When I landed my first agent at the Writer’s Digest Conference, I really wasn’t even ready for one. I hadn’t fully come into myself as a writer, my novel needed multiple massive rewrites before it sold, and I hadn’t the first idea what it meant to go from being a writer to an author.
While the kindness and effort of the amazing Kate McKean helped take Driving by Starlight to publication, here are some lessons learned based on what I did… and didn’t do.
1. Treat the query letter like the SATs, not a creative essay.
To pitch an agent, you need to write a query letter, which is a very structured email that hopefully interests them in your book. The query letter is not where you play maverick and decide to break the rules to get attention. This is often the hardest thing for new authors to wrap their heads around. Surely the query letter ought to show off my command of vocabulary, and my flair for long, hypotactic sentences (and the fact that I know what hypotaxis is)? No.
The Writer’s Digest Conference kicked off with a workshop on dos and don’ts of querying an agent, led by Kate McKean herself. She was funny and insightful, and told everyone exactly what information she wanted to see in the query letter, and even how she preferred to see it. When you are given such clarity about how a test will be graded, inventing something new isn’t creative but disrespectful.
Read up on agents you plan to query and follow their specifications as closely as you can.
2. Perfect and practice your pitch.
The Writer’s Digest Conference holds a Pitch Slam, where you can verbally pitch agents in timed, three-minute slots. Those three minutes aren’t just for your pitch; they’re the entirety of time you’ll have with an agent. So your pitch needs to take up as little time as possible, so agents can ask follow-up questions and (hopefully) request to see your manuscript.
Your pitch is not your story’s plot summary, but a conversational teaser that gets people interested and asking more questions. There are many workshops and opinions about what makes a great pitch, about whether you should have a hook, speak of comparables, a high-concept—"like BookX but with vampires!”—but the only thing that matters is that it works.
You won’t know if you have a great pitch until it yields results, but you can practice your delivery on friends and family. Write down your pitch, memorize it, and say it until it sounds natural.
3. Build your network and platform.
Now, this is one I didn’t do. I didn’t grow up with social media, am extremely introverted, and was fairly sure I wanted to publish under a penname. So I hadn’t bothered to have a public presence. At all.
Not only that, I wasn’t part of writer’s groups, and aside from two close friends, nobody had beta-read my novel. Here’s something I didn’t know then—even traditionally published authors have to do a significant amount of their own marketing and publicity to get their books into readers’ hands.
Now, obviously, agents choose authors based on the potential of their work, not based on their Twitter following, but an author’s network and platform are a huge selling point with publishers.
4. Be professional. This is a job interview.
I had (have) a corporate job so I knew that the words you say only count for seven percent, while 55 percent of communication is nonverbal. It was why I chose to find my agent at the Pitch Slam, rather than querying people I’d never met. An agent is such a critical part of an author’s career, and a debut author is so obsessively attached to their first novel; I needed to know whose hands I was placing my baby into.
I had a friend pick out my outfits for the conference, the same friend incidentally on whom I practiced my pitch 100 times to ensure my tone wasn’t rushed or desperate. Meanwhile, I looked for nonverbal cues from agents—were they empathetic? Dismissive? Stressed or frustrated? Who would make a good co-parent for this work we were bringing into the world?
5. Don’t have your heart set on a single agent.
While the author-agent relationship is special and intimate—I mean, I’d rather let someone share my house than read my in-progress work—it isn’t a marriage. You can’t believe that there is some agent out there who is The One, who will make all your dreams come true.
Not all agents have the time or capacity to take you on and polish the diamond in the rough for several years on the off chance that your work might sell. If you do the math on agent cuts on royalties and count the hours of editorial time spent, it’s probably below minimum wage. And even if you do find an agent, your novel might not get accepted by publishers. Or it might, but your next project may not fall into the genres your agent represents, and you may part ways.
The key is that although your agent is actually that—an agent—that does not mean you get to cede agency for your own writing career. If you strike out and can’t find an agent, take a deep breath and relax. It just means you have to put in some more work, polish your craft, and build your platform of readers until you no longer have to worry about whether someone will represent you. Make your work as irresistible as you can, and there will be a line out the door.