Note: Leo Vaughn is a pen name of George T. Anderson. This post originally appeared on the author's other blog.


First, a correction.

An agent is not a person whom you “get.” You don’t posses them, their expertise, or their connections. But since it’s usually phrased as “getting an agent,” we’ll follow convention here.

The web is full of resources on how to get an agent, and I can’t possibly improve on them. Rather, this article is a hindsight meditation on what it took me to write myself into the scenario in which an agent offered to represent my work.

Perhaps my story is interesting to you. Maybe it’s helpful—or maybe it’s just puzzling.

Regardless, here’s what it took.

I wrote novels for 26 years

I’ve always loved written stories. As a homeschooled kid, I was stapling stacks of paper into books as soon as I could form letters and words. I wrote my first novel (really, a novella) at age nine and haven’t stopped. At age 35, I got an offer of representation and signed with my agent. At that point, I’d written something like fifteen novels and queried with two of them.

Twenty-six years sounds like a long time for this Millennial, but that time spent in novels didn’t feel long. Every novel that got somewhere still feels current to me. In a sense, my novel-writing headspace is one of suspended time and continuous present. Most of all, I’m thankful that I’ve been able to dwell in that headspace again and again as I’ve grown. It’s one of my favorite places.

Now, the length of time is significant to me in terms of things learned. Perhaps I’m the exception, but it really did take me that long to write something worth reading. The novel that landed representation went through eight major versions (more on that below), and when I look at version five—only three years prior to representation—I see a hot mess.

When I review the MSS of writers querying with a first novel, or a second, or a third, I get mixed feelings. Part of me wants to say, how big is your trunk? Not that writers should write with the intention of trunking—that seems like a sad exercise. Rather, I wonder about expectations, and what’s realistic.

Then again, that could be due to my particular journey—the fact that it took me so long to hammer out my craft. Everyone is different, and for those far more talented than I, perhaps it won’t take so long.

I learned to see my path as a long apprenticeship requiring humility

I started querying in 2014 with a novel that I’ve since trunked. In 2016, after getting a request from an editor at the New York Pitch Conference, that manuscript got a 40% request rate in the second round of querying. Then it got radio silence in the third. Feedback from agents who responded gave me some idea what to work on. As I continued to interact with beta readers, I began to see the same pattern. I’d pitched quite well, but the book wasn’t delivering on the promise of the pitch.

In 2018, I hit rock bottom with the realization that this book wasn’t going anywhere—and that I didn’t have the stamina or patience to start over again. The novel was a near-future thriller that depended on a playful meaning behind the year 2020, and I stubbornly insisted to myself that if it didn’t launch before then (to capitalize on a schnazzy little marketing hook), it would fail. Add to that the fact that the novel was basically a critique of the Metaverse as Facebook would later conceptualize it—and you can see that the book had an expiration date (one which has since passed).

Everything was stacked against the book, and it felt like my life would have no meaning if the novel didn’t succeed. (What a tragic place to be. No book—for that matter, no endeavor that we undertake on our own power—can provide us with ultimate meaning. I have plenty of opinion on this, but it’s outside the scope of this article.)

I realized that if I wanted to give trade publishing another shot, I would have to start over. That would require rebooting my mindset and expectations in several areas.

I had to lose my big head

Not gonna lie, I felt like a rock star after an editor requested my manuscript at the New York Pitch Conference. I mean, what a big deal—I was just a kid from Ohio.

That mindset wasn’t going to work for the next project. It was quite clear that I had no idea what I was doing in the manuscript itself. I had to view myself as a beginner and start with Novel 101 in particular areas of craft.

I had to introduce hard checkpoints into my writing-to-querying process

I moved too fast with that first querying project. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I kept fiddling with the surface-level of the story—the language—when the bones weren’t sturdy enough to support those fine turns of phrase.

Starting over with a new project, I made an important resolution. I would break the writing process out into phases with hard stops. I would not work on voice, language, or line-editing until I knew that every scene presented believable, interesting character motivations. And I wouldn’t rough out scenes based on motivation until I knew, ultimately, what each character wanted out of life (and this story).

This meant that early beta readers got manuscripts that hadn’t been line-edited. I expressly asked them to resist line editing or commenting on my language. Rather, I asked them to focus on character and motivation.

These folks are my heroes. They were so helpful. Whenever a major version of the manuscript came back with, “this character is a jackass and I don’t like them,” or, “I have no idea who the main character is or how they feel about things or what they want out of life,” then I knew what to work on.

At that point, I wasn’t throwing out 90,000 words that I’d edited into a pristine voice. I was throwing out an idea of who my characters were and what they wanted. That wasn’t such a big deal.

Now, did it work?

Yes. 😊

There came a time, version 7 perhaps, when I just knew. There was no more need for beta readers. The bones of the story were in place. Characters had a few dimensions to them, and their motivations were believable and interesting.

Now, at long last, I could edit for voice and overall gestalt.

It was only when I reached this phase that I tightened up my boots and “went to market” with the book.


