Getting an agent – Part 1

by M.J. Hearle

Okay, Welcome Reader, lets get down to business. I know you’ve only been indulging me these past months, dutifully clicking on my posts, while all the time thinking in the back of your mind – when is he going to write something useful? Like how to get an agent. This is, after all, a major concern of the aspiring writer – maybe even THE major concern once the first draft is completed.

So, how did I do it? What was the trick I used to snare one of these elusive creatures? What dosage of Ketamine did I put in my tranquilliser dart? Read on. All these secrets and more will be revealed. Or won’t be. In fact, I fear a great many of you might be disappointed by the following story’s distinct lack of insider information and back alley entrances. If so, I apologise in advance.

That said, please cast your mind back to April 2010. The Easter Long Weekend was approaching and I was stuck. Winter’s Shadow (then called Shade) was about three quarter’s complete and I’d reached a point where I’d lost my motivation. I was thirty years old, nearly thirty-one. Not an old man but old enough to have to start making serious life decisions. What was I doing writing a novel? Spending all this time on a fools errand, when I should have been working, saving money for something tangible. Like a house, or…food.

Reading about the publishing industry’s woes only served to make me more discouraged. Even if I finished my book, which was looking more and more unlikely, I probably wouldn’t be able to sell it to anyone. Tortured by these dark thoughts, I sunk deeper and deeper into an unproductive funk.

One day, after staring at my computer screen blankly for an hour, I decided it couldn’t hurt to test the waters. Just to see if the premise of my novel was the sort of thing a literary agent might be interested in. Getting a positive response might give me the boost I needed to finish the book. If they didn’t bite, at least the process of calling and talking to them would be educational; A semi-productive form of procrastination. Better than watching TV anyway.

But, where to start? Having zero contacts in the publishing industry, the only option available to me was the internet so I googled ‘List of Australian literary agents.’ After a few clicks I found the page I was looking for. About twelve literary agents were listed, and of those twelve approximately seven were apparently open to receiving new manuscripts. Not unsolicited manuscripts though.

What this meant was basically I couldn’t just send my book to them without calling first. Only after they solicited my work could I mail it through. Otherwise, there was a good chance my manuscript would be chucked straight into the recycling bin sight unseen. The whole ‘solicited/unsolicited’ business is a legal thing apparently, and probably also a safeguard against agents being flooded with books by aspiring authors all year round.

Before, picking up the phone I wrote a little script for myself. This is a habit I started when I left uni and was finding it nerve wracking ringing up potential employers asking for a job. Having the words in front of you won’t stop your voice from trembling but gives you something to look at if anxiety wipes your mind blank. The script went something like this:

‘Hi, my name’s Michael, I’ve written a novel for the YA market, kind of like Twilight. Would you be interested in reading it?’

Notice I compared my book to what was arguably the biggest publishing success of the time. This was not an accident. I was hoping the agent would hear the word ‘Twilight’ and be too distracted by the dancing dollar signs in their head to realise I was trying to sell them a book that was quite different.

Taking a deep breath to calm my jitters (I really am terrible at cold calling people) I dialled the first number on the list.

It went surprisingly well. After my stuttering introduction, the agent, Sue (not her real name) told me to shoot over the first fifty pages of my manuscript; she’d be happy to take a look. Wow, I thought to myself after I hung up. maybe this whole agent thing isn’t going to be as hard as I expected? Imagining agents falling over themselves in a rush to sign me and my brilliant sounding novel, I dialled the next number.

It did not go well. The next agent I called told me they weren’t interested in representing ‘Paranormal Romance’ authors. Not only that but that they didn’t hesitate to let me know they considered such genre novels ‘trash’ taking up valuable space on bookshelves. My confidence had been dealt a blow but I was still standing, so thanking the agent politely for their time and professional insight, I hung up and set to calling the others.

Unfortunately, I received similarly negative responses, most saying the genre had peaked with Twilight (so much, for my canny attempt to associate myself with the franchise) and they were currently looking for the next big thing. Apparently, this did not sound like me or my book.

Out of the seven agents only one other, apart from the first, expressed cautious interest and likewise asked me to send through the first fifty pages for review. Still, two out of seven wasn’t that bad and so I dutifully printed out the pages, paper-clipped them and popped them in the mail, including a cover letter briefly introducing myself, and a one page proposal, outlining the entire plot of my novel and some ideas for potential sequels (Don’t worry I’ll go into more detail about the book proposal in a later blog).

You might think it was a little hasty of me to send off these pages, especially as I hadn’t finished writing the rest of the novel yet. However, I was confident both agents probably had a stack of manuscripts on their desk and wouldn’t get back to me for a couple of months. This would leave me ample time to finish the novel, and perform the necessary rewrites to whip it into shape.

I was wrong.

(Continued in Part 2)

M. J.