How I Got My Agent: Gretchen Berg

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Gretchen Berg, author of I HAVE IRAQ IN MY SHOE. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at and we’ll talk specifics.

GIVEAWAY: Gretchen is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: won.)




Gretchen Berg is an award-wanting writer with a Bachelor’s degree
in something completely unrelated to writing. She has read articles for
Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and
The Economist (once when the TV wasn’t working). She is a Cancer, with
Scorpio rising, who was born and raised. She wishes people dressed up more.
Her humorous memoir, I HAVE IRAQ IN MY SHOE (May 2012, Sourcebooks)
is “a hilarious recount of her struggles to assimilate into a vastly different culture
… while picking up a few new pairs of shoes along the way” (Booklist).




Everyone says “Do your research,” and I can only echo that as being the absolute most important part of the query process — other than the homemade brownies and singing telegrams. Kidding. Any homemade brownies that were homemade in my kitchen wouldn’t make it off the counter.

I knew nothing about getting published and overnight my middle name changed from Elizabeth to Google. Gretchen Google Berg. I Googled everything: “How to get a book published,” “What is a query letter?”, “How to write a query letter,” “Who is Chris Evans dating?” There was the occasional lapse in focus.

(The term “platform” defined — learn how to sell more books.)

Once I had collected enough information to know that I a) needed an agent and b) needed to write a query letter in order to acquire said agent, I created an awesomely nerdy Excel Query Spreadsheet with the following column labels: Sent To, At Agency, On This Date, Heard Back?, Response, Then What?


I started sending out queries on February 23, 2010, and focused on agents whose interests were humor, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and women’s interest (since the phrase “chick-lit” has been demonized, no one will admit to wanting to read it – except me).

Query-by-numbers was not as fun as paint-by-numbers:

9 – queries
5 – interested responses
2 – wanted partials
1 – wanted an exclusive full
1 – wanted a book proposal

(New for 2013: MORE Tips on Writing a Query Letter.)

Gradually, four out of the five passed on my book, but all were extremely gracious and kind in their rejections and even offered advice on how to improve it. The fifth was the one who had wanted the book proposal. That row in my spreadsheet looked like this:

Sent To: Agent X (not a real agent)
At Agency: X Literary (not a real agency)
On This Date: 5/21/2010
Heard Back? Yes
Response: Wanted proposal
Then What? I didn’t want to write proposal

Are you properly appalled? I was so lazy that I passed up an opportunity simply because I didn’t want to take the time to write a proposal. I already wrote the whole dang book – why do I have to write a proposal too?

I’m not a quitter, but I am a pauser. I shelved my query project for June and July. Book proposal, hmph. In August a friend loaned me a hilarious memoir by Wade Rouse called At Least in the City, Someone Would Hear Me Scream. I loved it and thought Wade and I had similar styles of writing, and maybe, just maybe, his agent could be my agent too. I tried to Google “Could Wade’s agent be my agent too?”, but it’s Google, not the Magic 8 Ball. I looked in the Acknowledgements section of Wade’s book, found Wendy Sherman’s name and deduced that she must be Mr. Rouse’s agent. I’m crafty like that. I queried Wendy on October 2, 2010. She responded the next day, and guess what she said? She said she’d love to see the book proposal.

Book proposal – thou art mine nemesis.


I sighed heavily and went back to Google: “How to write a book proposal.”

I wrote the book proposal in two days and emailed it to Wendy. She had asked for a 10-day exclusive, and since I had learned (via Google, of course) that an exclusive meant I just couldn’t query any other agents during that time, I gladly agreed. I hadn’t planned to query any other agents at that point, for fear that they might ask for a book proposal. Wanh wanh.

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

On October 5 I Googled “What does it mean when the agent wants a ‘phone call’?” I wasn’t sure if that automatically meant she was offering to represent me. Google did not have a succinct answer. I was living overseas and Skype was more convenient than a phone call, so we engaged in an awkward Skype call where Wendy could both see and hear me, but I could only hear her (she didn’t have the camera function). I had to hope she wasn’t rolling her eyes at my questions, or making the crazy signal by circling her finger around next to her ear. She made suggestions regarding changes to the proposal and then said, “So I’ll wait to see the changes then”. I paused, and since she could see me, she could probably tell my face said What does that mean? I finally had to hesitantly ask, “Does this mean you’re offering to represent me?”

