Back when I was thinking ahead to how I might turn my writing life into a published-writing life, I heard and read a lot of advice about how to get an agent, and what to look for.
The best advice, I thought, was the advice not to take the very first agent who offered, just because it was an offer and you’re an impatient little otter of fear trying to gnaw your way through all those gates being kept closed to you. All the advice along these lines said to wait for enthusiasm. Not just someone who offered to represent your book, but someone who offered to represent you, and also thought you were the bomb-diggity.
And then I got that enthusiasm, from the first agent who offered to represent me. It wasn’t a tough decision, though, because the enthusiasm was everything I’d been told to wait for. And if I also didn’t have to wait, what was the problem?
I’m lucky to be represented by the lovely Sharon Bowers, secret agent.
OK, not secret. But Sharon gets a great deal of her clients through referrals, and doesn’t really hang out on the internet. Like, at all. I had to talk to her into being awesome here at the Debutante Ball, because I knew she would be, and that you would all like to hear how she goes about finding books and authors to use her enthusiasm on.
So, meet Sharon Bowers, of Miller Bowers Griffin. Internet shy, but indeed the bomb.
What do you hope for when you get a new submission? What excites you about a book?
It’s a sad but true fact that if I’m not excited by page 3, I’m probably not going to get too excited, even if I keep reading and reading (as I often do, just in case). And I find that’s true in published books as well. There has to be some connection, some spark between author and reader, really early on, or why else would you keep turning pages? I often use the analogy of dating when it comes to finding the right agent or editor for a book project: not everyone is going to be attracted to the same thing, but there are some things that we all tend to consider attractive. In people, we call it charm. In novels, it’s not much different: a strong confident voice, a sense that there’s a story here, a feeling of trust that the author is going to take you somewhere—and that he or she knows where it’s going, even if we readers don’t know yet. I love to feel that little “click” of trust early in a book, when I think, “Oh, there’s something here.” And when it’s really good, I can place myself into the author’s hands and simply enjoy the ride.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers make in submissions?
They don’t polish and re-polish those first three pages or that first chapter (or two or three) to make it absolutely lapidary! Ideally the entire book is buffed to a high gloss before it’s offered to any strangers for evaluation, but I can’t believe the amount of people who spend the first two chapters on dull exposition or cumbersome foreshadowing before they’ve bothered sucking the reader in. There’s a lot to be said for a little seduction before getting down to business. I know, I know that most authors have sweated their guts out on their work and they can’t wait to get the novel off their desk and onto that of someone in publishing. But it’s crucial to take a breather, maybe for weeks or months, and evaluate your work again with fresh eyes, and ask writer friends for a read and some comments.
Another mistake? They spend a lot of time assuring the agent that there is absolutely no book on whatever subject as if novelty were the only thing the market wants. Masterly execution can refresh the most tired topic. Novelty isn’t a primary requirement, as you can see by the evergreen topics of so many books on the bestseller lists.
What do you wish new authors knew about you and your agency (or agents generally) before they submit?
They probably know the worst already—that traditional publishing is a very slow process. Agents let their reading stack up sometimes for a very long time. It’s a bit more of an art than a science, and I know authors can find that frustrating since the process can feel obscure and opaque. But in my experience that’s never intentional. Most publishing professionals stay in the business from a lasting passion and respect for what writers do. There’s nothing like the thrill of finding an exciting new voice, when the pages are almost turning themselves, and next thing it’s hours later and there I am, in love with another writer. It’s the green light on the end of the dock of book publishing when you think, “Oh YEAH, I love this, I know exactly what to do with this and what editor is going to love it too.” Click.
Lori, again: Click is right. Don’t you just love her? Be nice to her, internet.
I’m willing to take questions about my process of signing and working with Sharon. What questions do you have about finding the right person to click with?
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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.
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