"How I Got My Agent" is a new recurring feature on the GLA blog. I find it fascinating to see the exact road people took that landed them with a rep. Seeing the things people did right vs. what they did wrong (highs and the lows) can help other scribes who are on the same journey. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll talk specifics.
This installment of "How I Got My Agent" is
by mystery and thriller writer April Henry.
She has published eight books, and will have
two more out this year. The paperback of
Face of Betrayal comes out tomorrow (Feb. 1).
Learn more at her website and also see her blog.
I STILL HAVE MY EARLY REJECTIONS
I started trying to get in 1991—before there was a World Wide Interweb. I had a literary agent guide with a green cover that I poured over religiously. I think it was called Literary Agents of North America, as if it were a guide to infrequent sightings of a rare species. I got over a hundred rejections total for my first novel and then my second. Some agents rejected a book as soon as they read my query; others after they read part or all of the book.
I still have the file of those rejections, which I called Submissions & Rejections. And it still fills me with a mix of anxiety, shame, and self-pity to page through them. “I’m afraid I can’t provide the necessary enthusiasm,” wrote Anita Diamant about my second novel. (Anita ended up becoming an author herself and writing the bestselling book The Red Tent.) Sterling Lord, who at that point had been an agent for 40 years and whose clients included Jack Keroac and Ken Kesey, also “did not feel enthusiastic enough.”
Another agency offered to look at my manuscript—if I would pay $400 first. Some gave thoughtful responses, like the agent who found my writing “effective,” but then added that the structure was “unwieldy.” One sent me two pages of comments about characters and plot. Even the mixed messages, like the agent who said I had “real talent” but then added she hadn’t felt compelled to keep reading, gave me hope. I got typewritten responses, handwritten notes, letters from dot-matrix printers, form rejection letters addressed to “Dear Author” that had clearly been photocopied dozens of times, and one memorable “No!” scrawled on the top of my query and sent back in my self-addressed stamped envelope.
A DEAD END
I tried reaching out to a few authors: Marge Piercy, Beth Gutcheon, and Elinor Lipman (who was just starting out, but I had met her cousin at a business seminar). Again, since this was before the Internet and author websites, my letters first had to find their way to the publisher and then to the writer. All tried to offer advice, but they weren’t agents and often their own agents weren’t taking on new clients.
I brought Elinor’s letter with me to a signing of hers a few years ago. While she didn’t remember writing it, she marveled at the fact that it was handwritten.
FINDING "THE ONE"
I read this article, which appeared 18 years ago. I read it a couple of months after it came out, because my officemate used to bring me her old New York Times. After reading the article, I looked up Harold Ober in my green book. That was it. There was no other way to figure out more about them. (Sometimes I try to recreate how I used to learn about things before the Internet, and it gives me a headache.) I typed up a letter (no e-mail, remember?) to an agent there, Wendy, and got ready to send it off. At the last minute, I double-checked the spelling on her name. I had to re-type the letter and envelope when I realized there was no T on Schmalz.
Wendy replied (by letter) and asked for a full manuscript. Then she contacted me (by landline phone) and offered to represent me. Now, years later, we’ve been together longer than some couples have been married. I’ve had eight books published, with five more on the way. During that time, I also wrote two books that did not find a publisher. Both were books I loved. I could have been crushed. But by then I was hooked, too stubborn to stop. Instead, I kept writing.
And what if I had given up years ago, after my hundredth rejection from a literary agent? Around the same time, I took a writing class. At least two of the folks in that class—T. and J.—were far better writers than I was. They both gave up after getting a few rejections from agents. As far as I know, they haven't been published. So don't you give up, too. Keep going!
No matter what kind of agent you're aiming
for, the best all-around database is
Guide to Literary Agents. Buy it here.