Securing an Agent: Lessons in Patience

April 2, 2020

We've all been through a lot these past few months. I'm exhausted of reading people's various takes on coronavirus, as I'm sure most people are, so I'll make this part brief.

In an attempt to draw parallels, I realized that the past few months have carried three personal lessons in patience. Coronavirus is the obvious one. We don't know when this situation will end, or how long we'll be expected to adapt. By necessity, we are forced to cope in patient perseverance.

The second lesson came with the birth of our baby boy in February, just before the coronavirus spike.

We named him "Noah", after the prophet who is famous for displaying his patience. I wasn't so sure about the name at the time, but my wife convinced me that we could both use a bit more patience, and maybe this baby would teach us that trait. So, I agreed on the name.

In the nearly 2 months since Noah was born, I have learned that coronavirus can't test my patience quite like having a restless newborn crying through the night.

The last lesson in patience, and the subject of this post, is regarding finding a literary agent.

I am extremely thankful and fortunate to have signed with a literary agency in March for my 2nd book, and hopefully many beyond. This process was exhausting and daunting. Since publishing You, Me, and a Tree in August, I have been asked about the publishing process several times. Through that experience, I have learned of old friends who also wanted to write and publish, and I have made new connections with passionate authors. I am thankful to be seen as a reputable source in the matter after publishing just one book, and I am hopeful that I can share more advice with this latest step.

I decided to self-publish You, Me, and a Tree because I had a vision for the book. It was a personal story, and I wanted a say in every aspect. I knew what I wanted the illustrations to look like. I needed to be the one to see it through to completion.

For my second book, I had a steeper hurdle to overcome. I had a completed manuscript for a rhyming picture book (about 500 words), but I had no idea how the illustrations would piece the story together. After my experience self-publishing, I realized that I needed a dedicated representative to help me realize my vision for this story.

So I set out on my search for an agent.

I did my research. I learned that the hunt for an agent was usually unsuccessful and fraught with rejection. I drafted a query letter, where I pitched my new manuscript. I braced myself, not realizing what I was getting myself into.

The process actually began in February 2019, with a rough version of the manuscript. I hadn't yet published You, Me, and a Tree, I was new to professional writing, and I was overly-ambitious. I sent 25 letters in search of an agent, and got many quick rejections. So, I took my rejections for this rough manuscript and put them on the back-burner as I self-published You, Me, and a Tree to learn more about the publishing process.

Once You, Me, and a Tree was published, I revisited my manuscript. I revised and edited in October and November. Then in November, I began compiling a thorough list of agencies that represent children's books. I ended up with a list of about 400 agencies, which seemed like a lot at the time, but that list was quite broad and quickly got whittled down for many reasons, such as:

  • The agency might represent children's books, but not picture books. (i.e. mostly middle-grade or young adult)
  • If the agency did represent picture books, they preferred author-illustrators (people who write and illustrate their own books, not just write). I'm no artist, so those were a no-go for me.
  • The lists I started with were quite old. Many of the agencies had shut down, or changed their focus.
  • Even if an agency was the 'perfect' fit, they might not be accepting picture books at the time. Agents might have their portfolios full.

In the end, my list of 400 agencies got filtered down to about 100. Yes, I researched 400 agencies just to find that 100 were valid fits for me. The research was daunting, but necessary. If I didn't have such a profound love for spreadsheets and organization, I probably would have quit (again) after the first 25 agencies.

So, I had my list, which grew and changed as I went. In January, after 2 months of sending personalized query letters to 50 different agents, I realized something about my query letter - it sucked.

My story was awesome (I thought), but my query letter wasn't captivating, and didn't communicate the essence of my story. I realized that my query letter was based off guidelines for fiction novels, but not fiction picture books. It was too cut-and-dry. I needed a letter that communicated the essence of the story, even when the manuscript was only intended to be a fraction of that story, incomplete without the illustrations.

So I went back to the drawing board on my query letter, and I was devastated. Once you submit a letter to an agency, they don't want you resubmitting the same manuscript for consideration. They see hundreds of queries a day. They don't have time for that. My first 50 letters were forgettable, and they resulted in many early rejections, and lost opportunities.

Persevering through those rejections was difficult. You can only hear "I'm not interested in representing this story" so many times before you start to question if the story really is as great as you thought. But I rewrote my query letter and continued down my agency list.

I began sporadically seeing reassuring feedback, though no offers. I received helpful insight from the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, the agency that represents Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), though no offer. I got many kind rejections, such as this one:

All together, I submitted over 125 personalized letters to different agents querying my manuscript. Finally, at the start of February, I got an interesting letter from Lucinda Literary:

It wasn't what I had expected, but it wasn't a rejection. I pursued the revisions.

Little did I know, those revisions were just the start. Connor and I went back and forth on revisions for the next month. Noah was born. Coronavirus and social distancing came into full swing. For weeks, Connor and I were sending the manuscript back and forth with no end in sight. I would fix one aspect, and he would identify an issue with something totally different.

I am thankful for Connor's insight, because I do think it strengthened the manuscript. It's amazing how invaluable a second pair of experienced eyes can be. Knowing how prideful I am of my work, I thought I would be less receptive to critical feedback. But my story is still my story, just stronger, thanks to Connor's perspective.

Finally, a month after beginning the revisions, Connor gave me a call and formally offered to represent me and my work. I was ecstatic. The revisions still weren't complete (and still aren't...) but we learned what it was like to work together, and we both trusted our vision for the book.

It is now April - two months after beginning revisions with Connor, and one month after signing my agency agreement with Lucinda Literary. We're still working through revisions, but getting closer with every pass.

At least now, it's official. I have someone in my corner there to help me see this dream to fruition. When the revisions are in Connor's court, I am working on my third manuscript, ready to pass it his way when they're ready. I am hopeful that having an agent is the correct path for me to take this hobby for writing and turn it into a career.

There is still much more patience to be had. The revisions are ongoing. And there are many articles stating that even once a publisher buys rights to the manuscript, it takes an average of 2.5 years to progress through the cycle of editing, illustrations, revisions, publishing, printing, distributing, and more. (In a future post, I'll delve deeper into the math behind publishing. Quick summary: Don't quit your day-job. Yet.)

I write this post hoping to motivate the writers with the desire to be published, and to lower the barrier and pull back the curtain a bit. It is doable, though difficult. I sent over 125 query letters and received many rejections over the past year. The process took me anywhere from 6 months to 1 year (depending on how you measure it, with the 6-month hiatus to self-publish You, Me, and a Tree).

Perhaps this is the best time to hear this information. I've met lots of people with great story ideas and the ability to write with amazing voice. I've heard from many authors that they are taking advantage of the coronavirus quarantines by forcing themselves to write stories they've put on hold. If that's you, dedicate some time to writing. In a time when we feel so restricted, writing can help liberate you beyond the confines of your house. Find solace, comfort, and an escape between the pages. Best of luck to all. Stay safe and healthy.