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Top 5 Noob Mistakes in Finding an Agent (So Far)

I had always heard the actual writing of a book was the hard part. It's true that breaking through mental blocks, searching the thesaurus again for yet another word for 'laughed', and re-writing a character description for the millionth time can be difficult. Not to mention the emotional toll of writing your story (more on that here). But once you're done with the edits and the re-writes and you finally have a polished manuscript you think, that's it! You've made it! Your officially an author! But if what you really want to be is a published author, the hardest part is only beginning.

If you aren't planning on self-publishing your work, you'll need an agent. The problem is that the agents are swamped. From your great aunt raised up in the dust bowl living in her dad's car while he searched for work, to your kid's dad whose experience at war make him uniquely qualified to write apocalyptic fiction, everybody has a story. I don't think I know a single person that isn't planning to someday turn that story brewing inside them into a book. For thousands of people, that day is today. And they're all competing with you for representation from those swamped agents.

There are hundreds of blogs from agents and authors on finding the right agent, and some really insightful Reddit subs too. I read them all, and still made some pretty fundamental noob mistakes. Here are my top five:

1) Expecting the agent to pick the genre

My first manuscript is written like a memoir, so I sent it to agents specializing in memoirs. Trouble was, it was not a story about my own life so it wasn't technically a memoir. I had thought that in getting my pages to an agent, they would innately know in which genre this non-memoir memoir fit, because I sure didn't. But all it did was confuse them. Without a solid, immediate understanding of your genre, an agent cannot picture your target audience. That is to say that they can like your manuscript a great deal, but that does no good if they don't know how to sell it. Further, if they don't have an idea of who they are going to sell the book to, they often throw you in the reject pile without asking for clarification. Help them help you by removing any vagueness about the genre or target audience before you submit.

2) Not submitting to the founder of the firm

I assumed that anyone with a whole agent firm named after them would be far too busy to consider my lowly manuscript. I mean, they did their time on the production floor, and they had employees to manage now, so I didn't want to be a nuisance. But that line of thinking discounts the insane amount of passion they have for the craft, the very sentiment that likely drove them to start a firm in the first place. By broadening my query to these namesake agents, I received the most constructive feedback. Even their denials inspired hope and illuminated small changes that could make my story even more compelling. Don't skip the head honcho!

3) Querying too few agents at a time

There are a lot of advice columns that suggest only querying a handful of agents, but I wonder if those were written in the time before all the agents were swamped. Every query letter you submit starts a 90 day waiting period. Some agents respond within the first couple of hours, some need more time, and some never respond at all. If you only send your query to five agents at a time, you'll only be able to reach 20 agents in a year. In this very subjective industry, agents are looking for a perfect fit for them, which means the chances are high that all 20 of those agents will reject. To add to that, querying in today's digital world is a slog in and of itself, as every agent wants to see different things and every submission form is different. My advice: sit down at your computer and send queries until you want to poke your eye out with your favorite pen. In 90 days, if you haven't found the right agent, do it again.

4) Not having a social media platform

Okay, I'll admit it, I'm still perplexed by this Catch-22 style requirement. I figured once I sold a book I'd start social media accounts to connect to my fans, but many agents have informed me that big publishers want manuscripts from authors with a following. So to publish a book you need followers, but to get followers it sure feels like you need to publish a book. Do yourself a favor and start your social media accounts well before you're ready to start the querying process, but make sure your content is relevant. Agent advice: start a blog and share stories related to your manuscript (no spoilers!).

5) Thinking a read request means a representation offer is incoming

When I sent my first batch of query letters I got two requests for my full manuscript within the first hour. I instantly worried that I'd made a mistake, and now they'd both want to represent my book and now I'd be letting someone down. But both queries still ended in rejection. I have received manuscript requests from approximately a third of the agents I've queried, and while it is an absolute honor to make it to so many read piles, the answers were all fundamentally the same. They loved the premise and enjoyed the writing, but they didn't feel enough of a personal spark with my work to add it to their already overwhelming workload. As someone that can spend hours reading the inside flaps of novels at my local library and still only leave with one book, I totally get it. But as an author who assumed everyone who requested their manuscript would want to represent it, it stings a bit. By not getting your hopes up every time an agent asks to see more, you'll make all the rejection easier on yourself.

I'm still in the process of finding an agent that really connects with The Bus on the Hill, so I'm sure I'll keep making bumbling through the process as the noob I am. Hopefully by sharing my embarrassments it can save you from making the same mistakes.


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