By Ishta Mercurio
I got my first agent -- the agent who sold SMALL WORLD -- in the most unreplicable way possible.
I did all the stuff you're supposed to do. I researched agents for months: I went to conferences, I googled book deals, I read agent interviews, I pored over the PW announcements. I made three lists: a "Dream Agent" list, a "If My Dream Agents All Say No" list, and a "These look like legit agents who rep what I'm writing so I may as well give them a try" list. I queried everybody, starting with the "Dream Agent" list and working my way down. (More on that later.)
My query was honed and polished. After a few rejections, I revisited it to see if I could make it even better. I got page requests, and THOSE got rejected, so I revised my query again. I revised my pages. I queried first one picture book, then another, then a chapter book. I slogged through slushville for years. I kept track of every query letter I sent on a spreadsheet. And then finally, FINALLY, on the last day of a 6-8 week period at the end of which this agency had a "no response means no" policy, I got a full request! YES! The agent said she was really drawn in by my first ten pages and she wanted to see more. I spent a few hours freaking out and pacing and unable to speak in full sentences, and then I sent it off.
And waited some more.
Finally, after a month or so, I sent a professional follow-up. I was sure she wouldn't want to represent this book, because if she was really enthusiastic, she would have gotten back to me by then, right? It was only a chapter book -- about 7,000 words. So short! So she must have hated it, really. But I wanted to stay professional and leave things in good standing for the future.
She said she was still keen to read it, but that she needed a couple more weeks. (I knew, from googling, that she was the foreign rights agent for the agency, and that she was new to agenting, and that she had to read queries and manuscripts in her own time outside of work hours, so I told myself that this was understandable, even though I thought she probably would have read it by now if she had liked it.) Cool. So I followed up after a couple weeks, and again every couple weeks after that. For a couple of months.
Keeping it professional, right? Because that's what you do. But no way was she going to sign me if she still hadn't read the full. I was sure. All the blogs said so.
But then I found myself in a quandary: the SCBWI Winter conference was coming up in NYC. (I had registered for this conference before I had even queried her.) Her agency was in NYC. If she read my full and didn't like it, fine. But if she read it and liked it, and wanted to talk, then wouldn't a meeting over coffee while I was in NYC be the ideal thing?
So after much agonizing, I did the thing you're never supposed to do.
I sent this agent an email suggesting that we meet in person. I am not suggesting that you do this. NEVER DO THIS. I only did it because, after she requested my full and I spent months following up with her, there was something of a precedent, in terms of communication and follow-ups and an expectation that she would actually read the thing eventually, maybe. But I still feel squicky about having done it, because it's such a taboo, and for GOOD REASON. Anyway.
It went something along the lines of, "I know I'm doing this backwards, and I know this must seem stalkery to you, and I swear I'm not a stalker. But there's this writers' conference, and I'm attending... And I'm sorry for being so awkward, but do you think you could read my full soon?"
It was much more professional sounding than that, but you get the gist. I was sure she would write me off as a creepy weird writer-person and run for the hills.
She didn't. In fact, she thanked me for letting her know I would be in town for the conference, and she promised to read it that weekend. And she did read it that weekend. And on Monday, she emailed me to ask if we could meet on Thursday night, after I arrived in NYC but before the conference started.
So we met, and talked, and we really clicked. There was an immediate rapport, and we liked the same books, and I agreed with her thoughts about the general direction of my work, and I liked her communication style, and when she offered me representation at the end of our chat I had basically already decided I would say yes.
I had partials out with other agents, of course. So there was all that to wind up, and in fairness to those other agents, I wound all of that up before I said yes. But Laura Biagi was the perfect fit for me, so it was an easy decision.
Laura isn't my agent anymore -- she is enrolled in an MFA program for creative writing, and one day, she is going to write something that will knock your socks off -- but we still keep in touch, because we gelled like that.
So, what are the takeaways here?
Always be professional. Always. Remember that agents are human, too, and the time they spend looking for new clients is the time most people spend going to the movies or hanging out after work with friends or bathing. And their priority is always the clients they already have, which is what you would want for yourself if you were one of their clients. So even when they take forever to read a requested full, be respectful and extend kindness.
Always follow the guidelines.
Research, research, research. Take the time. It's worth it.
Go to conferences whenever you can. You learn a lot, and it signals to agents that you're serious about this business. Some conferences offer bursaries and scholarships if money is an issue.
Almost Most Importantly, remember this: My "Dream Agents" were not actually my dream agents. It's easy to look at an agent with a whole stable of successful authors and think, "That's my dream agent!" But their communication style might not work for you. The frequency with which they are able to communicate with their clients might not work for you. Their personality might not be a good fit with yours. These are all just as important as their enthusiasm for and ability to sell your work.
And never give up.
Ishta (pronounced EEESH-ta) Mercurio is an author, actor, and lifelong environmental activist. Raised in the US, she has also lived in England and Scotland, and has visited Venice, Italy; Paris, France; and a range of beautiful places all over the United States. One day, she hopes to visit her relatives in Cebu. She now makes her home in Canada, where she homeschools her two sons and films and photographs plants and wildlife, from the tall to the small, in her backyard. Find Ishta at www.ishtamercurio.com or connect with her on twitter at @IshtaWrites.
Her fiction debut, SMALL WORLD (illustrated by Jen Corace), is a STEM-concept picture book that explores a girl's journey of growing up in the world and discovering its beauty and marvel.