I enjoy reading people’s stories of how they got their literary agents. I liked reading them before I got my agent and now that I have one I am still pretty interested in what seems like a semi-mysterious process. So I am now adding my own contribution…
The TLDR answer is: through cold querying.
Here is the longer answer…
I’ve heard many tales of writers being contacted by agents after viral pieces, and these stories are very cool, but alas, did not happen to me.
I first queried a book project over 10 (maybe even 15?) years ago. It was for a travel narrative about a trip I had taken through Asia that felt unusual at the time. I got some requests for the full proposal and some nice rejections, and then let that idea go. In retrospect, it’s one of those things that I’m glad never came to fruition because it was kind of straight travelogue and probably not all that great.
A few years later, I tried reworking the same basic idea into a book of humorous travel essays (naively not realizing how difficult it can be to sell a book of essays). I sent out a few more queries/proposals, but when those didn’t pan out, I threw in the towel on the travel idea.
Then life happened (mainly the having kids type) and I shelved the book idea for a while and just focused on submitting shorter pieces here and there where I could. Post-kids, I actually picked up a lot of momentum and got a lot of stuff published and then one day I got a new idea for a humor book. I also read a bit about platform and listened to things like #AmWriting podcast and knew that building up publications could help with platform.
In 2017 I decided to really try to buckle down and write the proposal for the new idea. I worked on it on and off for about six months.
During that time, I also researched agents through things like Twitter, MSWL, and Publisher’s Marketplace. Around month four of working on it, I wrote a query letter and set up a 10 minutes with an agent chat with an agent through MSWL, just to make sure I was on the right track. I had a nice chat with an agent who offered some small tweaks and said she would also look at the full proposal once it was done. (Curious to see my query letter? Sign up for my newsletter below to get a copy of it).
A couple of months later, I finished the proposal. I sent the full to the MSWL agent and then queried about 12 other agents who looked like they were good fits and then obsessively checked Query Tracker to try to determine when they would reply. A few days later I got a couple more requests for the full proposal and checked Query Tracker some more to try to calculate how long it would take them to read it.
During this process, I also revisited a series of helpful blog posts my writer friend Sharon Van Epps wrote about how she found her agent, so I had a vague idea of what to do in the event that I was offered representation.
Two agents got back to me with declines about two weeks after I had sent the full proposal. Both sent really helpful personal notes and they declined for different reasons (one thought the idea was better suited for magazine articles and the other liked the idea but thought the approach should be different).
I was still waiting on a response from the third agent but decided to keep up the momentum by sending out a few more query letters. One of the agents I queried requested my full proposal later that same day and then a couple of days later emailed me to say she had read it and wanted to set up a call. Later that week we talked and she offered me representation. She gave me a couple of weeks to think about it and tie up loose ends with other agents I had queried.
So I emailed all the agents that I hadn’t heard back from and said I had an offer and to contact me within a week if they were interested. With my email “nudge” about the offer, I got one more decline and one more request for the full. The agent who requested the full ended up politely declining it.
In the meantime, I did some research on the offering agent and talked to one of her clients. I liked everything I found out and I also liked the offering agent’s enthusiasm for the project and I felt like she really understood it. So after thinking about it for about a week, I decided to sign with the offering agent.
After I signed with her, I ended up getting a couple more requests for the full proposal, but I told those agents I had already signed. I officially had an agent.
2020 Update to this post: I am now under contract for the book proposal I talked about above. It’s a humor book for introverted parents titled Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) and it’s due out with Countryman Press in 2021. Want to see my query letter and get more behind-the-scene updates on my path to publication? Sign up for my newsletter below.