I vetted agents obsessively

When you’re looking for an agent, there’s one question to ask yourself first. Am I willing to sign with any agent who will take a chance on me? Or do I want to be selective? There’s no right answer here. Every writer will come to the decision that’s right for them.

That said, while you can’t control the outcome of the querying process, you can control the input. You can control who gets to see your book first. Yes, you can be selective.

The next question is, if you’re going to be selective, what are you selecting for?

The question of agent/author fit is beyond the scope of this reflection, but there is one criterion that’s worth considering when it comes to strategy. It’s the question of an agent’s sales record. Is the agent a sales hero, selling several books a year to publishers? Or do they have little to no track record? (By the way, all this data comes from Publishers Marketplace. While reporting to the site is voluntary, and not all agents report their sales, the data in the site is better than no data at all. It’s absolutely worth subscribing for a month or two when you’re building your querying list.)

If your goal is to sign with an agent who sells, it’s worth gaining a rudimentary understanding of two things.

  1. How many major publishers or imprints are there in your genre?
  2. Who are the agents who sell to the editors at those imprints day-in, day-out? (I exaggerate—let’s say quarter in, quarter out. 😊 )

Again, Publishers Marketplace has this data, but you’ll have to dig for it manually. Here’s how I did it.

  1. Build a shortlist (10-15 names) of big editors in your genre. (You can get this from cruising a significant sample size of deals in your genre in Publishers Marketplace and noting the editor names that pop up frequently.)
  2. Now go the other way, searching for deals involving those editors. Log every agent name from every deal associated with one of those editors—but log each occurrence of the name as its own record. That way, you can aggregate (again, manually—arrrgh!) and say, “this agent sold 6 books to this editor over the last 2 years, 3 books to this other big editor, and 1 book to this other big editor.” In other words, it’s not enough to just get the names. You want a name, and you also want a sense of their sales volume within your genre.
  3. Look at these patterns as aggregations of relationship and genre clout. The agents who have numerous records selling to big editors in your genre—those are your top-tier agents. This set of names may or may not overlap with the set of names you would build after searching for agents on the internet alone.

Of course, you’ll have to use some intuition in this process alongside hard analysis. I made some inferences, and I was comfortable with them. What that looks like for your genre and your book, I couldn’t say.

Bottom line, if you’re going to be selective, you want to define what a great agent looks like to you, in terms of sales data. Once you’ve used that selectivity to build your list, you have a criterion to tell you if it’s worth spending money to get in front of an agent or not.

This is how…

I spent money strategically to pitch my book in person

The writers conference landscape isn’t what it used to be, but there are still great conferences out there where you can pitch agents in person. (Just google “literary agent pitch conference” or similar to get started.)

The question is, if you’re attending strictly to pitch (and you’re viewing the sessions as an additional benefit but not a primary reason for attending), then where should you spend your money?

Only on your first-tier agent list.

For any conference you’re considering, you want to compare your list of top-tier agents with the list of agents who still have slots available. (If you can’t buy a spot with a specific agent, don’t hesitate to reach out to the conference organizers and negotiate. Tell them you’ll only consider attending if they can guarantee a slot with that special agent. If they can’t guarantee it, let them know it’s in their best interests to do so—and move on if they don’t accommodate your needs. You are the customer.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with pitching to whoever you get, simply for the sake of it. I’ve done that too. In fact, that’s a great way to get the jitters out. Once you’ve done a few agent pitches, you realize it doesn’t have to be stressful. The agent is a person just like you, and they’ll either connect with your work or not. You can’t control any of it by the time you’re in front of them. (Hence the bulk of this article, the main thrust of which is, don’t query before you’re ready!)

So yes, you don’t have to pitch selectively if you’re just starting out.

But if you’ve done this before and you’re really, seriously going to market this time, it’s worth getting selective. It’s worth paying only to pitch those big-time agents.

That said, even if you get a request, the journey may not be over. In my case…

I had to do an R&R

Ahhh, the dreaded revise and resubmit.

Actually, it shouldn’t be dreaded. Getting an R&R is a fantastic validation of your work. It’s far easier for agents to move on than it is to think about what’s not working in a book they wanted to love.

Here’s where you’ll use all that practice in not having a big head. (Remember? That was part of your apprenticeship. 😉)

Now, if an agent is actually looking for a different book than the vision you have, you’ll want to think carefully about an R&R. You remain the final authority on your book.

But if you can see a better book on the other side of that R&R, you should absolutely go for it. Even if the requesting agent ultimately rejects it, you’ll have a better book. In that scenario, you’ve been granted the opportunity to improve your writing under the tutelage of an industry professional—for free.

And hey. That R&R might just work out the way you want. (It did for me!)

Moving forward

Like what you’re reading? I’m an agented SFF author and hope to get a book out soon. Join my email newsletter, and I’ll send you updates on publications. I only use it for major news, so you won’t hear from me too often.

About Leo Vaughn

Leo Vaughn writes unusual fantasy for unusual people. His work is represented by Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.

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