Tips from a Slush
How One Writer Got an Agent
Copyright © Ronlyn Domingue
- All Rights Reserved
The Mercy of Thin Air: A Novel
When people ask how I got my agent, I often respond,
In May 2003, I finished my first novel, or thought I had.
Within a few days, I mailed query letters and excerpts to five agents,
one of whom I’d met at a conference. Three sent polite rejections, one
read the manuscript then declined, and the last (the one I’d met) said
he liked what he saw but didn’t think it was finished yet.
I revised The Mercy of Thin Air one last time, my
confidence solid. The manuscript went back to the interested agent --
then he passed on it. Frankly, we were both disappointed things hadn’t
worked out. And I don’t recall breathing for about a month.
Once I emerged from the anaerobic stupor, I approached my
agent search like a job.
First, I set my criteria. I only considered agents who
were members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives. I wanted
someone with a track record of sales to major publishing houses. And
finally, which was out of my control, I wanted an agent whose faith in
this novel was as intense as my own.
Second, I created a database that held the names,
addresses, and pertinent information on dozens of agents. They
represented writers I liked or novels similar to mine in subject matter
or theme. Each was ranked based on how interested I thought they’d be in
my work and on how much information I could find. Some were held pending
more research; others marked “do not send” because they were allegedly
Third, I sent out individually tailored queries and
accompanying excerpts to those ranked highest in my database. In total,
I submitted to 60 agents. From 50, I received outright rejections. The
other 10 read the manuscript. I was surprised to get sincere compliments
from several who declined and equally bewildered by those whose
soul-testing, awful comments made me question my very existence.
Yet, there was Agent #10. Call it a miracle, indeed,
because the first 30 pages of my novel arose from a slush pile into the
hands of an intern who gave it to the agent who was, in turn, intrigued
enough to see the whole manuscript. In late August 2004, the phone rang
(good news doesn’t come in an SASE) and on the other end was Jandy
Nelson -- an AAR member who routinely sold her authors’ work to major
houses and who loved The Mercy of Thin Air as much as I did.
Occasionally when I tell this story, an acquaintance will
stare in horror and gasp, “You sent to how many? It took how
long?” My response is always the same: “It’s all about persistence.”
This is a competitive business we’ve chosen -- or been dealt -- and only
the persistent survive to get published.
Below are some tips I developed that I hope will be
helpful to other not-yet-published writers. You might get lucky with the
first submission -- or it may take you 50, 100, or 200 attempts. No
matter what, you must have an unwavering faith in what you created and
be willing to keep trying.
Make a list of writers you like and of published
books that are similar to yours. Then, find out who represented
these works. Check each book’s acknowledgments or do some sleuthing
on-line. (I never had to resort to this -- it seems too sneaky --
but I’ve heard that you could call a publisher’s publicity
department, claim to be interested in the rights to the book, and
ask for the writer’s agent’s name. Phew.)
“Google” every agent. It may be necessary to search
multiple sites to ensure that you have correct data. A number of
agents will be listed on literary agency websites, but updates to
those sites are sometimes delayed. Agents -- especially ones who
haven’t been in the business long -- move around a lot. Basically,
do your homework. (In many cases, once an agent’s listing hits a
market guide you can buy at a bookstore, the information is
obsolete. The internet is going to be a far better resource.)
Find out exactly how to approach each agent. These
days, more agents accept e-mail submissions, but many still want
Send an agent only what he asks to see and in the
format he wants. If he wants a query and the first 30 pages, send
that. Some agents have guidelines about margins and font styles. If
you can’t find information on someone’s requirements, it’s typically
safe to mail your query letter, the first 20 pages of your book (one
and a quarter inch margins on all sides, 12 point Times New Roman
font), and a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply.
Personalize every query, and make a connection to the
agent. State what you like about a client’s work or how you think
your book fits into her interests. Please, address each person
professionally, spell correctly, and double check addresses. (Note:
Mass mailings -- snail or otherwise -- are obvious and off-putting.)
Never e-mail or snail mail your entire manuscript
unless it’s requested.
Always, always, be gracious and courteous, even when
you’re rejected. This industry is a small world of its own, and you
want all bridges to remain open.
There are dozens of resources online, but these sites
were the most helpful to me:
the Author: Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mercy of
Thin Air (Atria Books; September 2005; $24.00US/$33.00CAN;
0-7432-7880-1). She lives in Louisiana and is at work on her second
novel. For more information, please visit