I think she wanted to wait and see how the book proposal changes shaped up, so the Magic 8 Ball response would have been “Ask again later”, but I shook it again until it came up “Yes.” I signed the contract on October 14, 2010, and immediately set to work on modifying the Magic 8 Ball to include “Write the dang book proposal.”

GIVEAWAY: Gretchen is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: won.)


If you’re just getting started and want to build your
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23 thoughts on “How I Got My Agent: Gretchen Berg

  1. reflective.erised

    As I was reading this post I was overwhelmed with feelings of relation and camaraderie. Gratitude comes to mind. Among so much that I am taking from your story what I appreciate most is what you said about not being a quitter but rather “a pauser.” I have stepped away from my writing, and the wonderful women in my critique group hoping to find my way back to cultivating that creativity in my life. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. patriciar425

    I registered just lo leave a comment.

    I can’t wait to read your book. I am a google addict. It has become one of those personality quirks that my friends have finally come to accept. Phone in hand I can’t bear not finding out right then and there the answer to my questions. Siri is no match. In fact, Siri hates me. If you ask her -what is the meaning of life? She will say “To think about questions like this” Now google it. . .

    Google aside, I love your humor and will definitely run, not walk, to my nearest bookstore.

  3. accordingtomurph

    I’m not sure how I ever survived without Google and internet access from my cell. I Google absolutely EVERYTHING and now I feel smart for knowing all sorts of random, useless information. Laziness has often stood in my own way, hoping that good fortune will just fall in my lap instead. After all, that would be SO much easier. I’m learning that it doesn’t really work that way, though. And I learned that without Google.

    Thank you for the humorous take on the frustrating world of writing and of trying to get your name out there, a job that’s harder than writing the book itself!

    ~ Murphy ~

  4. MichelleAntonia

    Sharing the “querying” process is always valuable.. I’m so thankful you’re willing to let us learn from your experience! The book sounds fabulous, I’d love to win it as well 🙂

  5. Shivering gecko

    I loved your fun and encouraging blog. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who gets bored and tired of the whole “find an agent” process and shelves it for a while. Congratulations on publishing your book, it sounds like a fun read.

  6. txtootsie

    I loved this article! I too hate writing book proposals and your article was funny yet informative. I am also living out of country although I have a permanent US address because I plan to return. I can’t wait to read your book!

  7. laurimeyers

    I am only two rejections into the process, so this was a great, timely read. I think. Have a great edit that is now actually respectable for rejection, the first two were softballs. Hank you for sharing!

  8. Anthony Trendl

    I’ve just begun this journey of agent-hunting. Received my first true rejection 45 minutes ago for a picture book. Technically, it is my second rejection, as one agent emailed quickly back explaining her client base is packed. Either way, neither accepted me. So, here I am, trying to learn what I missed.

    Today’s email: “Thank you for your query. Unfortunately, your manuscript doesn’t sound like something that’s right for us. We wish you the best of success in placing your work elsewhere.”

    I do have a spreadsheet. I have the Guide to Literary Agents. I drink espresso all morning while looking for places to query. Surely I am in a good position to find some love with a New York agent.

    Seriously, I am trying to be methodical and strategic. I have a growing social media infrastructure, website, and otherwise a strong online presence. I expect rejections; I only need to accept me. But I also know the road only begins with the agent, as they now have the task of shopping my wares about. Learning the craft of the query, matched by a quality piece of marketable writing is the beast before me.

    If there are any agents (or publishers) out looking for clients, drop me a line. I am a shameless self-promoter with a Dorothy Parker wit (and I’m not even half her age). Google me to see how true this is (the self-promotion part, at any rate).

    Anthony Trendl Facebook Author Page Discuss books, ideas, literature, art, tall tales, short tales and cattails. See the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Fans of Twain, Kipling, Thurber will find this a friendly place. From the quirky to the funny to the unbelievable.

