It’s been a crazy couple of weeks around here! Come to think of it, it’s been a crazy year so far. First the book deal, and then the Golden Heart® final, and now I’m thrilled to share that I’ve signed with a fantastic literary agent. Way back when I was still querying (you know, like three weeks ago), I loved reading posts about how other writers found their agents. Finally it’s my turn!
First off, for my non-writer friends, you might be wondering what’s the big deal about signing with an agent. Imagine it like this…
What is a literary agent anyway?
You’ve got a house to sell and it’s a buyers’ market. In fact, it’s such a bad market that there are hardly any buyers, and while maybe a few of them would take a look at a For Sale By Owner, almost all of them will only work through a realtor. Trouble is, a realtor only gets paid if they can sell your house. Otherwise, it’s a lot of work for nothing. So given the tough market, the realtors are being extremely selective over what houses they’ll take on. Even though you are trying to hire them, you have to convince them your house is the one.
So you scour and polish and shine your house until it is as spotless as humanly possible. Maybe you even renovate or bring in a decorator and invite friends over to get their opinions. Then, you contact realtors. LOTS OF THEM. Until finally, one day, one of them walks through your house and falls in love with it. They offer to represent you, and you, having done your research to know whether or not they’ll do a good job, sign on the dotted line. Congratulations! You don’t have a buyer yet, but at least you’re on your way.
In the writing world, the buyers are editors at publishing houses, and your literary agent is the one who can get your manuscript in front of these editors. It might not sell, but at least you’ll get a chance!
My querying story
So how did I find my agent? I’d sent out a couple of “stray” queries over the past few years, but I didn’t buckle down and start seriously querying until August of 2018. I’d written four drafts of THE CURSED ONES, a YA fantasy, and run it past three critique partners. I’d polished and edited until I reached the point I couldn’t improve the manuscript any more without additional, professional insight. It was time to query.
THE CURSED ONES bombed. Big time.
I’d heard to send queries in batches, so when I only got crickets and form rejections on my first round, I knew something wasn’t working. The beginning of the story had never felt compelling enough to me, the title wasn’t catchy, the word count was too high, and the query obviously needed to be stronger. I reworked some things, wrote a new query, and renamed the story KINGDOM OF STARS AND DUST. And sent a few queries to test the waters.
When I got a partial request within twenty-four hours, I nearly passed out with excitement. Then I sent the rest of the batch of queries. The partial turned into a full request (which later became a pass), but the rest of the queries yielded only rejections. All form or CNR (a closed query because of no response within the agent’s stated time frame), except for one agent who generously took the time to write a personalized rejection. Her words kept me going—she’d connected with my writing and my characters, but saw opportunities to improve the beginning (which was still a thorn in my querying side), AND she gave me ideas for how to do it. She invited me to submit new material or to resubmit the same project after revision.
I tinkered around with the opening and came up with a new version of KOSAD. Still the same story, except I’d lopped off a few chapters from the beginning to cut the word count and reworked the first pages to make my protagonist more engaging. I only sent two queries for KOSAD2. One was rejected almost immediately, and then I got busy on other projects (hello, book deal!). I reworked the beginning again for a contest in March, and then fixed some things I didn’t like again in April, but never sent more queries.
By May, I’d almost decided it was time to stop kicking the dead horse and move on to a new project. Then a sweet writer friend of mine called and mentioned that she’d talked about me with her agent. Coincidentally (ahem, providentially) the same agent who’d sent me the R&R letter the previous fall. Since then, I’d followed all of this agent’s suggestions to cut the word count and change the beginning, AND I’d sold a book to Love Inspired Suspense. I’d tossed around the idea of requerying her but was afraid of blowing my chance if the story wasn’t ready. But after my friend offered me the chance at a referral, I knew it was time to go for it.
If I was querying one agent with my new beginning, why not more? I sent a whole batch, and received a personalized rejection—one that actually made me feel happy and hopeful—less than a week later. A full request came, and then lo and behold, another full request on a query from three months earlier. Finally, things were happening!
Then came a rejection on one of my fulls, and writer’s doubt poured over my head in buckets. Did my story have fatal flaws? Or were her reasons only a matter of opinion? Would the other two agents reject it too?
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. One day I glanced at my phone and noticed a new email. Titled OFFER OF REPRESENTATION. I think my heart tried to escape from my ribcage. It was the agent for whom I’d had the referral, who’d taken the time to offer advice so many months before, and who was on my “dream” list because she could represent both my genres.
We set up “the call” and had a lovely conversation about my manuscript and where she could see it finding a home. After I hung up, I jumped onto my email to notify the other agent who had my full, and she told me she’d get back to me within the week. After a few days of agonized waiting, I heard back from her. She loved the story and my writing, but felt it wasn’t the right fit for her list. I was free to accept the first offer.
And so I emailed Ali Herring, of Spencerhill Associates, and told her I was ready to sign! I still can’t quite wrap my mind around this sudden turn of events, in all honesty. After querying for so long, it kind of freaks me out (in a good way) to be talking about submitting to editors now. *squee*
Enough squealing, let’s talk numbers. During this process, I seriously felt like I’d queried a hundred agents and gotten 99 form rejections. I knew that wasn’t true, but it FELT like it. Every rejection stings, and it doesn’t get easier until the rejections become complimentary (I loved this so much, but…) or even hopeful (I’m going to pass, but I think you’ll get other requests…).
The actual numbers surprised me when I reviewed my stats. I sent a total of 28 queries (was that really all?? or did I forget to add the other 72 into my spreadsheet??). I received 16 form rejections/ CNRs, three personalized responses, four full requests, and one offer. Five queries were still open when I signed with my agent. That makes my overall request rate 14%, much lower than the 40% “they” say you should get. But if we remove the first version that tanked, the rate jumps up to 19% (4 out of 21). If we look at only the last two (strongest) versions, I had three requests out of 12 queries (25%), and if we ignore the five queries that were still open when I signed, that number jumps to 42% (3 out of 7). Not too shabby!
What can you learn from my experience?
Send queries in batches (5-10) at a time. Even if you aren’t getting a 40% request rate, you should be getting some requests. Or at least personalized rejections. Many agents won’t let you re-query the same manuscript without a request to revise and resubmit, so don’t waste those opportunities. If you’re getting nothing but CNRs/ form rejections, reevaluate your query letter and opening pages. Once you get better responses, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Querying is slow. One of my full requests came three months after the initial query. You’re playing the long game.
Keep writing while you query. Having another project in the pipeline made the rejections easier. I knew that if nobody wanted this manuscript, they might want the next one. That motivation kept me writing and helped me survive the brutal aftermath of every rejection.
It’s okay to feel sad, hurt, and upset about rejections. Blech. Nobody likes them. But they ARE part of the deal, and if you get through enough of them, you’ll eventually get to YES.
Last of all, I want to remind all of us that the writing life is full of both highs and lows. This moment is a high for me, but I’ve had plenty of lows, and it’s a fact of life that more will come my way. In fact, I find it rather ironic that one of my lowest moments as a writer happened almost a year ago to the day. You can read that post here. Eat some chocolate for past-me.
I hope, if you take away anything from my story, it’s this: NEVER GIVE UP. I’m convinced that what separates authors from unpublished writers is hard work and perseverance, not innate talent. The art of writing can be learned, but it takes effort, grit, and determination. Keep your eyes on the prize, friends.
Image credits: Pexels.com and Pixabay.com, CC0 licenses.