Advice for Writers

My Experience, Part 1: The Story of How I Found An Agent

In January 1995, after the first draft of The Notebook had been completed, I accepted a job transfer from my home in North Carolina to Greenville, South Carolina. Due to the chaos of that time— selling my old house, buying a new one, the family going back and forth between the two cities, establishing a new sales territory and getting to know new co-workers and the boss, etc.—I continued tinkering with The Notebook until I was finally ready to get an agent. By then it was June.

Now, I didn’t know how to get an agent, and that’s one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from people who want to be published. They seem to regard it as something almost magical, the Holy Grail which will lead them to success. “How did you get a literary agent?” they’ll ask, hoping for my “secret.” So I tell them. What I did was simply this: I went to the bookstore and spent a great deal of time in the writing/publishing section, and read a bunch of chapters in various books, essentially entitled, “How to Get a Literary Agent,” and I pretty much followed the directions. That’s all there was to it.  (The most helpful book I bought was, The Insider’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman and I highly recommend it)

What I essentially learned was this: the way to contact an agent varies slightly, but for the most part, the first step is to send a “Query Letter.” A query letter is the first contact with an agent, and is absolutely critical to getting a manuscript read. How critical? A typical agent in New York gets 400 query letters a month. Of those, they might ask to read 3-4 manuscripts, and of those, they might ask to represent one. The odds are tough, but not impossible,  and that’s why I believe that a good query letter is the single most important page that any unknown, unpublished author will ever write.

I worked hard on mine—17 drafts over two weeks and I did my best to make sure every word counted. A good letter will include: previous writing and publishing experience, a brief overview of the novel, other novels that it is similar to but why your novel is different, the reasons you want to work with this particular agent, the market for the novel, and a request to have the manuscript read. All this must be done in one page, by the way, and you must include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). (See Sample Query Letter, for what I wrote).

I then sent the letter off to 25 agents, picked at random. Since I didn’t know anyone in the business, I picked them for varying reasons: this one represents other famous authors, that one represented a similar book, this one is new and might be looking for clients, that one went the same school that I did. There was some method to the madness, though not much more than that.

Now, the books I’d read about publishing said I could wait as long as six weeks to get an answer, so you can imagine my surprise when I received a call from a literary agent the following week. When I called her back, she said she liked my letter and would like me to send up my manuscript. The only problem was, I’d never heard of this particular literary agent—she hadn’t been on my list of 25. I asked her how she’d heard of the novel, and I remember mumbling something along the lines of, “Could it be that based on a single letter,  the reputation of my novel is already sweeping through the halls of the publishing world and is already generating enough excitement to set the book world on fire?”

The agent said, “Well. . . er. . .no, not exactly. Do you remember _______ who you did send the letter to at this agency?” I did and said so, and the agent said, “Well, she died recently, and one of my colleagues—the deceased agent’s former assistant—found your letter in her slush pile. It wasn’t right for him, but he thought it might interest me.” With her answer, my shoulders sagged.  I needed, I suddenly thought, a more up-to-date book on publishing. But since she said she was an agent, I sent the manuscript up, again not expecting to hear from her for six weeks or so.

Three days later she called me and said, “I’ve read your manuscript and I’d really like to work with you on this project.”

Let me tell you, folks, I felt so good about myself then. I mean, here I was—one letter answered, one agent wanting, practically begging, to work with me. Can’t get much better than 100%! I was batting a thousand and I still had 24 more letters to go! It was painfully obvious that,  based on what just happened, that every single one of the other agents was going to have exactly the same reaction and I could imagine myself later that summer sitting at the kitchen table, picking through resumes,  weighing my options and saying something to the other agents like, “Well, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to say no. You see, the thing is, you represent Pat Conroy, and you know—- I need someone with experience.”

Ah, the fantasies. Those glorious fantasies. My query letter did generate a good response—12 agents asked to see part or all of the manuscript, which was great—but by the end of the summer, the other 24 all said no, even those that had read the novel. That left the one agent, the first one who’d responded, as my only chance for representation. But she still hadn’t sent me the official, “okee-dokey, I’ll be your agent” agreement form. And since I knew nothing about her, I decided to give her a quick interview. After the customary small talk, it went something like this:

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I said, pen poised over a pad of paper, ready to jot down the pertinent information.

“Not at all,” she said.

“Well. . . how old are you?” I asked. (In our previous conversations, I thought she sounded a little young.)

“Twenty-six.”

“Oh. . .” I said, thinking, That’s it? “Well. . . how long have you been a literary agent?”

“About six months.”

My heart sank and I swallowed.

“Well, have you ever sold a novel before?”

“No.”

“Okay,” I said, “You’re hired. . . !”