  9. sifiauthor

    I wonder if we might not see this turned around. “How I found my writer?” might be a better column given the changes in publishing. Are we still really treating agents as such precious commodities? Especially after the AAR letter to the DOJ, where that organization clearly showed it sided with publishers rather than authors?

    Agents need writers more than writers need agents. Agents work for writers. In the current market, that’s something that has to be very clear. Authors create content, readers consume content. Everyone else is in between. They have to facilitate that relationship or else they need to get out of the way.

    I note that some of my content, 70 Solutions to Writing Mistakes is being given away for free. It’s also for sale in pdf for $9.99????? Weird. I thought F&W was on the cutting edge of the digital revolution.

  10. dcc1030

    I have been a freelance writer for our local newspaper and numerous regional publications, but I am a newbie as far as book publishing goes. I appreciate your advice!

  11. bexaud

    Congratulations on your book!

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Sounds like the 9 for 9 interest in your query speaks for itself. I am now motivated to find out more about your work AND get the lead out and give my novel its final polish and send it out into the agentsphere.

    Wishing you huge success

  12. annefreemanimages

    Gretchen – Your narrative was very funny. If that is any indication of how your memoir will read, I hope that I am a winner of this contest! I’m still not sure what a book proposal is, and I’m not sure that you answered your own question about it. However, I, too, have heard of Google, and will start those little search engines whirring. Even better, I search Writer’s Digest, where I’m sure I’ll find the answer. I hope I am burdened with writing a book proposal sometime in the foreseeable future. Thanks!


  13. justbreathemama

    My husband is in residential real-estate and often says his colleagues “sit behind their desk and sharpen pencils while complaining about the blood-sucking, downward market.” He says the difference between his success in this economy and their failures are getting OUT and just doing it. Thank you, NIKE.

    I loved your mention of being “lazy”, Gretchen. Clearly, you weren’t lazy – I mean, look at all the googling hours you were putting in! Yet, we run into those barking dogs when we get so close to touching and meeting a goal we turn around and call it a day. You call it lazy, I call mine fear.

    Thank you for your simple and candid story of how your beautiful book came to be. You have given me some warm wind to my cold back. I am a “newbie,” just an infant in my mommy blogging turned real life book author wannabe. I am currently googling “how to find an agent”…sprinkled with “What’s on sale at Target?” or “What to feed screaming,kicking toddlers” (To be fair, I am a mother of 17 month old triplets…I do what I can.)

  14. L-Rob

    Your sense of humor definitely shows! And, regardless of the chick-lit stigma, I, too am drawn to it. Sure, I often pick something about serial killers or paramilitary heroes for my pleasure reading, but I always sprinkle in a healthy dose of chick lit to balance things out.

    Thanks for highlighting the humorous side of a daunting process!

  15. traveller929

    Love your humor!
    Last August, I thought my MS was perfect, and then I began submitting it to agents: reject…reject…reject. Undaunted, I charged forward, with the same results. Then, I attended the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February. Chuck Sambuchino, Robert Dugoni, and the wonderful Agent, Kimberly Cameron all politely showed me how my novel was far from submission-ready. I kept the August copy of the MS intact for reference. After 16 complete re-writes, it is still not quite ready, but it was obvious: my “perfect manuscript” SUCKED. There is no other appropriate word for it.
    I am convinced a good work will eventually sell, and sell well. At the end of next month, I believe I will be ready to put my toe in the roiling pond of agents. I look forward to using your experiences help me find the agent I need for this journey, where we will be proud of each other when the work is published.
    Tim Lewis

  16. supdike3

    First off, I would like to mention that I have with out a doubt found my match. I too have been tempted by Google, so much so that I often wonder what I would do without it in my life. A sick thought i know, but my solid truth.

    I admire your ability to ask the questions as I’m just starting out with the idea of sharing my work. After I get over the initial shock of “I’m actually going to let this writing leave the confines of my notebook” ?!!! (Yes, I am still a hardcore pen and paper gal.) I then am lost on where to go, what to do, who to beg from…you get the gist.

    Thank you for the insight! I will certainly try the spreadsheet method and add a little structure to my chaos!


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