How I Got My Literary Agent: David Bell

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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring David Bell, author of SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW. 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.

(Have questions about what genre/category you're writing in? Here are some tips.)

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David Bell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. More specifically, he was born and raised on the west side of Cincinnati, which matters—a lot—to people from Cincinnati. He is the award-winning and bestselling author of SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW (July 2015) from NAL/Penguin. He has previously published six other novels. When he is not teaching or writing, David watches lots and lots of movies and reads lots and lots of books. He also enjoys walking in the cemetery near his house with his wife, writer and blogger Molly McCaffrey. Connect with him on Twitter of Facebook.

AN EDITOR LOVES MY MANUSCRIPT -- HOLY %#@!

Back in 2010, a writer friend of mine put me in touch with an editor at a major New York publishing house who agreed to read my manuscript, Cemetery Girl. I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes. I thought he’d read it, reject it, and somewhere down the road, maybe, he might read and accept another book I wrote.

Then one day, while I was sitting at work, the editor called. Not only had he read Cemetery Girl, but he thought it was $%#@ phenomenal.

He also surprised me by starting to talk about money. He threw out some dollar figures, saying to me, “Would you take that?”

Like most struggling writers, I wanted to scream, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” But, for once, I managed to remain cool. I told him I needed to think about it, and he told me he needed to get approval from his higher ups. I was exhilarated. But I was also scared. I knew I was in over my head. If they actually offered me a contract, what would I do? At that point in my life, publishing was a mish-mash of esoteric phrases: sub-rights, riders, exclusives, reversions.

I knew I needed an agent to negotiate on my behalf.

I KNEW NO AGENTS...

One problem: I only knew one agent. He was a friend of a friend, a nice guy I met at a reading once. A few years earlier, he read a different manuscript of mine, liked it, but then finally passed.

So I reached out to him and explained the situation. I had an editor very interested, a guy who was already talking money. Basically, I wanted to shout, “Help!”

This agent asked to see the manuscript, which I sent him. But he didn’t read it right away. He didn’t tell me what to do. He didn’t contact the editor. And then he stopped responding to my emails.

My wife, Molly, stepped in at this point. She told me I needed to be proactive and approach other agents. Years earlier we had attended the AWP Conference in Chicago, and we saw an agent speak. We both liked him and kept his business card. (It pays to hoard.) So I wrote to him, explaining the situation. He asked for the first one hundred pages of Cemetery Girl. He immediately wrote back to inform me that he liked the book, but it wasn’t for him. However, he said, he had the perfect colleague for this kind of book (which, by the way, is a suspense novel about a middle-class family whose daughter disappeared). He sent the manuscript on to Laney Katz Becker.

(Once you sign with a literary agent, can you get out of the deal?)

A CONNECTION WITH LANEY

In a matter of hours, I heard from Laney. Yes, she liked the first hundred pages. Could I send the whole thing? Then the next day Laney emailed. She’d read the whole book—already!—could we talk?

Okay, I thought, I’m ready to go. If that editor found the book to be $%#@ phenomenal then Laney would too. Right?

Laney spent over an hour telling me all the things she felt needed to be improved about the book. She was thorough and intense. Her comments covered characterization, plot, and transitions. She understood all the ins and outs of that book. I think she knew it better than I did. At the end of the call, I thought to myself, “No way she’s going to sign me. She hates the book.”

And then she asked me how I felt about the suggestions she’d made. And if I agreed with her about them, she would send me the agency retainer.

I was confused. “Wait,” I said, “does this mean you’re my agent?”

“Yup. If you are willing to work on the revisions and sign the retainer,” Laney said. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

We’ve all had those teachers and mentors who demand a great deal from us. Sometimes we want to say to them, “Haven’t I done enough already?” But they always ask for more. And they ask for more because they believe in us.

Laney is that kind of agent. She made Cemetery Girl better, and she sold it to a better publisher for more money than the first editor was offering. And, since then, she’s sold five more of my books, including my most recent, Somebody I Used To Know. I trust her one hundred percent, and I know she always has my back. She treats me like I’m her highest priority even though I know she works with a number of other authors.

And on those occasions when I freak out, when I call her up and say, “I don’t think the book’s selling enough! I think we’re all going to die,” she calms me down. She’s an absolute pro.

I’m so glad that first agent dragged his feet. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have the privilege of working with Laney and Lippincott Massie McQuilkin.

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