©2017 by S.L.Penner. 

Photo credits - Alison Moore Photography

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My Path to Agent Representation

I’ve always been fascinated by “How I Got My Agent” stories, which I used to read somewhat enviously while stuck in that in-between place we all know too well: I’m happy for you, but I want that for myself. 


No two journeys are alike: Twitter contests, in-person conference pitches, slush pile aficionados. But while the representation experiences shared by querying writers are varied and unique, we all have a few things in common: we want an agent to love our work as much as we do. We want validation from a professional in the industry. We want someone to champion our work. Someone to inform us, encourage us, re-direct us. 


Below, I’ve summarized my path to representation, with a few tips and tidbits I learned while spending time at the bottom of the querying trenches.

Falling Flat: My First Book

 

I finished my first book, KEPT, in late 2017. In one year, I queried nearly 130 agents. KEPT received a few bites of interest (i.e. full manuscript requests, a couple of requests from Pitch Wars mentors, etc.) but in the end, it was always, “no thanks.” 


“No thanks” x 130 = something about this manuscript was not working


Deep down in my gut, I knew why no one wanted KEPT. It wasn’t the genre, the query letter, or the quality of writing. I truly believe KEPT didn’t get picked up because it was (is) misaligned with the themes and values publishers seek in historical women’s fiction today. Suffice it to say, this didn’t bode well for my novel’s viability in today’s market. 


As I was querying, I continued to learn and research techniques for successfully querying and pitching a novel. I attended webinars with Writer’s Digest; I sought feedback on my query letter via Twitter friends and QueryTracker forums; I participated in contests like Pitch Wars and RevPit; the list goes on.


And, of course, I started writing something brand new. 

Course-Correct: A New Method

 

At some point while querying KEPT, I read a bit of advice: when framing the idea for a new book, start by writing a strong pitch. Or said another way: write your query letter before you write the book. With THE LOST APOTHECARY, this is precisely what I did. I developed a rock-solid hook and built the entire book around this hook. 


I spent about 16 months drafting and revising THE LOST APOTHECARY.

 

And then…

The First Domino

I love in-person pitching (at conferences, workshops, etc.) I’m a confident speaker, and I find that meeting face-to-face with agents breaks down that barrier of intimidation: sitting across from an agent and seeing their imperfections—whether a loose hair or bad handwriting—is a reminder that these people are not perfect. It’s comforting, to be honest.


Okay, so I intended to start querying THE LOST APOTHECARY in late July 2019. But in late May, Writing Day Workshops hosted an event in Tampa, and a number of agents would be present. I thought this a perfect opportunity to pitch in-person to gather feedback, so I could make adjustments as needed before my “real querying.”


Well, curve ball: both of the agents I pitched to requested my full manuscript. And not only did they request it, but they both seemed really, really excited about it.

 

I sent my manuscript to these two agents, and then I did something a bit risky: though I still had some finishing touches to put on my manuscript (e.g. line edits,) I went ahead and sent a batch of queries (via email) to some of my top-pick agents, about a dozen in all. I thought to myself, “if this is anything like KEPT, I won’t hear back for a month or more, anyway.”

But Twenty Minutes Later...

Yikes, was I wrong. Within twenty minutes, I’d received two more requests for the full. As the day went on, I received a couple more requests. I was ecstatic, to say the least, but cautiously optimistic. Remember, KEPT had received full requests, too, and every one of those agents had ultimately declined. 

The First Offer

 

A few days later, the first offer came in, from one of the agents I’d pitched in-person at the conference. As I read her email with the word representation in it, my whole world stopped. I must have re-read that email a dozen times. A couple of hours later, I asked my boss if I could head home from work; I couldn’t focus. I was that excited. 


As you’re probably aware, if you receive an offer of representation, it’s courtesy to notify any other agents whose responses are outstanding. I notified the rest of the agents I’d queried—some had my full manuscript, and some hadn’t yet replied to my original query—and told them I had approximately ten days to make my decision. Nearly all of the agents replied same-day, thanking me for informing them and ensuring they would read ASAP.

Subsequent Offers

 

The second offer came on a Sunday afternoon. My husband and I had been in a couples’ massage, and I got the email when we got back to the car. Once again, adrenaline left me delirious; my husband and I went to lunch, but I could hardly eat. Was I seriously lucky enough to have multiple offers of rep? 


