Zen and the Art of Getting an Agent
This post was originally published on Epilogue, a Medium publication. You can read the original post here.
I’m learning that seeking traditional publication is an exercise in letting go. You see, for all the advice on how to snag an agent, how to write a bestseller, how to hook your readers, and so on, no “rule” in this industry is etched in stone. Your success as an author will always depend on the subjectivity of not just readers but also agents, editors, and publishers.
I haven’t published a novel just yet. I have, however, recently signed with a literary agent.
Here’s what that experience looked like for me.
First, I declared this the year of rejections.
When it came time to think about my new year resolutions for 2020, I remembered an approach I’d read about a while back, in which you aim to receive X number of rejections in a year. I wasn’t sure how many rejections to aim for, but I liked the idea of turning my goal on its head and allowing myself room to fail.
Hence the following declaration:
I initially mulled over more hopeful designations: the year I’d get a book deal, for example, or the year I’d get an agent. But I landed on “year of rejections” because even though I hoped I would get an agent, why hold myself to a benchmark entirely out of my own control?
There’s something really energizing about flipping your expectations in this way. When it was time for me to start querying my book in mid-January, I was eager and enthused.
I sent out a bunch of queries, and then—crickets.
You’ll hear it from every querying writer out there. The wait is excruciating. For me, not hearing from some agents was more painful than receiving actual rejections. I don’t blame them at all for not replying to every query; I interned at a literary agency last summer, and I know how many emails pile up in the inbox even when you sift through them every day. But that doesn’t make it any easier to see your own query gathering dust!
I told myself I’d only query a few agents at a time, so that I could adjust as needed when I got feedback. But I grew impatient. A few became ten, and ten became something like fifteen active queries out all at once.
I can’t say that it’s more or less effective to send out small batches like I planned to do or to send out many simultaneously. I don’t recommend querying every agent on your list in one go—because I definitely improved my query a few times between little batches. But there’s really no magic number!
On a whim, I participated in #SFFPit.
On January 30, I was scrolling Twitter when I happened to spot a few #SFFPit tweets pop up in my feed. I had some free time, so I scrambled and put together pitches for the contest.
For those not familiar with #SFFPit: it’s a contest for hopeful writers where you post a handful of tweets over the course of the day, with varied pitches for your book, and any agent or editor interested can like your tweet. If you get a like from an agent or editor, it’s an invitation to query them.
I was pleased to get one like from an agent, but I wrote off the contest as mostly unsuccessful for me; I’d seen some pitches circulating with interest from dozens of agents!
Still, I sent a query letter and sample pages to Becky LeJeune, the agent who had liked my tweet. Two and a half hours later, Becky responded to my email and requested the full manuscript!
Okay, now I got excited. I sent her the full manuscript that night, then received confirmation of receipt over the weekend.
I waited some more—and sent more queries.
Becky told me that she’d be in touch after reading, so I assumed I would eventually hear back from her, whether or not she wanted to offer representation.
In the meantime, I decided to send more queries. I didn’t want to bank on an offer; I figured my first full request would certainly not pan out. I received a few rejections while waiting for Becky to read my manuscript, and those definitely shook my confidence.
I got The Call.
Okay, so to be 100 percent accurate, I got an email first. Exactly one month after I sent my first batch of queries, and two or three weeks after I sent her my full manuscript, Becky emailed me and said that she’d “had so many feels” while reading my book. She went on to ask if we could set up a time to talk!
I froze after reading the email. Then I jumped up from my bed, ran downstairs, and blurted out to my husband that an agent wanted to call me. He could tell I was excited even though he didn’t really get what the big deal was.
I arranged a time to chat with Becky the next morning. And I spent the rest of the day prepping for the call. How to prepare for an agent call merits an entire article devoted to that subject alone.
Becky did me the courtesy of starting the call with the disclaimer that she sends her offers of representation in email form, so this call would just be a chance to get to know each other. I appreciated her saying that right off the bat—it helped me set my expectations for the rest of the conversation. By the end of the call, though, she had confirmed that she would send me an offer email as soon as we hung up!
Then I sat on the offer for two weeks.
When you get an agent offer, it’s common courtesy to notify other agents considering your manuscript and give them a chance to reach out as well. Becky indicated over the phone and in her email that she understood I may need time to consider, so I asked for two weeks. I also asked a few more questions over email and asked her to connect me with one of her current clients.
Some sources suggest you only need to notify agents already considering your full manuscript, but because this was still early in the querying process for me, I hadn’t reached that point. The day that I received the offer from Becky, I notified all the other agents with just a query of mine in their inbox. I received requests for the full manuscript from two agents that same day, and another one followed up a week into the two-week timeline.
I also received a handful of kind rejections in that period, usually with a note of congratulations for getting an agent and an explanation that they couldn’t commit to reading my book on deadline, or that they liked my style but it wasn’t a fit for their list. Every agent who replied to me in those two weeks was incredibly supportive!
I do wish in retrospect that I had asked all interested agents to reply within one week, and then I could have given them more time for reading if necessary. As it was, I felt obligated to wait it out the whole two weeks—even after I had heard back from those who requested my full and after I knew I was going with Becky.
We made it official!
I admit, I caved and emailed Becky slightly before the two-week deadline—but only because I knew I’d heard from everyone I would hear from by then. I felt eager and confident about moving forward with Becky, based on our initial conversation and all follow-up communication.
She and I both used excessive amounts of exclamation marks in our emails over the next day or so, as we went back and forth with the agency agreement and discussed making things official on social media.
I finally got to post this tweet, which I’d been formulating in my head since my call with Becky two weeks earlier (and, let’s be real, I was daydreaming about this for the past year as well):
Folks, I know I’m fortunate to have found an agent relatively quickly. The querying process can go on for months or years, even for extremely talented writers, because in so many ways it all comes down to timing and luck.
Becky said something during our phone call that I keep repeating to myself and others. When we submit the book to publishers, she said, “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.”
Turns out, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait before that point too. I think those words accurately describe every step of the process from the moment you send your first query letter. The day I received my offer, everything seemed to be moving so quickly. Then the next two weeks ground down to what felt like a standstill. The tide comes in; the tide goes out.
Sometimes, all we can do is watch the waves.