My Agent Story: Strength in Numbers

Copy of Aurora at the agencyMy fellow Debs have done an amazing job this week of demystifying the agent querying process. All have given stellar advice and/or shared their experience. I hope those new to the process are learning that there’s no typical success story, and every “yes” “no” or “maybe” from an agent is the result of a million different factors. That said, there are some particulars about my book that led me to ignore some of the great advice you’ve gotten earlier this week.

I queried over 100 agents.

Query wisdom is that you don’t want to just query every agent in town. And this is true, but the important difference is that my book is a wild genre hybrid, not easily categorized. In some ways, it is the very type of novel that many industry professionals warn aspiring writers not to write…because they’re difficult to sell.

Comparables

One thing that is good to have for your book is what is called “comparables,” books out there that are similar to your book. For my book, there really weren’t any. The closest comparables were on television: Scandal has the same overall mix of sex, politics, and suspense, with a brilliant, flawed woman of color at the center. It was the first story that achieved mainstream success that even resembled my book. Orange Is The New Black also stood out as a comparable, because it reflected a more gritty world of women and crime. Nowadays, I would add Empire to the list, but it wasn’t out at the time. Even having television comparables was helpful, because then an agent or editor could imagine that there was an audience for this kind of story. I didn’t use the comparables in my query letter, but my agent used them in her pitch.

Who is going to be the champion for this book?

My book was political but sexy, gritty and street with highfalutin feminist and power-to-the-people themes. The writing was somewhat literary but it was filled with commercial chick lit tropes. It was a heist book–sort of a thriller–but three-quarters of the way through, the protagonist goes on vacation in a socialist country to visit family. It had a Puerto Rican protagonist and a multicultural cast. Who writes that? Who’s gonna represent that? Who’s gonna publish it?

Different Books Need Different Querying Strategies

So think about whether your book is easily categorized. If so, then do your careful research. Find the agents who represent that kind of book. Really stalk them online and query them thoughtfully, maybe even noting an interview with them you read/saw/heard, and what inspired you to query them.

However, if your book is like mine–not a clear fit for any particular agent–the path is less clear. I had to ask myself, who is gonna take a chance on a hybrid book like this?

Maybe a multicultural agent who likes genre books. Maybe a genre agent who wants to try something literary. Maybe a literary agent who wants something multicultural. Maybe a agent commercial who wants something political. Maybe a feminist agent who wants something commercial. So I tried all of them.

Testing the Waters

Publicist Dana Kaye gave me some great advice in 2010. She said to query in small batches to start. If I didn’t get requests for material from my query, then the problem was likely the pitch in the letter. If I got initial requests, but not much more, there was no way to know if the work wasn’t up to par, or it just wasn’t a fit.

Anything Other Than “No” Is Good News

I did my first round of querying in 2010-2011. I included about 15 agents. I got many outright rejections but one soft pass. That particular agent said it needed work, but she’d be willing to look at a revision. Let’s call her The Big Agent. That spark of hope kept me going through an excruciating revision process until I queried again in late 2013.

Strength In Numbers

In the meantime, I had gotten some great advice from Agent Michael Larsen at the SF Writers Conference. He said not to get discouraged until after you’d queried 100 agents.

So I set out to find 100. I found these agents in all the places Louise mentioned on Monday. Given the content of my novel, I used search terms like “feminist” “feminism” “multicultural” “African American” “Latina” “womens fiction” and “sex work.” Also, like Louise said, agents who appeared on more than one list were my highest priorities.

The Results

This time, I began by testing out agents I was a bit less excited about than The Big Agent. I wanted to make sure the manuscript was ready for her, but I didn’t want to blow my second chance. Finally, after many full manuscript requests and encouraging reads, I went for it. And The Big Agent turned me down. With a form letter. After just looking at 25 pages. I was crushed. I cried. On the phone, one of my writing buddies called her mean names in an attempt to cheer me up.

But one of my other friends had the brilliant insight that The Big Agent would be really intimidating, and that it might be better for me overall to have an agent that felt like a peer, as opposed to an intimidating Wizard of Oz kind of guy who scared me but seemed like my only hope of getting back to Kansas.

And then I got an offer! Let’s call her the Not-So-Big Agent. She was someone really new. She was outside New York and other major literary centers. But I had a real live offer.

I went back to all the agents I had queried and sent them an email that I had an offer of representation on the table. It felt so good to be able to tell them that!! Shortly thereafter, I went ahead and queried every other agent I had on my list. I got requests for partials and fulls. I fantasized about a second offer, but none came.

So I had to consider the offer I had. Not-So-Big had many good qualities, but a limited track record and she had only sold straight up genre work. I wasn’t confident that she could get my stuff read by literary and mainstream editors. It didn’t feel right in my gut, but I couldn’t believe I was considering saying no to an offer.I couldn’t bring myself to say yes, so it had to be no. I was dazed. How had I let my one offer slip away? Would I end up self-publishing? I didn’t think of it as beneath me, I just didn’t want to have to do all that additional work.

But less than 24 hours later, I got an email from another agent. She had heard that I had an offer on the table, but was the manuscript still available? Why yes, it was. She asked for 48 hours to read it. And then she made me an offer!

I had queried 102 agents. But the one who offered me representation wasn’t even one of them. She worked in an office with one of the agents I queried, who had passed my letter on to her.

To be honest, I can hardly remember getting the call, I remember sitting at my kitchen table, with my heart beating wildly. She asked me questions, and we talked enthusiastically. It was like a first date almost. Totally awkward, but I had this “wow, I’ve finally found you” feeling, as well.

Jenni Ferrari Adler of Union Literary has been amazing so far. She has all the usual great agent qualities. Supportive, smart, savvy, tough when she needs to be, but diplomatic. She’s stellar in her communication. Friendly, direct, and handles business. For everyone in the query trenches, my biggest piece of advice is the same one that you hear over and over again. Keep writing, keep revising, and don’t give up.

 

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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 ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Aya, I love your querying story! I think that in everyone’s agent story there is a little magic underneath all the hard work. There is nothing better than that feeling of finding “the one.”

  2. I agree! Whenever I hear stories about how people find their agent there’s often a little element of serendipity, or fate, or “this was meant to be” sprinkled in there, kind of like fairy dust.

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