How I got my agent (and you can too!) – Colleen Oakley

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Colleen Oakley’s debut novel Before I Go will be published in January 2015 and for the next few months she’ll be sharing her experiences as a first-time writer. ♥

Finding an agent is like all the crappy parts of dating. There are no fancy dinners, flowers, or hot make-out sessions in gas station bathrooms (wait, just me?), but there are plenty of online Google searches, unanswered e-mails and days spent desperately waiting for the phone to ring.

Basically, it’s soul-crushing.

But like dating, it can also all be totally worth it once you find THE ONE. The agent that is going to champion your work, sell your book for hundreds of thousands of dollars (or at least one dollar), and answer all of your neurotic questions about royalties, your next book, and those all-too-often moments of panic when you just need someone to reassure you that you shouldn’t just give up this writing thing altogether and become a Denny’s waitress. (Note: you may still need to be a Denny’s waitress in addition to writing. Especially if your book sells for one dollar.)

So, if you’re still reading, I’m sure you want to know: How did I get my agent? Well, it’s simple, really. I sent her a query about my book, she responded and asked for the full manuscript, and then after reading the manuscript, she called me with an offer of representation, which may or may not have been more exciting to me than the day my husband proposed (don’t tell him I said that).

But if you’ve ever gone agent-hunting, of course you know, it’s not really that simple. So, here are my top tips for procuring an agent of your very own.

1. Do your research. After I finished my manuscript, I spent hours, nay DAYS online, researching agents. I typed “fiction literary agents” into Google and literally weeded through each website, reading bios, learning what books they published, how big the advances were, where they were located, how long they’d been in business, etc. I also read the acknowledgements on all my favorite books to see who each author thanked as their agent. Then I compiled a list of agents and why I thought they’d be a good fit for my manuscript.

2. Write a good query. There are plenty of blog posts about the rules of query-writing. (This is a good one – janefriedman.com/2014/04/11/query-letters/. This one is, too – blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/08/how-to-write-query-letter.html.) But, the bottom line is, if your query isn’t exciting and attention-grabbing, it stands to reasons agents won’t think your book is either. Be succinct, avoid typos and GET THEIR ATTENTION with your awesome words.

3. Diversify your list. By this, I mean, don’t just go for the top major agents. I had my shoot-for-the-stars agents that I would die to get, but I also queried a few new, just-starting-out agents looking to grow their list. Now, I got one of my shoot-for-the-stars picks, which was amazing (seriously, better than being proposed, too). But new, hungry-to-make-a-name for themselves agents shouldn’t be overlooked. Especially if they work for well-respected agencies. Someone there sees potential in them, and your book might just make a name for both of you.

4. Keep querying. An author friend suggested this to me when I was in the middle of querying hell: every time you get a rejection, send out five more queries to new agents. It was a really helpful tip, because those rejections can sting, but when you’re querying more it puts some of the control back in your hands, and doesn’t let you wallow (OK, you’ll still wallow a little, but new queries will give you hope).

5. Don’t take rejection personally. This is the hardest tip to follow, but the most important. You have to believe in your work. When an agent rejects you, it doesn’t mean your work is terrible and you’ll never be a writer and where did you put that Denny’s application, anyway? It means that your work wasn’t the right fit for that agent. Maybe their list was full, or they just signed a futuristic sci-fi werewolf novel just like yours. Or maybe they had a huge fight with their husband/wife/third grader that evening and hated your book because there was a character that reminded them of their mean husband/wife/third grader. You never know. But you don’t want an agent who’s not in LOVE with your book, anyway. When they love it, they fight for it, which means they fight for you. And everybody wins.


Colleen Oakley’s debut novel Before I Go will be published in January 2015 (Gallery/Simon & Schuster). She’s the former editor-in-chief of Women’s Health & Fitness and senior editor of Marie Claire. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Redbook, Parade, Ladies’ Home Journal, Fast Company, Martha Stewart Weddings and Health. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, two kids, and the world’s biggest lapdog, Bailey. You can find out more at her website colleenoakley.com.

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