Compiled by Jessica Strawser
When you sign with an agent, you’re choosing a partner for your career—which means it’s important to choose carefully. We asked subscribers to share the best parts of their agent relationships, showing both what’s important and what’s possible. Let the stories below be a guide as you seek the right match—and read more about the requirements of a solid partnership in the October 2017 Writer’s Digest.
My agent, Jane Dystel (Dystel, Goderich & Bourret) is a tiny, ferocious bundle of energy. She barely stands 5 feet tall but she’s indefatigable, making decisions and churning out opinions at warp speed. Heaven help the fool who stands in her way. To me—a product of the bless your heart South—she embodies the quintessential New Yorkiness we all have in mind when we picture a literary agent: a smoky-voiced unfiltered fast-talker, dripping glamour and competence in equal measure. She hasn't whipped out a cigarette holder and a martini at any of our lunches, but it’s not in the realm of the impossible.
I met Jane in person for the first time in the spring of 2016, and we had plenty to celebrate. Jane’s partner, Miriam Goderich, who is gifted at centrifuging their slush pile, had emailed me a few months before to say she loved my manuscript, and would I be willing to put any other offers on hold for a short time for Jane to read it? Why yes, I would. But after an infinite, soul-sucking period of query rejections, I’d finally restructured my ghastly letter to the point where it was getting some attention. Jane and Miriam said they understood, and they moved fast, making an offer within a day or two. I considered the other agents who liked my story, but Jane is persuasive: She laid out her plan to sell my manuscript, detail by detail, and by the end of it I found myself in an agreeable trance, unable to do much more than grunt assent. I figured if Jane could reduce me to a state of such helpless acquiescence, she could probably do it to editors, too.
And yeah: Jane sold my book right away, to an editor I love. She’s a merciless advocate for me, but she also displays no remorse in sharing her opinion if she thinks I’m messing up. This is not a bad thing. I get in touch when I’m in New York, in case she can meet, and we have long lunches where we talk about the book and the industry and our strategy for my career and our travels and fashion and politics and whatever else crosses our minds. This is not strictly necessary in an agent-author relationship, of course, but getting to know the person with whom you have significant business dealings is in your best interest. And in theirs: It’s surely easier to go to bat for someone you know and trust. So I think I hit it out of the park with my agent. I wish for that for everyone.
—Kimmery Martin, author of The Queen of Hearts, (forthcoming in February from Penguin Random House)
Like the boy who made the Velveteen Rabbit real with his love for the bunny, my agent (Les Stobbe of the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency) made my dream real with his love for my manuscript. His offer of representation (after four years of querying and hundreds of rejections) was the beginning of my dream come true. He's been a great supporter, encourager and friend. And he's always right—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Every time he makes a prediction about the industry and/or product placement, he turns out to be right. It's impressive. Are you reading this from the querying trenches? Keep writing and keep querying. It really only takes one yes.
—Patricia Beal, author of A Season to Dance (May 2017)
I was surviving the query process, barely. My collection of requests for chapters or the full manuscript was slowly growing but not as quickly as my pile of rejections. Then the unexpected happened. My phone rang with a cheerful voice on the other end responding to a cold query I had emailed the evening before. The agent quickly put me to task revising Chapters 1–3. I knew this was “the test.” Was I teachable? Was I easy to work with? I was determined to ace this. The agent taught me about deep point of view and helped me identify crutch words and eliminate unnecessary words. She improved my craft. But during the process, a feeling settled in that I couldn’t shake. In conversations, she was all over the place, and I often ended a phone call wondering what we had just talked about. A question nagged at me, and I didn’t like the answer. Was this the person I wanted to represent my manuscript? Were her conversations with editors as chaotic as some of our conversations? As much as I wanted an agent—needed an agent—doubt grew heavy. So, I shifted to Plan B … just in case.
I registered for my first writing conference and scheduled agent appointments. I needed to be ready to pitch. I discovered a writing guild was offering a class, so I attended for the first time, wrote and work-shopped my pitch, and practiced with my group. At the end of the session, the instructor asked volunteers to pitch so she could critique. I didn’t volunteer until the very end when my group members insisted. So I did—in a shaky, monotone voice I’d never heard before, certain I would never attract an agent. When my 30 seconds of torture ended, the instructor asked if my manuscript was complete. I nodded. She asked me to stay after the workshop. Little did I know, I had just pitched to acquisitions editor Donna Essner from Amphorae Publishing Group, who within weeks offered me a publishing contract. One year later, my April 2017 debut, Waiting for Butterflies, is in Barnes & Noble stores and available online.
