Finding the Right Literary Agent
As an author, I often receive questions from writers and students about literary agents. Specifically, how to find a literary agent. Up until recently, I would respond by launching into a discussion about query letters and book synopses, writers forums and agent wish lists, proposals and comparison books, etc., etc.
Now, I tell them what I wish I could tell my younger self: it's not about simply finding a literary agent. It's about finding the right agent for you.
I found my wonderful agent when I decided to take a risk and try something new. I saw that an online writers group I belong to, Savvy Authors, was hosting a "pitch fest" on their blog featuring a handful of agents and publishers. I had never before participated in anything like a pitch fest—whenever I queried agents it was through their website, by sending an email or, occasionally, even mailing an old-fashioned printed letter—but I figured all I had to lose was a couple hours of my time. So I clicked on the link to check it out.
“I'm so glad that I ultimately didn't let my own bias get in the way of finding my dream agent!”
Mark Gottlieb caught my eye because it seemed like my novel manuscript was exactly the kind of book he was looking for based on his agent statement. When I Googled his name and read some interviews with him published online, I was even more excited to submit to him. Funnily enough, up until Mark, I had mostly just queried women agents about my novel. As a writer of contemporary YA novels featuring female protagonists and love stories, I (wrongly) assumed that my book would have a better chance of resonating with a female agent than with a male agent. I'm so glad that I ultimately didn't let my own bias get in the way of finding my dream agent!
On the surface, approaching an agent through something like an online pitch fest might seem like a piece of cake, because instead of a long query letter, you only have to write a few sentences about your book—most pitch fests, like the one I participated in, have strict rules and word limits. However, I quickly learned that summarizing my entire novel in just three compelling sentences was a million times more challenging than writing a longer query letter! I spent a good hour rephrasing and honing my three-sentence pitch. Then, crossing my fingers for luck, I submitted it, which entailed publishing it as a comment on the blog post about Mark Gottlieb. The pitch fest rules explained that if an agent was interested in your idea, they would contact you. But I honestly did not have very high hopes. I could see there on the page how many pitches Mark was getting—it was starkly apparent that mine was just one small fish in a very large pond. Still, I felt proud of myself for putting my idea out there and giving it my best shot.
Well, imagine my surprise when I received an email from Mark within a couple days, expressing interest and asking to read my entire manuscript. As I sent it off to him, again crossing my fingers for luck, I told myself not to get too excited. I also prepared for a long wait. Agents had requested to read my manuscript before, and it was usually months before I heard back from them.
Within a week, Mark Gottlieb called me on the phone, apologizing for the delay in responding to me and explaining that he had just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was completely floored. He said that he loved my book and told me in detail why and what he loved about it. I could tell right away that Mark "got" my book—and not just that one book, but my writing style as a whole. That's when I knew he wasn't just any literary agent; he was the right agent for me.
“...I wanted an agent who felt like my partner in the publishing business.”
Before signing with Mark, I had two previous agents. When I signed with my first agent, I was so excited simply to have an agent that I didn't think to consider how the agent treated me. It was a pretty lopsided relationship; I felt so lucky to have her that I was afraid to ask her for anything. The agent would send me vague notes requesting major rewrites of my novel because it “just wasn't there yet.” I would spend weeks diligently rewriting and send her a new draft. Months later, she would send back an email saying she had read the new draft and it “still wasn't quite there yet.” This went on for years, through two separate novel manuscripts, until we eventually parted ways. She never actually sent out any of my work to publishers, and looking back I'm not quite sure why she signed me as a client in the first place. She clearly didn't resonate enough with my work to be in charge of selling it to others. From her, I learned that I wanted an agent who felt like my partner in the publishing business.
My second agent did actually send out one of my novels, but seemed angry at me when it didn't sell. It got to the point where my gut would sink when I saw her name in my inbox, as I braced myself for one of her terse emails. We parted ways after I sent her the new novel manuscript I had spent nearly a year working on, and she curtly responded via email that it “wasn't my best work” and that I should “write something else.” I realized that I wanted an agent who was interested in representing me throughout my career, not just for one book, and who would actually pick up the phone and call me to discuss things.
“...I could tell that he is respected and admired by editors across the industry because of the way my work was quickly read and considered.”
Right away, I could tell Mark was a different kind of agent altogether—a rare kind, I believe. He is encouraging and supportive, while also being realistic and giving honest feedback. I trust his judgment wholeheartedly, but he also asks for my opinions. He calls to discuss what is going on with my submissions, to explain things to me, to answer my questions. He never seems rushed or makes me feel like I am bothering him. And he is very good at what he does. Not only did he sell my debut novel to a publisher I am thrilled to work with—keeping me in the loop during every part of the process—but moreover, I could tell that he is respected and admired by editors across the industry because of the way my work was quickly read and considered.
So, if you are looking for an agent, by all means visit writers forums and read agent wish lists. Hone your query letter and book synopsis. Learn all about proposals and comparison books. But don't forget that you are part of the equation, too! The best agents are champions for their clients throughout the process. Set your standards high and hold out for the right agent who truly "gets" your writing—who makes you feel supported and also pushes you to grow into the best writer you can be.
Dallas Woodburn is the author of the short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress (Yellow Flag Press, 2018) and the forthcoming YA novel The Best Week That Never Happened (Month9Books). A former John Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, her work has been honored with the Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award, the international Glass Woman Prize, second place in the American Fiction Prize, and four Pushcart Prize nominations. A passionate supporter of young writers, she is also the founder of the organization Write On! Books that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors. Dallas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her amazing husband, adorable daughter, and overflowing bookshelves.