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How to Get an Agent and become Rich and Famous

On January 7, 2009 I sent out my first query letter – to uber agent Jeff Kleinman no less – seeking representation for my first novel, American Past Time. All my writer friends warned me that trying to get an agent is really difficult.

Hah. Kleinman responded in two days and asked me to send three chapters. A request for manuscript (partial) on my first at bat! This was going to be easy.

But Kleinman declined. So did the next 221 agents I queried over three years (as a former CPA, I keep very good records). Not so easy, I guess. Finally, after my fourth rewrite, I found a startup publisher interested. I had to rewrite the novel again, but I was finally published in April 2014.

In July 2016, I started querying agents for my second novel, BETTER DAYS and I was confident I would get a warm reception this time. After all, I wasn’t a newbie any more. AMERICAN PAST TIME had won awards, (okay, not the Pulitzer, but I had cool gold medal stickers I could put on the cover) and the novel had great reviews. Nevertheless, I wasn’t taking any chances. I hired Jane Friedman, a former literary agent to help me with my query. Jane is a literary entrepreneur who offers a variety of useful webinars and other services for aspiring writers. Her webinars and advisory services are a great value.

But the literary world had changed. Agents had become overwhelmed with email submissions. I used to get pleasant form-letter rejections, now I got no response. 129 times.

Jane suggested it wasn’t necessarily a problem with my query, it was just that agents weren’t interested in the kind of stories I was writing. I think she was right.

I finally got an acceptance from another small independent press (my previous publisher had closed), but I wanted to take one more shot at landing an agent, so I signed up for the San Francisco Writers Conference as they offered an opportunity to pitch agents face-to-face using a one-minute speed dating format.

I don’t know what made me think that would be a good opportunity for me. I’m a slow talker and I seldom get close to a minute of talk time before my wife, coach, or training partner, interrupt me to finish what they think I’m going to say. It turns out that seeing the agent’s look of pained, indifference is not more satisfying than getting no response. After three excruciatingly bad pitches, I gave up and went to the bar.

The next day I signed the deal with the indy press and BETTER DAYS was published in the fall of 2018.

When I started querying for my third novel, EVERYONE DIES FAMOUS, I no longer had high expectations. I sent out 24 letters to agents but got no response. I did have interest from three hybrid publishers and I decided to go with BQB Publishing. It’s been a very satisfying experience. Even with COVID, they were able to get the book launched on schedule in August. The reception has been gratifying.

I have now finished another novel. DRY HEAT is a crime novel about a boy who loses everything but his heart. Tagline: “On the last day of the century, Joey Blade turns 18, learns his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and is arrested for the attempted murder of two police officers. Then things get really bad.”

I would be happy to have DRY HEAT published by BQB – they’ve been great to work with. Publisher Terri Leidich and her team do a great job for their writers – but I still want one more shot at making it to the majors. So, I hired Janet Reid (a literary agent who has the popular blog, Query Shark) to help me with my query letter. I highly recommend her service.

I was ready to start the query letter bombardment when I stumbled on an article by author/writing coach Tiffany Hawk: “How to Find an Agent: The Ultimate Six-step Strategy”. She made sense. I decided to try it her way.

Step 1 – Identify the right category for your book. Hmm. Dry Heat is a coming-of-age/legal thriller/love story /action-adventure. That’s a lot of slashes and there is no category like that.

Steps 2 & 3 – Develop a list of agents to query

Hawk outlined a detailed and deliberate approach for developing the list of agents. She recommended utilizing Query Tracker to find the subset of agents who have checked boxes indicating what kind of books they represent. Then go to Publisher's Marketplace (which costs $25 per month, but you can cancel anytime) and find out what deals those agents have actually done in the last few years.

I was rolling and then I got to…

Step 4 – Personalize the query letter

When I started ten years ago, I was chatty and personable, finding all sorts of ways to let the agent know I wasn’t just sending this letter to anyone with a pulse. But somewhere along the way, after a couple hundred rejections, I gave up on that feature. I figured, agents are smart and they don’t have much time. They just want to read the query and the five or ten pages of the manuscript I have attached. So, I stopped personalizing.

I asked Janet Reid about the issue. For her, personalization was a waste of time, but she said many agents want it, and some insist on it. Unfortunately, no agent mentions in their bio what their position is on personalization, so I decided I would have to personalize the letters. (Except Janet’s).

So last week I was finally ready to roll. I used QueryTracker to search for agents interested in Upmarket fiction in the Crime/Police and Action/Adventure categories. The database came up with 19 agents. That seemed like a good number. My agent was in that list, I was confident…

Until I went to the Publisher’s Marketplace. Most of the agents had not represented any books even remotely similar to mine. After that review, I was down to three agents. I scanned those finalists’ bios, interviews and tweets, trying to find a non-creepy way to personalize my query. My best effort:

“I am querying you because you have represented books about athletes overcoming obstacles and that has been the focus of all my fiction.”

Okay, I know I should not write this blog until I actually find an agent and become rich and famous, but that might take awhile and I wanted to do something besides read more agent bios. Now I need to go back to work, because I know three query letters is not going to be enough.

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