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.

Good luck!

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Comment by Brooke Warner on February 24, 2013 at 10:12pm

misread, that is...

Comment by Brooke Warner on February 24, 2013 at 10:12pm

Oh, good news! I think I midread your original comment. Okay, good luck!!

Comment by Kathleen Kern on February 24, 2013 at 4:43pm

Oh, she just asked to see it this week.  It's way too soon to feel depressed.  Two years ago, I would have been waiting in delighted anticipation for the next month.  It's like I'm anticipating rejection before it happens.  I wonder if there should be a "Novelists and their Neuroses" group.

Comment by Brooke Warner on February 24, 2013 at 3:05pm

Sorry to hear this, Kathleen. This is really hard and really common---we put a lot of value onto what these agents think. And it can be very stressful when we're waiting to hear back and they're not prioritizing our projects. Hang in there. Keep sending it out! I think you'll ultimately want to be represented by someone who's both enthusiastic and responsive.

Comment by Kathleen Kern on February 23, 2013 at 8:05am

An agent asked to see my manuscript this week at an agency I've always wanted to represent me because  we share a similar political vision. The head of the agency asked me to send it to her underling after I sent a query I spent two weeks tweaking, calling it an "exciting" query and telling me they were anxious to read the manuscript.  I googled the agent who will be reading the manuscript and found we have a whole lot in common, love similar movies on Facebook, have worked for similar causes.  All but one of my regular readers have said my current manuscript is the best I've written so far and…I'm feeling really depressed.  I sort of feel like I've had my hopes high before with a lot less encouragement than this.  So if this agent doesn't like it, then what's the point?  I just want her to like it way too much.

Comment by Brooke Warner on February 20, 2013 at 1:59pm

@Mardith, yes, you can pay an editor, but you want to work with someone who has traditional publishing experience. We are offering manuscript assessments through She Writes Press, so you can certainly contact me there if you're interested in getting a bid: info [at] shewritespress [dot] com.

Comment by Marcia Fine on February 20, 2013 at 12:43pm

This was a concise way to track rejections. At some point, though, you may be ready to take matters into your own scribbling hands!

Comment by Lesly Devereaux JD,MDiv on February 19, 2013 at 5:56pm
Thanks Brooke, I am writing daily, these post are helpful in telling me what to expect.
Comment by Patricia Reis on February 19, 2013 at 4:08pm

Hi, Brooke, this is just such excellent advice and SO RATIONAL!  Of course it's a jungle out there - there may not be a map, but there is a path. Thanks! Patricia

Comment by Mardith Louisell on February 19, 2013 at 3:09pm

Great post, Brooke. Where do you suggest one get the manuscript evaluated? Other than one's writing group, of course.  Pay an editor? Pay an agent who sometimes also reviews? How to find one interested in one's type of writing?  Thanks.


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