Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Long and Beautiful Story of How I Got my Agent

This week is the Bologna book fair, the biggest event in the children’s publishing calendar. It’s where agents and publishers meet to exchange ideas, pitch and acquire books and discover the next big thing in children’s writing.

And this year something I wrote is part of it. My agent, Gemma Cooper, is at this very moment pitching my novel to UK and US publishers (if you’re interested in how she does it, here’s her blog post explaining the whole exhausting process), and by next week Hazel, Daisy and their tale of daring detection will be sent out on submission to every publisher who has expressed interest in them.

I still find this whole experience beyond astonishing. Three months ago, if someone asked me about my writing I would say, ‘I, er, wrote a book. I’m not sure it’s much good. It’s about these girls who solve a murder,’ and now when someone asks me the same question I can say, ‘Yes, I wrote a book. My agent has taken it to Bologna book fair. I think. Unless this is all actually a dream. It feels like a dream, except that no one has stabbed each other or turned into a dolphin yet.’

A long time ago, back when the book was 28,000 words longer and nothing in it made any sense, I told you all that I was going to write a post about how the whole Gemma-becoming-my-agent thing happened. After that, life sort of intervened, but here I am, two rewrites later, about to explain exactly that.

Are you ready? Are you remembering that this is my entirely subjective account of my entirely subjective experience, and I don't really have any idea what I'm talking about?

Yes?

Then I’ll begin.

1) I wrote a book. This could actually be a blog post in and of itself. This turned out to be very difficult but also unexpectedly simple, in that you start to write the book, you continue to write the book and then you carry on writing the book until the book is finished. If you like things to happen quickly, don’t write books.

2) I polished my manuscript. I used youwriteon.com for this and found it incredibly helpful. Basically, you need to find yourself some disinterested people who are willing to be incredibly mean about what you have written, in a constructive way, until you have made it a lot better. When this has happened (hint: this also takes a lot of time), you are ready to pitch your manuscript to agents.

3) I pitched my manuscript to agents. For this, you need a polished manuscript (see points 1 and 2) and a good query letter. For how to write a good query letter, see Query Shark’s website, and for the query letter I ended up writing to Gemma, see my post about it here.

Once you have your query letter, you need to do some serious, major, Pinkerton-level research. By all means, use The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook as a jumping-off point. But, as I learnt to my cost, there is absolutely no point pitching to an agent just because they like crime and so do you. If you have written (just for example) a historical mystery with an Agatha Christie vibe for young teenagers, you don’t just want an agent who likes crime. You don’t just want an agent who likes YA. You want an agent who is looking for a historical mystery with an Agatha Christie vibe for young teenagers. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.

Every writer who I have spoken to has a different and totally random story about how they got their agent. Hanna Jameson met hers at a gig afterparty, for example. But the one thing that all these stories have in common is this: the writer found an agent who wanted to buy the exact thing that they were selling.

4) Some magic happened. Like I said, every writer’s story is different. So many people find their agents as a result of a real-world meeting or a good old fashioned email exchange, but I’d advise all aspiring authors to get themselves on Twitter and follow every creative person they come across. First, because they are mostly great people who it’s a pleasure to be in contact with, and second, because you never know what might happen if you’re in the right e-place at the right time.

 This is what happened to me.

 At the end of October last year I got into a Twitter conversation with the estimable Louie Stowell. I mentioned that I was in the process of querying my manuscript. “Well,” said Louie (I’m paraphrasing), “If you’re looking for representation you should follow Liz de Jager. She knows a lot of agents.” So I followed Liz. And (I am not kidding) that evening Liz tweeted about an agent called Gemma Cooper who had just moved to the Bent Agency and who was actively looking for new clients. I clicked on the link to Gemma’s site, read her wishlist and pretty much fainted dead away in my wheelie chair because she was looking for my book.

 I sent my query letter, along with the exact number of manuscript pages requested on the Bent Agency’s website (This is crucial. When you query, DO WHAT THE AGENCY TELLS YOU TO DO. They are the puppet master. You are the puppet. Dance for them) to Gemma’s email address .

Less than forty eight hours later I had an email back from Gemma requesting the full manuscript.

5) I wish I could say that the rest was history. Alas! If you were expecting this post to end here, you are still young in the ways of the publishing business.

