When you sign with an agent, you’re choosing a partner for your career—which means it’s important to choose carefully. We asked authors to share the best parts of their agent relationships, showing both what’s important and what’s possible. Let their stories be a guide as you seek the right match.
Compiled by Jessica Strawser
We’ve all had them—those fateful moments when you click Send and immediately regret it. Mine came when I sent a full to agent Susanna Einstein (Einstein Literary Management). I’d done all the right things—the manuscript had been requested; I sent it in the required format; I had a captivating query.
But the moment I sent her The Bookseller—at 2:30 p.m. Mountain time on a Tuesday—I knew I’d made a mistake. Because that’s 4:30 in New York. Quittin’ time, right?
Ugh, I thought. She’s probably about to leave the office. She’ll see it, close her email and go home. Tomorrow morning other things will require her attention. She’ll forget all about my manuscript. I sighed, knowing a terminal mistake had been made and there was nothing I could do about it.
Two days later, Susanna called me. “I love this book,” she said. “I have to tell you, I received your manuscript the other afternoon and started reading it right away.” She laughed. “I had a dinner date with my husband at 7 [p .m.] I actually didn’t want to leave the office. I was kind of ticked off that I had to keep a date with my husband instead of staying at my desk and reading your book. That’s how much this novel drew me in.”
I signed with her that week and spent a month making the minor edits she requested. Ten days later we had a pre-emptive offer from HarperCollins.
That was almost four years ago. Susanna tasked her associate Sandy Hodgman with acquiring foreign deals, securing publication in 11 countries outside the U.S. And thanks to Susanna’s connection with the Creative Artists Agency, The Bookseller will be made into a movie produced by and starring Julia Roberts.
[After my editor left HarperCollins,] Susanna saw me through early drafts of my second novel, The Glass Forest—and, when she and I had both run out of ideas on what the book needed in order to sell, she suggested an excellent developmental editor. Again, Susanna pitched a polished manuscript to a select group of editors, and found it a home at Simon & Schuster.
Why do I love my agent? Because she’s smart, articulate and diplomatic. She’s particular about the projects she takes on—which makes her passionate about her clients’ books. Susanna is well-respected and well-liked. She showed me some of the responses she received when The Glass Forest went out on submission. So many [of those] editors mentioned how much they want to do a book with Susanna. What a testament to the person representing me!
—Cynthia Swanson, author of The Bookseller (HarperCollins) and The Glass Forest (forthcoming in 2018 from Touchstone)
I found my agent, April Eberhardt (April Eberhardt Literary), at a conference in 2010. The same week, both she and a Big Name agent offered me representation for my debut novel, Faint Promise of Rain, set amid Hindu temple dancers in 16th-century India. I felt at a momentous crossroads: They offered me two completely different paths, and by choosing one over the other, I’d be launching myself in one direction and never know what might have happened on the road not taken.
Big Name agent complimented my work, but said it would be a hard sell. She was friendly but cool, and made it clear she would take me on for just this one book. But her comment that she could get my book in front of any editor was tempting.
April was newer to agenting at the time, with fewer connections, but she had a fresh and enthusiastic perspective, and an openness to possibility that matched mine. Her vision for navigating changes in the publishing industry won me over.
Now that my book has been out for a couple of years, I’m delighted to say that what some industry gatekeepers termed “too literary,” “too niche,” and too unlike anything they’d published before has been greatly received by readers—and shortlisted for both the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and a 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.
It’s been teamwork at its best, and I look forward to sending April my next manuscript in a few months because she has made it clear she’s in this with me for the long haul. The publishing landscape has changed, but I know she’ll help me find the best path forward.
—Anjali Mitter Duva, author of Faint Promise of Rain (She Writes Press)
I sent almost 100 queries before signing with Carrie Pestritto (Prospect Agency). During our initial phone chat, we ended up talking for longer than planned. She understood my story in a way that made me feel excited about the upcoming revisions, and we also bonded over a shared love of tea, cake and Pride and Prejudice.
Carrie’s enthusiasm and determination helped me get through the submission process. I’d assumed getting an agent was the hardest part, but I discovered that submitting to publishers also means a lot of waiting, as well as more rejections. This time I had an agent who was just as invested as I was, and that made a huge difference.
We didn’t sell my first book, but Carrie still believed in my writing and that kept me from being discouraged. Together, we discussed my other book ideas and strategized which one could be a strong debut novel. Since we were both fascinated by the doomed glamour of Marie Antoinette, I started outlining a book that, as my research continued, shifted to one of Antoinette’s wardrobe women.
Celebrating the sale felt like a double victory, both for our persistence and for our teamwork.
My agent doesn’t just talk to editors and negotiate contracts on my behalf—she also gives me feedback, provides encouragement, plans for the long term and sends cute pictures of her cats. Our partnership isn’t just about the book I queried her with; it’s about both of our careers. She’s my friend as well as a professional champion for my work, and I can’t imagine a better agent for me.
—Meghan Masterson, The Wardrobe Mistress (St. Martin’s Griffin)
It took me four years to find an agent. The feedback I had from nearly every agent who read Feast of Sorrow was the same: It was too long (145,000 words) for a debut, yet they wanted me to flesh out a variety of things in the story. It was a conundrum because I couldn’t do both.
After many dozens of rejections, I met Amaryah Orenstein (GO Literary) at Grub Street’s The Muse & the Marketplace conference. From the moment I gave her my pitch, she was hooked, requesting my full manuscript right away. She got back to me within two weeks and our partnership was formed. Feast of Sorrow wasn’t too long for her, and it wasn’t too long for Touchstone Books, who signed me five months later.
