From the Mailbag: Advice about the Agent Search

I often get asked in interviews or on panels how I got an agent and a book deal. I think this is because of two reasons: 1) a lot of times, the people asking the questions are aspiring writers themselves, and 2) especially lately, the YA market has exploded and a LOT of the people being interviewed are debut writers. I feel kind of silly responding sometimes, because I got an agent in the days before social media, before these bizarre Twitter pitch-fests, and largely before even electronic submissions. (And it wasn’t even that long ago!) But some experiences are universal, and some advice doesn’t change.

From M:

I stumbled across your blog today while I was researching YA versus NA. I read a little more about you, and I just loved your attitude and personality.

I have written the first in a series of YA novels, and I’ve been seeking representation for approximately a year. I always knew it was a difficult market to tap, but I’m excited about my characters and their story, and the constant rejections is disheartening.

You don’t mention in your Q&A how long it took you to secure an agent… was that a difficult process? I am struggling to stay excited about my story (and write the next book in the series) when the feedback I get it all so negative. But I do understand that if it was easy, everyone would be published! Any advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

It took me four years and five manuscripts to get an agent and a book deal. I didn’t even start looking for an agent until I wrote manuscript #4, because before then I was writing category romance manuscripts which, at the time, I believed were of much less interest to an agent. The first time I looked for an agent was ten years ago. It was a very different industry then (plus I wasn’t querying YA). I had to send out snail mail packages with self-addressed, stamped envelopes in order to receive a reply. I sent out 20 submissions and got 18 passes over the course of about 6 months. Two agents still had manuscript number four when I started querying manuscript five. That one I queried to four agents. I got three offers (the fourth one didn’t respond in time) within a week. Then I sold it.

I say this because I think if you’ve been querying a single manuscript for a year, it is time to write and query your next book. The dirty little secret about submissions is that with the right book, getting an agent is a pretty straightforward process.

There are all kinds of reasons you can get passes that have nothing to do with the quality of the book. For instance, if the YA manuscript you are querying is a vampire novel or a dystopian, you should know that this is a very, very hard sell right now. Publishers and agents have lots of these on their lists already — they have some they can’t sell. They are unlikely to take on another.

You say in your email that you are writing a series. Stop. Do not write subsequent books in a series until you have movement on the first book. Your writing career is not about one book or one series. Even the writers of megabestselling series like JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer have written multiple different books. Suzanne Collins wrote many books and even TV shows before she wrote the Hunger Games. George R R Martin had a robust, award-winning, book and television career for several decades before he published A GAME OF THRONES.

(I said above I got an agent with the fifth manuscript I wrote. It was the first in what became a series. I have written and sold/published four other series since then. Your writing career will be many things.)

There is this fantasy now of the total newbie sitting down and pounding out some kind of lunatic bestseller. Meyer woke up from a dream and started typing. Veronica Roth was a college co-ed. It’s romantic, but it’s not the only story. Most writers have long paths, where many manuscripts fail to find a home, and many books get published without superstardom following.

You say the feedback you’re getting has all been negative. What do you mean by this? Do you mean you’re getting rejections on your queries and no requests at all? If you are getting zero requests from your query, it means there is a problem with your query. There are classes you can take, essays you can read, or you can find critique partners. There’s lots of good resources out there: Verla Kay’s Blue Boards might be a good choice if you’re writing YA. Having critique partners can also help keep your spirits up if you’re getting rejections.

And I want to reiterate again that my favorite cure to feeling like you are getting nowhere with your manuscript is to write a new manuscript. My friend and mentor Julie Leto wrote a great article about this. There are problems in early books that you cannot solve, but you can use what you learn to avoid making those mistakes again in later manuscripts.

I hope any of this is helpful to you. Good luck!

~Diana

Posted in writing advice, writing industry, writing life

One Response to From the Mailbag: Advice about the Agent Search

  1. Alexa Y. says:

    I love the advice that you shared in this post Diana! It’s definitely practical, truthful and something that I’ll definitely be following in the days to come.