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Finding an Agent at Cyber-Speed

Author: Johnny Appleseed
Date:   08-15-02

Here's my story of finding an agent in the cyber-age. Forgive me for using a pseudonym but I’m 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 isn’t. But it does show how things can happen when the game speeds up. I know I can’t be the only one to have had this experience. So, I offer it to you, for what it’s 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 Publisher’s Marketplace. Although I made sure all of them were legitimate, I did not do thorough research on each agent’s 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 Publisher’s Weekly, agent web sites, a Google search by name, Amazon.com, and other sites pertaining to agents.

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 Martin (http://www.agentresearch.com/). 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.

I’ve read how fiction writers labor for weeks over the details of constructing a query letter and I’m 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 doesn’t 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 wouldn’t 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, that’s 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 me.

Slight detour here. You’ve 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 they’ve said no to the very same proposal and even when you’re 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 weren’t 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!

They’ve all learned something about the psychology of snagging a new client by trying to get you to commit quickly, once they’ve 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 hadn’t 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 that’s 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 don’t 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 you’re 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 you’re 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 wasn’t 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 on you.

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 you’ve already been qualified by other agents and that they can’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 one’s attention and representation?

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 isn’t necessary. Don’t get too compulsive about the whole thing.

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. I’m 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.

Copyright 2002 Johnny Appleseed. All rights reserved.

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