Agents: love ’em and love ’em

There are probably more blogs and comments dedicated to the subject of agents than there are to any other discussion topic fundamental to publishing and writer, but I thought some people might be interested in hearing about my own journey.
I have directly experienced three different scenarios in my (so-called) life as a published writer.
Scenario the first:(About four years ago)
I wrote a silly but somewhat charming children’s fantasy book and probably mostly due to timing (HP was still the hottest thing out there) than any unusual talent acquired an agent after only querying two. Not only that but I am pretty sure that I did not query correctly. I believe I just stuffed the manuscript into an envelope and sent it with a note saying ‘hope you enjoy it and look forward to hearing from you.”
I was naive and perhaps a little cocky, and maybe deluded.
In hindsight, I would definitely say yes, deluded.
I got a phone call from fabulous NY agent saying she wished to represent me and we got to work revising the book. Then she sent it out to all the major publishers and we waited for the clamor to arise. The auction thing didn’t happen. In hindsight, once again, I can’t believe that I had honestly expected it would go to auction. But remember- cocky and deluded.
Many rejections followed (but nice informative and helpful rejections from big editors). The kind every writer should be ecstatic to receive. I didn’t feel that way then, every rejection was a stab in the heart, but I sure do now. And an agent will get you a personal rejection often crammed full of insight and ways in which you can make your manuscript better. This sounds facetious but I mean it in a good way. Yay, agents!
Eventually we got a nibble accompanied by a lengthy editorial letter. And I began to wrap my head around the fact that I would have to completely revise the book if I wanted a chance at publication.
It was at this point that my lovely agent told me she was giving up the agenting and moving away. (Eventually she ended up doing freelance editing which is the perfect career choice for her although she is much missed as an agent.) The editor who had nibbled also changed publishers, and switched focus leaving my manuscript nowhere which brings us to:
Scenario the second:
Remember the cocky thing? Still cocky, I decided to forge ahead without an agent. After all I had come close with big editor at big publisher, I was willing to finish my revision, how hard could it be???????
I bought a stack of reference books and started reading through them pencilling in notes next to every publisher, imprint, and indie specializing in children’s fiction. This took many months. At the end of it I had a long list of editors and a lot of scrawled post-it notes.
I submitted to all of them, making sure I had a good 1 page cover letter and a polished manuscript.
Once I’d been rejected by pretty much every small and large publisher in America, I took a step back and decided that perhaps I should explore foreign agents. I don’t know what I was thinking exactly or why I didn’t query some american agents. After all, only two of them had ever heard of me… I suppose it was simply that I thought I could get a british agent (England being my birthplace and the birthplace of most of the authors who inspired me), and they could sell the book in the UK, making it much easier afterwards to secure an american publisher. It may just have been that I felt that I had exhausted all possibilities here in the States.
A couple more nibbles including one agent in Australia who was about to give birth and was unfortunately going on hiatus almost immediately, but nothing coalesced. (side note- my darling mother who lives in Oxford discovered a literary agency upstairs from her dentist’s office and hand-delivered a copy of the manuscript telling them a) that I was very talented and b) that she was my mother and if it made it easier for them they could contact her and she would pass on any messages. The agent? David Fickling. Oh the mortification!
Where oh where could I try next? Remember all of this so far had taken me about 8 months of research and an ungodly amount of money in postage, envelopes and printer ink.
I cast my gaze northwards. CANADA. After yet more research I sent a few packages out to few publishers. I had just about given up when a fellow writer friend pointed me to a publisher’s website requesting new work from new authors. I sent the book in and a month or so later received an email asking to buy the book. Much revision (because it turned out the manuscript was nowhere ready) and about 9 months later – rushed in order to be on shelves for Christmas- my first book was published. Hurray! Let’s skip ahead a couple of years, shall we…. to
Scenario the third Not much happening. The book came out, got pretty good reviews, sold a little. But not enough for the sequels to follow. (Lesson #666- when things deteriorate between an editor and an author, it’s nice to have an agent play intermediary).
I had a book to my name but it counted for almost nothing. The next thing is I had to put all that behind me, shelve the two follow-up manuscripts I had written and force myself to look forward instead of back. It’s very hard to move away from something you have invested so much time in, but eventually I did it.
First I had to think of something new.
That took months.
Then I had to write it. Ditto. Although actually, once I had fixed on the story I wanted to tell and the character I wanted to tell it about, I had a good draft completed in about 6 months. Then beta readers, revision and polish and I was ready to query. Yup, after endless letters to publishing houses and editors and the sensation of banging my head against countless doors, I was ready to begin the hunt for an agent. Only to find that in the last four years, much had changed in the publishing world. Firstly most major houses wouldn’t even look at something that was unagented. Secondly agents were narrowing their lists and in many ways it was harder to sign with an agent than with a publisher.Things had gotten very tight, my friends.
However I am an optimistic sort of a person (or maybe just someone who likes to bash their head repeatedly against walls) and I had my reference books, the internet and helpful blogs like the Guide to Literary Agents, and I had a book that I was very excited about. After a lot of research and much lurking around agent blogs, I made a list of 13 possibles. 13 because my manuscript was called LUCKY, and because I am a superstitious person. Serendipity and that!
My contact list by this time was pretty good because it was well-researched and some of the agents on it had previously rejected me for something else I’d written. I cannot emphasize enough how precious a personal rejection is, and how important it is to look past the rejection and see it as constructive and valuable criticism and the beginning of a possible relationship (if you continue working hard and submitting new work.) I got a great response and a high percentage of requests for partial and full manuscripts. One agent who had kindly rejected my prior manuscript responded very quickly to the query. I sent him the full and within 2 days he had responded again, saying he would like to represent me. He also impressed me by comparing LUCKY to my other manuscript (which he actually recalled in detail) and saying nice things. He didn’t pressure me, gave me contact addresses for some of his other writers and told me to take my time. I did, about a week- because I am a chastened and cautious person now, but I pretty much knew from the first phone call that I had found the right person to represent me. I think that in our headlong quest for an agent, we sometimes forget that it should be about the right fit, rather than the first person who makes an offer. A week later I signed with him.
So all’s well, etc…but in fact a rollercoaster of a journey spread over a few tumultuous years. And it’s not over yet, although I feel much easier about it knowing that I am moving ahead with someone else in my corner.

7 thoughts on “Agents: love ’em and love ’em

  1. What a rollercoaster, thanks for sharing the story, Jo – and what is that I spy in your profile??? My YA, LUCKY, will be coming out on Scholastic in Fall 2011. Is this the news you have been dying to share???

    If not then I am clearly the most unobservant person on the planet!

  2. It has been and proof that you just have to keep moving ahead no matter what.
    Yes, that is indeed the news I've been keeping to myself since November. Agonizing. But pretty great now I can exhale freely.

  3. What a great story! I loved hearing about your adventure. And great lessons for writers looking to be published. Anyway, just thought I'd drop by and say hi. I'm going to print this one out and give it to a friend who needs this advice very badly.

  4. Thanks Donna and Rick!
    Rick, glad to be of some help. It's hard to see the correct path sometimes, and perhaps there isn't one or it's different for everyone. Any insight I have stems from setbacks and difficulties and bad decisions, but hey, if it can save someone else the frustration, that's a good thing!
    I try to remember also that nothing worth achieving is ever easy.

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