How to Get an Agent

February 9th, 2009

I’m home from my signing in Miami—it was such a blast! I met a ton of fantastic readers, as well as the incredible team from Yathenaem (which I’m pretty sure I spelled wrong in both of Books and Books guest books—sorry, you guys! I’ve gotten a little too reliant on Spellcheck).

I never did get to see the chocolate fountain they had there, because I was busy signing, but Books and Books sent me home with a GIANT gift basket from Peter Brooke Chocolates. Delicious! Many thanks to Julie, Erika, Lorena, and Brigitte for hosting such a fantastic night….

And don’t let me forget reader Kristin Veigh who made the most beautiful (and totally useful) piece of fan art I’ve seen in a long time!

You rock, Kristin!!!!

Somehow I managed to leave home without a book (which is really the most horrible thing that can happen when you’re flying, because there’s that terrible moment on the plane when they make you turn off all electronic devices, and if you don’t have a book to read, all you can do is stare off into space, or strike up a conversation with the person next to you, who of course hates you because all they want to do is read their book).

So it was a good thing that YA author Debbie Reed Fischer showed up at my signing with a copy of her book, Braless in Wonderland, just for me! (It turns out Debbie and I have a mutual friend, someone I went to high school with. How funny!)

I can’t wait to give Braless a try, but I can’t until after I’ve finished the book I snagged in a blind panic at the airport–Killer Heat by Linda Fairstein.

Fortunately it’s really good! I’ve never tried Linda’s books before but my aunt and all my friends swear by her. I’m halfway through and loving it so far.

And, even weirder, when I sat down on the plane home, the lady next to me was reading the exact same book!

In other news, everyone who won a copy of the Allie Finkle ARC has been notified!

But never fear those of you who did not win, there’ll be a new contest this week. Keep checking back….

At the book signing in Miami I got some questions along the lines of “Do you need to worry about copyright when you’re sending your manuscript out to publishers?” and “How did you get an agent?” leading me to believe that in these hard economic times, people are turning to writing as a second (or third) job.

Yay! More good books for me to read on the plane!

Here’s a good link for anyone wondering about copyright. I agree you’re pretty safe submitting your stuff to literary agents and publishers, but when it comes to Hollywood and screenplays, things seem to be on less solid ground. Story ideas seem to get stolen there a lot.

At the booksigning, I suggested The Poor Man’s Copyright as one method to protect yourself, but it turns out it’s not 100%. Completely paranoid people (I am one of them, because of what happened with my friend Carol) can go here and apply for a copyright of their very own. I have actually done this. It’s not hard!

Regarding the agent thing, as I’ve probably mentioned here before, the way I got my agent was by writing to every agent in this book who was interested in commercial women’s fiction (romance/mysteries, which was what I was writing at the time) and who did not charge a fee:

You can find out more information about this book here.

Whether or not you get an agent is a personal choice. Some people think you don’t really need one, but I wanted one because I didn’t know anything about publishing or book contracts and I felt an agent could negotiate a better contract (in the event I ever got one) than I could on my own.

(In case you don’t know, a good agent will never charge you a fee for her services, except maybe photocopying when you’re just starting out. She merely takes 10-15% of whatever your book earns after she places it with a publisher. So if she sells your book, she’ll take 15% of whatever she sells it for, plus 15% of whatever royalties it earns forever after that.)

When I was sending out my query letters (how to write a query letter is explained in the book above, but really it’s a one page—no more—letter explaining who you are, what your book is about, and why you think it would be a good fit for that particular agent. Special note: Never send out a query letter until you’re done writing your book. Another special note: Yes, it’s okay to query multiple agents at a time without telling them. They won’t like it, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Writing a good query letter is an art all its own, but basically you want it to read like the back cover copy of the book, enticing the reader to want to read more. Follow the instructions on this link and you will not go wrong), I was still working on other books at the same time.

So when I’d exhausted every agent in Jeff Herman’s guide who seemed decent (meaning, when they all eventually either said no or just never got back to me) on one manuscript, I went right back to the front of the guide (sometimes the next year’s edition), and started over sending out a new manuscript.

Sometimes people want to know: “Why didn’t you quit? Weren’t you frustrated?”

Of course! But what did I have to lose? Sending out a query letter a day was cheaper than playing the lottery. And what else was I going to do with all those manuscripts on my hard drive?

And finally toward the end of the third year of my search (yes…it took me three years to find an agent. And yes, I still have all the names of the agents who rejected me. But I don’t care anymore, because I’m an Aquarius, and I live and let live. But also this is why I recommend aspiring novelists get a day job: it takes a while to start making enough money to live on in the writing business), a historical romance I’d written and was sending to an agency I was querying for the third time (if at first you don’t succeed: query them again with a new book) landed on the desk of an agent who I’m pretty sure was just starting her first day (she won’t admit this).

She called me at home and said she wanted to see the first three chapters. I didn’t get too excited (by this time I was used to people asking to see more, and even asking for revisions, which I’d do. Then they’d reject me).

I sent her the three chapters, then the balance of the manuscript (also a revision she’d asked for), not expecting anything.

A week later she called and offered to represent me.

I can’t even tell you how shocked I was. I had (of course) already checked her out, or I wouldn’t have sent her a query. So I knew her agency was legit. I stammered, “Uh…uh…OKAY!”

So, anyway, that’s how I got my agent (who is still my agent today. Also, she is an Aquarius).


My first published book, circa March 1998

Sometimes when people hear this story, they go, “Gosh, you’re so lucky!”

Except I really don’t think luck had anything to do with it! How can I really believe in luck, considering the US Postal bag I have stuffed to the brim with rejection letters…literally like a thousand of them? Not giving up is what I believe has to do with it.

I guess what I believe is that luck = 95% preparation + 5% opportunity.

In other words, if you’ve put in the work, you’ll be prepared to take advantage of the right moment when it hits (and also know when that moment is…and maybe more importantly, when it’s not).

This applies to SWAT team sharpshooters, which is where I first heard the expression, as well as to the publishing business.

So, anyway. That’s a little of what we talked about at Books and Books the other night!

Coming up next…another free book give away!

More later.

Much love,

Meg