How not to get an agent

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant 

Today I’m going to tell you how a writer did everything wrong…and acquired an agent. Do not, I repeat, do not try this at home and expect the same results.

I’m writing this blog post because sometimes we all become so caught up in the rules that might lead to finding an agent that we forget the most important element of all: when the agent’s gut says, “This is the one I’ve been looking for.” That’s what this story is about.

The rules that were broken

1. Read the agent’s website for how to submit (query first, submit only what’s requested, submit as directed via email or snail mail).

This writer’s package was sent via the postal system, while Books & Such agents like email queries. This wasn’t a query but a proposal and entire manuscript. The material looked like a hodge-podge of pages. The packet was sent to Wendy, who picked it up at the postal box. (While we want email submissions sent to us, we respect every writer’s efforts and look at even those submitted contrary to our specification.) Since Wendy was waiting in the car while her husband ran into the bank, she opened the packet and started to read.

By the time she finished the cover letter’s first few paragraphs, she was so moved by this nonfiction story that she cried. And she called me and read the letter to me. And I cried. It was powerful.how not to get an agent

2. Know the word count for your chosen genre or category. While I remained on the phone,  Wendy took a closer look at the manuscript. The word count was 10,000 words. She could tell the writing wasn’t as strong as necessary. We both sighed that such a gripping story hadn’t been handled as it needed to be.

Still…I couldn’t stop thinking about the visceral response we both had to the essence of the story.

The next day, a Saturday, I was still thinking about it. So I phoned Wendy. “There’s something in that submission. You should take a closer look at it.” Wendy replied, “I can tell it’s not ready, and I don’t have the time or energy to work with the writer to get it there. If you want to take it, I’ll pass it on to you.”

3. Don’t volunteer why others have turned the project down. In the proposal, the writer volunteered that he had attended a number of writing conferences and had been told that he: 1) lacked a platform; 2) was not a strong writer; 3) should self-publish the piece. Offering an agent a list of reasons to join everyone else in turning down the project might not be the best strategy. In addition to those concerns, by the time I finished reading his submission, I also noted that he lacked the skill to write a publishable manuscript. Oh, dear, not exactly the perfect client.

4. Do not rely on one resource to learn how to approach an editor or agent. The writer had read Michael Hyatt’s book on how to write a proposal. Mike’s book is excellent, but the writer assumed that reading a book on the matter made him fully knowledgeable on how to proceed and capable of following the steps provided. In actuality, neither of those conditions proved true. The proposal was pretty much a jumble. However, the writer kept citing Mike’s book as the determinant factor in how the proposal ended up being what it was.

The reasons it didn’t matter the rules were broken

Despite all of these missteps, I decided to represent the writer. Why? Pretty much because Wendy and  I cried.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t put on my business hat and think through that the writer was writing about a topic (heaven) that has put many books on the New York Times best-seller list. And he was looking at heaven from a fresh angle. I also knew that having a platform wasn’t what would sell this book; it would sell because of the subject and because of the story’s emotional pull.

Those factors were important, but I realized I had to be confident that the writer was willing to have a professional collaborator take his story and tell it in all its power and glory. Several phone calls with the writer later, I felt sure he would be relieved to hand the story over to someone else.

That was several months ago. This week I’m finalizing negotiations on a contract with a major publisher who has offered a nice sum to produce the story. You know, the story that didn’t get published because the writer broke pretty much every rule in his search to find an agent.

What does this blog post suggest to you is crucial in finding an agent?

In what ways does this story encourage you?

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49 Comments

  • It’s nice to see a piece on the ‘inner workings’ of an agency. I think that there are aspects of what you wrote today that we who are unagented did not know – certainly I’m in that category.

    I would have thought the process much more cold-eyed and ‘legalistic’, in which
    a) an out-of-line submission would have been summarily discarded;
    b) a word count of 10k would have been laughed out of the office (though several agents did just that with the sub-10k-word ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to their regret);
    c) a described track record of rejection by other agents would have been rather like a chap telling a first date why he couldn’t get a date;
    d) assuming an ‘expert’ mantle after reading one book on proposals can be a red-flag for hubris, and ‘impossible-to-work-with’.

    I’m sure many agencies would have taken one of these paths (and did!) to make the easy choice and send the chap packing. It’s to your credit – and, I hope, profit – that Books and Such operates with flexibility., and an open heart.

    A book clearly needs that undefinable factor that, in analogy, defines stardom in an actor or singer. An awkward, almost supernatural grace that shines through callowness and compels attention.

    And I wonder if the ultimate seed of success was precisely in the reason the author chose to break the rules – that he simply believed in his project THAT much, that it would simply HAVE to be considered, and that he would make it yell for attention?

    And was part of that ‘yell’ the fact that a complete package was sent, allowing more than a cursory consideration of a one-page query? My suspicion is that a query would never have made it; only that full, almost desperate pitch had a chance.

