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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Steada Kisses, We Get Kicked

Often when I turn down a project, the writer  will ask me to recommend other agents. Obviously, I would like to help him or her but it’s sticky. In the first place, I often don’t know who to recommend, or I don’t feel comfortable making a referral which implies my belief in the project. But there’s something else: agents do not look kindly on agent referrals — at least in my experience. If a writer approaches me and says Slinky Suburban at ICM thought you might like this, my first thought is: why didn’t Slinky take it on herself? I wonder how other agents feel about this. Are you happy to get a referral, no matter from where? If I turn something down and have a  very strong hunch that another agent will like it because of some inside knowledge, I will refer that agent to the writer — and once in a while make an introduction.

Otherwise, my advice is to go to your library: PublishersMarketplace.com has a database of all deals that have been done over that past five or more years. You can search it by category and agent, and you can quickly come up with a list of appropriate agents to send your work to. Until now, writers had to comb the acknowledgments pages of favorite books, or  hope to meet an agent or two at a conference. Now, you have this remarkable database, you have Publisher’s Weekly on-line, you have agency websites that show you client lists and submission guidelines. I’m not saying it’s easy to get an agent, but it should be easier now than ever before to put a list together of agents to query.

What’s your experience?

21 Responses

  1. It’s easier now than ever before to exhaust the possibilities and quickly accumulate a string of rejections. (That is not a complaint.)

  2. There are a zillion websites (query tracker etc) as well as agents’ own websites to gather data. It’s alot easier now than it was even five or ten years ago. The problem isn’t how to find agents info, though, its that all of us poor schlubs are accessing the same info and the volume of queries each agent gets has gone exponential. Personal connections still work best. I met my agent the old fashioned way, at a conference via an intro from another writer who was a bestselling client of her’s already.

  3. Picture it: 2001 – ta tun!!! My list of agents has grown so long and wide that I have visions I’m in the Little Shop of Agents. I itch, I’m dizzy, but I go on and on and everyday a new webpage and more agents. Lerner, Betsy, Aragi, Nicole (forget putting this in alphabetical order – I’d have to take two more Ativans) Friedrich, Mollie. Then that sound again. Shhhhh, I tell Pete. It’s probably the opposum, trying to eat the okra. Scratch, scratch. I go to the screen door and glide across the path set by the full moon. I look up, I look down, and there it is again. That vision, that Stephen King guy from down the road. “Bringing ya ya white lignin’ gal. Two gallons dis tim.” “Put them on the kitchen counter” I say. “Dat be dolla twenty,” Stephen King guys days. “You mean twenty dollars?” “Sid it.”
    The screen door creaks as he leaves (screen doors always have to make that sound in books otherwise your work in not authentic.) I pour myself a glass of moonshine (I like that better than WL) and toddle back to my computer. Pete looks at me with that “oh, so you think your Hemingway look.” I type in Agents and six new pages immerse the monitor. I sigh, I drink,. ”

    Oh, Betsy, the memory of all that, they can’t take that away from me…for this morning I turned on my computer and went to the NYTimes and read this headline:
    Nobel Prize In Literature 2010: Peruvian Author Mario Vargas Llosa Wins
    Fuck, it should have been me; if only I’d had the right agent.
    Voice from Another Room: “Wake up, Lyn, time for your meds.”

  4. I’ve found that site to be a great way to cut out a lot of the bullshit of querying. You sort of say to a potential agent, “hey, you said x or y on Publisher’s Marketplace. Here’s why I think you’d be into my project…”
    Querying is an art… a tactful, concise, honest form of the art of writing. There are things you can’t do a whole lot about: luck, timing, talent. But the scariest, hollowest feeling for the unrepresented and unpublished, is reading your manuscript yet again, and wondering if you really are just fucking crazy.

  5. When Slinky shoots her sloppy seconds over to you and you find the writer to really not merit your professional attention, make a note and send two or three particularly cloying and reprehensible writers her way. Make a three to one proposition. She’ll get the idea.