That Sunday night, at dinner with friends, the third offer came in. This one was from a huge agent—wildly successful in the business. I began to think this was all a dream.


The next day, a Monday, I got another email. A fourth offer. 


Wednesday, a phone call: a fifth offer.

Things are Getting Out of Hand

 

Mid-week, I got an email from another agent saying they were still reading and to please be patient. Well, to be honest, I knew I wouldn’t choose this agent even if they offered, so I respectfully withdrew my manuscript from consideration (the first and only time I’ve ever withdrawn.)


I then began the agonizing decision of choosing my agent out of five offers.

The Decision-Making Process

I did not take this decision lightly. I was physically ill for like, half of June. I had a persistent headache. I couldn’t sleep. I lost weight. I cried. We started watching Master Chef Junior just so I could lose myself in something light-hearted. 


I spoke on the phone with all five agents. One of them asked to Skype, and I felt this added to the personal connection (ultimately, though, this was not the agent I selected.) Two of the agents were based outside of the US (though both were part of North American agencies). Through my discussions with all five offering agents, I learned an enormous amount about foreign rights; book fairs; royalties and advances; and editorial visions. All five agents referred me to existing clients; I must have corresponded with close to twenty authors in a week. 

I also contacted one of my mentors, a well-known author in the historical fiction space who had knowledge of the five agents on my list. She gave me completely unbiased, objective advice, which I so appreciated. She did not say "this is who I would choose" nor did she breathe a single word of negativity about any of the five.


I ultimately narrowed down my list to the three US-based agents, and then I was able to eliminate one due to her sales record, which wasn’t as impressive as the others. This left me with two unbelievable agents at strong agencies. I couldn’t go wrong, and I felt enormously grateful to be facing this dilemma—but that still didn’t make it easy.


Ultimately, I chose Stefanie Lieberman with Janklow & Nesbit due to her hands-on editorial style; the rave reviews of her existing clients, including Fiona Davis whose work I highly admire; her small client list, which I felt would offer me more individualized attention; and the stellar reputation of her agency, Janklow & Nesbit.

 

More Tears

As I sat at my kitchen counter with only one day left to make my decision, I told my husband, “I’ve made my choice.” Now, keep in mind, he’d heard this about a dozen times in preceding days: I’d “made my choice” many times, only to change my mind overnight or after doing more research on Publishers Marketplace. But this time, he knew I meant it. Why? Because I burst into tears as I said it. 


These weren’t sad tears—they weren’t even happy tears. They were relieved tears. I’m not a big crier, and I was surprised by my own reaction—but this is how I knew I’d made the right decision. 


I felt like I’d made the “hardest choice": of the five agents, I knew Stefanie’s edits would be the most intensive. But I believe the hardest choice is often the right choice.

An Oxymoron: The Worst Part of this Amazing Experience

The worst part of this process? Emailing the four agents I’d chosen to decline. Ugh. I wanted to crawl in a hole.

 

It took everything I had not to apologize profusely—but there was nothing to apologize for. This is a business decision. I never let myself forget that. You’re not choosing an agent to paint rainbows with; you’re choosing an agent who knows the biz, who will demand the most of you, who will shake their head and say, “you can do better.” I believe Stefanie is this person, and this is exactly what I told her in my “acceptance” email. 

The Irony

Four of the five agents who offered representation on THE LOST APOTHECARY had rejected KEPT two years earlier. Try, try again. Never forget it. And always accept rejection with kindness and gratitude. 

What's Next?

As I write this, it’s late July—just over a month from the day I signed my contract with Stefanie. 


When I think back to where I wanted to be in late July, I’m astounded; remember, I originally meant to start querying in late July, yet now I’ve already submitted my first round of revisions to my agent. My agent. I finally get to say those words.


We’ll continue to work through revisions on THE LOST APOTHECARY. Meanwhile, I’ve also begun research for my next book, which I hope to start drafting in the next six weeks. 


Thanks for listening! And best of luck to all of you in the querying trenches. Don’t lose sight of what you want. Remain objective and unemotional. Lean on those around you. And try, try again.

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