How I Got My Literary Agent: Randy Ribay

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Randy Ribay, author of AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES. 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 literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

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Column by Randy Ribayauthor of AN INFINITE NUMBER OF
PARALLEL UNIVERSES
(Oct. 2015, Merit Press). He is the English
Department Chair at an all-boys high school in Philadelphia, a reviewer for
The Horn Book, and a nerd-of-all-trades. His book has been hailed as
packing ” a surprising, emotional punch” by Book Riot and “A legitimate
geeky book written by an awesomely geeky man who understands the classic
geeky teenager” by YA Books Central. Visit his website and find him on Twitter

Summers On

I’m a high school teacher, and five years ago I decided to dedicate my precious summer months to writing full-time. So as school ended, I sat down at my desk, put my hands on the keyboard, and started typing chapter one. By the end of the summer, I had a book.

But, man, it was terrible—a YA post-apocalyptic zombie novel.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know how bad it was. I thought I had composed a masterpiece of YA literary horror that truly spoke to what it means to be human. I had heard authors refer to their first books as good for little else beyond practice, but I thought, “THIS IS NOT THAT; THIS THE WORLD MUST READ.”

Constant and Soul-Crushing Failure

The rejections rolled in like the hordes of undead—and adverbs—in my manuscript. Most were form letters. Some offered constructive criticism. A few asked for sample pages. But after months of querying, they all said the same thing: NO.

I knew to expect rejection. I knew how few authors end up ever getting published. Yet, expecting constant and soul-crushing failure and experiencing it are about as different as watching the waves crashing against the shore and being caught in the undertow.

Somehow I survived. The next summer, I ditched the zombie story and wrote a YA contemporary. After a couple rounds of self-revising, I took deep breath and started querying. And, again, the rejections rolled in.

(Writer’s Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

I knew I was making progress, though. Many of the agents I queried asked for partials, and some even requested the full manuscript. Less were form letters. More offered helpful feedback. So the next summer I wrote a new manuscript, expecting a natural progression in success. But my good friend Failure was waiting for me with open arms.

I knew I had to change something.

Venturing Forth From My Bubble

I ventured forth from my bubble to attend a local writers’ conference. There were agents in attendance, so I signed up for slots and pitched the second story I had written, the YA contemporary. I also participated in a session called a blind pitch panel, which operated like The Voice. At the end of the day, several agents had requested the manuscript. A couple even approached me afterwards.

I felt pretty rad, but the more I talked to other writers and the more sessions I attended, the more I started to learn about writing—and the more I noticed glaring problems in the manuscript I was pitching. I started making revision notes like mad, and I wasn’t too surprised when nothing came of the initial interest in my story.

A Dizzying Hour

I had already registered for the Writer’s Digest conference in New York at the end of that same summer, so I used the intervening weeks to do some serious rewriting. I knew my pitch was good from the positive responses I received at the previous conference, and I now felt much more confident about my actual manuscript.

The WD conference offered a pitch slam, which was an hour where you could wander around a room filled with agents and pitch your work in ninety-second sessions. I studied and annotated the bios of the agents in attendance. I practiced my pitch in the mirror. I tried to calm my nerves.

It was a dizzying hour, a sort of self-peddling Battle Royale. I pitched, scanned the room for the shortest line, cross-referenced my notes, and then pitched again. At the end of the slam, I had pitched to eight agents and one editor. Half requested part of the manuscript, half requested the full thing. I submitted my work, knowing that there was nothing else to do but let my writing speak for itself, enjoy the rest of the conference, and eat as many hamburgers as I wanted.

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The Call

I refreshed my inbox constantly. I answered every strange number that called my phone—and then shook my fist when it was a telemarketer at the other end. I tried to not do these things and failed.

Seasons changed. Pages fell off the calendar. I grew a beard, and it turned gray.

At least it felt like all that happened. In reality, only about two months passed since the conference when I received an email from Deb Stetson, an acquiring editor at Merit Press. She said that she loved my manuscript AND they were preparing an offer. For so long I had received emails that said, “I loved your story BUT I’m going to pass,” that I reread the email a dozen times to be certain it was BUT-less.

Huzzah! Someone liked it and someone wanted to turn it into a real book! Suck it, traditional path to publication; I did it without an agent!

But I had heard numerous authors extol the virtues of an agent, and I knew I wanted one. I emailed the agents who had my manuscript to let them know about the news from Merit.

A couple days later I received THE CALL from Kaylee Davis at Dee Mura Literary. We spoke about my manuscript, my working style, my aspirations. I asked her questions about her agency and her expectations. She then offered me representation. I said I’d like some time to consider it (while stifling my giggles), and then, out of professional courtesy, I emailed the other agents to let them know I had received an offer of representation.

(Literary agents share helpful advice for new writers.)

Ultimately, I decided to sign with Kaylee. AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES breaks many of the conventional rules of storytelling. Absurdly long title. Nonlinear structure. Four main characters, three of whom are people of color. But Kaylee seemed to “get” all of it. But more importantly, she’s a fellow nerd, so I knew she was good people.

After three novels, numerous rounds of revisions, hundreds of rejections, I finally have my negotiator, cheerleader, advisor, unofficial editor, and fielder of panicky texts. I’m glad I did not let the undertow carry me out to sea.

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Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers’ Conferences:

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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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