Here's my story of finding an agent in the cyber-age. Forgive me for using
a pseudonym but Im not willing to use my real name. However, everything
I tell you is the truth. Perhaps you can use it for encouragement and as
an example of what is possible. I'm not suggesting my example is in any
way typical. Obviously, from all the other experiences I read about, it
isnt. But it does show how things can happen when the game speeds
up. I know I cant be the only one to have had this experience. So,
I offer it to you, for what its worth.
From the day I compiled my initial list of agents, it took me exactly one
month to have more agents beating down my cyber-door than I knew what to
do with. And it only took that long because, given the strong response,
I decided to drag out the process for a while longer to see how many top
agents would nibble at the bait of my query hook. I also wanted time to
weigh my decision among those who had asked to represent me.
A short three paragraph query e-mail for a non-fiction book went out to
a total of 23 agents over a period of two weeks. All agents had at least
five years of previous experience in the publishing industry as editors,
etc. Most were found on this site as well as Publishers Marketplace.
Although I made sure all of them were legitimate, I did not do thorough
research on each agents sales record before sending the query, as
I assumed I would have time to do so once interest was indicated. I assumed
correctly. After interest was shown, a thorough search of sales history
and other relevant information was gathered using Publishers Weekly,
agent web sites, a Google search by name, Amazon.com, and other sites pertaining
At the end of three weeks, after strong interest had already been shown,
a final altered query email went out to four of the most experienced agents
in the business. Three of these were among those with over 100 identified
clients indicated on the Agent Research and Evaluation site run by Bill
The fourth agent was not in this category but had a stellar reputation.
In this new pinpointed query letter, I made it clear that that four agents
had already asked to have the project, that I wanted to get a very experienced
person who could get top value for the book and that I needed to hear back
immediately if they had any interest. It was from this final group of four
that I ended up choosing the agent with whom I decided to sign. It happened
to be the one outside this 100 or more identified clients group, but who
was known for being a shrewd negotiator.
Ive read how fiction writers labor for weeks over the details of
constructing a query letter and Im surprised that it is given such
enormous attention. For non-fiction, agents want to hear your idea and know
if you are qualified to write about it. It doesnt take pain-staking
labor to give this information in direct form. If you have a strong idea
and give any indication you are qualified, they have all the information
they need to take the next step and request your proposal. So, with non-fiction
at least, I wouldnt get too bogged down thinking your query is the
end of the world. All it does is get your foot through the cyber-door. Of
course, thats a big step no matter what the size of your foot.
As I sent out the first batch of e-mail queries, two previous agents of
mine were personally called and, with their permission, were also e-mailed
the proposal. Yes, I've had previous agents - reputable and well-known ones
- whom I won't mention by name. I did not expect either of them to go for
it, each for different reasons. Both read the proposal and responded quickly
and politely, confirming my belief of not having enough interest to take
it on. And both came back into the story later on, when I called them for
opinions regarding the list of those who were interested in representing
Slight detour here. Youve got to get your ego out of the way and
be thick-skinned in dealing with agents. You need to be able to call an
ex-agent and ask for their opinion of other agents even after theyve
said no to the very same proposal and even when youre no longer working
with them. One agent went back ten years. I had not had contact with him
for some time. Both were kind enough to give me their general impressions
although neither had a lot of information to offer.
As my example of calling shows, it is a good idea to stay on reasonably
good terms with past agents. The publishing world is relatively small in
terms of everyone knowing everyone else, and you never know how an ex-agent
may be of use to you. For a guy like me, who has learned to view agents
as having a defined role of selling a short-term product or unit (rather
than necessarily forming a long-term marriage), it is best to stay loosely
connected to those you may no longer be working with.
Back to the story. Nine of the initial 23 agents receiving the query requested
the proposal. Of the original group it was sent to, two laggards (who waited
for what seemed like an eternity in cyber-time - two weeks - to respond)
belatedly asked to read the proposal. I delighted in having to thank them
for their interest but tell them they were too late to the party, and that
I already had too many offers from which to choose in just those two weeks
they had waited to respond.
Including the two laggards, 11 agents whom I had had no previous contact
with wanted to read the proposal. I e-mailed it as a Word attachment to
the nine who responded quickly. The proposal itself was in good but not
perfect shape. The table of contents and chapter outline showed signs of
not being thoroughly thought out, as the detail presented was not robust
enough. Nor did I offer a sample chapter. Even with this shortcoming, five
of the nine who read it wanted to represent me.
Five out of nine - not a bad batting average. And it probably would have
been six of nine except one agent, one of the best in the business, was
out of commission for awhile, but her assistant showed strong interest and
directly told me he would have recommended that said agent sign me.
Now, we're talking about a non-fiction book by a clearly qualified author
with impressive professional credentials and many years of experience. But
what I want to make clear is that they werent going for me, it was
the idea - that's what they all jumped at. So, the take-away is, if you
have a dynamite idea, they will jump - simple as that.
Yes, I've published a few books already, all by major publishers. But the
sales of my books were not impressive. Previous publication by major houses
and being qualified to write on your topic definitely make a difference.
They help you get through the door. But, in the non-fiction world, what
really gets you read is your idea.
If you have a good, creative idea, the fact is that agents at all levels
beginning, mid-career, and even the most experienced and most exclusive
- will beat down your door to get you signed. You've probably read it before.
It's true, believe me. These people are sharp. They know how to respond
immediately when they like something, just like they know how to make you
wait forever when they don't!
Theyve all learned something about the psychology of snagging a new
client by trying to get you to commit quickly, once theyve decided
they want you. And these total strangers can, when they call, be as charming
as smooth, creamy butter and as convincing as a trusted friend. I did not
have a single phone conversation with any of the agents in which the person
did not present him/her self well, answer all my questions, and do his/her
best to convince me that he/she could do the job for me.
