You can’t take your eyes off that stack of gleaming white paper of your desk. Finished! The novel you poured heart and soul into – or perhaps the memoir that had you digging deep and staying up late.
You’ve revised and cut and revised some more. A dozen friends and acquaintances have read and critiqued it. Everyone agrees: You’re ready to send it off to an agent.
It can be a tricky process, and I know writers who say they don’t have the emotional stamina to send out a manuscript 20, 30, 40 – even 100 times. (That’s right. It’s not at all uncommon to send out that many times before landing an agent.)
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The writers below – each of whom has a New York agent and books either forthcoming or published with New York publishers – offer invaluable tips on how you, too, might find the right agent for your manuscript.
Q: How did you find your agent?
Judy Goldman: I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace online to find agents who had sold a lot of books over the previous months – and who had sold at least one memoir. I decided to try my “dream agents” first, before moving down the list. Fortunately, one of my “dream agents” showed interest pretty quickly and requested my full manuscript.
Kathy Reichs: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, my once and always agent, found me. She’d heard about the sale of my manuscript (“Deja Dead”), called from New York, and flew down to meet me. Jennifer quadrupled the price Scribner had offered and protected many rights I might have signed away.
Kimmery Martin: I used a website called Query Tracker that lists most agents by the types of books they represent. I also signed up for several conferences that allowed you to pitch to agents in person. One thing most people misunderstand about the process is this: You don’t actually send your manuscript to agents – you send a one-page letter describing you and your book, and they make a decision about whether to read your manuscript based on that letter.
Joe Posnanski: An author friend, Michael MacCambridge, recommended that I talk with his agent – Sloan Harris – in case I ever wanted to write books. We hit it off and immediately – this was in 2001 or 2002 – talked about working together should the right idea ever come up. Sloan has been my agent and friend since.
Tommy Tomlinson: Through my friend Joe Posnanski, who introduced me to his agent, Sloan Harris.
Bryn Chancellor: I was fortunate enough in 2014 to win the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange (WEX) Award for fiction. Part of this wonderful award is a trip to New York to meet editors, agents and writers. The agent Henry Dunow was among those I met. He liked my sample work and asked to see more, and we hit if off at our lunch. Soon after he took me on as a client.
Sarah Creech: I researched agents who represented books similar to mine or authors whom I admired. I recorded this information in a tiered Excel spreadsheet – first tier for “Dream Agents,” second for “Established Agents,” and third for “Up and Coming Agents.”
Patrice Gaines: The agent for my first book approached me. She had seen my writing in the Washington Post and other places and had heard me on NPR. My problem was that I didn’t know what to write about. At the time, my agent did not know my “secrets.” After I wrote a newspaper essay about getting in trouble as a young woman, being arrested, then changing my life, she told me, “You’re looking for a book when your life is a book.”
Q. How long did it take to land your agent?
Martin: Over a year and a half.
Goldman: I queried my agent on April 14, 2016, cutting and pasting my opening 10 pages in my email. She requested my full manuscript on May 10, 2016. But then she didn’t offer representation until Feb. 1, 2017. During those nine months, she and I went back and forth – her editing my manuscript, my revising, with spaces in between. I continued querying other agents in case she turned me down. Those nine months felt like nine decades.
Tomlinson: Sloan agreed to take me on pretty quickly after we talked.
Creech: I sent out five query letters to five agents in my first tier “Dream Agent” database. Within a week, all but one requested the full manuscript. I spent another miserable week being rejected by those agents. Then, exactly two weeks from the moment I started the query process, the final agent, Alexandra Machinist, called me because she loved the book.
Q: Did you ever think of giving up?
Goldman: I do not give up. Ever. Rejection is part of the job description for a writer.
Martin: Yeah. I was so bad at writing queries that I began to have a physical reaction to the sound of an email coming in. My cheeks would flame up in preemptive shame because I knew it would be another form rejection of my letter.
Creech: Tell me I can’t do something and I will devote myself to proving otherwise. So, yes, I thought about giving up, but as soon as I allowed myself to consider that possibility, I committed to working even harder.
Tomlinson: Giving up on finding an agent? No. Giving up on actually writing a book? Yes.
Q: How long did it take your agent to sell your latest book?
Goldman: My agent submitted my manuscript to publishers on May 9, 2017. On Aug. 1, 2017, she called to say she’d sold it.
Reichs: My books now sell automatically. (Same with foreign rights. I am in print in over 35 languages.)
Martin: A couple of weeks. I got lucky and signed with one of the world’s best-known publishers (Penguin/Random House).
Posnanski: It took six months to a year to sell my first book, “The Soul of Baseball” (2007). Fortunately, we are in a relationship with Simon & Schuster, so it did not take very long to sell my latest book.
Creech: My agent sold it in a preemptive bid (one publisher offers an over-the-top dollar amount to grab the manuscript) to William Morrow one month after I signed with her.
Tomlinson: My agent encouraged me to write a book about my struggles with my weight, but it took me a couple of years to muster the courage to write the proposal. Once I did, he sold it in two weeks.
Q: Besides selling your manuscript, what is the best thing an agent does for a writer?
Goldman: My agent gave me the gift of her keen eye. One of the hardest things to learn about writing memoir is the crucial role reflection or analysis plays in the narrative. (How do I understand the person I was then in light of the person I am now?) My agent was particularly talented at spotting the places in my book where reflection was needed.
