I got it.
I've been trying to de-mystify this whole agent-publishing process. It seems that for every panel discussion on publishing I attend, someone wants to know how to get "in." And I always leave feeling like I (and they) have a mountain to climb, only to find that getting "in" is slim, at best, and all you're left with after all that hard work are sore muscles and bitter disappointment.
But last night, while waiting to fall asleep, it came to me.
Looking for an agent or a publisher is no different from looking for a job. Job-career search is often a full-time job in and of itself, so the agent process is no different. I know this. I've taught this. And it occurs to me that the mistakes I made in the agent search are the ones I caution against in the job search. DUH!!
And so, try applying these tips you would use in the job search to the agent search.
1. Know thyself.
I have often told my students, "Look around. You'll be graduating with a class of hundreds (maybe thousands!) all in the same major as you who just got the same education as you and are going to apply for the same jobs as you. What is going to make you stand out from them? Will it be your personality? Your dedication? Your expertise? Your expertise in an additional subject in combination w/ your chosen major?" Etc.
My goal is to get them thinking about their many strengths and attributes, and to know where they fit in their field. Writers seeking an agent need to do the same thing. They need to have an understanding of the genre or market their writing fits into (and as you probably know, I think it's rarely a neat fit), and what sets their writing apart from others'.
2. Set an intention.
What, specifically, do you want?
I know what kinds of working environments I thrive in. I like being a team leader, but not an administrator. I like group-oriented situations and participation. I like low volume, high content. I like jobs where multi-tasking is not the norm and ulcers are not the result. I like flexible schedules and feeling like I'm doing something different every day. I like a sense of autonomy. And I love being the ideas person. I like to be appreciated and evaluated but not micromanaged. And so on.
Prior to teaching, I worked in both retail management and the cosmetology industries, sometimes simultaneously. I was a decent manager, but knew I wouldn't do well in a corporate setting. And I preferred smaller salons to large chain salons.
The writer needs to have a sense of place when it comes to the agent as well, I think. Do you want to eventually sell your novel to a screenwriter? Do you want to eventually branch out into other genres? Do you want lots of feedback from your agent, or just a negotiator? Do you want simply for your book to get on the shelves, or do you have dreams of best-seller status? Think about what you want, and what kind of relationship you want to have with your agent/publisher.
3. Play the match game.
So, if I know I'm more comfortable in retail settings, I'm not going to look for a management position in a software company. And if I like low volume and high content, I'm going to look at Topkapi as opposed to Target. But, if I like the mission statement of a company like Ben & Jerry's, then I might look into opportunities there, too.
I used to think that when it came to an agent, more was better. Just apply to every agent that listed the same genre as the one I was writing in, and I'd be set. I don't think that's the case anymore. Now I read agents' bios and interests, the agency's mission statement, the list of books published, their areas of business, etc. Large-scale agencies are not for me. Ditto for agencies in California, which are likely more entertainment-driven. But in the way that you would research a company as much as you can before sending a cover letter and resume, invest the same time doing so w/ agents, then pick a handful that you think would be a good match for you. When I say "handful," I'm thinking twenty, tops, for starters. Maybe even ten. If those rejections come back, then try another ten-twenty.
4. The cover letter gets you the interview; the interview gets you the job.
This is what I tell my students when discussing audience and purpose. Cover letters are written with the intention of introducing yourself to the propsective employer, and briefly persuading him/her why you're a good match for the company (see #1). Here's what I can do for you. Here's how I may be of service. Then, you politely ask for the interview. Once the interview is secured, you knock their socks off by showin' 'em who you are and what you can do.
In writer-agent terms, the cover letter is the query letter, and the interview is the request for the manuscript.
The biggest, most costly mistake I made in the agent search for my first novel was to write a one-size-fits-all query letter. I did get about three or four requests to see the manuscript ("interviews"), but the overwhelming majority ended in rejection w/out request. Likewise, I forgot about the golden rule of "Ask not what your agent can do for you; ask what you can do for your agent." I failed to show my agent that I could make her money, that I had something fresh and fun. Instead, I was subconsciously focused on I want an agent, I want to be published, I want to make money, etc.
