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How I Got My Agent: Gretchen Berg

“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. This installment is from humorous memoir writer Gretchen Berg. GIVEAWAY: Gretchen is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: schwip23@gmail.com won.)

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Gretchen Berg, author of I HAVE IRAQ IN MY SHOE. 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.

GIVEAWAY: Gretchen is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: schwip23@gmail.com won.)

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Gretchen Berg is an award-wanting writer with a Bachelor’s degree
in something completely unrelated to writing. She has read articles for
Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and
The Economist (once when the TV wasn’t working). She is a Cancer, with
Scorpio rising, who was born and raised. She wishes people dressed up more.
Her humorous memoir, I HAVE IRAQ IN MY SHOE (May 2012, Sourcebooks)
is "a hilarious recount of her struggles to assimilate into a vastly different culture
... while picking up a few new pairs of shoes along the way" (Booklist).

THERE WERE OCCASIONAL LAPSES IN FOCUS

Everyone says “Do your research,” and I can only echo that as being the absolute most important part of the query process -- other than the homemade brownies and singing telegrams. Kidding. Any homemade brownies that were homemade in my kitchen wouldn’t make it off the counter.

I knew nothing about getting published and overnight my middle name changed from Elizabeth to Google. Gretchen Google Berg. I Googled everything: “How to get a book published,” “What is a query letter?”, “How to write a query letter,” “Who is Chris Evans dating?” There was the occasional lapse in focus.

(The term "platform" defined -- learn how to sell more books.)

Once I had collected enough information to know that I a) needed an agent and b) needed to write a query letter in order to acquire said agent, I created an awesomely nerdy Excel Query Spreadsheet with the following column labels: Sent To, At Agency, On This Date, Heard Back?, Response, Then What?

QUERIES BY THE NUMBERS

I started sending out queries on February 23, 2010, and focused on agents whose interests were humor, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and women’s interest (since the phrase “chick-lit” has been demonized, no one will admit to wanting to read it – except me).

Query-by-numbers was not as fun as paint-by-numbers:

9 - queries
5 - interested responses
2 - wanted partials
1 - wanted an exclusive full
1 - wanted a book proposal

(New for 2013: MORE Tips on Writing a Query Letter.)

Gradually, four out of the five passed on my book, but all were extremely gracious and kind in their rejections and even offered advice on how to improve it. The fifth was the one who had wanted the book proposal. That row in my spreadsheet looked like this:

Sent To: Agent X (not a real agent)
At Agency: X Literary (not a real agency)
On This Date: 5/21/2010
Heard Back? Yes
Response: Wanted proposal
Then What? I didn’t want to write proposal

Are you properly appalled? I was so lazy that I passed up an opportunity simply because I didn’t want to take the time to write a proposal. I already wrote the whole dang book – why do I have to write a proposal too?

I’m not a quitter, but I am a pauser. I shelved my query project for June and July. Book proposal, hmph. In August a friend loaned me a hilarious memoir by Wade Rouse called At Least in the City, Someone Would Hear Me Scream. I loved it and thought Wade and I had similar styles of writing, and maybe, just maybe, his agent could be my agent too. I tried to Google “Could Wade’s agent be my agent too?”, but it’s Google, not the Magic 8 Ball. I looked in the Acknowledgements section of Wade’s book, found Wendy Sherman’s name and deduced that she must be Mr. Rouse’s agent. I’m crafty like that. I queried Wendy on October 2, 2010. She responded the next day, and guess what she said? She said she’d love to see the book proposal.

Book proposal – thou art mine nemesis.

SO HOW DO YOU WRITE THIS THING...?

I sighed heavily and went back to Google: “How to write a book proposal.”

I wrote the book proposal in two days and emailed it to Wendy. She had asked for a 10-day exclusive, and since I had learned (via Google, of course) that an exclusive meant I just couldn’t query any other agents during that time, I gladly agreed. I hadn’t planned to query any other agents at that point, for fear that they might ask for a book proposal. Wanh wanh.

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

On October 5 I Googled “What does it mean when the agent wants a ‘phone call’?” I wasn’t sure if that automatically meant she was offering to represent me. Google did not have a succinct answer. I was living overseas and Skype was more convenient than a phone call, so we engaged in an awkward Skype call where Wendy could both see and hear me, but I could only hear her (she didn’t have the camera function). I had to hope she wasn’t rolling her eyes at my questions, or making the crazy signal by circling her finger around next to her ear. She made suggestions regarding changes to the proposal and then said, “So I’ll wait to see the changes then”. I paused, and since she could see me, she could probably tell my face said What does that mean? I finally had to hesitantly ask, “Does this mean you’re offering to represent me?”

I think she wanted to wait and see how the book proposal changes shaped up, so the Magic 8 Ball response would have been “Ask again later”, but I shook it again until it came up “Yes.” I signed the contract on October 14, 2010, and immediately set to work on modifying the Magic 8 Ball to include “Write the dang book proposal.”

GIVEAWAY: Gretchen is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: schwip23@gmail.com won.)

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