Getting your manuscript before a good literary agent isn’t all that difficult. Getting them to agree to represent you, however, is another story.
I’m lucky to have many, many friends in creative industries from music to advertising to film. I even have a few friends with published novels under their belts. Thus I thought it would be easy getting a referral to an agent. I was wrong.
People tend to hold their literary agent contacts pretty close to the vest. Like the number of a good babysitter, they want to keep the contact to themselves. Perhaps it’s out of fear your query will be so unbelievably awful that you’ll taint the literary agent’s opinion of them.
I managed to track mine down through a surprising source — an attorney who had once worked with my wife. He knew an entertainment lawyer who had worked with an agent he thought might be well-suited to my project. After forwarding my query, draft book proposal, and sample chapters to the entertainment lawyer, she put me in touch with the agent.
Intrigued enough by the project to look it over, the agent offered a few suggestions on how to improve it. I told her I would make the changes and get back to her when I had. At no point did she say she was interested in representing me, but just getting her feedback was enough. I followed up a month or so later after the changes were made and she suggested additional ways the manuscript might be improved. Just as before, the topic of her representing me was never addressed.
When I had incorporated her suggestions into the sample chapters, I contacted her again. She said she was pleased with how they had come out.
“So,” I said, “does this mean you’d like you to represent me?”
“Yes!” she laughed. “I think I would.”
We signed the agency agreement the following week. It was a surprisingly informal affair. She emailed me a contract. I signed it and sent it back. We have yet to meet in person, though we have tentatively agreed to get together next month.
My agent is highly selective about who she takes on as a client. She reassured me on several occasions that she doesn’t sign on to any project she is not reasonably sure she can sell. This only makes sense, of course, since she doesn’t earn a dime until I do. Her roster of writers is pretty impressive, and I’m honored to be numbered among them. Still, getting to that point was not easy. The protracted courting ritual lasted perhaps five or six months. In that time, she saw me as someone who took criticism well and was an apt enough writer to incorporate her suggestions into the manuscript. Never — not once — did I become defensive or dismissive or even try very hard to defend the things she wanted to change. In short, I did as I was told, and that made all the difference.
Have spent most of my adult life writing ads for Madison Avenue, I learned long ago that if you can’t take criticism, you’d better find a new occupation. The same is true here. That oh so original description of your lead character as “blonde, leggy, yet possessing of a sharp intelligence belied by her beauty,” might strike your agent as trite and overwrought. Your ingenious way of having the story leap back and forth from past to future to present might strike your agent as needlessly confusing. Listen to your prospective agent. If you can make the changes, then make them. If you can’t, then learn to be content writing for an audience of one.
Certainly mining your friends and acquaintances can get you get you the name of a good literary agent. It might even get you to the top of their slush pile. But connections give you no advantage whatsoever when it comes to actually signing with an agent. Crap is still crap, even if it comes from the agent’s own mother. To gain any traction, your proposal will need to have merit. In my case — and maybe this isn’t the norm — I had to prove myself over several months and several revisions to show that my manuscript deserved the agent’s commitment.