How I Got My Agent: Elizabeth Blackwell

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Elizabeth Blackwell, author of WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. Elizabeth's agent is Danielle Egan-Miller of Browne & Miller Literary Associates.
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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Elizabeth Blackwell, author of WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. 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.

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Elizabeth Blackwell, author of WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT (Feb. 20, 2014, Amy
Einhorn Books), holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and a
master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Her work
has appeared in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal,
Ladies’ Home Journal, Parenting, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago
Tribune. In 2006, she won Harlequin’s “Everlasting Love” writing competition,
and her first novel, The Letter, was published by Harlequin in 2007, followed
by The House of Secrets (Harlequin, 2009).

Dream Big! (Before All Your Dreams are Crushed)

I wasn’t cocky.

When I sent out my first query letters four years ago, I knew the odds were against me, especially with the publishing industry (supposedly) on life support. But I was confident that I’d have a slight leg up. I’d been a freelance journalist for close to 10 years: I had done my research and targeted specific agents who represented books similar to mine. I had written a query letter with no typos or smiley faces and an easy-to-grasp hook: “It’s the Sleeping Beauty story told as historical fiction—as if it really happened.”

And yes, I had even pored through “How I Got My Agent” columns, taking mental notes of Do’s and Don’ts.

So it didn’t surprise me all that much when one of the first agents I pitched requested the full manuscript (All my hard work paid off!). It did surprise me a little when she sent an email explaining why she couldn’t represent me or the book as is, but would reconsider if I fixed a long list of plot and character issues. No problem! I was used to rewriting stories and taking constructive criticism from editors.

A few months later, I sent back a revised version of the manuscript, confident the book was better than ever, and the agent would be wowed. I was absolutely stunned when she declined to represent me anyway. She was very nice about it, but I was crushed.

I hadn’t realized until then how much emotion comes into the process—not just for writers, but for agents. To take you on as a client, they can’t just like your book or think the idea is kind-of cool. They have to love it. If it doesn’t register with them on some emotional level, you can’t force it.

I kept querying, sending out three or four pitches every few months. I focused mostly on well-known agencies in New York, because why not aim high? Maybe a newer, younger agent would be willing to take a chance on an unknown author. The concept of my book was easy to understand, and it was catchy enough that a handful of agents asked to read the full manuscript.

All of them eventually said no. My novel, it turned out, was a hard sell. Was it fantasy? Historical fiction? It had elements of both, but didn’t fit neatly into either genre. (And let’s be honest: the structure of the book itself still needed work.) Again and again, I heard the same basic dismissal: I like the idea, but….

Simply put, no-one loved it enough to take on the challenge.

A Non-New York State of Mind

My confidence now knocked down to a more realistic level, I began researching smaller agencies outside New York. Browne & Miller Literary Associates caught my attention because it was located in my hometown of Chicago, and as I read the online bio of company president Danielle Egan-Miller, I found myself nodding as I scanned her list of favorite books: I loved that book, too! And that one, and that one! Even though we’d never met, I felt like we’d click. I thought she’d “get” my book—and she did.

Danielle was clear when she offered to represent me that I’d have to do a full rewrite before the book was ready for submission. But her suggestions on what to fix and how clinched my decision to sign with her. When WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT did, indeed, turn out to be a tough sell to publishers, she kept my spirits up and nudged editors to take a second look and eventually got me a contract with an imprint that had been on our “dream list” from the very beginning.

Lessons learned? Don’t be cocky (duh). Take any and all criticisms seriously, if they’re offered in good faith. Pitch your book to agents who like to read the same things you do (double duh). Look to smaller agencies, and realize that no matter where an agent lives, he or she can still be plugged into the New York publishing scene.

I, like most aspiring writers, was ready to say yes to whichever agent made me an offer first. In retrospect, I am so grateful for the earlier rejections, because they all led to an agent who loved my book and fought for it as if it were her own.

Which, in a way, it is.

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