Deb Sarah Illustrates What NOT To Do When Seeking An Agent

082_Sarah_Pekkanen_4X6When it came time for me to find an agent, I did all the right things.

Except for one very wrong thing.

I figured there had to be a secret way to break into publishing – some special handshake or code word or magic door like the one Harry Potter flung himself through to get to the secret train to Hogwarts – but no one would reveal it to me. So I figured I had just one chance of breaking in: I had to write a really good query letter.

It took a while – as I recall, actually writing my novel was much easier – but finally, I distilled the essence of my book into a paragraph, listed my writing credentials, and spell-checked that sucker to within an inch of its life. Then I blasted e-mails to agents I found in the acknowledgements section of novels I loved. If an author raved about his or her agent, I figured it had to be a good sign.

I got back a few interested responses from agents – along with a note from the assistant to a big-shot agent gushing about my book and how eager they were to read it. This sounds more flattering than it actually felt, because the assistant mistakenly included her email correspondence with the big-shot agent under her note to me. (“Oh, I don’t know,” big-shot agent moaned. “Doesn’t it sound kind of boring?”)

So, I sent out copies of my manuscript by UPS and e-mail, then sat back and patiently waited. A few weeks later, I went to pick up my kids from school and checked my answering machine for messages remotely, which was completely natural since I’d been out of the house for seven minutes.

I’d gotten the call. THE CALL! Victoria Sanders liked The Opposite of Me. She wanted me to come to New York to meet her and her staff. In an effort to sound professional, I spoke in a voice several octaves below normal when I called her back — then became paralyzed with fear I’d have to talk to Victoria this way for the rest of my life.

But before going to New York, I decided to do a little research. After all, I’m a former reporter, I thought to myself smugly as I fired up my computer. I e-mailed one of Sanders’ most well-known clients and explained that she had expressed interest in my book. “Is she still your agent?” I wrote, congratulating myself on my moxie and still-sharp reportorial skills.

Minutes later, a reply dinged into my inbox.

“This is Victoria Sanders,” it said. “I answer [this author’s] e-mail when she is on her European tour. Yes, I’ve happily represented her for seven years… .”

If I’d been a cartoon character, all of my hair would’ve stood straight up on my head. Thank God, thank God, thank God Victoria has a sense of humor. Later, she told me later she’d laughed aloud when she’d read my note.

By the way, a while back I wrote a magazine story about breaking into the publishing world, and I interviewed agents. I asked them what writers shouldn’t do when approaching them – and got an earful. Agents often get letters addressed to rival agents (oops), emails that reek of despair (“I’ve queried 100 agents and been turned down by them all!”) and even abusive, foul-language notes from writers they’ve rejected (shockingly, this doesn’t make agents rush to reconsider).

One of the agents I interviewed was Jeff Kleinman of Folio, the agent for The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein—a Starbucks book pick— and Jeff revealed ways writers have tried to catch his eye. They’ve offered to give him massages, sent him a tiara as a tie-in for a book proposal, offered to hypnotize him, tried to buy him drinks at writers’ conferences and sent him box after box of chocolates. (For the record, he turned down the massage – I think that was a wise call – but took the drinks. Again, a wise call, in my opinion).

 So there you have it: Do your research, skip the offers of a massage, and make sure you query an agent with a sense of humor, like I did.

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Sarah Pekkanen

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16 thoughts on “Deb Sarah Illustrates What NOT To Do When Seeking An Agent

  1. ” (“Oh, I don’t know,” big-shot agent moaned. “Doesn’t it sound kind of boring?”) ”

    oh NO!!!!

    And re: the e-mail gone awry: AIEEEE!!!!! I think I would have passed out.

    One of the best parts of a writing career: good war stories.

  2. I agree: the query letter is key, and it’s very, very hard to condense 80,000 words into one paragraph.

    About the email you sent to the author, only to have your agent respond: I’d have to imagine she was impressed with your willingness to research!

  3. I think Alicia’s right…she was probably impressed that you were researching. I occasionally coach new writers on finding agents and I try to tell them how important this is, but many are afraid that something like what happened to you will happen to them and it will all fall apart. But if she’d been annoyed or angry, would you have even wanted to sign with her?

    Very funny!

  4. That’s a great point, Joelle. And her reaction – a very funny and warm note back to me – proved she was the right agent for me. We still laugh about that story.

    By the way, I was talking to her yesterday, and mentioned I’d be blogging about how I signed with her. She immediately cracked, “Bribery was involved, wasn’t it?”

  5. Oh, Sarah, you do have a way with wayword words. Receiving that agent’s “boring” comment and then your own “oops” email makes landing your agent….fate!

  6. Thanks, all. And I’m still laughing at that poor assistant. She really was a mess. I never told her about the illicit email she sent.
    By the way, when I wrote a note to my foreign agent to thank her for overseas sales, I addressed the note to Mr. Chandler Crawford. Turns out she’s a woman. Oops, again.

  7. Wow, thank you for the great advice Sarah. 🙂 I will definitelykeep that in mind when I begin the process of looking for an agent. 🙂

  8. Good luck, Jamie, and let us know how it’s going!
    And Daniela, I’m so happy you like my newsletter. Thanks for letting me know!

  9. I thought I posted something but I don’t believe it posted. I look forward to your monthly newsletters and I love that you have been so supportive of my writing. I’m so excited to read your novel.
    So, the best of the best to you,

    Greg Gutierrez

  10. Sarah–
    LOVE your story of getting an agent. I mean, uh, sorry you were momentarily humiliated, but still happy that you helped me laugh out loud today. (Always a good thing!) In all seriousness, I’m so happy for you. CONGRATULATIONS on your success! XOXO
    LISA

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