker. And then Hugh Howey. Thanks to those articles, I found a new home at the great community of self-published and hybrid-published authors over at KBoards Writer’s Café.
When I first joined in 2012, Hugh Howey was a regular poster, and so was Russell Blake. There were plenty of other big names too, I soon discovered. The forum motivated me to get better: first at my craft—telling better stories aimed at broader audiences, and then, by building a brand, marketing and promoting myself via mailing lists, social media, a website, advertising, Goodreads, and on and on. I decided to give self-publishing a try. For two years, I was a steady reader and contributor to the forum, soaking in whatever I could about succeeding as an author. And, I wrote my ass off.
I had various levels of success with my writing during those years. Then, I finally found a solid following with my fourth book, a post-apocalyptic story about a world ravaged by never-ending rain. The story seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people, and I loved writing the characters and the world. When I finally stopped (three books and a half a year later), I polled my readers. I asked what they’d like to see me work on next. Almost all of the replies indicated that I should continue on with the series, but I needed a break. I wanted to write something new.
I wrote a couple other novels, but I longed to go back to the world of The Rain. There was more to the story—so much more—and there were parts of the stories I hadn’t told in the original books. I decided to give traditional publishing another go—after all, I hadn’t sent out a query in years. I hadn’t even thought of traditional publishing, though the dream of getting into real brick and mortar book stores was as alive as ever.
Many of the independent authors I’d befriended and collaborated with, such as Hugh Howey and Jason Gurley, were hybrid authors. They went from indie to having a presence in bookstores throughout the world. I’d written eight books since my last look at agents and publishing houses. I had so many reader-written emails and reviews coming in that I knew I was connecting with people in the way I’d always wanted to. If only I could get an agent, I could get take my writing career to the next level…
GETTING MY AGENT
When I’d first looked into getting an agent back in 2006, I bought a copy of Writer’s Market. I never ended up using it. I just did the local submission. In 2016, I happily found that electronic querying and manuscript submission were standard. Instead of Writer’s Market, I used the internet. I started my search, trying to find the best agents who might like my story. I sent off five queries to agents and one to a publisher.
I received a response from three of those emails pretty quickly. The others took much longer and eventually came back with rejection notes. I sent full manuscripts out where they were requested. Two really respected agents and a new imprint of Random House showed interest. Then something beyond my wildest dreams happened: One of the agents who requested the full manuscript got back to me in two days, saying that she read the whole thing and—not only that—she loved it. She asked if I was open to editorial work on it. Her in-house editor also loved the story, and had read the book in the same span of time. I was surprised and thought there must be something wrong: she couldn’t have read the whole story that fast? I’ve always heard that it takes weeks, maybe months to hear a response. I felt very hopeful.
I was definitely open to the idea of editorial work. Despite the sound advice of my contemporaries, I never used editors. To cut costs, for every book I’d written up until this point I’d done my own editing. While I could pull this off because of my background in college and my teaching career, I don’t recommend it. If anything, we become blind to what we should cut from our own stories. We cherish too much of it. There was a humility waiting for me in finally learning how important working with experienced editors is.
The next thing I know, we set up a phone call. I later read other authors describing this moment as the call, but I don’t think I could have been more amped than I already was had I known that. In the day before the call, still waiting on replies from the other agents/publishers, I did my research on the agent who had read my book so fast. Her name was Jenny Bent. Everything I found online read like an all-star track record: Not only did a lot of people know her, but a lot of people in forum and blog posts said they would give anything to be represented by her. I stumbled on an interview on Youtube where she talks about self-publishing and she spoke very positively about it—no trace of the stigma. In the span of just five years, a lot has changed for indie authors.
I went out during lunch break, between teaching classes at my high school, and took the call. It was the beginning of the editorial process. Jenny offered to represent me. I told her I’d take a day to think about it and let her know the next day. I went home, talked about it with my friends, looked into her more, found only more good things. Lots of deals listed under her name, her own agency with other agents under her, an office in both America and the UK. As one person wrote in a blog post, a “rock-star” of publishing.
I looked into the other agents who I was waiting on, but something seemed right with Jenny. Not only did she seem to get the story, but her and her editor knew exactly how we could make it better. I was on board. The next day I sent my reply and agreed to join The Bent Agency under Jenny’s representation.
I emailed the other interested parties to say I’d picked an agent and then, awaited as patiently as I could the return of my edited manuscript.
THE PROCESS OF EDITORIAL WORK SO FAR
Within two months, I received my manuscript back with tons of detailed notes and edits, as well as a long note explaining in detail every suggested change, from point of view to characterization to pacing. All of the revisions had been so well thought out by Jenny and Denise.
I got to work writing the new material and editing and revising the original manuscript where it was suggested. When I finished, I sent it back. This was my first time working with two very experienced editors. I realized how much better their suggestions were going to make the story. I soon came to trust the judgments of both Jenny and Denise tremendously. I humbled myself and trusted the guidance and years of experience they each brought to the table. Since then, the manuscript has gone back and forth, as we get closer to the next phase: submission to publishers. The story has become so much better, and I can’t wait to put it out there.
IS SELF-PUBLISHING THE RIGHT ROUTE FOR EVERYONE?
It’s definitely not for everyone. A lot of writers do just fine honing their craft behind closed doors, seeking representation first, and then finding a publisher. For me, it took the interactive push of readers reviewing, commenting, and actively engaging with my stories and my characters. This occurred mainly through Amazon and Goodread reviews. Reader feedback has and does act as a huge source of motivation for me. I had to see and feel the connection I was forming with readers. I still feel that way each time I get a new email or review.
On July 18th, 2022, my first traditionally published novel, entitled The Rain, will launch. Since it’s original self-published incarnation, the story has been improved immeasurably with the help of my literary agent and Blackstone Publishing’s editors. Along with Tanner’s narrative, There is an entirely new narrative which I look forward to revealing as the release date draws nearer.
My once distant dream of getting published traditionally is much closer. I’m more excited than ever about realizing the dream, and those close to me have told me that it’s okay to let those dreams out into the universe. It’s helpful for me to believe in myself and the process, because if you’re like me, you probably want to convince yourself, at every step of the way, that you won’t get there. Something will go wrong, or you won’t be good enough, no matter how much effort you put into it.