My path to publishing didn’t go as I had envisioned. It happened serendipitously in a room full of strangers, one of whom just happened to be a perfect fit for my manuscript—and for me.
—Karen Sargent, author of Waiting for Butterflies
I never queried my agent. When my first agent left the business, Michelle Richter (Fuse Literary) read my manuscript and graciously offered to continue to represent me. For the first couple of months, I wondered if she’d really wanted to take me on or if the agency partners made her. (She did nothing to make me think this—it was just writer anxiety.)
Although I had a good relationship with my first agent, Michelle has been a gift. She answers all of my questions, no matter how stupid. Even when I email like 15 at a time at 5 a.m. She is endlessly patient. She’s also very thorough and detail-oriented. One of my biggest strengths is that I work fast. But Michelle has helped me learn to slow down, think about what I’m doing and not rush. I am a better writer since signing with her. She’s more than someone I pay to sell my books—she’s a partner, someone to be with me throughout my career.
—Laura Heffernan, author of America’s Next Reality Star
The process of finding an agent feels a little bit like a junior high dance, where everyone's waiting for someone to ask them to dance while "Lovefool" plays in the background. No wonder, given that this industry is a dream factory: the fictional dream, the fulfillment of lifelong dreams, dream agent, dream publisher, dream deals, etc. The process often goes: throw a bunch of query letters at agents to see what sticks. After a few unsuccessful attempts at this myself, I began to research agents based on fit instead: for my book, my long-term goals and my communication needs. In doing so, I found a dream agent after all in Patricia Nelson (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency).
For me, fit was key. I'm a LGBTQ writer who has LGBTQ characters. If an agent isn't comfortable with those characters or those storylines, then they're not going to be the right advocate for my work. From our first phone call, I knew that I had found someone who got me and my work and was excited for the other novels I have in the pipeline. We were both in it for the long haul. However, she didn't sign me immediately. I got extensive notes back from her and she told me that if her feedback resonated with me that she'd take another look at my manuscript after extensive revision. Those notes and the subsequent revision were critical to me moving my novel in the right direction. I knew that I wanted an editorial agent, someone who would help me shape the book and ensure that it had the best chance possible on submission. When we went on submission, I had a book I not only believed in but loved. Patricia's editorial eye and support all along the way has been critical [to my success].
Another essential factor for me was effective and quality communication. I've worked in software and information technology teams for years, so I know how poor communication can wreck a team. It's no different with an agent. Good communication, such as weekly check-in emails from Patricia during the submission process, helped temper my anxiety.
I know my publishing career is in good hands with Patricia, the same way I know that my retirement accounts are in good hands with my financial planner. It's a business partnership built on trust, communication, and aligned goals.
—Kelly J. Ford, author of Cottonmouths
My agent, Liza Fleissig (Liza Royce Agency), inspires me. She believes in me and my writing even when, as is inevitable in a writer's life, I experience doubts. She's a consummate professional and deal-maker, but to me, the personal part is more important by far. When she loves a writer—and she loves all of her clients—she never gives up on them.
Writing can be a very lonely business. A lot of the time, it's just you, the computer, and the visions in your own head. Having an agent who's at once a friend, an advocate, and a partner makes all the difference.
—Joshua David Bellin, author of Freefall, a YA science-fiction adventure forthcoming in September from Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
Everyone tells you to have a list of questions prepared when a literary agent makes an offer of representation. I had such a list—but when Jill Marsal (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency) offered to represent me, I was so shocked that I lost the ability to form sentences. I actually had to call her back later to ask the questions. Luckily, Jill is very patient and straightforward when dealing with someone brand-new to the business of publishing! That’s one of the many things I love about working with her. I also love that she is quick to respond to emails. Given my tendency to be a spaz about things (such as the aforementioned phone call), a quick email back is so reassuring. But the thing I love most about Jill is how good she is at what she does. Jill has a tremendous track record of selling manuscripts, especially mysteries, and she was able to place mine with Minotaur Books within one month of going on submission. I’m thrilled to have her in my corner, and I value her expertise beyond words.
—Kristen Lepionka, author of The Last Place You Look
When I queried Jennifer Johnson-Blalock (Liza Dawson Associates), my book didn't know whether it was contemporary romance or commercial women's fiction. She stepped in with a vision and a plan of action, helping me with revisions that placed it firmly into the women's fiction category, before securing an awesome deal. Since then, she's been helping me with long-term career planning and establishing my author brand. Jennifer is strategic, creative and super supportive!
Kristin Rockaway, author of The Wild Woman’s Guide to Traveling the World