When Do You Need an Agent? A Novelist Reveals All
Burning questions about finding an agent, when and how to query, and more revealed by a novelist.The standard how-to-find-an-agent advice goes something like this: search databases and websites and the acknowledgments pages of the books you love for the names and contact info of agents who might have an affinity for your style; write a svelte and compelling query letter that captures the essence of your book and the meat of your bio in under 500 words; include said query in the body of an email; attach the first 50 pages of your manuscript; and wait, sometimes for months, for your dream agent to request the entire book or send you on your way. Because that process takes forever, the long-standing opinion is that a writer should wait to query until his or her book is complete, polishing until it shines in the isolation of the writing room and is ready for its trial in the marketplace. For some writers, that’s really how it works. But for many others, myself included, the story of finding the perfect agent feels like it has more to do with fate than the query letter.
Lincoln Michel, whose debut short story collection, Upright Beasts, is out this month from Coffee House Press, started searching for agents as soon as he had enough published stories for a collection—ignoring the advice to wait until he finished a novel. “I queried agents I didn’t know, and got a few recommendations from writers who liked my work. I had a couple odd interactions, agents who seemed to want to sign me or told me not to sign with anyone else until they could meet, but then stopped responding to emails. I tried again a year or so later with a revised collection and signed with Michelle Brower. Pretty soon after that, she sold my collection, by itself, without a novel attached,” he says.
The proliferation of M.F.A. programs, summer workshops produced by literary organizations and publications, publishing conferences, and online writing communities has made it increasingly likely that writers and agents will find each other through more direct channels. That’s what happened for me.I met my agent as a student in NYU’s M.F.A. program, at an agent/writer meet-and-greet. I had three meetings, including one with Claudia Ballard, from William Morris Endeavor. We talked less about my unfinished novel than we did about the books we both loved. A few days later, I sent Claudia some stories; she asked for my novel. I sent her an essay; she asked for my novel. I sent her 100 pages of my novel, attached to an email that, in place of a query letter, included a list of disclaimers; miraculously, she asked for a meeting.
When Claudia offered me representation, I had to stop myself from asking her if she was sure. The book wasn’t done—I wasn’t sure I believed it ever would be. And even if I did finish it, it would probably fall on its face in the second half. I feared I had tricked her somehow, or she felt sorry for me. I mention this to highlight what I think is the greatest benefit of getting an agent before completing a manuscript. If you suffer from imposter syndrome, a deep and profound fear of failure, or have any kind of insecurity about what your work looks like on the page—in other words, if you’re a writer—an agent can be game-changingly helpful. Agents can give you a reason to keep going, and can provide intermittent and motivating injections of confidence, not to mention clear-eyed edits.
Marya Spence, an agent at Janklow and Nesbit, has taken on a number of clients with books in process—sometimes via her own outreach, after coming across a knockout story in a lit mag or online, or, like Claudia and me, after meeting a writer at an M.F.A. program event or a conference. “I know that some writers feel that they need representation based on a partial in order to give them that extra confidence—or discipline—to finish a manuscript,” she says. In most cases, though, she prefers to start the agent-author relationship with a complete manuscript. “A full manuscript is better for all parties to begin a relationship on. It gives a greater sense of footprint, what that book is capable of doing, and where it’s falling short.”
After I signed with Claudia, I worked on the book for another two years before it sold, just this summer, to Henry Holt. Some people have asked me if I regret not waiting to finish my book and then querying widely, seeing who else might have been interested in representing me and the novel. The answer is no. I hope I would have had the resolve to finish the book without a cheerleader. But right now I’m just grateful for what, in an industry that operates partially on luck and whim and subjectivity, has been a dream scenario, and for a creative working relationship with my smartest reader.
“On those early tenterhooks of a career, it’s vital to find someone who can describe, with passion and purpose, your own voice and vision, in terms that feel right to you,” says Spence, a reminder that perhaps the most important part of getting an agent isn’t the when, but the who.