How I Got My Agent: Jami Attenberg

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. To see the previous installments of this column, click here. 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.

Jami is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.

Jami Attenberg is the author of The Melting Season,
which was published in paperback in Jan. 2011 by
Riverhead. Booklist said of the novel: Jami “enders
poignant prose and portrays the desperate behavior
of her characters with verve.” She is also the author
of the novels Instant Love (2007) and The Kept Man
(2009). Visit her author website here.



I took an unconventional path to getting an agent and a book deal. I didn’t go to graduate school, where all the important writers seemed to be getting their start. I didn’t pursue getting published in literary magazines. I didn’t even send out countless pitch letters and manuscripts to agents. All of these actions would have required me having some sort of plan or at least being vaguely organized, and I’ve always been kind of a wanderer.  But I’ve always tried to follow my instincts.

In 1998, I started a blog, something I could control very easily and update at my own whim. (The Internet was and remains an amazing place for finding your writing voice.) Eventually I started publishing essays on different websites. I also self-published a couple of zines with artists I knew, and a small press put out a few hundred copies of a chapbook I wrote about getting high and hanging out at delis in New York City. (It was called Deli Life, naturally.) Then Nylon published an essay of mine, and a couple of music reviews. I was just trying to make art that I found interesting, but inadvertently I was creating a platform for myself. It was a quirky platform, though, even for 2004, when I decided I was going to write my first book.

I wrote Instant Love, a linked collection of short stories, very quickly that summer. In November, a more established writer friend brought me to the Gin Mingle, the annual fundraiser at New York’s Housing Works Bookstore, an event which is well-attended by publishing professionals. There I met a bunch of editors who weren’t interested in talking to me unless I had an agent, and a bunch of agents who weren’t interested in talking to me because I didn’t have a conventional literary background. Eventually the friend who had brought me to the party introduced me to an associate editor, and, after knocking back a few glasses of wine with me, she agreed to take a look at my book.


The next day I was hungover but filled with great enthusiasm. Obviously that editor was going to be my new best friend forever and ever. I could just tell. I sent her three of my stories. And then I waited. And waited. For two months. (I was used to Internet time—instant responses. The publishing world, as I have discovered again and again over the last seven years, moves at its own pace.)

Humbled, I e-mailed her again to remind her of my existence. Finally, a few weeks later, she read the stories and loved them, but … oh, there was that but. She didn’t feel confident she would be able to convince her bosses to buy the book unless I had a good agent with literary credibility since I, as I had now heard approximately 9,000 times by then, did not.

She suggested a few agents for me and I contacted them all. One replied within a few weeks, and was very nice, but told me a story collection was hard to sell, and did I have a novel? (No, I did not.) Two others replied a few weeks after that, but I don’t think ever bothered to read my manuscript. I was a weird Internet nobody, and a weird internet nobody with a short story collection at that. I had too many strikes against me.


I got back in touch with the editor, and, in some sort of dream sequence from a movie about an aspiring writer in New York only it was real and happening to me, she took matters into her own hands. She picked up the phone and called a different agent, Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord Literistic, on my behalf. She expressed her interest in my work. He read my book within a week, called me into his office soon after. I found him funny and sharp and honest. He signed me that day.  

The most important thing was that he really loved my book. I always tell people this when they’re looking for an agent—they should love your work.  You are entitled to work with someone who believes in you. Why do business with someone who is ambivalent about you and your art? From the get-go, I knew he was down with who I was.  Beyond enjoying my writing, he understood that being a weird Internet nobody was maybe not so weird after all.

Ultimately the editor was unable to buy my first book because, as she had suspected, I was a hard sell to her bosses. But it didn’t matter, because at last I had the right agent for me. He sold my book a few weeks at auction a few weeks later. And we have been together ever since.

Jami is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.

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39 thoughts on “How I Got My Agent: Jami Attenberg

  1. Bailey Hammond

    I just want to say thank you for this post. I’m an aspiring author (although right now I’m mostly a student), and the agent question has always been the fly in my ointment. I’ve tried to just to put my fear of never being signed out of my mind in order to concentrate on writing and finishing my teaching degree, but it’s still there in the recesses. Haha! Your tale of how you got signed made me laugh and remember that I shouldn’t take myself so seriously. So thanks. I really appreciate it.

  2. Mike O'Connor

    Cool story. Gives me hope that I can be found as a writer if I stick with it, leverage the web, and connect with the right people.

    Congrats on getting published – validation for all the time spent writing. I haven’t spent enough time writing (hence my nonpublished status) but I HAVE spent enough time that the only justification for it all would be publication. It’s not enough to say that I enjoyed the time I spent; now I need someone else to confirm that it was time well spent.

  3. Jenna Nigh

    Le sigh…

    This brings out those old daydreams of Oprah walking by and stopping in her tracks when she sees me, exclaiming: "Hey! You look like a writer. Why, I bet you’re a great writer! I just happen to have this little book club I do…".

    Oh well, I suppose I should keep plugging away. Though, I must admit, these kinds of stories fuel the old inspirational fire.

  4. Doreen

    Your topic is intriguing, genuinely exciting and the title makes me curious. I like a story that pulls you in so easily that it feels very real. I expect this is what A Melting Season will be like. I would enjoy reading your book.