She has been there with me through edits, helping me brainstorm promotional ideas, scoring me seats at literary festivals and picking me up when I’m frustrated with the process or by a review. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for her. Amaryah believed in me and in my story, and she—quite literally—changed the trajectory of my life.
—Crystal King, author of Feast of Sorrow (Touchstone Books)
What I appreciate most about Danielle Egan-Miller (Browne & Miller Literary Associates LLC) is that we’re a team. She’s very editorial and collaborative; I can ask her anything and she’ll be honest with me. We can also have a good laugh or cry—so that helps in remembering that at our core, we are both people who love stories. I know publishing is a business, but it’s a business built on the work of our hearts, and Danielle understands that.
—Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Glass Wives, The Good Neighbor and Left to Chance (all St. Martin’s Griffin)
I have a nickname for my agent: Steely-Eyed Missile Woman. She laughs when I say it, and shrugs it off with a mixture of humility and grace. But if I could write it in the sky above her head every day, I would.
I stole the term from The Martian and changed the gender. My daughter thinks it’s weird. (She’s a teenager—everything is weird.) But if you Google it, here’s what you get: Astronaut or engineer who quickly devises an ingenious solution to a tough problem while under extreme pressure.
Cross out astronaut or engineer, replace with agent, and you have Danielle Burby (Nelson Literary Agency LLC, as featured on Page 24). We found each other through the slush pile. I queried her because she was a women’s studies major (so was I), she likes Anne Tyler (so do I), and in her picture she looked smart and honest and kind (she is).
When I got the email that she wanted to represent me, I cried. Not because it had been a long year of querying. And not because I was losing hope that my agent was out there. Well, maybe some of those things. I cried because she wrote this about my book: I’ve finished reading and, I have to say, I fell in love with it in a way that I haven’t fallen in love with a novel in a long time.
Two years have passed since I signed with her, and The Salt House hit shelves this summer. The journey has been a long one, filled with unexpected turns and our fair share of setbacks. Through it all, Danielle remains steadfast. Unwavering. An expert guide for whom failure is not an option.
She called me not too long ago to tell me she was leaving her present agency and going to another. “You’ll come with me, right?” she asked, and we both laughed, because of course I would.
But I answered anyway.
“I’d follow you to Mars,” I told her.
And I would.
—Lisa Duffy, author of The Salt House (Touchstone)
I didn’t tell my new agent about my self-imposed ultimatum. When I connected with Fiona Kenshole (now with Transatlantic Agency) in 2013, I was at rock bottom. I’d sold a picture book unagented in 2007 and had written a few titles for an educational publisher. I’d been with another agent for a couple of years, but none of my trade projects had sold, and we parted ways in 2012.
I’d accumulated an impressive stack of manuscripts, but I didn’t want manuscripts—I wanted a book. I gave myself an ultimatum: one more year. Sell something or get out.
But that meant I was giving Fiona a deadline as well, a secret one she didn’t know about. As soon as our contract was inked, I buried her in manuscripts and book proposals, and she got to work. During one conversation, she said, “I think maybe we should slow down on submissions. I’m worried about your time.”
I blew her off, saying, “Send everything. Nothing I write ever sells.”
Within the year, Fiona had sold my debut novel, The Way Back From Broken, in a two-book deal, and The V-Word, a nonfiction anthology. Soon after that she sold three more nonfiction titles, as well as a four-book middle-grade series co-authored with Kiersi Burkhart.
My new Super Agent had come in like [Marvel’s] Black Widow and kicked my ultimatum to the curb. Her warnings about time proved prescient. For 18 months, we were juggling deadlines and negotiating schedules for overlapping projects. I was drowning in work—not a bad problem to have, but it definitely pushed me to the limits of what I could handle. In one conversation, I suggested that maybe we should put a hold on future submissions. Lucky for me, in addition to being a savvy agent, Fiona is too classy and too kind to say, “I told you so.”
Fiona is a strategic thinker and is especially strong at taking midlist writers and reinvigorating their careers. Fiona understands what I need to be my best self on the page, and thus she urges editors to offer me soft deadlines rather than hard ones and reminds me that I can push back on things that really matter.
The best agent-author relationships are good partnerships, a give-and-take of ideas and strategy and creative inspiration. Thanks to Fiona, that pile of neglected manuscripts is now a pile of books. My debut novel was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and my brand-new novel, Pointe, Claw, released with multiple starred reviews. The last two titles from Fiona’s flurry of sales will be out in 2018. As she and I move into the next series of projects together, I’ve given myself a new ultimatum: Always listen to Fiona!
—Amber J. Keyser, author of Pointe, Claw (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing Group)
My agent, Amy Cloughley (Kimberley Cameron & Associates), is the perfect yin to my yang. (Or is it the other way around?) Nothing gets past her—not plot and editing issues, nor contract details. I tend to exist in this kind of creative la-la land of ideas and wispy, disconnected thoughts, and she is consistently a grounding influence, encouraging me to see the big picture of my work and my career. I always feel like she’s got my back.
Once, when I was trying to figure out how quickly I could turn some edits around and was probably pushing myself harder than I had to, she told me, “Emily, this is your career. You are the one who has to be happy with what you write and how you write it.” It was like a big breath of fresh air, to know she was in my corner, no matter what.
—Emily Carpenter, author of Burying the Honeysuckle Girls and The Weight of Lies (both Lake