"How I Got My Agent" is a 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 email@example.com
and we'll talk specifics.
FINALLY, A LUCKY BREAK
I had been fed so much misinformation about literary agents over the years that it wasn’t funny. To begin with, it seemed like an agent was nearly impossible to get. The very few writers I knew who had agents were not forthcoming about sharing names. No one ever said, “Mark, you should contact my agent. He’s looking for some talented writers.” Getting an agent seemed a lot like winning the lottery. A very few authors somehow just got lucky.
Then one day, ten years ago, the esteemed Western historian and author Robert M. Utley sent me an e-mail encouraging me to contact a relatively new literary agent he had met from Dallas named Jim Donovan. Now this was exciting. Finally, I thought, here was my lucky break. I did contact Jim, and we discussed a couple of ideas of mine, and he felt they had potential. Jim sent me a guideline he had written about putting together a good book proposal.
BRIDGER OVER TROUBLED WATERS
This is where I screwed up. I was used to getting paid for my writing—albeit very modest sums—and here was this agent talking about a multi-page book proposal. At the time, that seemed like an awful lot of work without any guarantee of compensation or even a contract. I had other writing projects that were keeping me busy, and although I promised to write something up for Jim when time permitted, my e-mails to him became less and less frequent until they finally stopped altogether.
Five years passed. My family grew. I needed to make more money. If I was going to continue as a freelance historian and writer, it was obvious that I had to move beyond writing books for university presses and the National Park Service and get a trade book deal. I went back through my old e-mails and got in touch with Jim. Surprisingly, he was still interested in doing something with me, and we subsequently got together at a history conference in South Dakota, where we settled on an idea for a book.
I bit the bullet and, with Jim’s helpful suggestions and encouragement, produced a 40-page proposal for a biography of the famed American mountain man Jim Bridger. It was a very good proposal (well, at least several editors told us it was a good proposal), but it was a complete bust with the New York trade houses. It turns out Jim Bridger was not so famous after all. One New York editor had never heard of him. The other editors thought he was “too small” a subject. So, no trade book deal.
A DUAL BIOGRAPHY
But Jim did not give up on me, and I did not give up on getting a book contract. I perused my library of Western history books for another idea and settled on a biography of Pat Garrett, the lawman who ended Billy the Kid’s outlaw career. When I suggested this to Jim, he thought a more interesting—and salable—book would be a dual biography of Garrett and the Kid. The more I thought about it, the more I liked Jim's suggestion. No one had ever written a dual biography of these two Westerners, and Billy the Kid was an iconic figure whom every New York editor was sure to have heard of.
After considerable research into the topic, I completed yet another big book proposal and titled it To Hell on a Fast Horse. Jim carefully went over the proposal, I made changes, and then he sent it out. This time, the response from the New York editors was like night and day compared to our Bridger foray. Jim had immediate interest from several editors. It came down to two publishers, and I went with William Morrow, mostly because the editor at Morrow, Henry Ferris, took the time to call me and tell me how much he liked my proposal. I signed a contract in January of 2007 and Morrow released To Hell on a Fast Horse on February 9 of this year.
A good agent, I now know, is not just valuable for the contacts he or she has in New York, but for their insights and understanding of what makes a superior proposal, and, in turn, a great book. They are patient, excellent sounding boards, and they are there for you every step of the way. A good agent, then, is also a good friend. And, by the way, Jim Donovan is looking for some talented writers.
Mark Lee Gardner is a historian, writer, and
musician of the Western experience. He
writes for both popular and scholarly audiences,
with several university
presses and periodicals such as New Mexico