Advice from My Literary Agent: Surrender Dorothy

agent image for blog
The vision collage I posted on my blog in January 2014 when I was in the height of querying 100 agents with my novel

For years I pursued a particular agent, who was like the Wizard of Oz to me–a gigantic, intimidating talking head that would decide the fate of my writer’s life. Would I get back to Kansas? Get a heart? A brain? A book deal? Courage? When she turned me down, I was initially devastated. However, a wise friend of mine suggested that maybe it was a blessing. Maybe my writing career wouldn’t thrive if my closest collaborator was someone who terrified me, who was “great and powerful,” making me feel like “Dorothy, the small and meek.”

I later got an offer from another agent, but I turned down her offer. She seemed too inexperienced and too far outside of the publishing mainstream. Was this a huge mistake? What if I never got another offer from an agent? I feared that self-publishing might become my only option. It was fabulous for some people, but for me, as a working mom, I didn’t want all that responsibility.

As it turned out, after over 100 query letters, one agent referred me to her colleague, Jenni Ferrari-Adler at Union Literary, who is now my agent.

There’s no way I would’ve found her if not for that referral. None of her other books are like mine, and she wasn’t listed with any of the keywords I searched:

       feminist * sex work * heist * Latino * African American * multicultural

Conventional agent-finding wisdom is to look for someone who represents the kind of book you’re writing. If my book does well, I wonder if she’ll get inundated by street lit or WOC romantic suspense. And if so, I wonder if she’ll get any new clients that way. Only time will tell. But it goes to show that character-driven work in any genre can make a connection with a reader (or agent) who isn’t necessarily a committed fan of that genre.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t be happier with Jenni. She’s warm and approachable, but handles her business. I love how she’s doesn’t waste time chatting with me about my debut anxieties. In spite of the fact that I manage to phrased into businesslike questions like “would it be strategic to focus on [insert my latest random future zany scheme]?” She usually says something wise like, “let’s maybe not get ahead of ourselves…” and gets the conversation back on track.

One of my favorite things about her is that she replies to every email I send with a “thanks” or “got it.” This little act of thoughtfulness shows how much she understands what it’s like to be on this side of the desk. The publication experience is so fraught for a new novelist. We need to know that we’re not alone. If a tree falls in the forest, will the agent acknowledge it?

Image result for the wiz emerald city For writers, particularly debut authors, the entire industry feels like the Emerald City: intimidating and overwhelming. Sometimes it seems a bit more like The Wiz, where the city is a massive fashion show, and all the participants are obsessive fashionistas. The color changes rapidly and unexpectedly. First everyone is in green, then red, then another color, with the announcer’s voice booming “I wouldn’t be caught dead in red.” The literary industry equivalent is that first vampires are all the rage, then zombies, then werewolves, then they’re all totally passe.

So Jenni has become my tour guide through this crazy city. In order to share her wisdom with the readers of The Debutante Ball, I asked her for query tips and her wish list:

From the desk of Jenni Ferrari Adler
Best query tip: Do your research and personalize each query a little.

[Note: I didn’t make myself crazy, doing extensive research on all of my 100+ agents, but I did at least look at their website to see what they were looking for and what they represented. I would then use that in a line about why I chose them: “I am querying you because I see that you represent women’s fiction, suspense, and are interested in multicultural authors.”]Jenni’s dreamed about submissions: a retelling of Rona Jaffe’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING. A slim brilliant book a la WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL or THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. A sprawling masterpiece like A LITTLE LIFE. Deep and masterful narrative non-fiction like THE LOST or RANDOM FAMILY

Good luck to all those in the query trenches. I queried for a total of 9 years with 3 different manuscripts. And the last 3 years were a very intensive search with UPTOWN THIEF. As agent Michael Larsen says, “it takes as long as it takes.” Once I accepted that, it got easier. I stopped beating myself up for the fact that it hadn’t happened yet, and focused my energy on taking the uncomfortable actions to make it happen. In other words, I had to surrender to the process.
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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

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