Again, this goes back to knowing your audience. So many agents keep blogs on their websites and reveal so much information about what they look for in a manuscript, what they don't want, what kinds of query letters catch their attention, etc. Study them. Know the agency. Look up the books they've published. Do the same kind of homework you'd do for the prospective companties you apply to.
Your manuscript is the interview. It's your business attire, your preparation, your demo of your skills at work, your audition, etc. Make it as finished, polished, professional, and kick-ass as it can be.
5. Cast out doubt, and think from the end.
Last night a woman in the audience asked about book tours, and proclaimed that her autobiography was a best-seller "because my life is a best-seller," she said. I think some of the panelists may have misinterpreted her intentions. And while I think she may have been slightly misguided (it seemed to me that she thought bookstores pay authors for their appearances), I think her mentality may have been misunderstood. I understood what she was really saying: she was affirming that she was worthy.
This, I believe, it the number one obstacle that faces aspiring writers. The looming doubt and worry, What if I'm not good enough? The panelists cautioned her against coming off as lacking modesty or humility, but why not affirm that? I wouldn't put it in a query letter (in the same way I caution students to refrain from saying, "I'm the best thing that's happened to your company"), but dammit, say it out loud to yourself as much as you want, especially if you know it.
The publishing industry has no qualms about telling us how much competition there is, and how good we have to be, and how many bad writers there are, yada yada yada. And heck, all you have to do is walk into Barnes and Noble and feel two inches tall. But why not me? Am I not just as worthy as any other author to have a book facing an endcap or a spine sticking out on a B&N shelf? Am I not just as worthy to have a sizable advance, and multiple printings? Don't I know I'm good enough?
If you give in to the self-defeatist attitudes, if you constantly repeat the mantra of "well, there's a lot of competition out there, it's hard to get an agent," etc., then what chance do you really have? Would you do that in any other job market? There are a lot of screwy businesses. In cosmetology, you need a following to get experience, but to to get a job you need a following, and to get a following you need experience. So what does the beginner cosmetologist do? When I applied to a tenure-track position at a community college a couple of years ago, I found out that the applicant pool was in the hundreds. Competition, the search for excellence, the next Food Network star, the American Idol, the superstar CEO -- that's the culture we live in today.
My point is that there's always going to be an X-factor; my brothers have so much musical talent in their pinkies, yet never got the "big break." But, they make a living in careers of music. And they know what they can do. It's a real gift to *know*. When I was a TA, at first I doubted my worthiness to be in the classroom. My supervisor joked, "Just remember that you know more than they do." I did more than that. I affirmed, "I am the teacher. I know what I'm doing and I' am doing it." Then one day at a workshop, a colleague complimented me on the ideas I shared, and was shocked to learn that I'd only been teaching for a year. "You sound like a veteran," she said.
And if you *know* you are worthy of best-seller, that your work is good enough, that you have talent, then by all means, go for it. You have every bit of right. And you won't have to say it -- the book review. Not the reviewers and the agents and the publishers and the editors, mind you, but the book. And the reader. Because isn't that all that *really* matters? There's nothing wrong w/ believing in your novel, your idea, your project, your collaboration, your pitch, your writing, you.
Thinking from the end is visualizing the book on the shelf at B&N, or imagining yourself giving a reading at QRB, signing books for admiring readers, receiving the royalty check in the mail, negotiating the contract, getting the call from the agent who says, "I LOVE your manuscript!" I think that's a much better use of brain activity than, I wish-I hope-what if I'm no good-I have to be careful what I say- it's so hard, blah blah blah blah blah.
And those thoughts are yours and yours only. Share them with no one.
Anyhoo, I'm going to really try to stop worrying about "doing it right" and instead do what I've always known how to do, and what I know I can do, and trust that that is enough. And I know that when it's time for me to begin the querying process for my latest novel, I'll be so ok. That feels awesome.