Landing an Agent Ain’t No Cinderella Story

My agent story is a fun one to tell, at least for me. I don’t have five trunk novels. I didn’t query hundreds of agents and field dozens of rejections. One might call my story the Cinderella story. Kind of. (Well, other than the three years and hundreds of hours of writing, revising, studying craft, going to conferences, and wiping breast milk off of my ink-filled pages.) Where was I? Oh, right. The Cinderella story.

It began with one completed manuscript, four full requests, and two measly rounds of revisions. I sent out BECOMING JOSEPHINE, sure that I would have agents vying to sign me. Within two weeks I had two rejections and two requested rewrites. Not bad, right? I was DEVASTATED. I was so new to the game, I didn’t realize that was actually good odds—a quasi fifty percent return rate.

I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist or hard-headed (probably both), but four people sending my manuscript back to me was enough for me to realize IT JUST WASN’T READY.

So I rewrote and rewrote for another six months and I picked up new crit partners. They hacked the holy hell out of that manuscript and then, I took a deep breath, and reentered the dangerous world of THE GREAT AGENT SEARCH.

I sent out six more queries and hit another conference. This time, I was SHOT DOWN. The intro didn’t grab them. There were…issues.

Another bloody hacking took place.

A month passed. And suddenly, a brilliant light of inspiration stabbed me in the brain matter. I knew what I had to do! I rewrote my intro for the fifteenth time until that bad boy was sparkling. And on to another conference I went, but this time, I felt different. I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t pace or obsess. In fact, I possessed an almost eerie sense of calm. I knew deep down that I had done absolutely everything I could. (Plus the Tarot cards told me a new partnership was at hand. Go ahead, snicker. But those things are always right.)

This is the part where I go all Cinderella on you.

At this conference, where I was calm to my core, all four agents at the round table readings requested pages (one was on my A-list!). Another agent approached me who hadn’t even read my pages, but she’d heard they were good (!!) and get this—the best part—she followed ME into the bathroom!

Wait, there’s, more! Something else miraculous happened. Within two weeks of that last conference, four OTHER agents asked for exclusives, one of which was in my top three A-list agents. I didn’t know what to do…so I did anything any self-respecting writer would do. I got drunk with my girlfriends. I mean, this was nuts! I was so confused. What happened if more than one agent offered? What if…GASP…none offered after all that?

I didn’t sleep well for the next two weeks. And finally, I heard back from my fairy godmother.

The email came that said: LET’S TALK THIS WEEK. My future agent/fairy godmother (and A-lister) offered rep on the spot and she hadn’t even read the full manuscript. She was trying to beat out the others, so I’ve been told, and she knew she wanted to represent me after reading the first half. I wound up having the extreme pleasure (and distress) of turning down several other agents.

Cinderella-like, right?

But you see, I worked hard, I researched incessantly, I reached out to other writers, I played the game. Plus I had a strategy. I exercised serious caution before wallpapering the inboxes of every agent in publishing with my query letter. I waited for valuable feedback each time. And one of the most important parts in this fairy tale is that I had met 85% of the agents I queried in person. This immediately catapulted me out of the slush pile.

This business is all about staying the course. But it’s also a combination of caution and bold moves. Know where that line is. Remember that it’s a subjective business, but it’s also one that responds well to professionalism, ball-busting hard work, and persistence. So many writers like to read about success stories because they want to find that magical combination of steps that lead to success. But the only magic out there is believing in yourself. If you believe you have what it takes, one day you may find yourself reliving the Cinderella story.




Author: Heather Webb

Heather Webb is the author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE, her debut historical (Plume/Penguin 2014). A freelance editor and blogger, she spends oodles of time helping writers hone their skills—something she adores. You may find her Twittering @msheatherwebb, hosting contests, or hanging around as a contributor to the Editor's Posts. She is also the Twitter mistress for the popular Writer Unboxed. She loves making new reader and writer friends. Stop on by her website, Between the Sheets!

17 Replies to “Landing an Agent Ain’t No Cinderella Story”

  1. Great post, Heather. Both true and inspiring. A Cinderella story preceded by years of hard work and a mind wide open to revision… yes. Sounds about right. Can’t wait to read your Becoming Josephine.

  2. I admire your restraint. Only four queries out and you resisted the urge to try more and concentrated on reworking. Congrats!

  3. I went into the hole going to conferences, but I wouldn’t change a single thing. Beyond the agents, I learned so much about the business and made great friends. Cons are the way to go. Thanks, Kerry Ann.

  4. Hi Heather-

    Great story, and I’m reading it at the end of my own three years of navigating a similar ocean of work and outreach. How did you go about meeting agents in person? I live in Brazil and find myself in the jungle down here — not in the bistros or bustling streets of New York, where many of my dream list agents live and work from…Any advice?

    Thanks ahead of time for any words of wisdom!

    Best, Stephanie Renee dos Santso

  5. OOooh, I’m jealous of your Cinderella story! You make it seem easy, even though you worked your tooshy off. It strikes me that you work smart, and that’s great. I could use a few lessons.

  6. I love this story. It never gets old – and I was even there when it was happening!! (OK, not for the drunk part – I still managed to miss the good bits…)

    Best of all, I love that you’re still as happy with your agent as you were the day you signed and that the two of you have established a great partnership. You didn’t tell that part of the story, but I always did think the best part of Cinderella was the “happily ever after” – and it’s nice to know sometimes that part, also, comes true.

    1. I LOVE my agent, Susan. As a matter of fact, as time passes, I have more and more respect for her and I genuinely like her as a person. Although that isn’t necessary, I suppose, I find it makes me want to work even harder to make both of us happy.
      P.S. I’m so thankful you were there for the ride!

  7. I’m not at all surprised that you queried so few agents and ended up with so many offers of rep, Heather! You played it very, very smart, and it obviously paid off. So much of the strategy behind querying happens before you send that first letter. It’s in the polishing of the manuscript (and resisting the urge to send it out before it’s ready) and researching agents and nailing that query letter. And whether you end up waiting two weeks or two years, it’s all about patience and discipline.

  8. Wonderful story. My own path to an agent was very similar — a lot of initial interest but then learned I had A LOT of work to turn the story into a publishable book!

    This statement at the end of your post is so true: “This business is all about staying the course. But it’s also a combination of caution and bold moves. “

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