Now that I have a book coming out, a lot of people want to know how I found my agent.
The cheeky version of the story is that it took me almost ten years to write the book and only a week to find an agent.
The less-cheeky version is that I worked pretty hard for a very long time, then experienced some great good luck.
Here is the long version:
The whole time I was working on Landfalls, I was vaguely aware that if I wanted to go the “traditional” publishing route—and I did—I’d probably need to find an agent at some point. I knew that for many people, this search could be more arduous and take even longer than the process of writing the book itself. I also knew that finding an agent did not mean you’d found a publisher. That was another potentially long and winding road.
That was pretty much the sum total of what I knew about book publishing. I would not have been able to name a single fiction editor or literary agent in New York. Or anywhere else.
I also didn’t worry about it. Writing the book seemed hard enough and occupied all of my thinking-about-writing energy. Other writers seemed to know so much about the publishing scene—they’d ooh and aah when they heard about someone signing with such-and-such agent then selling the book to editor so-and-so at a press whose name I recognized but knew zero about. I wondered vaguely if I should be “up” on this stuff, but—honestly, I just didn’t have the time, and without a book to peddle, I also had trouble generating much interest in the subject.
Meanwhile, I did start sending short stories out to literary journals. This seemed like small-scale publishing I could try to break into. Many of the pieces I submitted were from Landfalls, which I’d originally conceived as a collection of linked short stories.
I was choosy about where I submitted work, and I have the rejection e-mails to show for it. Tin House, Paris Review, The Sun, The New Yorker—I was turned down by all of these worthy and prestigious (and generously paying) publications. But I continued to write and revise and resend pieces, and occasionally I found an acceptance instead of a rejection in my inbox. Pieces appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, One Story, A Public Space, Ninth Letter.
I did make one small effort toward finding an agent, and that was in 2007, when I went to an otherwise wonderful writers conference that offered a ten-minute pitch session with an editor or agent. I thought, Why not? I’d just turned in a draft of the book as my master’s thesis. It didn’t feel done to me—not even close, really—but I did have a manuscript of sorts.
I hadn’t heard of any of the folks available for the speed pitches, of course, but I looked them all up online and snagged a slot with an agent who’d recently represented an excellent short story collection that I read and owned.
The agent heard me out for about sixty seconds before dismissing me with cool, polite efficiency. Short stories don’t sell, he said. But you sold that wonderful collection, I said, and named the author. Oh, yes, but that was a few years ago, he said. There’s no market for short stories now. Not even linked stories that kind of feel like a novel? I said. No, he said.
And that was that. Fortunately the bar was quite nearby and already open. I consoled myself with a martini, a specialty of that particular conference.
But that evening I checked my e-mail, and there was a message from a different agent altogether, forwarded to me from the editor of one of the lit journals where I’d recently published. The agent had read my story in the journal and wanted to know if I had a book-length manuscript.
Sometimes the Universe provides a bit of encouragement at precisely the right moment.
I’d had no idea before that some agents went through lit journals in search of new talent. Someone should tell new writers this, I thought. So here I am, telling all of you: literary agents look for new talent in literary journals!
Thus began a pattern that repeated itself over subsequent journal publications. I’d publish something, then get an e-mail from an agent that went something like: “I saw your piece X in Journal Y. I wonder if you have a book manuscript and if you have representation.” I would jump around with glee for a few minutes, then write back, “Thank you so much for your interest in my work. I don’t have an agent yet. I’m working on a book, but it’s not done.” And then they would write back and say, “Please keep me in mind when you finish it,” and I’d say, “Okay. Thanks!,” and then I’d go back to work for months and years.
At any rate, by the time I finally completed a draft of the book, I had a list of seven agents who had expressed interest in my work. Meanwhile, I did some research on them, and several clearly stood out as experienced, influential literary agents with clients whose work I knew and admired. A few of them checked in with me now and then, sometimes to tell me they’d read something else by me, sometimes just to remind me they were still interested. On a rare visit to New York, I even got to meet one of them.