Okay, now for the good part (and my reason for writing this account). As
one who hadnt done any agent-searching the last couple of years since
my last book, here's what was mind-blowing: all of the agents who liked
the idea enough to ask for the proposal requested it within two days after
receiving the email query. But thats just the start.
Second slight detour. For those who may not know, the way the game works
is this: when an agent reads your stuff and then picks up the phone to call
you, she is calling to say she wants you. These people dont waste
their time calling to chat about your work or anything else. Some are more
cagey than others about directly saying they want to represent you. Individual
personality differences come into play at this point. Some prefer to hold
the upper hand rather than appear too eager. Others will try to entice and
flatter you with their enthusiasm for your writing or topic. But no matter
what the personal approach may be, a call means they want you.
So, at this point, common protocol dictates that youre now entitled
to ask them all the questions you want, in order to decide if they are right
for you. Some (but not all) will do their best to keep you on the phone
until they believe you are convinced that he or she is the one you should
sign with, especially if they know you have a good idea others will be interested
in. They will then quickly e-mail you a copy of their contract and hope
to hear from you soon. This is why you read that it is wise to hold off
from committing on the phone - no matter how excited youre feeling.
You want to give yourself time to reflect on the conversation, make sure
you feel there is a personality fit, and to see who else may also be interested.
Now for some details to flush out my theme of how fast things can move.
One agent read the proposal and within two hours of receiving it on a Friday
afternoon, left a message on my answering machine. I thought that was a
pretty fast response. But it gets better. Another read it immediately and
within one hour was calling me.
The slowest one made me wait three weeks before reading it, once it was
in her mailbox. I know this is going to sound weird but I knew by that alone,
she wasn't all that enthusiastic. Yes, in the world of cyber-agency, three
weeks is a long time to take to read a proposal, especially when you tell
them others are interested. She ended up wanting to represent me but a phone
interview confirmed that the excitement just wasnt there.
Now, I will put this next response up for world record consideration in
The Guinness Book of Literary Agent Records. I sent a query to one agent,
who 20 minutes later, replies by e-mail to send the proposal. I convince
her to open an attachment, which was against the expressly stated policy
of the agency. She makes an exception. I send it to her. This is a 35 page
proposal (later lengthened by 10 pages). She reads it immediately and 11
minutes later shoots back a response that she likes it. Eleven minutes!
I have the time-stamp of my sending it and her reply to prove it. This is
a reputable, aggressive mid-level agent who is working with a well-known
and respected agency. She then pursued me aggressively by phone and e-mail
for two weeks, but only because she loved the project.
As I mentioned at the start, after I had four who said they wanted to represent
me, I sent it to the Very Experienced Big Four, making it clear I already
had four agents but wanted the "best" I could find and saying
I needed a quick response. If you make this kind of claim, you better be
able to back it up. It is not something to lie about, or it can backfire
But this kind of blitzkrieg-tactic will quickly show you who has the confidence
to come into the game in the last inning and pre-empt the others when they
know you already have a bevy of players in the line-up (assuming they believe
you). It also lets them know youve already been qualified by other
agents and that they cant dilly-dally in getting back to you.
Two of the Big Four wanted to see the proposal. One went out of town for
a few days and upon returning, decided it wasnt right for her. The
other one responded within 4 hours (on a Saturday evening) to send the proposal.
Two days later, after she read it, we exchanged a couple more brief but
courteous and mutually flattering e-mails. She wanted to see a sample chapter,
which I didnt have. The agent then made the telling call, we chatted
and then agreed to work together. Just two days to get an agent who is considered
one of the best you could possibly hope to have in your corner. Does that
tell you anything about how fast a good idea will get ones attention
Interestingly, the agent I ended up signing with spent the least amount
of time on the phone with me. She was not trying to convince me of anything.
She promised me nothing. She made it clear she wanted changes in the proposal.
Where as with all the others who called, I felt I had the upper hand, with
this person, I felt I had to curtail my normal lengthy interrogation, and
simply accept that I was being given an opportunity to work with someone
who was at a higher level as an agent than I was as an author. I knew who
she was, having done research on her. When we hung up, I realized it felt
like she had the upper hand and was accepting me, rather than me choosing
her. Of course, in reality, we were mutually choosing each other.
Okay, understand all this is not to brag. Yes, it was fun to have the book
concept confirmed by all these people that I was on to something. But I
didn't write this little story for my own ego. I wrote it to say to you:
don't waste your time with obsessing about sending hard-copies, worrying
about SASE, and all the rest of that stuff. At least with non-fiction, it
just isnt necessary. Dont get too compulsive about the whole
Be smart and do it all by e-mail. Even when they tell you not to send a
query by email if you really want the agent, do it anyway. If they like
it, suddenly the sky opens and you will get a response. A little research
can get you e-mail addresses. The days of sitting around for months to get
a simple answer to your query or proposal are over. Im not sure this
will work quite so fast for those in the fiction world, as obviously there
is more material to read and that takes time. But for those in the non-fiction
realm it sure is possible.
Forget those agents who refuse to accept e-mail queries or have some rigid
policy about sending the proposal hard-copy only. Savvy agents will open
attachments, respond on weekends, or do anything else that gets them an
edge over others if they really like your idea and want to snag you. Save
the aggravation and anxiety of waiting forever for a response. The whole
game is moving much faster these days. Before long, all agents will be using
e-mail for queries or they will simply be left in the dust. Use the new
cyber-agentry to your advantage. Good luck in your search.