Swimming With the Shark: My Agent Journey
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Guest post by memoir author, Gail Gilmore
I was more than a bit honored when Emma invited me to write a guest post about how I found my agent for this wonderful (and wonderfully helpful!) blog. There’s no one path to representation, but I’m happy to share my own journey through the query trenches and what worked for me.
The Query Letter
Writing a bang-up query letter is a challenge for many writers, and I count myself among them. I knew I needed help figuring out how to do it right, and understanding what agents are really looking for when they read a query. One of the best resources out there for this is agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog. Even if you’re not brave enough to submit your query for feedback from the Shark herself (I certainly wasn’t!), you can read through the Query Shark archives and learn pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know about query letters and querying.
But if you are brave enough to throw yourself into the water with the Shark, you’ll get the equivalent of a one-on-one query boot camp. Pretty slay.
I needed something in real-time, though. So I registered for a querying workshop with a wonderful, smart, experienced agent through Grub Street in Boston, MA. If you have this type of writers’ organization near you, attending a query-writing workshop is a great option. Obviously, do whatever works best for you and your circumstances. But my advice is to get some knowledgeable eyes on your query letter before you start sending it out.
One of the most helpful pieces of advice I got from the agent who ran the workshop was to write and revise three entirely different letters. Let them marinate for a week or so, then go with the one that resonates most. And then, work on it some more. True confession: I skimped on this part. I wish I hadn’t, because I ended up tweaking my letter a bit halfway through the querying process. And then, of course, wondering if those passes had anything to do with the opening line … yeah, the one I later tweaked. I hope to never have to query again, but if I do, this is one piece of advice I’ll follow.
The Agent Hit List
After my query letter was ready to go, I began putting together an agent hit list. I was looking for representation for a creative non-fiction project about a dog, so I used the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents to search for agents who represented creative non-fiction and had a dog, liked dogs, or had repped a dog book. I think I came up with eight agents. Maybe seven. Which, not gonna lie, was terrifying.
So I decided to try something different, and subscribed to Publishers Marketplace. I read the Deal Makers section every day. When I saw an agent who looked like a possible fit, I first went to the agent’s member page to learn more, and then to the agency’s website. The majority of these dealmaker agents turned out to be not right for me. Still, it was a useful exercise. Because while perusing the agency’s website, I often came across other agents who were a much better fit for my project. Those agents were added to my hit list. When I had a list of 15 agents, arranged in numerical order based on how good a fit I determined them to be, I began querying.
The Query Trenches
I sent my query letter to the top three agents on my list in July. I’m not sure that’s the best time, but really … is there ever a perfect time to query? I got a rejection from my number one agent within 24 hours, a kind and encouraging form rejection, but a rejection. I heard nothing from the other two. So I queried a few more agents that month, and waited the stated 4-6 weeks to potentially hear back. I got another pass, but mostly no response. It was like querying into a dark, dismal void. Then I went on vacation, then work blew up with the start of the new academic year, and querying was officially on hiatus until late November. I’d continued reading Publishers Marketplace during my lunch hour, though, and had expanded my hit list. I queried another handful of agents from late November until a couple of days before Christmas. Again, nothing but the occasional pass and the much more frequent resounding silence.
By January, I decided I’d had enough of “No Response Means No,” and made the decision to query only agents who actually respond to queries. And one afternoon, while scrolling through the New Leaf Literary & Media website because of a Publishers Marketplace mention of a deal by a New Leaf agent, I came across Janet Reid. Yes, that Janet Reid. The Query Shark. I wasn’t sure my project was right for her, as it didn’t seem to hit any of her specialty areas. Still, several tidbits of info on her Publishers Marketplace member page, linked to from New Leaf, got my attention:
She responds to any query addressed to her by name; she’s willing to look at a query “for just about anything;” and “If in doubt, query me: the worst you’ll hear is no.” I added her to my hit list. Pronto.
I thought Janet was one of the longest shots on my list, as my project seemed pretty far outside her wheelhouse. Still, I took her at her word, and queried her at the beginning of March. I fully expected to hear no. But on a day when work was cancelled and a blizzard was dropping a foot of snow outside my windows, I got an e-mail from, of all people, Janet Reid. And she wanted to read the full manuscript. I sent it. Later that day, she called and left a voicemail. I could barely breathe, but I called her back. We talked; she wanted to see the proposal. I hemmed and hawed. For me, proposal writing is even more of a challenge than writing a good query letter, and my proposal was quite awful. “Um … uh … I don’t think it’s very good,” I finally stammered. The Shark was unconcerned. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it. Well, you’ll fix it. I’ll help. A little. It’ll be mostly you doing all the hard stuff.”
We spent the next five months swimming in the deep—Janet in her element, me strapped into a life jacket to keep from going under—revising and re-revising the proposal. Though I’m sure my sharkly agent was frequently tempted, she did not chomp any of my limbs. Not even once. And when the proposal was finally ready to go out on submission, I signed my agency agreement. I still can’t believe I’m represented by the Query Shark, but I am. The agent I thought least likely to be interested in my work has turned out to be its strongest champion. Which more than anything, is exactly what your agent should be.
There’s a lot I didn’t know when I began querying. But in hindsight, here are the main things I wish I’d known before I started hitting the “send” button:
Patience. If you have it, use it. If you don’t, develop it. It’s your best defense against querying too soon and all the later angst and second-guessing.
Use Publishers Marketplace. It’s $25/month, but their Deals, Dealmakers, Book Buzz, and “Who Represents” sections are all excellent for finding potential agents. The Member Pages will help you learn more about those agents and decide whether or not to add them to your hit list. And you can always stop your subscription when your list is long enough or you’ve signed with an agent.
Twitter! I wasn’t on Twitter when I was querying. But now that I am, I see so many ways to find, follow, and interact with agents, many of whom might not be anywhere near your radar screen, let alone on it. A list of only 26 agents, like mine, is a terrifying thing. Don’t have a list of 26 agents! #MSWL is also fantastic.
The Manuscript Wish List webpage. So much necessary and helpful information about agents and publishing is on that page.
Don’t assume an agent isn’t right for you based on what they normally rep. Not all agents will entertain a query on “Just about anything,” but some may be more flexible than you think. Unless they specifically say they don’t rep what you’ve written, it’s worth a shot.
Your best-fit agent is out there, hoping to connect with you and your fabulous, unique work. When you find yours, tweet at me so I can send you a fun congrats GIF and retweet your stellar news to the Twitterverse!
Gail Glimore is the author of the memoir Dog Church, a finalist for the 2017 Rainbow Awards’ Dirk Vanden Award for LGBT Biography/Memoir.
She studied psychology as an undergraduate at Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and human development as a graduate student at Boston University and Harvard University. Her love for and interest in dogs began when she was very young and far from home, and it continues to be nurtured through her volunteer work with Missing Dogs Massachusetts.