Over time, one person in particular emerged as my first choice. She was well known and respected. She specialized in literary fiction, and our home library already included almost every author she represented. That seemed auspicious.
She had e-mailed me after seeing a story of mine—the first piece from Landfalls to make it into print—in American Short Fiction. A good measure of luck played a role here. She’d read my piece because the editors at ASF had sent her a copy of the journal when they reached out to her about something entirely unrelated to me—and the issue they sent happened to be the one that included my story.
When she contacted me, we basically had the same exchange noted above—I don’t have an agent and no, the book is not quite done—but I also saw fit to add, in a little spasm of magical thinking, “I think I need another six months to complete it.”
It was with some sheepishness that I contacted her more than five years later to say that I wasn’t sure she remembered me, but I’d completed a draft of the manuscript and was she still interested in having a look at it?
She replied the next day. Fortunately, she did remember me and she was still interested. I promptly e-mailed a PDF file of my manuscript.
Five days later she wrote back to say she loved the book and yes, she’d love to work with me.
That was a really good day. And another stroke of enormous good fortune.
The first thing my agent did was instruct me to take the words “linked short stories” off of my manuscript and call it a “novel.” Within a month, the book had sold at auction, and Landfalls: A Novel is coming out in August.
I related this story once at a writing event, and someone said, with just a teeny-tiny edge in their voice, “Well, that’s a really unusual story that happens to almost no one.”
Maybe. But it’s a story that actually did happen to this “no one”—a middle-aged mom in California’s Central Valley with modest literary achievements and very little in the way of connections to the publishing world. I’m grateful for my good fortune. But I also think my story may contain some useful tips for other writers open to trying something other than (or in addition to) winning the speed pitch or the cold query lottery.
So in that spirit, some tips:
- This seems obvious, but you should focus more on producing good writing than on positioning yourself for publication. I ignored the whole book publishing scene for as long as possible. I actually think that was good for me—for my sanity and for my writing. Good writing requires genius or patience, and the less you have of the former, the more you need of the latter. I’m not a very patient person in general. Except with my writing. There I am very, very, very patient.
- On the other hand, if you’re not already trying to publish shorter work in literary journals, you should start. This gets your name and your work out there. If contests provide useful deadlines, then enter the occasional contest.
- Go for the best publications that will have you. Aim high. Collect rejection letters. Keep trying. I made tiered lists of publications and moved through them in batches. One story got 49 rejection letters before someone took it.
- This applies to novelists too! Send your short fiction out if you have any. If not, massage an excerpt into “standalone” shape. (This may require a lot of work. Do it.) Make sure your bio says something about your novel-in-progress.
- If an agent contacts you, do some research before you respond. This is why we have Google. If you know people who know people, try to learn more through the grapevine. Don’t necessarily say “yes” to the first person who offers representation. I was very grateful to have a number of people from whom to choose when I finally decided I was ready to share my manuscript.
- And about that—don’t rush to send your manuscript into the world. Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard in this vein was from the writer Kevin McIlvoy, who advised me to be patient. “Make sure it represents your vision of the book to the very best of your ability,” he told me. “Once it leaves your hands, you may find it harder to hold on to that vision. You’ll have to revise the manuscript anyway, but you want to do so from a position of strength.” Wise, wise words. I’ve never regretted hanging onto the book for as long as I did. That definitely helped during the long editing process that followed the book’s sale.
- Finally, if you’re looking for short cuts here, be aware that there’s some etiquette around asking writers about their agents. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but this can be a touchy area for writers. Some writers may not even be comfortable telling you who their agent is. Asking for an agent’s contact info may be touchier yet. Ditto asking a writer to recommend you to their agent. And be careful about using a writer friend or acquaintance’s name to introduce yourself to an agent without that friend’s knowledge or consent.
- Remember—at the end of the day, it’s the writing. If that’s not there, none of the foregoing matters. It’s always the writing.