Sadly the myth continues to circulate far and wide around the internet that in order to get anywhere in publishing you need connections. You need to know people who can grease palms, open doors, give you the secret handshake that will get you an agent and then a publisher. This is complete and utter nonsense. It is not true at all. I can’t stress how much crap it is without using a lot of swearing to emphasise my point in the strongest possible terms. I had zero connections in the industry. I was picked from a slushpile. Also, the myth cheapens all of the hard work and effort each writer has put into their work over the years and that offends me.
Below is my two part history of how I found an agent.
I started submitting to agents in 2000. Yes, fourteen years ago when I was in my early twenties, I’m now 37. I had written an epic fantasy novel. I thought it was good, I edited it, had a couple of friends read it that encouraged me and I sent it off. Back then the internet was in its infancy. Agents were not online, there was no social media, no instant way to communicate as we have now, and if you were lucky an agency might have a website with an email address but they didn’t accept online submissions, it was a paper only world.
Every year a weighty tome, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, was and still is published which lists all agencies, agents, genres they accept and their submission guidelines, such as number of chapters or words, and you always had to include return postage for your material with a self-addressed envelope. I found the few agencies that accepted fantasy, because there were not that many, followed the instructions and sent it off. Then comes the awful waiting for three or more months. Initially the instructions said it was bad practice to send it to multiple agencies, so I followed the rules and sent it to one at a time with three months or more wait every time. Then they eased the rules slightly and you could send to multiple agencies at the same time as long as you mentioned this in your letter, so I did that. I received a lot of rejection letters over the course of a couple of years.
However, during that time I remained undeterred and I started work on a sequel. I received more rejection letters in the meantime for the first book. Now I had a book no one was interested in and a sequel that no one had ever read. I never knew why they didn’t want the first book because the material was returned without any comments. There was just a standard printed slip with my name typed or hand written at the top and they returned my first few chapters. Not knowing was sometimes worse than the rejection itself. If I knew what needed improving then I could work on that, but I didn’t.
I’m not going to document every aspect of my writing, but briefly, in addition to writing novels I attended writing events, joined writing forums when the internet grew up a bit, took part in online communities, reviewed other people’s submissions in return for a review of mine, did everything I could to try and improve my work. I also attended a lot of events and keenly listened to all of the advice from writers and those in publishing.
After the two fantasy novels went nowhere I wrote a science fiction book about genetic manipulation and designer babies. I had friends read it. I edited it a lot and then sent it out to agents, after buying the new W & A Yearbook. I received more rejections over the course of many months. So I wrote a series of horror short stories and a connected novella focusing on vampires and werewolves. On a whim I wrote a fantasy short story, posted it online on a writing forum and received feedback so ridiculous I immediately left the forum. Online communities are sometimes a really bad and unhelpful place and this was one.
In 2006 I wrote another epic fantasy novel, I worked on it, then sent it out. I was rejected. Again I never found out why. I wrote screenplays and sent them off to competitions that had an open door policy. I co-wrote episodes of favourite American TV shows that also had open door policies. My friend and I received words of encouragement and praise from those involved for our efforts, but we were ultimately rejected. I pitched comic book ideas to a US company, got my first paid bit of comic book work and then a little more. It seemed to be going well, then the company went into an internal spiral and it went nowhere. So I wrote and self-published a superhero comic, a pastiche and callback to some of the older comics I loved that was self-aware of its heritage. The comic book writing has continued, but I’ll leave that for another post.
In 2008 I started work on a contemporary horror novel with strong Lovecraftian themes. I revised it, had trusted people read it, posted the first few chapters online on a writing community and received good feedback and useful criticism. I revised it again and again. I left it alone for a few months then I came back, chopped out about 30,000 words and tightened it up. I reposted it and received positive feedback from new people. I sent it off to agents that accepted horror, using the new W and A Yearbook, and I was rejected, sometimes with silence, as some no longer returned material and just recycled it, sometime with a standard rejection slip.
In 2009 and 2010 I wrote a modern day crime thriller, seat of your pants, action novel. I saved up my money and even though it was expensive I attended the first Festival of Writing in York in 2010. I was scheduled to have two 1 to 1 meetings with people at the event. The first was with an author who told me the novel was good and I should send it to her agent with her recommendation. The other sadly didn’t happen as the agent cancelled his attendance at the last minute. I felt encouraged. I sent it off to a few agents, including the author’s agent, as she continued to encourage me. Sadly it didn’t land anywhere, I was told in person by one agent that it was too vanilla, it was rejected a few times and nothing happened.
I returned to my first love, fantasy, and wrote another fantasy novel in a brand new world. I did everything the same as before. I rewrote it several times, I edited it, then I let it sit for months, then came back fresh and rewrote it with fresh eyes.
In the meantime the internet and the world had moved on. You could find individual agents online. You could see what they looked like, speak to them via social media, listen to them speak at events, find their individual (not the whole agency) requirements for the genres they liked and send submissions electronically. No more self-addressed envelopes, no more half a tree going out the door every time, no more postage costs.
I did my homework. I looked at which agents were online, what they wanted, what deals were announced on The Bookseller website, what the agents asked for, how they prefer to receive the content and how to address them (Dr, Mrs, Ms, Mr, Miss, Rev etc). I was on social media so I eavesdropped on a few of them online, tried to work out what kind of person they were and get a feel for them. I attended more events and listened to them on panels. Based on my research I scratched a few off my list of potential agents. For the first time ever in my life, if successful, I could choose who I wanted to work with, possibly for decades. I needed someone on the same wavelength. Someone that was hungry, passionate and someone I thought I could work with and, very important to me, someone I thought I could get on with personally and have a long professional relationship.
After another edit, I carefully read her submission guidelines. I jumped onto one of the several #askagent things that crop up on Twitter and asked her preferred form of address (it was Ms). Then I wrote my email submission and triple checked my spelling and that I had met her submission requirements.
On 28th April 2013 I sent out an email to an agent with the first three chapters of my epic fantasy novel.
On 16th May 2013 I received a reply.
12 thoughts on “How I Found an Agent – Part 1”
Cream will always rise to the top no matter how many cups of coffee you pour, quality is a tremendous filter.
Holy God. Up to a point (having an agent), this could be me. I did all the same sort of things. Feels like a long time since reading the Yearbook and posting subs (actually POSTING them in a post box). Good on you. Looking forward to part 2.
Yes, old school, self addressed envelopes and 50 + pages going out the door every time. What fun we had!
An uplifting post, thanks. Looking forward to part 2…
Thank you so much for posting this…if for no other reason than assuring me that lurking like a photo-bomber on the social media accounts of lit agents is a perfectly legitimate activity. Good luck with everything.
A little bit of lurking to find out about the person is totally fine in my book.
That is some amazing dedication. That’s awesome, and really looking forward to part 2 🙂
Thanks, young lady. 🙂
Congrats Stephen – looking forward to reading the trilogy! It’s great to hear someone in the same boat finally winning through after humongous polishing, persistence, and perseverance. At last – an overnight success in only 15 years. 😉
Good luck and all the best for the future!
Thanks, Sarah. Those 15 years flew by! Ok, no, they didn’t, they really didn’t.
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