Today I sat in on the agent panel at the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference with agents April Eberhardt, Penny Nelson, Andy Ross, and Jeff Kleinman. Agent panels are always popular at writers’ conferences, and for obvious reasons. It’s a dream come true to be represented by an agent, even though being offered representation by an agent is only a first baby step for most writers on their road to publication.
Like editors, agents spend a lot of time rejecting writers, and to their credit, they addressed this right away. The very first thing agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary said at the top of the hour was that most authors approach agents to soon. My take on why this happens is because authors are often so desperate for external validation that what they’re writing is “good enough” that they end up trying to shop their books before they’re ready to be shopped.
Knowing when you’re ready can be difficult, however. You’re not an objective party to your own writing process. A firm understanding of whether you’re ready comes with getting your work evaluated, and having the wherewithal to be able to take what comes back at you even-handedly. You have to have enough confidence in your own voice to prevent an editor or manuscript evaluator from taking you too far off course and enough dispassion to be able to see the places where their advice actually makes the most sense for the book. Not having your work reviewed before shopping it to an agent is pretty much asking for a rejection. But then, even if you know you’re ready, you need to be prepared for rejection, and to be able to take it in stride.
Kleinman offered the following very clear and concise method for shopping agents, which I’d like to share here:
Start with a list of ten agents lined up in an Excel sheet and then create the seven following columns:
1. No response (check this after 2 months have passed)
2. Form rejection letter
3. Form rejection with comments
4. Specific feedback or changes from the agent
5. Agent requests chapters
6. Agent asks for the whole manuscript.
7. Agent offers you a contract.
Your only goal here is to fill up the columns. If you’re getting all 1s, 2s, or 3s, you can decipher that something isn't working with your pitch. They aren’t responding to your writing at all, so something needs to get fixed with the way you’re presenting the project. If you’re getting all 4s, 5s, and 6s, then something isn’t working with your writing, and you need to stop before moving onto more agents and review what’s not working.
I love this method because you’re not spreading yourself out into the world too widely and you are using the shopping process as a means to evaluate what you are doing and what you have. It’s a very business-oriented way of going about shopping for an agent, too. And the most important quality an author needs to hone is their savvy. The more you know about publishing and the more you can speak an agent’s language, the more likely they are to want to spend time listening to you and reading your work.
Attending conferences and following agents on Twitter are great ways to start to gain a sense of how they think and what they care about. And as far as rejections go, they’re part of the game—unfortunately. Almost every published author has a hard rejection story to share. Just consider it a badge and keep on. But instead of plunging forward blindly, consider that rejections are actually telling you something and be proactive and strategic about that next step.