How I Landed A Literary Agent & What You Can Learn From it: Kat Spears

The process of finding a literary agent or publisher is grueling and filled with rejection land mines. And, once published, there is no guarantee a book will be successful or that an author will sell a second book. A writer must be prepared for rejection every step of the way.
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The process of finding a literary agent or publisher is grueling and filled with rejection land mines. And, once published, there is no guarantee a book will be successful or that an author will sell a second book. A writer must be prepared for rejection every step of the way—rejected and ignored query letters to literary agents, rejection from prospective publishers, rejection for a second book even if the first book was good or had decent sales.

This guest post is by author Kat Spears. She has worked as a bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter (not the artistic kind).

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She holds an M.A. in anthropology, which has helped to advance her bartending career.

Spears is the author of Sway (Sept 2014) and Breakaway, (Sept 2015) from St. Martin’s/Griffin.

Follow her @katwritesbooks.

After meeting many authors I have learned that the most successful authors tend to be a strange blend of overconfidence and crippling self doubt. The overconfidence allows a writer to share her ideas and art with a hostile world. The self doubt makes her revise however many hundreds of times necessary to write a book worth reading.

I had to wait until I was almost forty before I felt as if I had found my voice as a writer and was ready to seek publication. A writer friend of mine who is now published went from A-Z in the directory for literary agents and sent out many hundreds of query letters, facing rejection over and over. When she told me that story I was nodding my head supportively and inwardly thinking, yeah, I’m not doing that.

I had two manuscripts at the time that I thought were worthy. SWAY, my debut, was completely finished and edited. My second book, BREAKAWAY, which comes out this month, was still just a messy, half-finished draft. I kept writing during the query process so that just in case SWAY didn’t sell, I’d have a second book to shop around.

Once I had a finished manuscript and a second in the works, I spent about six months doing solid research on literary agents who specialized in YA fiction. And when I say research, I mean I was seriously stalking these people. In an almost creepy way. I read their bios and researched the authors they represented, often going to the library to read part or all of the books these agents had sold previously. I stalked agents at writers’ conferences, and if I got a chance to speak to them would ask them probing questions. I never tried to pitch my book, just asked questions about the industry.

At the same time I took a job that would take me away from my career track and teach me the retail and promotional side of publishing. Indie booksellers and librarians are two of the most important, yet unappreciated, advocates in the book marketing world, something debut authors often learn way too late to help promote sales of their first book. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] If you are an aspiring author, become best friends with your local librarians and indie booksellers. Do it. Now. Not after you have published a book. You probably spend a lot of time in both places anyway if you are a writer, so it’s not even out of your way.

I learned great things by running a book store and organizing author appearances and book signings. I learned exactly how tough the retail market for books really is. I learned that if even one person shows up for your book signing, as a debut author you should be grateful. That person could be home watching House of Cards like everyone else.

In the end, when I finally did sit down to send out query letters I sent out only twelve. After researching hundreds of agents I found twelve that I thought were a perfect match for my debut novel.

During that same week I started the agent query process, I read an interview in Writer’s Digest with Barbara Poelle (learn more about Barbara here), Answers to 14 Questions You’re Too Afraid to Ask Literary Agents (April, 2013). I was immediately drawn to Barbara’s sense of humor and thought, here is a person who could probably appreciate Sway. Another agent at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency was already one of my prospects, but after reading Barbara’s guest column, I decided to do a little research on her first.

What I found was that my manuscript didn’t really match her interests. Barbara said she only occasionally represented YA, but I thought her personality and sense of humor were a stronger draw than just the type of literature she usually represented.

My query letter to Barbara mentioned in the opening paragraph that I knew she only occasionally represented YA but, with reference to her guest column in Writer’s Digest, suggested that her sense of humor might just be a good match for my novel, Sway. That was my hook, demonstrating in the opening sentence of my query that not only was I doing my homework, but I was also a stalker, which agents consider somewhat flattering.

And, hey, guess what? Not only was it a good match, it was a great match. Barbara was (and still is) so enthusiastic about Sway and it’s what makes her the best possible person to represent my work.

No two roads to publication are the same. Luck and serendipity certainly play a role, but accepting criticism and using it productively, doing your research, and approaching the process with professionalism are the fundamentals behind any success story.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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