When You Know, You Know: Signing with an Agent

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of posts about the writing and editing process, as well as posts about publishing in general. But there’s one aspect of the writer’s journey I’ve yet to explore/talk about: the process of landing an agent. Since that’s outside my own experience as either an author or editor, I’ve invited A.M. Ruggirello to come share the story of how she successfully signed with her agent. So, without further ado — and buckets of congratulations — I give you Ms. Ruggirello.

When You Know, You Know

by A.M. Ruggirello

This post’s title can (surprisingly) apply to many facets of my life. For instance, I knew I wanted to marry my husband the moment I walked away from the table we both sat at, at a mutual friend’s wedding. I also knew my husband and I (yes, the same one from the wedding, now ten years later) were supposed to move into the house we stumbled upon one morning, and proceeded to purchase with an accepted offer that evening — and we weren’t even planning on moving anytime soon.

When you know, you know.

Nothing solidifies this phrase more than the experience I’ve had writing, querying, and eventually signing with my wonderful agent, Mandy Hubbard of Emerald City Literary Agency. If you’re reading this blog, you likely have a loose understanding of this publishing process, from drafting, to editing, to agents, and finally, publication — seeing your book on bookshelves. But because I have a lot of IRL family and friends who aren’t as familiar, here’s a little background:

After you draft a story, you go through multiple rounds of revisions based on critique partner (the people who see your story likely as you’re drafting) and beta reader (the people who see your story closer to completion) feedback. This is done before any agents or editors see your story.

Once you feel your manuscript is in submitting-shape, you create a query letter (one page explanation of you and your story) as well as a synopsis (one to three page summary of your story as a whole). These pieces are necessary when submitting to agents and/or publishers. (Also, for the sake of reminding, if you’re querying, you should focus on agents or publishers independently, not both at the same time. They are two very different routes to take your writing career, and you should determine which is the best fit/one you’d like to pursue before sending out a query.)

The process of querying agents (the route I took) takes time. Heck, most phases of publishing take time. I began my querying journey in November, after having been selected as a finalist in a writing competition called Pitch 2 Publication, where an editor (the blog host and great Kisa Whipkey!) worked with me and my manuscript to prepare it for an agent round at the end of the month. The agent round came and went, and no requests were made. But I continued querying, understanding that the end of the year + the beginning of the year are busy months for agents, and to keep my hopes and expectations in check. Months passed with rejection after rejection, the occasional full or partial manuscript request, and even more rejection.

But, when you know, you know . . . right?

Right.

That’s what all the blog posts and articles I read said, anyway. You want an agent and/or editor who’s as passionate and enthusiastic about your story as you are. Anything less isn’t worth your time. What’s the point of an agent or editor who isn’t? Sure, there may be the monetary motivation to sell your book, but a book can be a hard sell if those invested in it aren’t . . . well . . . fully invested.

As a querying author, that’s the last thing you think about though. All your mind can process is the line from point A to point B, from hitting “Send” on your email to receiving the response (positive or negative) from the agent/editor. All you want is someone to say “YES, I’ll take the chance on you.” But what you don’t realize until you’re in the thick of it is that you really should be searching for the agent/editor who gives your enthusiasm a run for its money. I’ll admit, never having been through the agent querying process before, I saw this as the elusive unicorn, only existing in fairy tale and folklore, not reality.

But then something even more magical than a unicorn came into my life. Or, rather, appeared as a notification in my inbox. After having received a few more rejections (a la Dan in Real Live: “Put it on my tab”), I decided to send out one more query. It was to the owner of a literary agency who also happened to be the author of eleven books (Holy catz! I later exclaimed during our initial phone call. I can’t believe I finished one book, let alone ELEVEN!!!! She laughed.). I felt it was a long shot. At this point in querying, when you’ve received more rejections than interest, everything seems like a long shot.

But I hit send, and it was off into the interwebs. Nothing more to do but wait . . .

Six minutes.

That’s right. It took six minutes for me to receive a full request off the query I had just sent. But that’s just a fluke, I thought. It’ll probably take a while to hear back from them.

It didn’t.

I sent my query on a Saturday morning — March 18th, 2017, to be exact. After a slew of exciting, but don’t-read-too-much-into-it tweets from Mandy, the agent in question, I received an email requesting a call. THE CALL. But . . . it had been less than twenty-four hours. That can’t be.

Except, when you know, you know.

Seriously.

Never having been in THE CALL situation before, I took the appropriate amount of time to freak out, try to research the questions to ask, and — most importantly — keep the bile rising in my throat in check. Don’t puke. Don’t puke. PLEASE don’t puke.

