How I Got My Literary Agent: James Sie

James Sie, debut author of STILL LIFE LAS VEGAS (Aug. 2015, St. Martin's Press), shares how he used various resources to guide him in his path to an agent.
Publish date:

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring James Sie, author of STILL LIFE LAS VEGAS. 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 and we’ll talk specifics.


Column by James Sie, the author of STILL LIFE LAS VEGAS
(Aug. 2015, St. Martin’s Press). His novel was listed as a finalist for
the Lambda Literary Award. James is an award-winning playwright
of literary adaptations, receiving a Joseph Jefferson Citation for his
adaptation of ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. His adaptation of
A WRINKLE IN TIME will be produced in Chicago this winter. In addition
to writing, Sie can currently be heard as a voiceover artist in animation
and audiobook narration. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

A difficult sell
When I finished my first novel, STILL LIFE LAS VEGAS (then called LIBERATE UNDER VENETIAN SKIES) I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy sell. It was a piece of literary fiction interspersed with sections of graphic novel, sketches, and screenplay. A difficult to explain hybrid of a novel. And I didn’t have any illustrations completed, only descriptions of those sections. How to sell it to a literary agent?

(When will an agent want to be the ONLY one reading your work?)

But I wasn’t daunted. Having been an actor for all of my adult life, I was quite familiar with the landscape of rejection. Bring it on! I had on-camera and voiceover agents; surely I’d be able to land one more. I started my search for a literary agent without many leads: a couple of recommendations from friends, a contact from a writing workshop I had attended. My main tool became Querytracker, a perfect website for finding and archiving agent queries.

Finding Querytracker
Querytracker was like an online dating service, trying to match me with my perfect partner. I used it assiduously, researching agents, discovering who they repped, gleaning information about them from fellow writers on the site. I googled and read interviews with them. In this way I came up with about a dozen perfect agents for my book, then wrote a query tailored just for each one.

Within six months and a few nibbles, one of them bit, and presto! I had an agent. He loved the book. He gave me edits. We changed the title. I found an illustrator, Sungyoon Choi, who agreed to do some pretty fantastic spec illustrations as a sample. I couldn’t believe my luck. Six months! It was all happening so quickly! Was it really that easy?

Three months later, just as we were about to go to publishers, said agent decided to leave the business. His agency declined to continue with the project. I was back to square one. What followed was two and a half years of wandering in the wilderness. Twenty queries. Then thirty. Forty. I got requests for partials, some wanted the whole manuscript, but no offers. A lot of them liked the book a lot but were unsure how they would deal with the whole graphic-novel-mixed-with-literary-fiction element. So, thanks, but.

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All the most promising matches from Querytracker had long since been exhausted. I still combed the site, dutifully researching new agents, but with much less rigor and enthusiasm. It was like closing time at the bars, and all the chairs were being turned over. My criteria became: “They have a sailboat on their website banner. I like sailboats. Let’s query them!” But I never gave up, even as the queries rounded up to fifty, because I believed in the work, and I was obstinate. And in the meantime, I continued refining the manuscript, polishing, tweaking. Choi graciously illustrated two complete sections for me to flaunt. I changed the title, again. And I just kept submitting.

Sweet serendipity
For all my diligence, it wasn’t Querytracker that led me to my agent; it was complete serendipity. I was browsing a gay news website called Towleroad. They had a small squib about author Augusten Burroughs, who had just married his agent, Christopher Schelling from Selectric Artists. On a whim, I thought, “He’s gay. I’m gay! He reps authors with gay themes. Let’s query him!” And so I did. I congratulated Christopher on his marriage and attached a pdf of the manuscript. And then I didn’t hear anything, and let it go.

(What if an agent requests an exclusive submission?)

Two months later, in the middle of a particularly dark, harrowing episode of my life, I got an email from Christopher, letting me know he was reading the manuscript and intrigued. And five days later, as I was recovering from said dark period, he wrote again. He loved the work, thought it was unique, and wanted to work with me. I was out of the wilderness, at last. He gave me edits, I dumped the screenplay sections, and within three months he had the book on auction. It sold it to St. Martin’s Press, I met my wonderful editor Sara Goodman, and my life changed.

Christopher is, I have to say, the perfect agent for me—honest, straight-forward, impish but professional (you can find out a lot more about him in Augusten Burrough’s upcoming memoir LUST AND WONDER). I respect his opinion, and feel a great camaraderie with him. Looking back, it felt like it took a lifetime for me to find this agent, but since I had found the right agent, one who believed in me and my work, a lifetime was worth it.


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