How Janet Signed With Her Agent. Or, Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Announcement time, y’all. Earlier this summer, I signed with an agent. 

Photographic proof this whole thing wasn’t just a dream

 As tradition dictates, I now get to write the required “How I Got An Agent” post. Buckle up, because as is my m.o., it’s pretty much a list of what not to do.

When I first started writing, I had no idea what getting an agent and book deal entailed (and boy, did that manuscript reflect my naiveté). Honestly, when I first put pen to paper—literally, because in following that what not to do mantra, I wrote by hand. In notebooks—I hadn’t articulated that I was writing a book, much less one that I wanted others to read.

So yeah, that draft was a hot mess. Fortunately, I found a crit partner—MW’s own Mud Mymudes—before I dropped that puppy on any unsuspecting agents. 

Don’t get me wrong—the version I sent out next (thankfully on to two agents) was also bad. 

After discovering other writers, writing tracks, and writer blogs, I revised that poor manuscript for round two.

It still wasn’t query-ready.

Enter Pitch Wars, a very giving mentor, another revision, and the Agent Showcase.

And my subsequent entry into the Zero Requests Club. Not one single agent requested,

I still queried that shiny new version that I just knewwould land an agent, though. And met with plenty of rejections, partially because the genre was saturated, partly because the story still had serious flaws. Mistake Number One—querying too early.

Enter the Roaring Writers, and a couple of retreats. And another revision, and one of our RW mentors putting in a good word with her agent. Cue the rainbow and unicorns daydreams, even when her agent kindly passed on the story. 

Never one to take a hint, I sent it out into the world, querying wide, and got a handful of requests for partials and fulls.

All of which eventually turned into rejections. And by all, lets put that total number at 100+. I queried everyone that rep’ed the genre. 

Mistake Number Two—not doing serious industry research. I dodged a big bullet there, because some of the people I queried…were not good agents. Some have left the business, others haven’t but do not have good reputations.

Meanwhile, I’d written several more stories in the same world as my original. I’m on the fence as to whether that’s a true mistake, because yes, writing in a world that hasn’t sold isn’t getting a writer on the shelves. However, I was still new and raw enough that those words helped me improve my craft. Let’s split the difference and call this Mistake Two point Five.

In a fit of frustration, I started writing something completely different, just for myself, just for fun. Different genre, different type of characters, and modern world—a romantic suspense.  I tossed the opening pages into several contests, and they were well received.

But that’s where it ended for that story. I still hadn’t mastered plotting or pacing, and hit a wall. Four years later and that story isn’t finished.

I enjoyed playing in the romance sandbox though, and before I knew it, another romance poured out. This one, I plotted out, even if the plot was a bit flimsy, and the pacing kinda wonky. Enter my second Pitch Wars experience. I lucked out again, and got another fabulous Mentor. One that point-blank asked how much I was willing to revise, and then held me to it. We ripped that story apart, and put it back together in less than three months, amid a ton of family and elder care crisis.

This story, thankfully, didn’t end up in the Zero Request Club. Woo!

As soon as allowed, I sent out queries, this list carefully planned, researched, and vetted by my Mentor. These queries went out in small test batches.

From the start, I had partial and full requests come in. With each batch, my Mentor and the new CPs I gained from PW evaluated the response rate, and tweaked the query before sending out another batch. More requests came in.

But so did the passes. Some truly heartbreaking ones, rich with reasons why the agent liked, but didn’t love, my story. Worse, the ones that sent me in search of shoulders to cry on and consolation cheesecake, rejections from agents who DID love the story, but who were honest about the marketplace being flooded, editors buying fewer debuts because of pressure from indie writers, and that they didn’t feel as if they could break my story out of the pack.

I also got a couple of R&R’s along the way, and a couple of maybe-R&R’s that really weren’t. As a side note—some agents are not kind. In those cases, make a note on your query spreadsheet, and keep going.

As the passes mounted, and my spreadsheet went from white (open queries) to green (requests) to mostly red (passes and CNRs), I had to stop and revaluate, with the help of mentors and CPs.

Was this story sound and truly ready to query? We all agreed it was. The next step was deciding whether to shelve it, and move on with a new story (I had written several in the 18 months between PW and then), thus jumping into another round of revisions and querying, or whether to query publishers who took unagented ms (in romance, there’s a healthy list, which isn’t always true of other genres) or whether to go into self-publishing.

