How I Got My Agent

Posted on October 15, 2014 by

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If this blog were a kitten, I’d be the worst person on earth. I haven’t fed it in months. God, what a horrible mental image. Wipe it from your brain! (thusly:)

Things have happened: I’m represented by the superlative Melissa Nasson at Rubin Pfeffer Content now, so I’ve been squeezing as much writing out of my brain as I can. This is not necessarily effective.

“How I Got My Agent” is a meme in internet-writerly circles, one which I’ve avoided blogging about because I’m squeamish about self-promotion (very bad to be in the publishing world. I’m working on it). I’m brave about things like this in bursts, after which I scurry back into my rabbit hole and play roguelikes until I feel not-boasty again (working on it).

Here’s the story for the aspiring and curious!

I started writing a novel in college. I thought, vaguely, that it might be nice to finish it some day. After I graduated and a few years went by, I started writing it again. This time I did it because I wanted to take a break from literary fiction, which is what I wanted to write (I thought).

This book started off as fantasy. I wanted it to be schlock fantasy. Pulp, you know? The problem is that I cannot for the life of me write pulp. I tried; I’m just not good at it. So this book, it turned into a strange literary/fantasy hybrid. I didn’t think it was good enough to publish; I was just fucking around, having fun.

It took me a while, but a few months in I had eight chapters online and an excellent writing group supporting me. Then, out of the blue, I get this email that says, to paraphrase: Hi, my name is [Ms. Publisher], and I’d like to publish your book.

Uh. This is a scam.

No. Weirdly, it’s not. [Ms. Publisher] is a professional translator (I look her up, she’s legit), and she’s sick of her country’s publishing industry. The only books they get by English-speaking authors are the really big ones, and they’re often translated badly. [Ms. Publisher] speaks perfect English, is a devoted member of Slytherin, is already an entrepreneur, and she loves books. Her plan is to find good, unsigned authors and sign them.

But this never happens.

You do not get publishing contracts like this. You do not get interest based on an incomplete manuscript.

She sends me the contract. I’m surprised (I can’t shake the dread that it’s a scam). It’s a great contract. The advance is tiny, only enough to show good faith, but the royalties are a hefty percentage. This contract also allows for some lovely freedoms: it holds me to an exclusive licensing of the book’s world print and ebook rights to her publishing house for two years, and that’s it. No merchandise, no film rights, nothing but the books. I can veto the cover if I want to, and the publishing house will provide a sum for a cover illustration.

Sweet! I run it past several intelligent people, who can’t find anything wrong with it, and I sign it.

[Ms. Publisher] becomes my friend. She pays the advance and the illustrator promptly. I finish writing the novel. But things grind to a halt: she first invites me to a national book fair, and then backs out. She publishes one book, but no more.

Eventually, she emails me the bad news: [Publishing House] has gone tits-up for various reasons, including institutionalised misogyny (you go, Eastern Europe!) that literally has offset printers telling her, and I quote, “But women aren’t publishers!”

We cry together. She encourages me to go after big publishing houses. She says, “I always felt kind of guilty that I couldn’t give you the advance you deserve.” (Bullshit. I knew what I was getting into when I signed.)

My inner cynic is smugly, bitterly satisfied. I learn how to query.

A family friend reads my novel as a favour to my mother, and likes it well enough that he passes my name to his agent at a large, well-respected agency. His agent passes it to his reader, who likes it well enough to recommend that he read the entire book himself. He in turn likes it well enough to set up a call with me, which turns out to be a request for an R&R rather than an outright offer of representation.

I panic. I have no idea how to revise the novel in ways that will satisfy his concerns. I do what I can, but in the end it isn’t what he’s looking for. It breaks my heart, but in retrospect it’s the best outcome for everyone: I do best when I get specific, blunt critique, and that isn’t his style.

About two years later, I have a respectable request rate, a great internship with a different large, well-respected agency, and a much better manuscript. Then, out of the blue, I get an email.

It says, to paraphrase: I was the reader who worked with [Mr. Agent]. I’m launching my career as an agent, and I would love to read your manuscript again, if it’s still available.

Um.

Is this a scam?

No, I remember her name. I look through my email correspondence with [Mr. Agent], and there she is.

But this never happens.

Nobody gets an agent like this.

Don’t get me wrong, Melissa knows what she likes. She puts me through the wringer…uh, I mean, we do some excellent revisions before she signs me. I look her agency up, and it’s legit. They represent Susan fucking Cooper.

I still email her once in a while to make sure she’s real.