    For me, I’m afraid it’s not very encouraging. I know that I can write book-length stories with an emotional pull – my beta readers are above all, honest. (One of these confessed to tears…and he is not only a guy, but a former Marine aviator, who is also an author.)

    But balanced against that are the numbers of queries which received polite rejection over the years, or which drew no response at all.

    It may be content, it may be timing, it may be many things…but it may be time to let go.

    • Or…perhaps, Andrew, maybe you could revise and try sending it out “just one more time.” And while you’re in the season of “waiting,” maybe the Lord’s nudging you to start something new. Just a thought. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, you elucidated the conundrum of every writer whose work isn’t find the response you had hoped for from the industry professionals: When do I give up on this project and when do I doggedly persist in looking for the open door? There are no easy answers. You’re looking for one open door; will it be the next one you knock on?

  • I love to hear about the journey of another writer – even he didn’t follow all the rules. I am a rule-follower, but I find success all stories a source of encouragement to give 110% to my current WIP. Congrats to you and your client on the new contract! I’m raising my coffee cup from central Illinois.

  • Lori Benton says:

    That it’s God who opens doors, even when we don’t do the knocking right. And sometimes leaves them closed when we do. What a glorious thing to rest and trust in, the good plans of a good God.

  • Micky Wolf says:

    Wonderful story, Janet. It is encouraging because it is such a powerful witness of one [writer]heart speaking to another–authenticity that transcended technique. It is also clear the author was open and flexible in partnering with a professional collaborator. Apart from that…your teamwork as agents speaks volumes to your commitment to ‘walk the walk’ as Christ-centered servants.

  • Janet, your post moved me on so many levels! Cheers to you and your client!

    *Clink* (My coffee mug to yours! Today’s selection is “Donut Shop”) :)

  • Jeanne T says:

    This post spoke to me on many levels. Seeing yours and Wendy’s hearts toward the story this writer has to share is probably what stood out most to me.

    On a more “professional/publishing” level, the fact that the story has a fresh angle also was a boon for it. But seeing your willingness to work with an inexperienced writer to bring that story to the “world,” so to speak also says a lot.

    It seems like what is crucial in finding an agent is a great story and a teachable spirit. And the fact that this writer has a passion for his story.

    Though I know this agent-story is the exception, I do find it encouraging. :)

    • Jaime Wright says:

      I was thinking similar thoughts!! This really shows that there IS a heartbeat ;) that drives agents. I think sometimes as writers we fall prey to the misnomer that agents are heartless, business-savvy, gurus who plow proposals through the shredder. I love love love seeing the passion and heartbeat for the MINISTRY behind what you do at B&S and the passion for Jesus. Love it. Love love love. Did I say, “love”?

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        I didn’t write this blog to bring praise to the agency or me but to encourage writers. Still, I’ll take your compliments! Thanks, this makes me happy.

  • Good morning, Janet.

    “A book clearly needs that undefinable factor that, in analogy, defines stardom in an actor or singer. An awkward, almost supernatural grace that shines through callowness and compels attention.”

    That made me think of Paul Potts and Susan Boyle, the two Brits on Britain’s Got Talent who looked like life had passed them by, were soundly mocked by Simon Cowell, then blew people off the grid with their voices. It wasn’t what they did or did not do in terms of their appearance, their very public, very frumpy looking ‘queries’. It was what happened when the music started and the world faded away, and voila! Magic!! The audience roared, the flame was lit and nothing has ever been the same for those two since the night they took a step into the spotlight.

    You and Wendy, and the other Books and Such ladies, see hundreds and hundreds of story ideas, so it really must take something that sends your “Wow-O-Meter” into the red zone to grab something so raw and run with it.

    Congratulations to your mystery author!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, thanks for reminding us about Paul Potts and Susan Boyle. Both of their stories were so inspiring and remind me that anything is possible, even if we or our work looks frumpy.

  • Julie Garmon says:

    You can’t argue with tears…or your heart!

  • What a wonderfully encouraging post, Janet! As if I wasn’t impressed enough already with your agency and your eagerness to work with writers. This post tells me that story trumps all, especially if it is unique. The emotional pull is what sold it, at least to you. So all that advice about not letting platform and rules and networking take over so that you neglect the writing? Spot on! Thank you for this post.

  • Lori says:

    Believe it or not, I usually do try to follow the rules! However, when fate (God?) puts their hand in, things change. Many times its for the better.

    Example, I follow the rules when I trying for a job a few years ago when I got laid off. I applied for one job and got called in for an interview for that job. When I arrived at the interview, I was told that I would not be interviewing for that job but asked if I would be interested in interviewing for a completely different job as and tech writer which I had some experience but not a lot. I said I was and I went on to interview for that job, got it, and I been doing it now for six happy years. I had fears that I would not understand the engineering that goes on but I amazed myself that I have actually come to understand a lot of what goes on. But since I am a tech writer, I am not responsible for engineering but I am responsible to convey the info as best as I can.