    I’m strongly of the opinion that editors and agents need to man up and start telling writers the truth, early and often, instead of treating them like special needs children, or like the cranky old people in the home. Like: here’s your press run. It’s that small because sales and marketing said to make it even smaller. Go figure. Hope you’re still writing. Whereas in the current dispensation such information is provided to the agent as long as it’s understood she/he won’t tell the writer. One’s jaw drops.

    In the case of not taking on a project/writer, and then being asked for a referral, your standard answer — unless you see it as a promising project that just doesn’t interest you, like a Lady Gaga bio (OK, I take that back — like an Alexander Haig bio) — should be: Since I can’t see my way clear to doing this project it would not be professionally responsible of me to provide a referral to another agent. Again, though, I do thank you for thinking of me. I’m fucking honored. Yours, etc, Attila the Hun.

    (About whom Bob Dylan said, on his radio show, “He has the same middle name as Smokey the Bear.”)

  6. Until I found WLWritersAgency all I received were either no response or a letter of rejection…at least this agency got back right back to me and critiqued my work. I am in their data base hoping for that illusive publisher. 🙂

  7. My experience getting an agent.

    First one I sent my full manuscript to following introductions from my wonderful mentor, praised yet rejected with notes for much needed revisions and a suggestion to resubmit.

    I did revise. I did not resubmit. Was I wrong not to? I still wonder.

    Second, culled from my PM tracking, an agent I thought would be a natural fit., received my full with praising introductions from my wonderful mentor and was never heard from again.

    Third, the agent of an acquaintance emailed to say he could tell from my query letter that he wouldn’t like it but I could send the first 3O pages and he’d give it a try. I declined politely and he got mad. Didn’t care to waste my time or his.

    This time I did not revise.

    Instead I looked again at my agent wish list and at this point Ms. Lerner did not send to you because you blogged around this time how you’d stab yourself in the eye with a stubby pencil if you received one more literary novel you couldn’t sell.

    So, I sent mine to the fourth, a recommend from a fellow writer, who said after a month with a full that she wanted to sign me and I did.

    Was I wrong to not send to the others on my list? I still wonder.

  8. Slinky Suburban, heh heh.

  9. What’s your experience?

    An agent requested the first 100 pages of a novel I wrote called Asking Alice,* then the mss. But she eventually called to say she loved the novel but didn’t think she could sell it. I did what you’re describing and said something like, “Not to walk into an Italian restaurant and say, ‘do you know anywhere I can get a good eggplant parm,’ but do you know anyone who might want it? ”

    The agent’s “reader” (read: intern?) is a younger woman who loved Asking Alice, and the agent suggested that maybe I should find a younger agent. So I think that inquiring about any she might have in mind made sense. Now, another agent has the mss, so maybe that will go somewhere. Or it won’t; I’m working on another novel, and maybe that will. But I made this move in part because if someone says, “I like it but can’t sell it,” the natural reaction is, “Who will?”

    It’s a bit like when you’re hitting on a girl at a bar and she says she has a boyfriend, so you see if you can be introduced to her friends. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t—girls will often wonder, “why didn’t Slinky take it on herself.”

    For that matter, dating is a pretty good metaphor: the conversation with the agent was something like, “I like you, but not in that way.” Fortunately, that’s a conversation I learned to deal with very well in high school, so I have a depressing amount of practice.

    * The first line of the query letter is one I really like and, I think, part of the reason it’s gotten a better response: “Maybe marriage would be like a tumor: something that grows on you with time. At least that’s what Steven Deutsch thinks as he fingers the ring in his pocket, trying to decide whether he should ask Alice Sherman to marry him. Steven is almost thirty, going on twenty, and the future still feels like something that happens to other people. Still, he knows that Alice won’t agree to be just his long-term girlfriend forever.”

  10. I used all of those resources mentioned when looking for an agent but it was still a personal referral that got the job done.

