My agent and good friend Erik Hane has started a new agency with Laura Zats called Headwater Literary Management. You may know them from Print Run Podcast, which is award nominated (and may be award winning before the day is out!). Erik is better qualified to say what he is looking for and how he sees his career than I am. If I may say so, I see him as a gifted structural editor with an interest in applying his leftism to who he signs and how he builds their careers. His integrity– the continuity between the ethical views he cultivates on his list and how he applies those ethics to his work– is impressive. I am a better writer for having worked with him.
Now, let me gracefully and without calculation pivot from my friend and agent’s amazing accomplishment to that traditional author blog post we all love: how I got my agent.
I don’t need to go into too much detail about query letters and that whole tedious process. There are plenty of resources on that. For the happy uninitiated: if you wanna be traditionally published, a lot of publishers only take submissions from agents. The way you get an agent nowadays is emailing them queries and hoping they want you after they read your manuscript.
To understand what querying is like, it helps to understand what agents are doing with your queries. An agent gets, at minimum, three thousand queries per year (and often closer to 10). Statistically, that puts them in contact with several hundred people who are genuinely strange, abusive, illiterate, or willing to waste their time. Even if you, a writer, are professional and coherent (which puts you in the top 10% of their inbox), if you’re not gonna be their client because they don’t connect with your work, then they don’t have time for you.
On “connecting” with a work: agents also don’t just snap up any author who they think will make money. They have to read your book half a dozen times and still be able to get on the phone, over and over again, and sound enthused about your book. You could have a book that they know will sell and still pass because they just don’t have that passion for what you’ve written. So you, the author, will get mostly form rejections if you’re lucky, and nothing if you’re not.
People will tell you query rejection isn’t personal. It is. Selling yourself and your work as an author requires a different way of looking at yourself, from the outside in. How do you edit your work so other people will enjoy it? What do people like about you? How do you minimize what’s ugly about you? Why do you sit like that? Your chin’s weak, isn’t it? It’s like listening to a recording of your voice or looking at a photograph taken by someone without skill in photography or much affection for you. Even if I do like myself (depends on the day), the gaze of another person can prompt me to be unkind. It’s a funhouse mirror, and if I look too long at it, I start to feel like I’m turning inside out.
Querying is putting yourself out there as a person trying to make a connection to another person, and with assurance you’ll be rejected dozens of times. It hurts. I discovered after querying that I no longer get job interview jitters because my rejection pain threshold is blown to hell. Rejection is personal. What it isn’t is malicious. Reaching out and failing to connect to other people is a tragedy with no villains.
Of the agents who requested my manuscripts (including those who eventually made an offer), each got versions of my query letter that were written custom for them. That wasn’t intentional on my part. I spent at least half an hour of research per agent queried; more like ninety minutes if they seemed cool. The agents I did that for, I felt like I had an idea of who they were. My form query just wasn’t the best way to start a conversation with that person.
For Erik, I had a biography that was a little long and structured a little more like a non-fiction writer’s biography. He’s a lit fic and non-fiction agent, and both those genres emphasize credentials a little more than genre fic does. I also emphasized our common interests. Honestly, it was half biography and half a plea to sit with me at lunch. He requested the manuscript. He didn’t connect with my first book but did want my second, and along the way became friends through social media. That’s that.
I remember reading these “how I got my agent” posts when I was querying and feeling like I wasn’t getting what I was looking for. They were both too specific and too abstract to apply. Mine’s probably not different. “How do you get an agent?”– well, hell, how do you make friends? How do you nail a job interview? Even if you suck at those things (God knows I had to sharpen my skills in those areas over the year and a half I was querying), your style won’t be mine. I can’t even tell you how to get my agent. He and I connect on aesthetic sensibility, politics, and video games, but not so much on tennis. Each relationship connects two people on different faces of their geometries. You’ll have to find who you fit and how.
Anyway, if you are querying or on submission, feel free to kvetch in my comments. I’m happy to look at query letters too, if you ask! Comment or drop me a line. Sign up for my mailing list for updates on future publications.