If You Know How to Date, You Know How to Find a Literary Agent
Advice for finding your match, whether in representation or in romance
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I was relieved after I got married—relieved, and naive, in my assumption that I’d never have to date again. I had found my partner for life. As it turned out, I’d file for divorce seven years later. A lot of second-guessing and hesitation kept me from pursuing divorce. I kept psyching myself out at the mere thought of diving back into “the dating scene.” I mean, were things really that bad? Maybe I should give it another year and another, and another. Perhaps these signs were flukes. As I prepared to finalize the end of a union I thought would be a long-term thing, a forever thing, I realized it was better to be single than to be coupled and deeply unhappy. When the judge’s decree arrived I was relieved to be out of a binding relationship that did not produce joy or growth. I resolved to cast a net out again, when ready, in the hopes of finding a better match.
A similar experience occurred years after my divorce when I thought I’d found my mate in a literary agent. The search for an agent is a lot like the search for a romantic partner: it’s intimidating, it may require a lot of false starts, and it’s ultimately about finding not the best person but the best fit. Some of us may find “the one” fairly quickly, for others it may take a lot of patience, and a good amount of reassurance that it’s not necessarily us who is a problem, this is simply not a good pairing or time.
Time is often an incredibly frustrating and necessary factor of putting yourself out there and getting back out there. Depending on the person and the situation, as well as the break itself, it can be, well, nerve wracking. Just like I spoke to my friends about the dating “game,” I asked others about their experiences renewing their search for an agent. It helped to know, as it always does, that we’re not alone in this pursuit, in the struggles and the successes, and the moments when we find some solace. I also spoke with three agents to get their insight because relationships are not one-sided, nor are the perspectives.
How do we meet people? How do we find an agent? Is the internet the best place (or the most suspicious) to meet anyone nowadays? When it comes to representation it can be as varied as finding a partner. Sometimes the agent finds you thanks to one or many publications. Maybe this connection occurs at a conference or through a chance meeting or a connection with a friend or even through a Twitter pitch party. It can occur via the slushpile route which means you’re doing the asking. The opportunities to meet someone — in dating and in the literary life — are endless. The pursuit can feel fruitless. There’s radio silence in the query stage. Sending that first message into the void, be it an email submission or a direct message to an individual you’d like to get to know, means patience. It means potentially not hearing back and possibly feeling bad about why. The belief, or the reality posted on the agency website, is this preliminary silence equates to rejection. Despite being declined in one way or another we have to keep trying. That’s why we put ourselves and our work out there. To be seen as a person, to have your work be of value to someone besides yourself is one of the most uplifting experiences. And it happens because we never stopped believing in what we had to say.
According to the writers I spoke to, the thing that’s most likely to torpedo a budding agent relationship is radio silence. As in a marriage or partnership, communication — or more so the lack thereof — is a big issue in any relationship. The absence of communication can become deafening, often sounding sounds its own alarm.
“A warning sign that you need to end a relationship with an agent is non-response. If somebody doesn’t reply to an email within two weeks, that means something,” Alison Kinney told me.
One writer who asked to remain anonymous said her second agent relationship was a “disappointing experience.” “I signed with my second agent, we were in contact for the first two or three months after I signed with him, and then he dropped off the face of the earth. I called. I emailed. I left several voicemails and messages with his assistant. Finally, two years after signing with him, I told him it was time we go our separate ways. I begged him for a list of the editors he submitted to. He never gave me the list.”
Literary agent Jennifer Chen Tran (Bradford Literary) agrees. “In my book, if your agent doesn’t speak to you on a regular basis — whether through phone or email — they’ve probably lost interest. Communication is the hallmark of healthy relationships and if you feel that communication is waning, or not where it used to be, I recommend you clear the air and get in touch with your agent to have a conversation.”
The other most prevalent issue? Being on the same wavelength. What I learned in couples’ therapy with my husband was that you could literally say the same thing to one another yet neither of you hear it the same way. The reasons people don’t connect are usually subjective: They are not attractive to you, this is not a good story to them. So it makes sense that finding and needing that symbiotic relationship where everyone is on the same page, literally and metaphorically, will make or break an agent-client relationship.
“I think finding the right agent is like finding the right college, or even more like dating — it’s chemistry,” Melissa Holbrok Pierson told me. “I was lucky, I thought, in finding my second agent: high-powered, great reputation. I felt proud. Only . . . I think now she really didn’t get my work. She has a few a big money-maker clients, and I’m not likely to produce that kind of book for her.”
