How to Get an Agent

Of late I’ve been receiving quite a few emails asking me how you go about getting yourself one of those mythological creatures known as the literary agent. It’s a question frequently asked of most published writers. You should also take a look at Ian Irvine’s the “Truth about Publishing” which explains how the publishing system works (be warned: it’s depressing).

The short answer is that there is no one way to get an agent. Luck and hard work both play their part. But first you have to figure out whether you’re ready for representation. Don’t even think about pursuing agents until you have a finished novel. And make sure that novel is as good as you can possibly make it. Then make it a whole lot better. Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and then rewrite some more before you send it to anyone. And, yes, this does apply to you. And yes it applies to non-fiction proposals too. Even though you don’t need a completed book you do need the best proposal you can possibly write.

When Scott got his first agent he didn’t know any other writers or anyone in science fiction publishing. His first step was to find out which were the best agents representing adult science fiction. He did this by looking at the acknowledgments pages of his favourite writers, as well as looking up agents in the various writers’ guides available at the time. (You’ve got it much easier these days; you can use Agent Query.) He then spent a whole week writing the perfect query letter, before sending it out to every suitable agent. (That’s important: do not be sending your YA cheerleader novel to someone who only handles adult non-fiction.) He received only one request to see his novel. He sent it and she signed him up. Let me reiterate, at the time Scott had no connections, knew no one in literary publishing, indeed, he’d never met an agent before. This is the traditional method for finding an agent and it still works. But remember that query letter has to be good. Agents get hundreds and hundreds of queries a week.

I got my first agent because I like people. I always have. I frequently wind up in conversations with total strangers in the queue for the loo, at bars, restaurants, parties, wherever. Meeting new people is one of my favourite things in the world.

So my first agent? It was 1999, I had just flown from Sydney to NYC (via LA) to spend six months in NYC researching the New York Futurians for my post-doctoral fellowship. I arrived at JFK knackered out of my mind and found myself in the longest queue for cabs I’ve ever seen. The woman in front of me asked where I was heading. I said Manhattan. We agreed to share a cab. We got talking. Turned out that she was a writer too. A real one with a published book and eveything. Once in the cab we were already fast friends. Then the cab got stuck in traffic and it took almost two hours for us to get into the city. By the time we finally parted ways I felt like I’d made a friend for life. But as usually happens we never saw each other again.

We didn’t forget, though, and almost a year later I received an email out of the blue from a friend of Pang-Mei’s. She was starting up a new literary agency and Pang-Mei had described my Futurian project to her. She was intrigued and wondering if I had representation. She asked to see samples of my work. I sent them to her, she signed me up.

Before she emailed me, I’d already made an effort to get an agent for my first (written) novel (which to this day hasn’t sold, though it’s come close a few times). At the time I had no professional fiction publications (not even a haiku) and precious few of any other kind. My manuscript was rejected by three different agents. One in Australia, two in the USA. At the time I thought the novel was as good as I could make it (maybe it was) but I’ve since rewritten it several times and it’s much much better now. Did I send it out too soon? Probably.

All three of those agents represented friends of mine. They agreed to look at my novel because said friends had recommended it. I did not need to write a formal query letter. (To this day I have never written one and hopefully I never will.) Having that connection meant that my manuscript was read and that I got a prompt response. Two of the agents even took the time to sit down with me to explain in detail what they thought was wrong with the novel. (An exquisitely painful experience—let me tell you—at the time I wasn’t used to criticism. Years of living with Scott has since hardened me.)

But did my connections get me an agent on that occasion? No, they did not. Unless an agent likes what you’ve written and thinks they can sell it, they will not take you on as a client. Not even if you’re best friends with J. K. Rowling. It’s that simple.

The common theme here is being connected. But how do you get connected? I did it by going to science fiction conventions and meeting lots of writers, other aspiring writers, editors, agents, publishers and fans. All of whom were full of gossip about the publishing industry and books and writers and who the best agents and editors are. After going to two or three conventions I was connected in a way I’d never thought possible. I’d had conversations with some of my favourite writers in the whole world. It was dizzying.

Without even intending to I was laying groundwork for my own fiction publishing career. (Remember though the most important groundwork for a writing career is to write and write and write.) But let me put it in perspective. None of this was instantaneous. I attended my first convention in 1993. I finished my first novel in 1999. I got my first agent in 2000. My first (non-fiction) book was published in 2002. My first professional fiction sale came in 2003 (the Magic or Madness trilogy to Penguin/Razorbill). My first novel was published in 2005. Not exactly greased lightning.

The not-intending-to part is important. Over the years I’ve seen ambitious aspiring writers go to conventions and try to make as many connections as possible as quickly as possible. I’ve seen them rock up to parties and just happen to have the manuscript of their novel in their bag, ready to hand over to the first agent or editor they talk to who expresses interest. Not a good look. Desperation and naked ambition make people on the receiving end nervous.

So, am I recommending that you go to conventions to make connections but pretend that you’re not? No. I’m saying that if you’re even vaguely a people person going to a convention or festival or other gathering of writers who write stuff similar to you (horror conventions if you write horror; romance if you write romance; sf for science fiction and fantasy; writers’ festivals for mainstream) you’re going to meet at least one or two like-minded people and become friends. After more than ten years involvement with the sf community, nearly half my friends are part of that community. The most important thing I’ve gotten out of attending conventions is friendship, becoming part of a community that extends over many continents. I have sf friends in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the United States (and I’m sure I’m forgetting some countries).

That many of these friends are writers, editors and agents is secondary, but, yes knowing them wound up making it easier for me to become a published writer. (But remember, some of them weren’t any of those things when I first met them.) I’ve been invited to contribute stories to an anthology just because I happened to be in the room with the editor who was talking about it. Most themed anthologies aren’t open submission, you have to be invited, and to be invited editors have to know who you are. If you’re unpublished—as I was at the time—it’s damned hard to get the invite. So far I haven’t had a story accepted for one of those anthologies. Like I said, being known gets your foot in the door, but it doesn’t get you published unless the editor loves what you’ve written. Established writers with many published books still get rejections.

The best panel I attended at WisCon this year was Common Questions for Pros. It featured the diametrically opposed Robin McKinley and Scott Westerfeld. In good spirit they disagreed about how to write (Robin: in one big, compulsive, mind-destroying burst; Scott: in the same place, at the same time, every day, with the goal of writing a thousand words), as well as about how to go about getting an agent, or published. Scott spent a lot of time talking about the community in a similar vein to what I’ve written above. Robin McKinley kept making the point that if you prefer the life of a hermit, if you can only handle people in small doses, then the becoming-connected route is not for you. You can, she insisted, get published without knowing a soul in the industry. After all she managed it. (So did Scott.)

I totally agree (and for the record, so does Scott). I’ve seen people at cons schmoozing because that’s what they think they should be doing and looking utterly miserable in the process. If you don’t like talking to strangers then don’t do it.

Here’s something else Scott and Robin McKinley agreed about: the writing is the thing. No matter how connected you are, if your writing doesn’t cut it then you will not be professionally published. Your writing must always come first. There’s no race to be published. I swore to myself that I would have my first novel published before I was thirty. It didn’t happen and I’m glad (though that’s definitely not how I felt at the time). Right now I’m a much better writer than I was at thirty. I hope that like Ursula K. Le Guin and Carol Emshwiller I’m going to be an even better writer in my seventies and eighties. That’s one of the great things about being a writer: there’s no use-by date.

Good luck.

New York City, 4 July 2005