How I Got My Agent: Jenny Milchman

“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. 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. Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, will be published by Ballantine in January 2013. Her short story 'The Closet' appears in the November 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Jenny Miclhamn, author of COVER OF SNOW. 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.

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

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Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. Her debut
novel, COVER OF SNOW, will be published by Ballantine in January
2013. Her short story 'The Closet' appears in the November 2012
issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, while another short story,
‘The Very Old Man,’ has been an Amazon bestseller, and 'Black Sun
on Tupper Lake' is featured in the anthology ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II.
Jenny is the Chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Authors Program.
She is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which
was celebrated in all 50 states and four foreign countries in its second
year. Jenny hosts the Made It Moments forum on her blog, which has
featured more than 200 international bestsellers, Edgar winners, and
independent authors. Jenny hosts the literary series Writing Matters,
which attracts guests coast-to-coast and has received national media
attention. She teaches writing and publishing for
New York Writers Workshop and Arts by the People.

I GOT MY AGENT IN A BAR FIGHT

Well, OK, that’s not true, but it sounds a lot more interesting than, “I got my agent through slow, methodical work, and years of cold querying.” That, however, is closer to the truth.

In order for me to tell you how I got my agent, I would have to tell you how I got my first agent. And my second. And my third.

When I started sending out cold queries to agents, they went by snail mail (or FedEx if you were too green to understand that nothing in publishing is done fast, and spending money on express mail will only make you look, um, new at this). I did receive my first offer of representation by e-mail. It was the first e-mail I ever got. I’d opened the account in case anyone should ever want to communicate that way.

(Find thriller literary agents for your novel.)

How times change, huh?

I was lucky enough to receive another offer at the same time, and thus be in the position of having to choose between agents.

The first was new, hungry, and passionate. She actually used the phrase “bestseller potential”—which made me both love and question her. As William Goldman says, “Nobody knows [what makes a hit].” Plus, what better way to get the author to whine, “But you said it’d be a bestseller!” when it turns out not to sell.

The second agent was very well established—she worked at the oldest literary agency in the country, home to such greats as Joyce Carol Oates and Gail Godwin.

I chose door #2 and I don’t know if that made all the difference, to paraphrase Robert Frost. I do know that my agent, who was smart and dedicated, didn’t sell my novel. Not all of an agent’s projects sell. That was my first big lesson—after learning how to use e-mail.

SO I WROTE MORE BOOKS...

My first agent stayed with me for two books, but wasn’t crazy about my third. She thought it might sell, however, and suggested I go agent shopping again. This time I found someone who’d written an entry in my college’s magazine and I wrote to her as a fellow alumna. It wasn’t exactly a writing world connection, but it was a step up from cold queries. The agent liked my work and took me on. Unfortunately, again despite great wisdom, creativity, and dedication on her part, she also didn’t sell my book.

By now I assumed there must be something I was doing wrong. Was this just bad luck? The publishing climate? Or did my work still need improvement?

So I returned to some teachers who’d been instrumental to my writing process. I revised the manuscript I was hoping to sell. I also decided that although cold querying had worked for me in the past, it was time to start making friends in the enormous world I was trying to enter. I went to a conference where I could pitch editors.

THE WRITERS' CONFERENCE

(See a list of writers' conferences here.)

The conference led in a slightly circuitous way to my third agent, Julia Kenny of the Markson Thoma Literary Agency, who read the pitch I created there, as well as my new and improved manuscript, and signed me instantly. In person—which added an important dimension to the getting-an-agent experience. We could talk, and look at each other, see how the other took her coffee.

The truth is, finding an agent is more often than not a slow, arduous process. I’ve yet to meet a writer for whom it didn’t involve teeth-gritting levels of frustration and painful amounts of rejection. In these changing times in publishing, only time is going to tell whether all of this hard work is worth something over a speedier path to publication.

It took me 11 years to find that magic combination of agent, editor, and publishing house—to find a home for my work. And that is a story for another piece...

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