What happened next was that I sent off my manuscript, weeping just a little out of sheer panic, and then… I waited.

And I waited.

I waited and I waited and I waited.

And then I waited some more.

Now, this is not because Gemma was being mean to me. It is because all good agents are extremely busy. Most of their working week is (of course) taken up with their existing clients – working on their manuscripts, going to endless meetings with publishers to drum up interest, organising events and so on for ever. Most of the rest of their waking lives is spent reading queries. No, not full manuscripts. Queries. Agents’ inboxes are flooded with hundreds of first-chapter queries each week, and they will read – or at least skim over – each one. Out of every hundred manuscripts, they maybe request to see fulls of three, but what with client demands and that never-ending query deluge, it will sometimes take them a while to get round to reading those fulls.

How long is a while? I submitted my full in November. By the beginning of January I still hadn’t heard back, apart from a kind and apologetic holding email telling me that my manuscript was still under consideration. And then one morning I woke up to this tweet.
It was the first time in my life I have asked 'am I awake?' and been genuinely unsure of the answer. She was reading my manuscript and she liked it. A few hours later I got an email from Gemma telling me that she was half-way through the book, and that she’d be able to give me an answer in three days. For those three days I was not a delight to live with.

And then, on day three, I was sitting at my computer when I saw this tweet.
You know the scene in Julie and Julia, when Meryl Streep gets the acceptance letter from Knopf that she has waited years for, and she just takes hold of it and presses it reverently to her bosom while she stares up at the sky with a rapt look on her face? I wish that's what I looked like when Gemma's email pinged into my inbox. Sadly, I am not Meryl Streep, so I received my good news hunched up in front of my computer screen, sobbing brokenly into an entire box of tissues.

6) You think that this story is over now? THINK AGAIN. Contrary to popular belief, Gemma did not offer me representation in that first email. She was friendly and complimentary about the book, but she did not commit herself beyond a request that we meet over coffee to talk about what I had written.

This meeting (it could be a phone or Skype conversation if the agent is not in the same place you are) is standard, and absolutely crucial to your chances of getting represented. It is also something that not many people discuss when they explain the process of becoming agented. It happens because agents need to find out whether they can work with the author, and more importantly if they want to, and because writers need to find out the same things. Don't worry, though. It’s basically like the nicest interview you’ll ever go to.

I turned up, vibrating with excitement but trying to pretend I was totally cool with it all, and it all went astonishingly well. Again, Gemma was absolutely lovely about the book – I’ve written before about how impressed I was with how much she just got it – but she also had a list of large changes that she thought should be made in its next draft. It was only after I’d gotten really enthusiastic about her ideas, and I’d suggested some new things that she was excited about, that she made her formal offer of representation.

She gave me as long as I wanted to think about it, and actually told me that she didn’t want an answer until the next week (I think this was to prevent me just screaming YES I WILL BE REPRESENTED BY YOU! at her in the middle of St Pancras Station). Then I went home and cried a little bit. There is a lot of crying in this story.

7) I said yes! Of course I did. I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t. But before I did (this is another extremely important thing) I made sure I’d read through the contract thoroughly, googled Gemma and the Bent Agency and chatted to two of Gemma’s existing clients to hear about their experiences with her.

Agent contracts (believe me) are pretty binding, so you want to make sure that you’re happy with the professionalism and business sense not only of the agent themselves but their agency too. It’s so exciting to suddenly be in a position where an agent is asking you for something that it’s easy to get carried away. I know I did. Gemma was honest enough to remind me to calm down and think sensibly, but I suspect that some other agents won’t be. Be savvy, writers! Take your time. Future-you will thank you for it.

8) I signed with my new agent! Believe me, I have never seen a more beautiful contract. And then Gemma and I got to work.

So that's my story! Yours probably is, or will be, nothing like this at all. Publishing is a mad and tricksy business that does not operate logically. This is why it's so awesome. Good luck to those of you who are trying to catch an agent of your very own - but please remember that, as I said before, I really know nothing. Do not be tempted to take my word as law. I'm just some random person who is quite good at making words look like they mean things.

And now I shall go back to refreshing Twitter for news about Bologna.

5 comments:

  1. So cute! Best of luck to in Bologna!

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  2. Great story--thanks for sharing!

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