How I Got My Literary Agent: Aline Ohanesian

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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Aline Ohanesian, author of ORHAN'S INHERITANCE. 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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Orhan's-inheritance-book-cover

Column by Aline Ohanesian, author of debut novel ORHAN'S
INHERITANCE
(April 2015, Algonquin Books). Her novel was a

finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction,
an Indie Pick, an Amazon Editor’s Pick, and a Barnes & Noble Discover
Great New Writers Pick for spring 2015. It has also been long listed for
the Center for Fiction's First Book Award. It is an international bestseller
and has been translated into ten languages. Ohanesian, a descendant
of genocide survivors, lives and writes in Orange County, California with
her husband and two young sons. Her website is www.AlineOhanesian.com.

Taking a business approach

I come from a long line of merchants and entrepreneurs. My family members have sold everything from undergarments in a wheeled wagon on the streets of Beirut to loose diamonds in downtown Los Angeles. So when it came time to find an agent, I treated it like searching for a business partner. After all, my agent would be responsible for pitching my book to several editors, negotiating a book contract, and so much more. I spent six years writing my first novel, and I wasn’t about to trust it to just anyone who came along. I took a two-pronged approach. The first step in the process was writing a killer query letter. I searched the Internet and read every piece of advice on query letters I could find. This took weeks. Distilling my 350 page novel into one concise tantalizing paragraph was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The time was well spent, however, because my agent used my words in her pitch to editors, and my editor borrowed them for the book jacket.

The second step was determining who to query. In the years I spent writing my novel, I read voraciously and each time I read a novel I admired, I turned to the acknowledgments page to find the name of the agent. When this didn’t work, I used my subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace to search for the book’s agent. Before long, I had a spreadsheet with agent names and contact information. I started noting which agents represented novels that were, like mine, literary and historical. I scanned the internet and craft magazines for interviews they’d done. I even stalked a few on Twitter. I wanted to know as much as I could gather about each one. What books did they like? What were they most proud of? How did they go about acquiring new authors? Did they have a sense of humor?

Tailoring the queries

I began to tailor each query letter to the specific agent’s likes and dislikes. This was a lengthy process and only allowed me to send one query letter every few weeks. For example, in an interview with a writer’s magazine several years ago, one agent had mentioned her love of exotic locations. I began my query letter with, “In an interview with X magazine in 2010, you mentioned you loved novels with exotic locations. Since then, I’ve read and loved some of the novels you’ve represented, like Novel X and Novel Y.”

Everything in that first paragraph was true. This agent would know that I wasn’t just sending queries willy-nilly. She knew that I was not only familiar with her literary preferences, but also that I’d read the last book she represented. I then went on to tell her about my own novel, set in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire.

Five of the ten agents I queried asked to see a partial manuscript. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d been told that getting an agent to ask for a partial was a rare and near miraculous occurrence. I immediately sent my first chapter, which was approximately 40 pages, to all five agents. That first chapter had been worked and reworked until I knew I couldn’t possibly improve it anymore. It was the best I had to offer and I hoped it would be enough. Days, then weeks went by and I didn’t hear back from any of the agents who had requested to see my first chapter. How long did it take to read forty pages, I wondered. My confidence began to wane.

Continued persistence

After about a month, I sent a brief email reminding each agent that they’d asked to see my first chapter. I used a friendly tone, asking them if they’d received my attachment. One agent replied that he hadn’t received my email and asked me to resend it. Three stated that they had indeed received my chapter and would get back to me “soon.” One agent didn’t get back to me at all. Months later, four of the five agents who’d received a partial, asked to see a full manuscript. I sent each of them a draft of my novel. What followed was one of the most stressful waiting periods I’ve ever experienced. Three months into my wait, one agent who ran a very successful boutique agency, told me she would not be offering representation. Though she liked my novel, she was worried about its commercial viability. I was crushed. What if the other agents felt the same way? Unlike people who query dozens of agents at once, I had placed my eggs in a select number of baskets.

In the end, three agents offered me representation. I chose the one who seemed most excited about my work. She was also the one I felt most comfortable talking to. Today, my agent, Eleanor Jackson of Dunow, Carson & Lerner, is not only my biggest advocate, she is also a dear friend. She managed to sell my first novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, at auction and she’s been there for every step of my journey to publication. I may not have queried extensively, but I did query strategically and so far it’s made all the difference.

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