Thankfully, I didn’t puke. And the call with Mandy went above and beyond expectation. But there’s a process to follow once you’ve been offered representation. Even if you know they’re the agent you want to sign with. And, as we’ve already established, when you know, you totally, abso-freaking-lutely know. Except you can’t say it just yet. Because: professional courtesy. So you do the dance. You inform all the agents you’ve queried that you’ve received an offer of representation to see if they’d be interested in countering. You have to. It’s the nature of the business. Believe me, I wanted to scream yes, yes, YES! from the mountaintops after talking with Mandy.

Because when I knew, I knew.

But I did the dance. I waited a week, receiving interest from other agents along the way. Here’s the thing, though. Yes, it’s exciting to get THE CALL and then THE OFFER. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before in my life. But there’s something that made it even more special, and that’s that it came from Mandy. Over the weekend, as I was traveling to visit family, I continued to stalk her Twitter feed (sorry, Mandy!). And she continued to tweet about my story. A lot. With the same enthusiasm and anticipation I’d had while drafting and querying my story. It felt like kismet, like it was meant to be. I’ve said it already, so you know what’s coming: when you know, you know.

And then it was Monday. The letter accepting representation was drafted. I’d received a few preliminary edit suggestions from Mandy, which further solidified my decision, and then I hit send. Better yet, I hit send with at least one GIF included in the email. (I say at least because there may have been two, and at this point everything’s a blur to me.) She responded, and in her email . . . there were GIFs. Yes, multiple, this I remember for sure.

I know I’ve been saying it a lot, but—c’mon. WHEN YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW.

As a querying author, there’s a fine line we walk in searching for representation and finding someone who will do our stories justice. You don’t want to say YES just because they’ve said YES. There were others who were interested in my story, but I can assure you that no one shared the same love and enthusiasm for it quite like Mandy. I couldn’t imagine myself with another agent. And that should be the primary goal in finding an agent. Yes, you look at their history, credentials, sales, etc . . . but does any of it really matter if they aren’t the biggest champion of your story?

That’s why, looking back on the experience, I wish I could tell myself the one thing I knew all along: when you know . . . well, you just know.

Featured From the Archives: What To Do WHILE Querying

I had an entirely different post planned for today — about the good, bad, and ugly of prologues –but then I got hit with what I’m not-so-affectionately calling the Rip Van Winkle flu and was forced to sleep away any writing time I may have had. So the dissection of everyone’s most hated literary device will have to wait for another week, I’m afraid.

Instead, I’m going to give you an encore of an article I wrote earlier this year, which is especially pertinent now, when hundreds of writers with freshly finished NaNoWriMo drafts are preparing to brave the query trenches and Twitter is heading into what’s otherwise known as Pitch Party Season. Be sure you check out the counterpoint article referenced as well, for the full spectrum of both good and bad behaviors found in querying.

Good luck to all those participating in #pitmad today! And until next week, happy writing!

What To Do WHILE Querying

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 7/3/15

A few months ago (okay, six months ago), I posted a surprisingly popular piece about what not to do when querying, detailing all the things authors should avoid, as well as some of the things they shouldn’t (I posted a reprise of it last week too, in case you were wondering). But that only covered the initial part of the process, the actual act of querying. Today, I want to talk about things you, as an author, can do while you wait oh-so-patiently (yes, that was sarcasm, people) for those elusive responses. And in keeping with the tone of the previous post, there will probably be at least a tiny bit of snark, so be ready.

What To Do WHILE Querying

(aka How to Avoid the Finger-Drumming Lure of Bad Decisions)

Let’s face it, waiting sucks. It has always sucked. And it will continue to suck, because it’s waiting. And waiting — say it with me now — SUCKS. Humans aren’t wired to be patient, and the age of the internet, with its instant gratification and its lightning fast access to information and entertainment, has done absolutely zip when it comes to instilling the virtue of said trait.

Well, publishing isn’t the internet. At all. Publishing is a relic, a dinosaur founded on the very essence of patience. Yes, there have been advances that minimize the time it takes for an author to see their name in print, and yes, there will continue to be avenues and improvements that further move us toward that as yet unattainable moment when a decision is instantaneous. But today is not that day. Today, a querying author faces weeks, months, and possibly even years before they’ll finally hold their book-baby in their hands. Today, you wait.

I’m sure you can see how this scenario often leads to behaviors and decisions that can be problematic, many of which I listed in the previous post. No one likes waiting. No one likes that nail-chewing anxiety of having their fate in someone else’s hands. But how do you get around it?

The easiest way to avoid becoming the poster child for what not to do is to find some other way to distract yourself. Agonizing over the wait, refreshing your inbox every twenty seconds, is only going to drive you crazy. So here are some things to try instead.

1. Learn the Ins & Outs of the Industry

This is especially important for the newbies out there, which is why it’s going to be the biggest section. Debut authors are like fledgling birds, testing their wings for the first time. And that’s a special, unique place to be. But it’s also dangerous. Just like baby birds have no idea what waits for them as soon as they leave that cozy nest, debut authors often have little to no understanding of the industry beyond the steps required to query. It’s okay if this sounds like you. We were all there once. I promise.