Reichs: In the early years, general support. And in my case, overseeing financial and legal aspects of contracts. And since WMEE (William Morris Endeavor Entertainment) is entertainment and literary, they handled my TV rights for “Bones” and are handling the new project with Warner Brothers/Fox to whom I have optioned the character Sunday Night from “Two Nights.”
Martin: Your agent is your advocate – she champions your causes with the publisher throughout the process. Some agents also help to refine the manuscript.
Posnanski: My agent is my sounding board, my friend, my navigator and my critic. He never stops pushing me, but he also never stops supporting me. It’s obvious but important to say that writing books is an emotional and draining and often gutting experience, and I honestly could not imagine having accomplished any of it without Sloan.
Chancellor: Aside from being my advocate and negotiating on my behalf on all contractual and financial matters, he is among my first invaluable readers and editors. He asks the best questions and, with both honesty and encouragement, helps me think through how I might approach the answers. He trusts and respects my vision, and I trust his advice at every level. Such trust for me is essential. He’s also kind and funny and, at times, I’m convinced, borderline omniscient.
Tomlinson: He’s my tour guide to this country I’ve never visited.
Gaines: Serves as a cheerleader, one whom you can trust to tell you the truth while knowing the business and the competition.
Q: Specific advice about finding an agent?
Tomlinson: Read the acknowledgments page in books that are like the book you want to write. This is where authors tend to thank – and name – their agents. Try those agents first.
Goldman: Before you even think of querying an agent, finish the manuscript and take your time revising. Ask someone other than your ever-lovin’ spouse or best friend to edit. Make sure your query letter is concise and convincing. I suggest querying 10 agents at a time. If these agents reject you but suggest changes, revise and try the next 10. The good news: There are many, many agents, not just in New York, but all across the country.
Gaines: Find an agent who sells the type of book you are writing. Call the agency to make sure they are accepting manuscripts.
Martin: It can be tough – like just about every other facet of writing. It requires the ability to persevere in the face of soul-sucking rejection and criticism. That being said, I know a lot of talented writers who are un-agented, so there are elements of both luck and time involved, too.
Posnanski: The most important part of finding an agent is finding someone who deeply believes in you as a writer.
Chancellor: Be patient. Do your research and save yourself time – why send to agents who don’t represent your kind of work? And be kind. Agents work very hard and are passionate about books, just like we are.
Q: What makes a writer attractive to an agent?
Posnanski: A great manuscript is the winning ticket. Agents and publishers are looking for unique voices, fresh ideas, clarity and vision and something that will unify readers. Ask yourself: What are you offering that no one else can offer?
Martin: For me, it was offering an inside glimpse of a world I know very well – the medical profession, combined with some more typical elements of women’s fiction: the humor inherent in parenting, the dynamics of female relationships, an intense love-gone-wrong story.
Creech: A great manuscript is most important, but a writer’s disposition matters, too. Agents appreciate a writer who is easy to work with and who accepts critical feedback and knows how to apply it. This is where participating in writing workshops proves helpful – you learn to listen and be grateful for advice – even when it’s tough.
Tomlinson: An appealing voice on the page. Even in that first query letter, how it’s written matters.
Reichs: An agent might ask: Does this writer have what it takes to promote a book in today’s competitive market – public speaking ability, a book that will attract invitations?
Goldman: A first or debut book can be easier to sell than a writer’s second or third book. There’s that delicious possibility this new author will be a best seller.
Kathy Reichs is on the UNC Charlotte faculty but not currently teaching. Her latest book, “Two Nights,” featuring her new character, Sunday Night, came out last summer. Her 19th Temperance Brennan novel, “A Conspiracy of Bones,” will be out next summer from Random House.
Kimmery Martin’s debut novel, “The Queen of Hearts,” will be out from Penguin Random House in February. She is an emergency medicine physician, currently on hiatus to write.
Judy Goldman’s second memoir, “Together: Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap,” will be out from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in the spring of 2019. She is also the author of two novels (”The Slow Way Back” and “Early Leaving”) and two collections of poetry.
Patrice Gaines is a freelance journalist and public speaker and attends Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. The first of two memoirs from Random House was “Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color – A Journey from Prison to Power.” Her unpublished memoir is “Digging for God.”
Bryn Chancellor is an assistant professor in the Department of English at UNCC. Her debut novel, “Sycamore,” came out last spring from Harper/Collins. The paperback edition will be out in January. She is also the author of a collection of stories, “When Are You Coming Home?” from the University of Nebraska Press.
Tommy Tomlinson’s memoir, “The Elephant in the Room,” about life as an overweight man, will be out in 2019 from Simon & Schuster. He is a former columnist for the Charlotte Observer, where he was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005. He is now a freelance writer.
Joe Posnanski, based in Charlotte, is a former senior columnist for Sports Illustrated and the executive columnist for MLB Advanced Media (Major League Baseball). He is the author of “The Soul of Baseball,” “The Machine” and “The Secret of Golf.” His book, “The Amazing and the Impossible: Escape and the Cult of Houdini,” is tentatively due from Simon & Schuster in the fall.
Sarah Creech’s most recent novel is “The Whole Way Home,” which William Morrow published in the spring of this year. She teaches English and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. Her first novel was “Season of the Dragonflies.”