There are pros and cons to all three approaches. I will never say give up on trad publishing, if that’s your true dream. I also won’t ever dis self-publishing, because it is also a legitimate, flourishing option. With each, advertising falls primarily on the author. Don’t ever think otherwise. That’s a steep learning curve I’m just now hitting.

Self-publishing also requires learning a new corner of the industry, with hiring editors, cover art, formatting, and identifying outlets friendly to indies.

Ultimately, I was a little tired of shelving stories, and a lot hooked on signing, thanks to our anthology publication a few months earlier. I decided to query publishers, and to do it in one batch. If they passed, it was self-publishing, and I’d already joined a number of groups and forums in preparation.

I still had a handful of agent queries and fulls out, but felt that they were pretty much dead in the water, far, far past each agencies listed reading time, despite most stating they tried to reply to all queries. Sometimes agents get overwhelmed, and they truly can’t keep up with the volume of queries in their inbox.

Querying directly was interesting, and resulted in several requests pretty quickly, at least by publishing industry standards. I queried the first of January, and had several passes and three requests for fulls or notices that editors were reading, from those that required the full ms be sent with the query. March was two Twitter pitch contest, one hosted by an imprint, the other a general pitch event. Both resulted in requests, and I was able to notify editors that the imprint already had my full, and have it redirected to their inbox and read more quickly.

At the same time, I also got a call from RWA and the very, very patient Avery Flynn, that my story had Finaled in the Golden Heart. Theunpublished romance contest.

Mentors, and the more experienced members of our GH class, suggested those of us already querying update outstanding queries with a nudge that our ms Finaled. I did, but honestly didn’t expect it to make much of a difference.

Guys, when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong. That’s when things got crazy

Common publishing courtesy says not to query agents and publishers at the same time, with good reason. Agents’ hands are tied if they sign an author, and that author has already queried publishers widely, probably not knowing the imprint, publishers, and their preferences, and wasting a chance on an editor that doesn’t care for their trope/voice/style. Once the publisher sends a pass—that ms can’t be submitted to that imprint again. Most agents won’t take on a story in this case—it’s just bad business on their end.

By April, I had offers from two publishers and notes that two more were bumping us up in their queue and taking the story to acquisitions. Out of politeness and at my Mentor’s insistence, although I was sure there was zero interest, I also updated the agent queries still outstanding—those I assumed were no-response-means-no’s. That ship had sailed, right?

 Except—several responded with notes that they were reading now. One of which had had the ms for over a year, and one that had just suggested via Twitter that I query her. This is NOT the norm, but she’s caught Twitter threads between me and my CPs, and our cheerleading each other’s stories, and we’d amused her and aroused her curiosity. Call that another lesson—be thoughtful about what you do and don’t post on social media, because more industry professionals are watching than you think.

Anyway, after the publisher offers, I again nudged the other publishers and agents, and gave them the usual two week window—ok, 12 days, since I had let the original offers know I’d reply in 2 weeks—be sure and give yourself time for decisions, guys. The process is stressful enough without having set everyone’s deadline for the same day, leaving you only hours to make a decision.

When the dust cleared, I had offers of publication from four publishers, and calls from three agents. After talking in depth with each, I signed with Eva Scalzo of Speilburg Literary Agency.

Ours was almost a case of star crossed lovers never connecting—she replied to one of my original query batches with an R&R months before—except, I didn’t realize it was an R&R. I’d reached out to an agent who I thought had offered one, and their response was less than polite or professional. That knuckle-rapping was fresh enough that I unconsciously offloaded my baggage on Eva’s response, never asking for clarification. Fortunately, Eva represents one of my CPs, one made an offhand remark about my story, and the rest is signing history.

So, please be sure and reach out if you’re querying, and aren’t clear on a response. The worse that can happen is a case of hurt feelings, and trust me, that’s not fatal.

In the end, I signed on a Monday, dumped the pub offers in my agent’s lap Monday afternoon, and let her do her thing. She lined up calls with the interested editors so that I could discuss their vision for my story, vetted contracts, and…

…My debut novel, SALT+STILETTOS, is coming out in the Spring of 2020 from City Owl Press. 

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