One of the deadliest poisons to the author/publisher relationship is unrealistic expectations. Let me paint the picture for you: as a kid, you decided you wanted to become a writer. You loved reading and the act of putting words on paper, and stories just seemed to flow magically from your fingertips. You envisioned topping the New York Times Bestseller list, landing that triple-figure book deal with a Big 5 publisher, instantaneous fame, book-signing tours, movie deals, and quitting your crappy day job with money to spare. Right? Don’t lie, we’ve all done it.

Enter reality.

The sad fact is that only the top 1% of the top 1% ever reach any of those things. The rest of us slum it out in the query trenches, find a nice home at a small to moderate-sized press or even forge our own paths and do the self-publishing thing. You will see more rejections than accolades. Sales will be slow because no one knows who you are yet. Marketing budgets, if offered at all, will be tiny and heavily reliant on the author’s own willingness to do the majority of the work. There are no book tours, probably no movie deals, and you’ll be stuck at that crappy day job for probably several more novels. If you’re lucky.

But as discouraging as all that is, you can combat it. Do your research. Learn the way the publishing industry actually  works. Set aside those shiny expectations that will label you a diva author and figure out how to attain success within the system that already exists. Read blogs by industry professionals, attend writing conferences, research publishers and agents and contracts and marketing and every other tidbit you can get your hands on. A firm understanding of the way the industry operates will prepare you for what’s to come when you land that offer of a contract and will help you avoid becoming prey to the cats waiting below your nest.

2. Befriend Agents & Editors

Social media is fantastic for this sort of thing. Find and follow agents and editors, and even publishers, to see first-hand what they’re looking for. Get to know the people behind the “gate,” as it were. Because we are just people. People who love books just as much as you do.

When you’re on the outside, publishing seems like a big, scary world. But it’s actually not. Industry pros talk to each other as well as to authors, so if you can befriend a couple, guess what? Your chances of success just went up. You’re no longer just a name on the 800th query in the pile; you’re a person. They know you. They may even like you. And when that happens, you can guess what comes next: they dig your query out of that massive pile of submissions.

So don’t fall for the us vs. them mentality. Agents and editors are your friends. Just be careful you don’t abuse the privilege. You can read last week’s post for the cautionary note on that. 😉

3. Read Widely, Both Inside and Outside Your Target Genre

By now, you should be sensing a theme. Research, research, research. All of these are great ways to bide your time during the painstaking months of waiting. If you’re a writer, you really should be doing this anyway. But we all know how few those reading hours become when you’re wrapped in the thrall of writing. Which is why it’s perfect to spend some time catching up on the latest releases while your query works its way through the pipeline.

Why is this necessary? Well, for starters, it will give you a chance to see what the current trends in your genre are, or rather, were. Remember, the books releasing now are a few years old, because unlike the internet, publishing operates at a pace not unlike a sloth on Valium, which is to say, it’s slow. So by the time they’re on the shelf, those trends are pretty much dead. Which means that if your book fits in that trend, you can already guess it’s going to be a hard sell.

But the other reason is that you grow as a writer by reading the work of your peers. You’ll learn new styles, new approaches to storytelling, and possibly even new ways to combine genres. It will also come in extremely handy when an agent or editor asks you for comp titles (comparative books that appeal to the readership you’re targeting) for your work.

4. Start Something New

This is the last piece of advice I have, not because it’s less important, but because it should be the most obvious. Writers write. It what you do. Yes, you poured your heart and soul into that manuscript you just sent out into the world, but there’s nothing more you can do for it. It’s time to turn your attention to the next one. Because it may be years before your first-born novel sees the light at the end of the publishing tunnel, if it does at all. Many writers don’t succeed with their first, or second, or even third novel. Sometimes it’s the sixth or seventh that lands them their first book deal. And that’s perfectly normal. Those first attempts aren’t wasted effort. You learned and developed and grew, and now, now you have a back-list.

Back-lists and archives of “new” content are an author’s secret weapon. Because guess what? Readers are impatient too. Just like you don’t like waiting for agents and editors to respond, readers don’t like waiting for a new installment from their new favorite author. Which is why the best thing you can do while querying is to continue working. Continue honing your craft, be it on novels, short stories, or novellas. Continue generating new content, be it blog posts, contest entries, or platform-building endeavors. Just continue working. Because at the very least, it’ll keep you from drumming your fingers on the desk and falling prey to all the bad choices I mentioned last week. And you never know, one of those other projects could be the very thing that gets you noticed.

All right, those are my top suggestions for ways to make the waiting less agonizing, but they’re certainly not the only ways. I’d like to hear some of yours. So, authors and other editors, what do you do or recommend to keep the query-trench madness at bay? Sound off in the comments below! 🙂