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How I Got My Agent: J. Kent Messum

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring J. Kent Messum, author of BAIT, a novel. 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: J. Kent is excited to give away a free copy of his novel 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: Glenn027 won.)

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring J. Kent Messum, author of BAIT. 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: J. Kent is excited to give away a free copy of his novel 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: Glenn027 won.)

bait-novel-cover-messum
J-Kent-Messum-author-writer

J. Kent Messum is an author, musician, and always bets on the underdog.
He lives in Toronto with his wife, dog and trio of cats. He is the author of BAIT
(Plume, Aug. 2013). You can check out the heart-stopping book trailer for BAIT here.
Find J. Kent on Facebook and buy his book on Amazon. Also, find him on Twitter.

I’m getting an agent for this book, and I’m not stopping until I do.

That was the promise I made to myself in the summer of 2012. I’d finished writing my new novel, Bait, and was determined to gain representation. Over the years I’d learned that agents were incredibly busy people who were constantly inundated with queries and manuscripts, receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of pitches from aspiring writers every month. I figured I’d have one shot at each and every agency I contacted, so I better make it count. My approach from the outset was to tailor every query to exactly what an agency requested in their guidelines. Using an old list of literary agencies I had with another my wife prepared for me, I waded in.

Life wasn’t going very well for me at the time. My music career had withered and died. My writing career had gotten little traction and was already into its eighth year of a ‘ten-year’ success plan with no publishing credits to my name. Steady employment had been a hell of a challenge in the years following the recession. Eventually, I’d found consistent enough work as a contractor in a frozen food terminal (think giant meat locker & ice cream warehouse), where I did an assortment of tasks in temperatures that were half as cold as the ones found on the planet Mars. Even in insulated snowsuits, you could get frostbite in twenty minutes. This wasn’t remotely where I thought I’d end up, and deep down it terrified me. That fear turned out to be a big motivator.

With the exception of actors, writers deal with more rejection than anyone else. I’d written two books in previous years, both of which had gone nowhere, evidenced by pages upon pages of rejection notices. Something told me the third book would be the charm. For years I’d ignored all the advice to “pick a real career” and “get job security”. Instead, I went all in on my dreams, never formulating a fallback plan, making sure I was working with no safety net to raise the stakes. A friend of mine said it was the absolute worst escape plan he’d ever heard of.

(Find out why agents stop reading your first chapter.)

A few tentative nibbles, and a long list of rejections

Every evening after working a grueling day in sub-zero temperatures, I’d come home exhausted, sit at the computer and query different agencies until the early hours of the morning, adding to their slush piles. As I progressed through my long list the rejections began to roll in. I did get a few tentative nibbles, but the enthusiasm I was hoping for wasn’t there.

One night I queried Peters, Fraser, & Dunlop, an exceptional and high-profile literary agency in London UK. When I looked at their roster, the first client of theirs that I saw was Sir Richard Attenborough (Yes, the guy from Jurassic Park). I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell, but it didn’t stop me from trying. Their first request was a synopsis, which I sent. A few days later I got a reply from Laura Williams, assistant to senior agent Annabel Merullo, asking if I could send along the first three chapters. I did. The next day I received another reply. Laura said the three chapters had intrigued her, and could I send along the full manuscript, which I did.

The next morning there was another reply from Laura in my inbox. Far too quick a response I feared. She’d only had the full manuscript for a single night. My first thought was “Crap… she’s read the next chapter or two and put the book down in disappointment”. With a heavy sigh, I opened the email and braced myself.

When I read the first paragraph my jaw dropped. It began with “I have just finished your novel…wow.” She went on to write that she hadn’t read a submission in a long time which had impressed her so much, that she thought it was “brilliantly written and immaculately plotted.”

There was another, much larger paragraph below it. I immediately put my hand over the screen and blocked it from view, certain that the second part of the email would start with “Regrettably…” or “Unfortunately…”, delivering the bad news that they wouldn’t or couldn’t take me on at this time.

I kept my hand on the screen, reading the first part over and over, telling myself “This is great. This means you’re doing something right. Remember this the next time you’re starting to get depressed and discouraged.”

Finally, with a heart hammering in my chest, I read the second paragraph. It explained that the agency wanted to discuss things further the following week. Before I knew it, I had conference call with Annabel Merullo, Laura, and the team at PFD. Their enthusiasm for the novel was downright infectious. They offered me representation and I dropped my phone accidently, speechless. That same week their foreign rights agent, Rachel Mills, flew to Toronto on business and met with me, bringing contracts with her. I signed them on the spot.

(How to create an effective synopsis for your novel or memoir.)

I was in a snowstorm when I got the call...

A month later I was working in the freezer when I got a text from my agency asking if I could take an important phone call. Without taking off my stay-puff marshmallow-man sub-zero snowsuit, I ran out to the parking lot and squeezed into my car for privacy. My phone rang and I answered it. My agents informed me that they’d secured a publishing deal with Plume Books in the US and Penguin Canada that came with an advance that would allow me to quit my job and write full-time.

Shaking in my snowsuit, with the phone pressed to my ear, I sat in my car and cried. It turned out to be the first deal of many that my wonderful agents would secure for Bait, including one from Penguin UK that came with a commission for my second novel Husk. PFD gave me much more than I could have ever hoped for.

So, remember this little quote while you’re striving for the so-called impossible: “Never tell me the odds.” - Han Solo

GIVEAWAY: J. Kent is excited to give away a free copy of his novel 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: Glenn027 won.)

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