"How did you get your agent?" is a question that writers with agents hear a lot. There are really three answers to it: short, shortish, and long as hell. I'm here to provide you all three today!
So, the short answer? Hard work and luck.
The shortish answer? I wrote several books, queried dozens of agents for each of them, and finally found someone who clicked with my work at such a time that a) she was looking for new clients, b) she wanted to represent a dark fantasy novel, and c) she thinks the market will be interested in a dark fantasy novel.
I don't think either of those answers are really what people are looking for, though, because it's human nature to believe there's some secret sauce — some magical thing they can do that will tilt the odds in their favor. Look, for example, at all the people asking talented artists "how did you learn to draw so well?" as if the answer is anything other than "I drew, and drew, and drew, all the time, every day, for years of my life, while also studying anatomy, proportion, perspective, and all of the other things one needs to study in order to get good."
There is no shortcut. But still, the question is interesting, and the answers often are as well. Every journey is different, even if those journeys often have similar structures. So … how did I get my agent? Well, let me tell you.
Between 2009 and 2013, I self-published four novels. The first three, a trilogy of action-packed, sexy vampire novels, had found quite a significant audience. The fourth, a young-adult sci-fi novel set in a far-future broken world, had not resonated with that audience and not sold particularly well. Alas! But I don't really care; it's a good book and I like it, and I've never seen this gig as a primary source of income so sales numbers aren't really my main focus.
Anyway, I digress. I decided after The Broken God Machine that I wanted to get back to pursuing traditional publishing. It's been a dream of mine since I was eleven years old to see one of my books on the shelf with a publisher's imprint on it. It feels "real" to me in a way that the self-publishing just doesn't, even though Blood Hunt in particular has sold more copies than an absolute ton of traditionally published books.
So, when I wrote my next book, Elixir, I didn't immediately self-publish it. Instead, I sent it to Peter Gelfan, a talented editor who freelances for The Editorial Department. Over the course of two edits on the manuscript, he gave me an immense amount of incredibly valuable insight into writing that I still use to this day. Elixir may not be better than my previous works in terms of how much it connects with readers, but from a technical standpoint it is immensely superior, and I think that's carried on to all of my works since. Side note: I know not every writer is lucky enough to have the disposable income to pay for a professional editing pass, let alone multiple ones, but if you can … do it. You will not regret it.
Given the multiple rounds of editing, it's perhaps no surprise that Elixir was also the first book I enjoyed any particular success with when querying agents. The Broken God Machine, which I did query to about thirty agents, got a single request for the full manuscript but no offers of representation. Elixir went out to fifty-five agents, which yielded five "full requests." An astounding three of those turned into offers of representation. I eventually signed with Kirsten Carleton, then of Waxman-Leavell (now just Waxman Literary) but who shortly after moved to Prospect Agency. We put the finishing touches on Elixir and sent it out to acquisitions editors at several publishers, big and small, some that leaned more toward Sci-Fi, and some that leaned more toward thrillers (the book straddles the line).
What followed was a series of what I call "glowing rejections" - almost invariably, we'd get a paragraph of praise for the book, followed by, "but I'm not sure how to sell it" or "but we're not sure it's right for our audience," followed by a pass. This went on and on. Ultimately, the book didn't sell. I think it may've been too Sci-Fi for the thriller folks and too thriller for the Sci-Fi folks, or it may just have been bad timing, or who knows.
So, I wrote another book.
Pulse is a Sci-Fi horror novel that initially seems to be a zombie book, but eventually becomes something else. Kirsten and I worked it through several drafts, until we felt it was ready to go, and then once again sent it off to acquisitions editors. Once again, the glowing rejections rolled in. Seriously, I mean … look at this:
Thank you so much for sharing PULSE with me. I just love how the manuscript opens with that great, foreboding prologue. … Plus, the early puzzle pieces (the grid that only some folks can see, the singing, the time jump for Raine) provide a lot of room for readers to bring their own imaginations to bear. And what works particularly well is that final twist: [spoilers!]. This subverts expectations in a satisfying way, just like the revelation that [more spoilers!].
I don't know about you but that doesn't read like a rejection to me. Nonetheless, that's what it was, and I once again ended up with a book that got a lot of praise but did not ultimately sell. Discouraging! But here's the thing: the publishing industry is a fickle, capricious beast. All you can do is roll with the punches and keep trying.
So, I wrote another book.
This one, Divergence Point, is a pretty classic space opera. It's a little more grounded than, say, Star Wars – there's no magic (which, let's be honest, is what the Force is). I'd compare it to the Mass Effect video games, although none of my alien species look exactly like humans except with squid tentacles for hair. It features a terrorist, an assassin, and a hacker who're recruited by a shadow government to hijack an alien ark and steal its warp drive. It's a really fun book and I like it a lot.