“One main thing to note about an agent before signing is creative alignment,” literary agent Linda Camacho (Gallt & Zacker) mentions. “In the beginning, the former comes up when editorial notes are discussed. If the writer/illustrator is generally on the same page as the agent and it seems that the agent ‘gets’ what they’re trying to do, that bodes well. If the agent and writer/illustrator differ widely in the vision for the work, that’s a red flag that it’s not a good fit.”
A friend who is an award-winning author told me she’s on her third agent and very happy with them, though the way to this agent wasn’t exactly smooth. Her first agent signed her as an excited novice when she had gained the publishing deal and merely needed the agent to protect her interests. His clients weren’t in line with what she wrote genre-wise, so he didn’t do more than glance at a contract and take a payday. He failed to negotiate her upcoming deals well and was not as invested in her work due to being unfamiliar with this category of literature. Ultimately things worked out for my friend, but from the start of her career this lack of symmetry between her and her agent added a lot more work to her plate.
Like anything in life, anxiousness or plain worry rears its head. Perhaps this is all too good, too soon. Maybe someone jumped on the first train not knowing where it was going. Is the first offer, be it a hand in marriage or a contract for representation, the right offer? Should we bail at the earliest sign of a disturbance in the water? Does not selling the first project you submitted mean that you, as writer, are a failure, or that the agent failed, or none of the above?
Agents I spoke to told me low sales aren’t necessarily a sign of a subpar agent-client pairing. “Not selling a client’s manuscript is quite normal, sadly, so that’s not the marker of a bad relationship,” says Camacho. “Not selling a few manuscripts can even occur. I become alarmed when I hear of writers wanting to drop their agent when the manuscript the agent took them on for doesn’t sell. That’s way too soon!” Marietta Zacker (Gallt & Zacker) reiterated the need to have two-way communication and “heart-to-heart conversations that get to the real root of the issue” before jumping ship. “Ultimately, though, our job is to find that perfect match between a creative’s work and the ideal editor.”
The reality of a volatile market, subjectivity within all areas of the industry, and simply timing play a factor. “I was once unable to sell a client’s next book, despite her previous Big Five deal, and despite having sent it to 30+ editors. Don’t take it personally, learn from the feedback,” Chen Tran says. “Sometimes all it takes for a work to sell is to fine-tune the sales proposal, for instance.”
When Marissa Landrigan split (amicably) with her agent, it was because her manuscript hadn’t sold, but more so because of her agent’s waning interest in actively pursuing a home for it. “I asked [my agent] what she thought about moving on from bigger houses to submit to university and indie presses, and she was really honest and said she didn’t really have the contacts at those places, but that I should definitely send it to those places on my own,” Landrigan told me. “I did that once or twice and then realized I could really do this phase without an agent.”
In my case, I’m glad I saw the warning signs early and that my agent-client split didn’t come from frustration or any bad will. Had I been less aware of what it meant to get my work viewed when it wasn’t quite ready, or less attuned to the fact that everyone needs edits, I might have stayed in a pairing that wasn’t suited for my goals simply because someone believed in me. Looking back, this was why I remained in my marriage long past the expiration date: fear that someone else wouldn’t want me for who I was and awareness that this relationship, while not good, wasn’t totally awful. In the end we have to be more realistic with where we are and what we need to get where we want to be.
For those of us conducting a new search after we thought we were done with that first hurdle, it’s important to recognize not having an agent doesn’t make anyone a failure and having one agent doesn’t automatically mean a book deal. (In addition to the fact that an agent and a book deal doesn’t equate to a bestseller.) Our respective levels of success and how we get there are as subjective as the viewpoints of those reading our manuscripts. These are all steps in the publication process and finding an agent, be it the first, second, third, or tenth time is one of those steps. The parallels between dating and representation remind me to pursue what I want means knowing what I want, and, more importantly who I am. Kinney shared a similar mindset. “When something didn’t work out, it was never the end of the world,” she said. “I mean, I felt like hell, but nothing was ever final: it was just another step in this gradual, non-linear process that was having a writing life. Having good things wasn’t a guarantee of success — but that also meant that having bad things happen wasn’t a guarantee of failure, either.” Like my marriage, my first agent relationship didn’t “fail,” it simply didn’t work out. So now I’m at the step where we try and try again.