I had breakfast yesterday with my agent and her husband at a fabulous restaurant in the German/Viennese museum on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street. I am lucky enough to have an agent who, though she lives in San Francisco, is interested in keeping in contact with me, so whenever she is in town, we get together just to talk and catch up. We talk business, of course, but we also spend time getting to know each other better, so that the rest of the year, when we’re reduced to emails and phone calls, we have a better idea of who is on the other end of the line.
How did I find my agent? This is a question I occasionally get asked by writers who are searching for an agent themselves, or who are at the point in their work when they realize that they might be good enough that someone besides their mom might actually want to read their stuff. Sometimes people are too shy to ask, though, so hopefully if those shy people are now reading my website, the next few entries will help them. Before you read any further, let me say that my only experience with agents is with those who represent fiction.
Unfortunately, there is no Magic Wand Method to getting an agent. I did not spin around twice, click my heels together and then get a letter from Elizabeth asking to represent me. The good thing is that there is a system that you can use to find an agent. It just takes work and perserverance, which, if you are a writer, are qualities you already have.
The quickest way to get an agent is to go to a writer’s conference, like the North Carolina Writer’s Conference that is held every year in the fall and spring, or the San Francsico Writer’s Conference that happens every February. (There is still time to sign up for both of these, if anyone reading this is interested. Their websites are http://www.ncwriters.org and http://www.sfwriters.org)
At these two conferences, and at many others, there is often a forum where, for an additional fee, writers can “speed date” with agents and publishers, taking five minutes to pitch their novel and to see if the agent/publisher is intertested in hearing more. It is that simple. You sit at a table across from an agent, pitch your book, and then see if they want to read the first fifty pages of your novel. Google the agents and publishers who are going to be at the conference before you get there, see what kind of work they are interested in (chic lit, romance novels, thrillers, etc.). Then when it is time to speed date, go to the agents who represent your kind of work. I know a lot of people at last year’s San Francisco’s Writer’s Conference who had more than one agent asking to see their work. This is the first step: getting them to read the first fifty pages. It all goes uphill from there.
Now, not everyone has $300-$500 to drop on going to a writer’s conference. And though this is the quickest way I know of getting an agent, it is not the only one. It is not how I got mine, for example. For just the cost of postage, you can find an agent who will take your work to publishing houses and get it read. You don’t have to spend money on a conference. Though if you have the money to spend, I recommend it highly. The classes alone are worth the price of admission, and the experience of being around other writers who are in the same boat as you are is priceless.
The way I got my agents, and I have had two agents over the last four years, is by writing a strong query letter, then sending it out to multiple agents who represent my genre: historical fiction. Writing a good query letter was the hardest thing I ever had to learn. It is one thing for me to sit and listen to my characters tell me a story for hours on end. That is a pleasure. It is quite another for me to think about how to sell that novel, how to break it down into elements that would hook an agent, and later hopefully a publisher, and eventually seduce someone into buying the novel. It’s like trying to sell your child. “Let’s see, Joey has blue eys, blond hair and a sunny disposition.Won’t you take him home with you?” When I started trying to sell my work, it was a daunting prospect. I could give a synopsis, but what did that really tell an agent? There a hundreds of books written everyday. What makes mine special to anyone but me?
The best source I found to help me look at my work (my heart’s blood, my time and tears, my children) as a commerical enterprise was Donald Maas’s book on selling ficiton, namely Writing the BreakOut Novel. Another good one is Katherine Sand’s book, Making the Perfect Pitch. Both of these books are available readily on Amazon.com.
Anyone reading this who is facing the horror of trying to sell their work, please know, it is not that horrifying. It can be done. People do it everyday. We can walk into Barnes and Noble and see that. The shelves are full of people who have succeeded at what we are trying to do. They have their books in print. And so will we.