Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Anatomy of my query process Part 2

Back to the story of how I ended up signing with Chris Richman at Firebrand. Here's the funny thing: Chris wasn't even the agent I queried.

Chris was a new agent and only had one client at the time. I'm pretty sure he had either just made his first sale or was about to, but he didn't have much of a track record at that point. So why did I end up signing with him?

Let's assume that you've crafted the most kick-ass query letter out there to do with your amazing story of a boy and his magical flying hippopotamus. You've got nine out often agents reading and you've got four or five offers of representation. How do you make your decision?

The first thing you have to do is take a HUGE breath and keep your cool. Signing with the first agent that offers representation just because you're excited is not the best way to make a decision. What you need to know is that you can sever your relationship with your agent at any time (with the proper notice) if you find that the relationship isn't working, but taking time to do it right at the outset is preferable.

Here's why: Say you get an offer from Agent Billy Bob at Billy Bob's Literary Agenting and Hot Wings. You're so excited to get the offer (and he even threw in a free bucket of wings) that you sign right away. Billy Bob goes to work for you. He sends My Magic Hippo and Me to every editor in the biz. While you wait. After six months and twenty pounds (from all the wings) you finally demand to know what's going on with your hippo. Billy Bob sends you more wings and says to hold your hippo, publishing is slow. Another six months pass and still nothing. Finally you realize that Billy Bob just randomly sent your baby to the senior editor at every major house, but he did so without talking to them or letting them know about it. So they passed 'cause they were like, "What is this novel and why does it smell like wing sauce?" You decide that you and Billy Bob aren't a good match and that you don't even like wings. You sever the relationship. Then you re-query and find Heath McSwagger at White Knight Agency. He's dreamy and knows all the right editors and doesn't like wings either. In short, he's the perfect agent for you. The problem is that everyone's already seen My Magic Hippo and Me, they're not going to want to see it again, not unless you replace the Hippo with a werewolf and the boy with a vampire and call it Fangs and Fur: A tale of Forbidden Love. So yes, you have an awesome agent, but you have a book that smells like wing sauce and won't sell. Not the end of the world, but if you'd taken your time and found Heath McSwagger from the outset, My Magic Hippo and Me could be sitting pretty on top of the NYT Besteller list.

So when Chris called, here's what I did: I changed my drawers, took a deep breath, and emailed the other agents. I did so because it's only polite. If you have an offer on the table, give the other agents a chance to read and make their decision. For me, I told Chris that I wanted to hear from at least five agents before I made my decision. All the agents I emailed were awesome and polite.

Mini-Rant: Mostly this post is for writers, but here's one thing about agents that bugged me majorly when I was querying. I get that agents are busy. I really do. But if someone's just spent months or years writing and revising a book and then followed all the instructions to craft the perfect query, please have the courtesy to respond, even if it's a no. This policy some agents have of only responding if they want the book is rude. That's my personal belief. It doesn't have to be a personal email or letter. It can be a form email. But leaving a writer in limbo is sort of mean. I made the decision that even if that agency wanted my book that I wouldn't sign with them. Why? Because if the time can't be taken to send a form letter even, how would I be treated as a client? That's all I'm going to say about that.

So there I was. I had Chris in one corner and a couple of other agents in the other corner. Chris had little experience. The other agents had varying levels of experience, but all had more than Chris. They were all from respectable houses and had confirmed sales of books that I'd read and admired. They were all really polite and liked my book and the voice and such, but none of them went as far out of their way as Chris did. And that's what sold me.

Listen, getting your book published requires an agent who knows the right editors to submit to, someone who's willing to take the time to personally talk the editors up. Most of all it needs an agent who is so gung-ho about your book that they can't stop talking about it to anyone who will listen. Why? Because they'll need to stay excited about it through multiple rejections, through various revisions, through teary, frantic phone calls from you about how you just want to give up. They need to have absolute confidence that they can sell it even if twenty editors have passed. And they need to feel the same way about your career as a writer, because picking an agent isn't just about selling one book, it's about creating a career.

And that's what Chris had. Out of all the agents, I could tell Chris was the most enthusiastic. There were other factors, like he was more relaxed and casual than the other agents (but still professional) which is awesome for me since I have a tendency to take little seriously, and he had good suggestions for how to make The Deathday Letter even better, but it was his passion for my book that really sold me.

Over the last 10 months I've been proven right. We sold The Deathday Letter, even after some bumps in the road, and Chris has been awesome about handling the various negotiation stuff. He sent me pudding when it sold, and let me freak out when I got some revision notes I didn't like.

That's it. You want to make sure your agent has a good reputation and a good track record and works with a reputable agency, but at the end of the day trust your gut. You want to work with someone who matches your style. If you like the phone (which I don't) make sure you agent does too. If you need daily updates, make sure your agent is someone who doesn't update only every six months. If you're super serious, make sure you don't get a joker like Chris. And most important, make sure that whoever you sign with loves your book at least as much as you do, after all, you're putting it in their hands.

Next week: Point of View - To I or not to I.


  1. I completely agree! You stated the EXACT reasons that I went with Chris. But I really want some hot wings...

  2. Awesome post! Heath McSwagger = character name gold, and I love the wing sauce analogy.

    Chris's enthusiasm sold me. I was hoping to sign with a young agent who was career-minded when it came to clients, so those were winning factors, too. Plus, he didn't freak out (too much) when I told him I was on vacation in NYC and could meet to talk face to face.

    I've been hearing/reading a lot of people railing against literary agents lately -- that they're unnecessary gatekeepers, horning in on editor's jobs. I disagree. Even though my book hasn't sold yet, Chris has already been invaluable in terms of making it a better book.

    Here's to finding the right fit!

  3. Great post - I always love to read someone's personal story of how they searched for and find the perfect agent.

    Always love the pic of wings - I am actually from Buffalo and it makes me very homesick to see them.

  4. What a great post, Shaun. And I love your rationale for choosing your agent...great job!

  5. I think that, now more than ever, agents are going to be worth their weight in gold. Publishers are insulating themselves even further. I think the stories of publishers finding gold in the slush pile are going to be fewer. And agents will help guide authors toward the stories that will have a better chance of finding a home. Chris has been invaluable helping me find the story that I should write next.

  6. I'm glad to spread the hot wing love!


Keep it clean, keep it classy, and jokes are always appreciated.