Sadly, before we could send that one out to publishers, Kirsten wound up leaving the publishing business for personal reasons. This put me back at square one. You'd think "oh, well, at least having had an agent probably gives you a leg up" right? NOPE! The thing is that the agent/writer connection is a really personal thing. Agents see dozens if not hundreds of writers a year who are good writers … that's simply not enough. They need to click with the voice, with the genre, with the plot. They need someone who's writing in a genre that they can sell, and who isn't writing in the same genre as someone else they just signed. There are dozens of factors that go into an agent's decision to offer representation, and "this guy already broke through that barrier once" turns out to be a very minor factor, if any factor at all.
I queried Divergence Point. I contacted eighty-three agents. I got three full requests. I got no offers of representation and only a single personalized piece of feedback (the other two rejections were form letters).
So, I wrote another book.
Possessed is a contemporary fantasy about a young woman who becomes accidentally possessed by a demon. It's a fun, funny, fast-paced book in the vein of Christopher Moore. It is also, as it turns out, in a genre that is considered almost completely unsellable in traditional publishing at the moment (contemporary or "urban" fantasy is a HUGE genre; it's just dominated almost entirely by indie authors who crank out five books a year about, like, werewolf hunters who might also want to bang the werewolf they're hunting).
Not knowing this, I queried Possessed widely as well. This one went out to forty-five agents. It did get some interest! Two full requests and a partial manuscript request. Sadly, all forty-five of those agents ultimately passed on it. Including an agent named Diana Fox, of Fox Literary, who had also passed on Divergence Point. More on that in a second.
If we're keeping count here, by this point in the story I have eight books under my belt: The Blood That Bonds, Blood Hunt, The Children of the Sun, The Broken God Machine, Elixir, Pulse, Divergence Point, and Possessed. But I actually have nine, because I also wrote the first draft of a young adult book called The Werewolf at the Window, which I've never even written a second draft on, much less queried. Each manuscript (that I hadn't self-published) was getting interest from agents or publishers, but none had made it over the hump.
So, I wrote another book.
Piety the Knife is a dark fantasy novel heavily inspired by the Dark Souls series of video games. It features a crew of seven people trained in specific disciplines and sent out to return a deposed queen to her throne. It is grim and gory, with a magic system chock full of body horror, and I love it. Might be my favorite book I've ever written. I wrote multiple drafts of it before sending it out to agents. One hundred and friggin' eight agents, to be precise. Just a ridiculous number, but there are a LOT of agents who represent fantasy, so I had a lot of options.
The manuscript received six full requests, one partial request, and one "I would ask for a full because I've really liked your previous submissions but I just signed a fantasy author" response. By a pretty wide margin the best response I've ever received! Awesome, right?
All of those agents eventually passed.
All of them except Diana Fox, who responded going "there's something here but what you've written is a video game in book form. I need an actual book. Let's see if you have the chops to make that change."
This is called a "revise and resubmit" – an agent likes what you have but thinks it needs significant changes to actually be marketable to publishers. This is a big test for an author, and it raises a big question: can you accept that this is a business and that you may have to make fairly sweeping changes in order to be successful, or are you too bound up in your work to make those changes? Many authors can't make the changes. That is totally okay! There are a zillion REALLY EXCELLENT books out there that are not marketable to publishers for one reason or another ("way too long" being one of the most common). Many of them find tremendous success as indie releases. It's fine to not want to play within the rules of traditional publishing. They're extremely restrictive, usually frustrating, and often completely baffling.
But god damn it, I've wanted my name and a publisher's imprint on the spine of a book since I was eleven. Years. Old.
More than that, though, Diana was right about Piety. Turns out when you've been doing this for almost twenty years, you have some valuable knowledge to impart, and she imparted it upon me. The book as it stood was "travel, boss fight, rest, travel, boss fight, rest" … over and over again. All of it was compelling, but the structure didn't work.
So I rewrote it. Chopped it up, sewed it back together. Frankensteined the motherfucker. Improved the main character's arc, added additional scenes to flesh out secondary characters, merged two "bosses" into one fight. Cleared up some questions and inconsistencies. Strengthened a bunch of scenes. The book went from 96,000 words to 105,000 words, but it's not just that I added nine thousand words. I actually cut at least five thousand. It never quite reached what happened with The Children of the Sun, where between the penultimate and final draft I literally highlighted an entire chapter and hit "delete" … but it came close. I rebuilt the book, and the result is better.
Better enough to land me an offer of representation from Diana. She knows now that I can do the work. She knows I will do the work. That, in combination with how much she likes the book itself and, just as crucially, her belief that she can sell it, was enough to get me that offer.
So, that's how I got my agent.
From here, we make a final few tweaks to the manuscript and then we go back to the next crapshoot: trying to get a publisher to buy the book. I'm cautiously optimistic. Piety is good, y'all. It's a really good book. I'm very proud of it. But it's fully possible it won't sell. If so, it goes in the trunk, along with the sequel, the first draft of which I've already written (for those keeping count, that puts me up to eleven). Maybe that'll be how it goes. If so, well, at least I have Diana's support for what will come next. And you know what that is; it's been a bit of a running theme throughout this post, and honestly, it's coming regardless. If Piety and its sequel sell or if they do not, the result is the same. What am I going to do?
Write another book.