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Finding a Literary Agent: Things Nobody Told Me, Part Two
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This is the second of three blog posts in which I discuss steps I took in seeking literary representation, above and beyond “write the best book you can, and polish it ‘til it shines.” In the first installment, I discussed the process by which I set up validated Author Pages for myself on both Amazon and Goodreads.com. Today, the topic at hand is my official author website, http://www.rachelpollock.net/

By the time I earned my MFA in 2013, I’d watched a number of my classmates graduate and land literary agents on the strength of their manuscripts or their nonfiction book proposals. Some of them had the luxury of a network of great contacts—professors and other alumni writing in the same genres, friends or family or colleagues with an “in” at this or that literary agency. Throughout my graduate study, my program provided opportunities to meet and pitch to agents, receive critiques on our work, prepare pieces for publication.

Unlike my classmates though, when it came time to seek a literary agent, I found myself at a distinct disadvantage—I wasn’t pitching a proposal to expand my creative nonfiction master’s thesis into a full-length book (something for which my graduate study might have facilitated a number of feet in various doors). No, I had a fiction manuscript, a book that had initially poured out of me in the roughest of ham-handed first drafts before I’d even begun grad school, and that I had subsequently revised into something of which I was proud. Something I thought had a chance to go somewhere. But because I’d spent my masters study focused on CNF, my potential networking capabilities were going to be based in tenuous and oblique contacts at best—I knew I would probably need to rely largely on making my own way out of the slush piles.

So I analyzed the trajectories of my classmates who’d landed agents, observed the order of business in the developments of their careers, and one thing I noticed was that all of them were signing with agents and immediately launching author websites. In fact, one classmate of mine said it was the first thing her agent advised her to do—put up a professional website positioning herself as an author to be taken seriously. “Be Googleable as a writer. Editors will want to find you online.”

I began looking at those classmates’ websites, but also at the websites of authors whose work I admired, authors with careers and bodies of work like the one I hope to have some day. I made notes of things I liked about those sites, things I didn’t, layouts I found intuitive or confusing, and masthead categories I wanted to include or eschew.

I knew from teaching graduate school myself (albeit in dramatic art), from mentoring my own students in setting up their own professional websites, that a number of services existed for making well-designed sites using easy templates. I decided to build my author site with Wix.com (the one most popular among my students) because of its easy interface and customizability. Squarespace is another similar site offering these kinds of DIY template-based services.

I went with a DIY interface at this stage of the game because, while I am willing to invest in my own success and pay for my own URLs (http://www.rachelpollock.net/ and http://www.rachel-pollock.com), I don’t have the kind of money to invest in also paying a professional web designer to build me a site from scratch…not yet at least. The proprietary URL and template-based-yet-professional-looking site I currently have is a good compromise. It brands me as a writer who takes herself seriously, but without superfluous bells and whistles.

In the conception of that site, there was one element for which I did hire a professional: the photography. In the age of the ubiquitous selfie, everyone’s a “photographer,” but can’t you spot an arm’s-length Instagram headshot a mile off? Because I can. Perhaps if I believed myself to be talented at self-portraiture or naturally photogenic, I might have not cared about hiring a photographer, but I suck at selfies and I’m not a modeling savant. I do believe that image is important to my presentation of my work, and I felt that having professionally-made photos for my site was one area in which I was willing to shell out the cash.

I hired editorial photographer Ryan A. S. Jones of Rytography to take my author photos. I shared with him my vision for the look of the website, and we talked about themes in my writing in general that I wanted reflected in the images we would create together. I tend to write about alternative cultures, subcultures, nightlife, themes of moral ambiguity and juxtapositions of beauty and decay, outlaws and vice. I wanted a set of portraits that evoked those themes visually but without being too OTT “stagey,” and that’s what an editorial photographer like Ryan does—help to tell a conceptual story with images.

He and I approached the project with two image goals: we wanted to create a set of professional headshots of the “bookjackety bio pic” variety (like the one at the top of this post), and a set of moodier, situational and setting-driven shots that would illustrate the personality of my writing and, by extension, the novel I planned to pitch. We did two great photo shoots--one in downtown Durham, NC, at the literal crack of dawn (for the beautiful natural light of sunrise), and the other in a ruined church on Memorial Day afternoon, the sun filtering through the shattered roof. Once I got the proofs of the two shoots, Ryan helped me settle on the five best shots, compositionally speaking.