  5. Vicki Hudson

    Change is difficult. Every industry changes only when forced to do so after the revolution not before. Publishing is undergoing a revolution – that is how significantly different 21st century publication is from everything that came previously. The paradigm is no longer single entity (printed book) with consumer choice non-existent in terms of medium. The consumer concurrent with the content creator drives the medium now. The message exists on demand transmitted in co-existing mediums that feed and support each other. Those in the publishing industry that are chained to traditional venues for identifying emerging voices will be left behind. The voices will not wait, they will find their own means to express and be heard (experienced). The means of transmission (book, blog, website, social media) cross fertilize and inform each other rather than stand alone (traditional publishing). The resulting creative product thus has deeper and deeper levels, 2nd and 3rd order of effects upon the consumer and creator experience. The early adopters are already seeking the new voices, learning the technology and how to leverage it towards diverse and varied markets beyond a solitary print run with perhaps an audio book to complement. The printing press brought information to the masses but the process remained and remains guarded by the "guild" (church, money, elite, traditional publishers, agents) gate keepers. When in revolution, if the gate is in the way the people go over, around, under – and that is what is happening now as information technology, social media and writers converge. The question is, how will the industry of "Agent" remain relevant when print on demand has matured? How will legacy publishing remain relevant when the power to provide the creative product is in the control of the creator who cross platform publishes at will with no gatekeeper in between the creative sender and the content receiver?

  6. Heather Schick

    Jami, you have certainly been on a long and difficult road. I think it shows great character to those who take the road less traveled and come out winners. I’m looking forward to reading your book. Bravo!!!

  7. janet thronebery

    When reading the column, it is warming to feel how much comfort and hope you are attempting to give, to those of us still navigating out here in nowhere land! One thing came to mind for me in the end…WHAT did you feel (INSIDE!) when he liked you book… HOW did you know he was the real deal?
    I am glad you had the confidence not to think it was too good to be true! CONGRATS! : )

  8. Chris Deaton

    Love this!!!

    "All of these actions would have required me having some sort of plan or at least being vaguely organized, and I’ve always been kind of a wanderer."

    At least I know I am not the only one. 🙂 Good luck and grats on the success so far!

  9. Arr Ell Ess

    Jami, you’ve proven what agent/author Ken Atchity says: don’t wait for someone to say YES; take your career in your own hands and get your work out there. And remember to WRITE and HAVE FUN and try not to feel like you’re running around the Internet looking for someone’s approval. Remember what author/screenwriter William Goldman says: 1)No one knows anything, and 2)If it works, it’s right!

    I REALLY would love to read your Deli Time book. And collections of related stories DO work. cf 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist Love In Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet, or Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollack, a collection Chuck Palahniuk said was some of the best writing he’s read in his entire adult life (or something to that effect).

    Remember, too, that it took a year for Christopher Little Agency to sell Harry Potter.

    The bottom line is that good writing is good writing and the cream always rises to the top. So forget about finding an agent; go WRITE, and build a website and a Twitter account and be your own biggest fan. If you’re not a fan of your writing, how can you expect anyone else to be?

    Like Ben Franklin said:
    "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing."

    Hopefully these things will be one and the same.

  10. Tricia

    Somehow I got off path by first going to your website then reading some published shorts, like your house swap in Ireland and the mosquito spraying story. I had to stop myself from reading more. I like your writing voice and would love to read your book/s.

  11. Jessica Hoffman

    I actually just joined a writer’s critique group to work on some of my own ideas. It’s helping a lot, and we’ve starting bouncing around ideas of being published. I’ve always wanted to at least try to get published, so this is a huge encouragement!
    And I would also love to read your novel. I’m finishing my undergraduate degree in English, so I don’t get much time to read contemporary lit, but it’s definitely something I’d like to pick up.

  12. Jean Smith

    Congratulations on THE MELTING SEASON and on selling THE MIDDLESTEINS to Grand Central Publishing — and for being awarded the best blog post of the year by the Village Voice for the bike theft story, which I just read on your blog. Not to be confused (and I wasn’t) with your author website. I really like how you’ve organized yourself on the internet — it works very well!!

    Will you be adding a video update soonishly (I subscribed to your YouTube channel)?

    It is very inspiring to see you out and about.

    (of Mecca Normal… literary rock duo… )

  13. Juan Bas

    Great story and what a fantastic journey. It gives hope to me and other literary nobodies as I send out queries and wait to hear from agents I’ve already pitched my novel, BACK KICKS AND BROKEN PROMISES, to. Congrats!

  14. Larry C.

    Congrats, Jami! Glad to see that there are still stories like this out there. You’re absolutely right about the publishing world having its own pace. Sometimes it makes watching paint dry look like high-speed internet. Thanks for sharing. PS: Is Deli Life still available anywhere online?

  15. Elizabeth MacKinney

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jami. It was very encouraging for me in a week that has not been at all encouraging. I believe you’re totally right about an agent who loves your book. There’s power in passion. I hope this success is just the beginning for you. : ) Beth

  16. Lynda

    There’s hope for us all if your column is anything to go by. Maybe more of us should try the unconventional internet route. Congrats on your book, looks interesting!

  17. Nikki

    It may be silly, but it worries me to let people I don’t know read my stuff. It worries me that someone might steal it…is that a legitimate worry or am I just being silly.

    Congrats on the book…just based on the cover art and title alone, I want to read it!


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