Making it as a writer: How I got my agent through persistence (and Twitter)
By Alicia de los Reyes
After I graduated from my MFA program, I started querying agents about representing my thesis. For the uninitiated, an agent works for a writer to try to get her work published. Literary agents are like real estate agents in that they don’t get paid until you do; they make a commission from the sale of the book (and earn a portion of the royalties). They essentially work for you, contacting editors at publishing houses who might be interested in your work and negotiating your book deal. They might help also you build your platform and revise your manuscript and/or book proposal (for nonfiction). ♥
I had two agent contacts from my MFA program; one had visited a class I took on the nonfiction book proposal. She encouraged us to query her and mention this connection. Another was an agent that a friend had met at a book conference who had just started her own agency.
Having a connection means that you have a much better chance of getting your proposal/manuscript read — so I queried both of them and waited. And waited. I waited for months and months. And months. One of these agents replied whenever I checked in (roughly every six weeks) and said that she was trying to get to it. The other never replied to my check-ins. Eventually both gave me a response: no. One agent was interested in seeing a revision, but the revision she was interested in seemed like a massive overhaul. I didn’t think she really liked my book — perhaps the topic or the point of view, but not the book itself.
So I branched out and kept querying. I started by looking in the acknowledgments section of books that I liked and that were similar to mine. I browsed at Barnes and Noble, taking down names, and looked through many of the books that I’d used for research. Then, I looked up these agents online to see if they accepted queries. Most agents have a page on their agency website that includes guidelines for queries (some want a synopsis only, some want a book proposal, some want the entire manuscript — and some accept attachments while others don’t). These pages often also have what the agent is particularly interested in, and even a short bio about what they like and don’t like. I used these websites to construct a query letter for each agent, mentioning the book I’d found them through. I’d also try to call out something from their webpage/bio that resonated with me or my book — “a commitment to personal storytelling” or a particular interest in narrative nonfiction.
This yielded mixed results. Nine times out of ten, I got a polite rejection form letter: Thanks, but no thanks. Once, I got a “this looks great, but frankly, you have no platform, so I can’t take you on.” That one hurt big time.
A few (very few) times, I got a request for the entire manuscript. That is step two in this massive, slow process, and when it happened, I was elated. But eventually, the manuscript was rejected again, and I felt even worse.
Despite all this rejection, I continued to query. Let me reiterate again that this takes place over the course of months, not weeks — often, it was three or four (or twelve) months before I heard back from the places that I queried. I didn’t wait for every single agent to get back to me before I sent out a new query; I would still be querying today if I had. Instead, I sent out a few every few months, as rejections came in and as I had the energy to research another batch of agents.
Meanwhile, I found out about a Twitter event called #PitMad. #PitMad stands for Pitch Madness, and it happens every quarter (there is a thorough and awesome summary here). Agents and writers participate online; agents share that they are participating using the hashtag, and they also share their guidelines and what, specifically, they would love to see. Then, authors pitch their books using both #PitMad and their genre — in my case, #nf, nonfiction. If an agent likes your pitch, she favorites it, and you are welcome to query her. You have a massive leg up by sharing that she found you through #PitMad — the agent has already told you that she likes your basic idea, so chances are good that she will 1. Read your proposal and 2. Ask to read the manuscript.
I did #PitMad once with no bites. My pitch was a basic summary, kind of boring, even a bit vague: “Lapsed Catholic hangs out with evangelical Christians. Makes friends.” When I participated the next round, I polished it up, adding a link to a chapter that had been published in Sojourners Magazine. A friend retweeted my tweet, and I got two Favorites.
I was elated and not a little terrified. I immediately looked up the agents who had favorite my tweet and found out what their guidelines for pitching (and in particular for pitching during #PitMad) were, and I sent off my query within hours. One requested the full manuscript right away —gasp! It was happening! Again!
I held my breath for basically a week. It’s a lot worse to get rejected after being partially accepted than to get no response — you come so close, and then poof! You’re back to square one. But this time, the agent told me that she liked my manuscript and that she wanted to talk to me more about it over the phone.
When I finally got an email from the agent saying she was interested in representing my work, I freaked out. Actually, freaked out is an understatement. There are maybe three times I can remember being so happy about something happening to me: when I got into my writing program at UNH, when I almost won a short story contest on Glimmer Train. My heart literally raced. I emailed my husband and signed off “XOXOXO CRAZY ALICIA.” I was totally crazy. I smiled at every human I saw for days.
I came up with a list of questions I wanted to ask my agent — what her editing style was, how she saw the book, where she wanted to place it, and what her style of “agenting” was like. I felt comfortable talking to her, and it just felt like a good fit. The next thing I knew, I was signing a contract with DGLM, and now, Sharon Pelletier represents me. Pretty cool!
The takeaways from all this? If at first you don’t succeed… Everyone tells you it takes time, but seriously: it takes months (for me, years) of diligence. If you keep honing, polishing, and looking out for new opportunities, you’ll keep bettering your chances of getting what you want. It’s really hard not to give up; I stopped querying for a few months, totally exhausted of thinking and rethinking how to best summarize and describe my manuscript. I worked on other projects. But I always came back and tried one more time.
Alicia de los Reyes is the Seattle-based author of DIY Chick Lit: A Writing Guide and DIY Writing Retreat: A Guide to Getting Away. She is working on a non-fiction book about a year in an evangelical church. Find more of her writing at aliciadelosreyes.com.