    Re: looking through the acknowledgements of recent books that you loved/ think might be similar to your work, I think this is still a great idea. In some ways the sheer amount of information about agents online (as with most things) can get overwhelming really fast; this is a good way to cut through all of that.

  11. I am an agent and I will admit that I’ve allowed myself to be bullied into representing something. By bullied I mean the person was just persistent, polite, but talented enough that I took pity on them and agreed to try to sell the thing, even though under normal circumstances I can’t say I’d have invited the project into my life. This usually happens with authors who live in the same city, and insist on face to face meetings. (Again, in a sane way, not a creepy stalker way, which is a different thing). I’m a human being, and I know I’m in a position to help people make their dreams come true, and sometimes I find it hard to say no. I still don’t think this is the optimal circumstance, you obviously want your agent to LOVE every single thing you’re doing, but I admit sometimes I just level with the person and tell them I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll give it a whirl. A lot of times these people are better clients, more compliant.

  12. Thank you for the question, enjoyed reading everyone’s answers (there seem to be a few salty-sweet professionals on this thread). “Slinky Suburban” is actually just the way I think of agents, when I think of them, which has been almost never until now. Forget that you’re an agent for some reason. Maybe because I’m not used to you people. 😉 First step before finding an agent: I should probably finish something and spend time and newly developed patience revising it. Fuck. I mean, good luck to all!

  13. I have been writing for three years and I am not anxious about getting published, probably because I have been branding for the last three years through published weekly newspaper columns and blogs. What writers don’t realize is that everything comes down to marketing and sales. Because my brain functions that way as a Marketer/Business owner, I am building my own audience so when I am ready I can talk to an agent from a credible place…here is my demo, here is why I think it will sell, and here is the test audience and what their feedback has been. It is important to me that I shop it to find someone credible and worthy of my talent because I plan to be involved in all areas of promotion and public relations. I know how to sell a product, my issue is getting a good enough fucking project to sell. It all stems from that one famous line “SHOW US THE MONEY.”

  14. I parted ways with an agent because we just never seemd to be on the same page. We’re still great friends. I thought I’d find a new agent asap.
    It took 1 year, 101 queries, multiple fulls, 3 major revisions, and 1 rewrite. Within a week, I had 3 offers. The one I chose sold my project within 3 weeks.
    Funny how it works that way. Depths of despair, insomnia because of fear and the obsessive need to write more/less/different, thinking it’s all over. Then, BAM, there you go.
    AgentQuery.com is awesome, as is AbsoluteWrite and Backspace. The resources are there, in spades.
    Funny thing, though, I wound up signing with the agent who some friends recommended me to, one I’d had drinks with at a conference.
    Moral of story: Have bestselling author friends and drink.

  15. I like Carolyn See’s philosophy about the process:


    For me the issue is first, to write the damned thing and second, to publish. Not to “get” published, but to publish. I’m not too proud to self-publish, if that’s what it takes, so I suppose that might make me a little less neurotic about rejection. But maybe neurosis is essential to the “dance” of conventional publishing? I’m still neurotic about writing. I’ll have to re-read Forest for the Trees again, I suppose.

    • I did send my thank you notes to rejectors and am glad I did. Ms See is oh so right about the charming empowerment of that gesture.

  16. I had no recommendations. I queried my agent through the slush pile, and was pulled out of that pile because my agent liked my work.

    Once in a while I recommend writers to my agent, and I know of others who have recommended writers to their agents, and it doesn’t guarantee anything. The agents still make up their own minds about whom they want to represent, as they should. I’m betting that a referral from another agent would work similarly. I think the recommendation just gets you a closer read and a more cordial response–though it may still be a rejection.

  17. Yep, it’s tough. I was a little horrified about how “it’s over” in the other string once an agent has sent the book to the major houses but that result is too far in the future. Once had an agent for an early book that I didn’t think had done enough and I tried to market it myself with no result. But trying not to worry about that yet. Have somebody looking at the full manuscript of something now – somebody that I feel has the expertise to do whatever is possible to sell the book. Doesn’t hurt to do some research.

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