Ultimately, I’m unreservedly glad I went with a professional photographer and a DIY site template, because I only had so much money to spend and I truly believe that the images make the site a successful and succinct online representation of me as a writer. I can imagine that a different writer with a different set of goals, ideas, and with a different stylistic bent to her work might choose instead to have a custom-built site peppered with candid Instagram shots. Whatever your ideas for presentation though, it’s all in service to the same end: presenting yourself online as the writer you aim to be.

And again, I'm not claiming that I got offers of representation based on my fantastic website or the existence of Author Pages on Amazon and Goodreads. But I do believe they lent an air of legitimacy to me as a writer, underscoring my credibility as someone committed to my work in a way that can be publicly confirmed online.

Next up in this series, Part 3: my query strategy.

* This article was originally published in November 2014. *

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Comments
  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    Thanks for the compliment on the site, and also for indulging my question about the name change!

  • Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

    I checked out your site, too, Rachel. I love the clean, yet intriguing and engaging look and feel of it. Very impressive publication list!

  • Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

    Thanks so much for looking at the site and giving me your impressions, Rachel.

    Regarding the name change, it wasn't that I decided to use a different name for journalism, it was the other way around. By the time I finished my memoir, I wasn't doing as much journalism, and I'd remarried and moved to another part of the state, where I'd switched to using my (current) husband's last name socially and on my bank account, credit cards, medical records, etc. for simplicity. Also, there were a lot of Nancys in the community we moved to, so I started going by Nan.  Thus, Nancy Ross-Flanigan had become Nan Pokerwinski, not just on the page, but in the rest of life. For the memoir, I added my maiden name, Sanders, because that's the last name I had in the time period covered in the memoir. It's complicated, but it feels right.

  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    I love the different nature images you use as the masthead on each page of the site, and your bio is fascinating. It makes me want to read your memoir, for sure.

    Out of curiosity, why did you decide to write the journalism articles under a different name? I always appreciate learning about choices like that, like that recent interview with JK Rowling about why she began her mystery series under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym.

  • Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

    Thanks for asking, Rachel. Here's the link: http://www.nanpokerwinski.com/ . I welcome feedback on the site from anyone who checks it out.

  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    Nan, i'd love to see your Wix site, if you'd want to share the URL link in a comment here--i bet others following this post/comments would like to check it out too.

    And, congrats on getting some interest from agents, that's great! Best of luck with the ongoing query process.

  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    Karen, that's awful about losing your prior domain to hacking. I hope that the company can recover what you had! They ought to have archives, or perhaps you can find at least some of the content by searching https://archive.org/ for some dates before the hacking occurred. I've recovered some lost web content that way a few times.

    And good luck with your novel!

  • Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

    Thanks for this, Rachel. I used Wix as well and loved how easy and intuitive it was to work with. While I've just begun the agent search and haven't landed one yet, I have gotten a number of nibbles. I have no idea whether the website was a factor, I was glad to have it in place --and to make sure it showed up in Google searches -- when I started sending out queries.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for an inspiring post.  I might actually try my husband as a head shot photographer before I look elsewhere.  At the moment, I gave up my domain at iPage because they took it down due to it being hacked.  To get it back I would have had to undo everything and then start again from scratch, very expensively.  This made me ery sad.  Since my WordPress blog being part of that package, I lost that, too.  I may try to contact them to see if I can get it back up.  Yet, I now have a sub-domain at Weebly until I finish my first novel and have it published.  I have my nonfiction book linked to there, though, so I have an author's presence. 

    Best of luck in your journey to publication.

  • Sarah Yaw

    Thanks, Rachel! And yes, of course. He's at Douglaslloyd.com. We're located in Central
    New York.

  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    I like it too, Sarah! And you're right, that product shot makes the template's masthead look more customized. Does your husband have a site for his photography? If so, what's the link? It might bring him some clients. I know that the guy who did my shots for me has gotten some bookings from local authors who saw my photos on my business cards handed out at conferences and workshops.

  • Sarah Yaw

    My husband is a prof photog and he took a killer product shot of my book. It makes my DIY site look customized, and I'm sort of proud of it. He also did my headshot. He doesn't like it. I do. sarahyaw.com