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How I Got My Literary Agent: Jennifer Swanson

Author Jennifer Swanson, author of BRAIN GAMES (Sept. 2015), shares her arduous search for an agent to represent her middle grade fiction AND nonfiction.

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Jennifer Swanson, author of BRAIN GAMES. 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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Column by Jennifer Swansonauthor of BRAIN GAMES (Sept. 2015,
National Geographic Kids). Jennifer is the award-winning author of over
20 nonfiction and fiction books for children. Her books in the “How Things Work”
series by The Child’s World were named to the 2012 Booklist’s Top 10 Books for
Youth: Series Nonfiction. Top reviews include a starred review in Booklist and
recommended reviews from School Librarians Workshop. Follow her on Twitter

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

In Search of the Right Project

I started looking for an agent after I attended my first SCBWI conference, because that’s the recommendation that they give you. I’d been writing for about six months. That was way too early for me. My writing wasn’t really up to par for an agent to even notice for another six months or so. The first project I started with was a fiction picture book. Fairly quickly, I learned that was much better at writing middle grade novels. When I finished my first middle grade novel, I had it critiqued by friends, and then by a professional author. After that, I knew I was ready to start submitting to agents.

I got close—very close—with that project. I received what everyone says are “good” rejections. Full requests from agents and then “I liked it… but…it just doesn’t fit the market” or a similar answer.

Forging on, I wrote a second middle grade novel. This one was it! I knew it. This manuscript fairly burst out of me—after all, it only took me 29 days to write. (Ironically, during the month of October not during NaNoWriMo, but I still count it as a NaNoWriMo manuscript.) After a few months of polishing, I began sending it out to agents. I also took it to a couple of conferences and had a few editors interested in it. Again…very close calls, but in the end, it was rejected. Just not the right timing.

At this point, I turned my attention to writing nonfiction science books for kids. I’d been doing pretty well on this front and my requests from educational publishers were coming in regularly.

Still, the call for fiction wouldn’t be denied. I wrote a third middle grade novel. This one was different from the other two, more character-driven. No mystery. No high-stakes action adventure. A contemporary, humorous middle grade novel but with a science twist. I felt really confident about this. I began sending it out to agents. The responses were the same…good, funny…but….still no offers.

So I gave up.

#MSWL to the rescue!

I figured that maybe I didn’t need an agent, I mean, I was going to tons of conferences and meeting editors directly which was definitely paying off for my nonfiction. It wasn’t helping my fiction, but I thought that was just a matter of time.

But the pull of wanting to have an agent was still there. Only now, I wanted to find an agent who would be willing to represent both my fiction and nonfiction. So, I decided to start trolling the #MSWL. I figured I might have a better chance of finding an agent if I targeted my submissions to those who were interested in what I wrote.

I began regularly checking the #MSWL and sent a few queries off. No response. Again, I was discouraged. Then, one day, there were two agents who specifically asked for middle-grade nonfiction STEM pieces. I thought, what have I got to lose, I hadn’t sent any queries in a few months. I would just send these two.

So, I sent out my query for my middle grade, nonfiction, STEM piece. I was totally shocked when Clelia Gore, with Martin Literary Management, responded in about 45 minutes. She said she loved my query and wanted to take a little time to digest it but could I talk to her in two days? Um… sure!

And then there were 2 (almost 3)

I was nervous for THE CALL, but everything went really well. Clelia and I just clicked. And the best part was that she was interested not just in my nonfiction, but my fiction as well. She made the offer at the end of the call. I told her that I would let her know in a week since I had two other queries out.

So, I sent my “I have an offer” email to a few of the other agents who I’d sent queries. One actually had requested my middle grade fiction a few months back. When she saw my email she quickly responded and asked to see the middle grade nonfiction piece. Then she asked for a call. To my surprise, she offered, too. I couldn’t believe it!

I had almost given up many times in my seven plus year search for an agent, and now I had not one—but two agents—who had offered. Both wanted me for my fiction AND my nonfiction! It was a really tough decision. Both agents were awesome, but ultimately, I felt a stronger connection with Clelia and thought she had fantastic ideas for my career path, so I signed with her. And I’m thrilled that I did. She has already negotiated one new contract for me!

(On a side note, the other agent who’d received the query the same day as Clelia sent me an email about 10 days later asking if I had signed. If not, she was interested in talking to me, too.)

(What if an agent requests an exclusive submission?)

The Moral of the Story

Winston Churchill said it best: “Never, never, never give up!” I’m proof of that. And, my other recommendation is to check the #MSWL. It’s a fantastic resource and a great way to target your submissions. I have heard a lot of writers and agents alike who say they it is a great way to find an agent. Do you #MSWL? You should! I did and I got my fantastic agent.

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