    Congradulations to your client! When I go to submit I will try to (at least) follow rules however who know what fate or God has in store for me.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lori, obviously this post is an example of the exception, not the rule. Moving one’s publishing career forward is pushing a boulder up a hill; why tie one’s hand behind one’s back, which is what this author did?

  • Angela Mills says:

    This post showed me that God is bigger than rules :) That if He wants something out there, the Holy Spirit can and will nudge people to get it done. That you guys are sensitive to the Spirit.

    Pretty awesome.

  • What a cool story! Like others have said, this story reminds me just how big a God we serve.

  • What I love about this blog is the business/practical posts we read, but also the personal/encouraging posts that come our way. It’s proof that writing is more than just putting words on paper, it’s the heart and soul behind those words. In answer to your question, I would say this post suggests it’s crucial to have an outstanding story to get an agent’s attention. If the story is unique, and the author behind it has a fresh voice, then an agent will take notice.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Gabrielle, precisely. Agents are always looking for a project with that certain something that makes it special. That’s why, on agent panels at writers conferences, agents often say they will know what they’re looking for when they see it.

  • I hope you write your memoir one day Janet…I’m sure it would be so encouraging to writers…and others!! Love this heart & mind story!! And can’t wait for the revelation of this blessed writer!

  • Wow! What a powerful story, Janet. Thanks for sharing it. I hope I’ve learned a few things from this post:

    * As others have said, God is bigger than the rules;
    * The ability to move a reader can be more powerful than following the rules;
    * A writer’s passion to share his story can touch someone’s heart;
    * That sometimes it’s worth taking a risk.

    I’m guessing there are more lessons hidden inside this story, but these are the ones that came to mind.

    This story also encourages me to stay true to myself and God’s plan for my career; because while I need to write marketable fiction, I also have to be passionate to write well, and remember to keep God as my guide.

  • Kathy says:

    Good for you! Taking a risk, offering a solution, and showing mercy all in one lovely bundle. You give us hope.

  • Preslaysa says:

    A writing friend told me “if they cry, they buy.” This adage rings true in this case, in my humble opinion.

  • Thanks for sharing this story! It’s a great reminder about how everything–including a writer’s journey to publication–is ultimately in God’s hands.

  • I’m also a rule follower, so it’s a blessing to know that the rules can be broken and it’s not the end of your career! It’s all in God’s timing. Thanks, Janet!

  • I want to handle a gripping story as it needs to be handled, and so I have much more to learn. Sharing a memorable story with wisdom and proficiency takes a great deal of work.

    If an agent is willing to take me on because my story, although still in need of work, intrigued them and gave them incentive to come alongside, I would be thrilled. The pressure would be a bit unnerving, but what a wonderful, joyful opportunity, especially as a pre published author.

    Can’t wait to see the Lord’s plans continue to unfold for you and the author you spoke of.

  • Loved that the value of the story was powerful enough to cause you and Wendy to reconsider. Also, great flexibility on the part of the writer to be willing to work with a seasoned author.

    Great call Janet! Can’t wait to see what is in store for that persistent author and the manuscript.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      The author’s joyful turning over of a personal story to someone he didn’t know but whom I assured him he could trust was a vital part of this equation. Without that, this story would have ended very differently.

  • . . . sounds like the poor guy did everything wrong except – make a few rude & disparaging comments about Wendy’s dog. (If she has a dog)

    I’m betting she does, or at least a couple of cats. Maybe some fishes? A pet snake perhaps? (a little nonvenomous one) A yellow and green taking Parakeet? Okay – maybe just a plain red parakeet that doesn’t talk or is just mad and won’t talk.

    Hmmmm. I think I’m grasping at straws now.

  • Cathy West says:

    I’d like to read that cover letter! :)

  • Marti Pieper says:

    And another win for . . . story. Not the author, not the agent, not the ability, not the rules, but the story.

    How wise of you and Wendy to recognize its value. And as a collaborative writer, I also appreciate the wisdom of the author in valuing his story more than holding onto that which detracted from it.

    I look forward to reading this pearl of great price one day.

  • Lera Hughes says:

    My husband’s novel, “Mindful of Him,” reviewed by book bloggers has 4.4 stars out of 19 reviews on Amazon’s Kindle. It’s self published by WinePress and has done well in our rural community where he was a much-loved high school counselor for 36 years. Otherwise it’s an unknown book. It has quite an emotional pull and folks tell us about tears and laughter as they read it. Loved reading this blog by Janet Grant and will continue to follow it for enlightenment and encouragement. Looking forward to reading the book on heaven by the man with a fresh angle who broke all the rules.

  • Paiva Lewis says:

    This is actually discouraging to me. I am following all the rules and taking the time and effort to learn the industry.

    (I could just be envious. Though I do have an agent and a manuscript on submission, so I’m hoping I’m not far behind on getting a book deal!)

  • This is a very interesting story–congrats to the writer. It does show that sometimes you need to break the rules.
    That’s what I’m doing in my suspense novel in some ways. Now I just have to find the agent who thinks it is worthwhile. I am persisting, though the going is slow.

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