How I Got My Agent: Jami Attenberg

"How I Got My Agent" is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. 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. Jami Attenberg is the author of The Melting Season, which was published in paperback in Jan. 2011 by Riverhead. Booklist said of the novel: Jami “enders poignant prose and portrays the desperate behavior of her characters with verve.” She is also the author of the novels Instant Love (2007) and TheKept Man (2009).
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"How I Got My Agent" is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. 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 literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we'll talk specifics.

Jami is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before.

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Jami Attenberg is the author of The Melting Season,
which was published in paperback in Jan. 2011 by
Riverhead. Booklist said of the novel: Jami "enders
poignant prose and portrays the desperate behavior
of her characters with verve." She is also the author
of the novels Instant Love (2007) and The Kept Man
(2009). Visit her author website here.

SEEKING AGENT FOR STORY COLLECTION

I took an unconventional path to getting an agent and a book deal. I didn’t go to graduate school, where all the important writers seemed to be getting their start. I didn’t pursue getting published in literary magazines. I didn’t even send out countless pitch letters and manuscripts to agents. All of these actions would have required me having some sort of plan or at least being vaguely organized, and I’ve always been kind of a wanderer. But I’ve always tried to follow my instincts.

In 1998, I started a blog, something I could control very easily and update at my own whim. (The Internet was and remains an amazing place for finding your writing voice.) Eventually I started publishing essays on different websites. I also self-published a couple of zines with artists I knew, and a small press put out a few hundred copies of a chapbook I wrote about getting high and hanging out at delis in New York City. (It was called Deli Life, naturally.) Then Nylon published an essay of mine, and a couple of music reviews. I was just trying to make art that I found interesting, but inadvertently I was creating a platform for myself. It was a quirky platform, though, even for 2004, when I decided I was going to write my first book.

I wrote Instant Love, a linked collection of short stories, very quickly that summer. In November, a more established writer friend brought me to the Gin Mingle, the annual fundraiser at New York’s Housing Works Bookstore, an event which is well-attended by publishing professionals. There I met a bunch of editors who weren’t interested in talking to me unless I had an agent, and a bunch of agents who weren’t interested in talking to me because I didn’t have a conventional literary background. Eventually the friend who had brought me to the party introduced me to an associate editor, and, after knocking back a few glasses of wine with me, she agreed to take a look at my book.

A WEIRD INTERNET NOBODY

The next day I was hungover but filled with great enthusiasm. Obviously that editor was going to be my new best friend forever and ever. I could just tell. I sent her three of my stories. And then I waited. And waited. For two months. (I was used to Internet time—instant responses. The publishing world, as I have discovered again and again over the last seven years, moves at its own pace.)

Humbled, I e-mailed her again to remind her of my existence. Finally, a few weeks later, she read the stories and loved them, but … oh, there was that but. She didn’t feel confident she would be able to convince her bosses to buy the book unless I had a good agent with literary credibility since I, as I had now heard approximately 9,000 times by then, did not.

She suggested a few agents for me and I contacted them all. One replied within a few weeks, and was very nice, but told me a story collection was hard to sell, and did I have a novel? (No, I did not.) Two others replied a few weeks after that, but I don’t think ever bothered to read my manuscript. I was a weird Internet nobody, and a weird internet nobody with a short story collection at that. I had too many strikes against me.

FINALLY, SOME GOOD LUCK ARRIVES

I got back in touch with the editor, and, in some sort of dream sequence from a movie about an aspiring writer in New York only it was real and happening to me, she took matters into her own hands. She picked up the phone and called a different agent, Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord Literistic, on my behalf. She expressed her interest in my work. He read my book within a week, called me into his office soon after. I found him funny and sharp and honest. He signed me that day.

The most important thing was that he really loved my book. I always tell people this when they’re looking for an agent—they should love your work. You are entitled to work with someone who believes in you. Why do business with someone who is ambivalent about you and your art? From the get-go, I knew he was down with who I was. Beyond enjoying my writing, he understood that being a weird Internet nobody was maybe not so weird after all.

Ultimately the editor was unable to buy my first book because, as she had suspected, I was a hard sell to her bosses. But it didn’t matter, because at last I had the right agent for me. He sold my book a few weeks at auction a few weeks later. And we have been together ever since.

Jami is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before.

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