How Did I Get My Agent? (The Answer May Surprise You)

(What an awfully clickbaity title, I know. Guilty as charged. But I think it will.)

It’s easy for me to answer the question “How did you get a book deal?” I only need two words and those are Jane and Gregory, i.e. my amazing agent. She took me on, we worked hard on revising the book and just five days after she sent it out on submission, we had a pre-emptive offer from Corvus/Atlantic for a two-book deal. My debut thriller Distress Signals will be out in mere weeks and you can find out more about it here.

But how did I get my agent?

Let’s back up a bit. Let’s go back a bit, to about seven years ago. That’s when my journey to publication really began.

Are you sitting comfortably?

I’d always, always, always wanted to write a novel but, despite daydreaming about this full-time and buying every How To Get a Book Deal: No Really, THIS Book is the One That’ll Make That Happen-esque title I could get my hands on, I was missing a crucial ingredient: a good idea for one. In the mid-2000s I stopped worrying about this and went off to have adventures working abroad instead.

about2

After moving to Orlando, Florida and taking a job in Walt Disney World in September 2006, I started keeping a diary about my experiences that eventually turned into a non-fiction book, Mousetrapped. I submitted it to various agents and publishers, who all said thanks but no thanks. One agent, however, really loved my writing and said she’d love to see some fiction from me if I was interested. At the time I was working an utterly awful job that was turning my soul more and more necrotic every weekday, so I made a drastic decision: I quit my job and used my savings to rent a holiday home by the sea for 6 weeks. (Note: I was living with my parents and had no real financial responsibilities.) I finished a novel – finally! – which was a kind of chick-lit meets corporate satire thing that I described as The Devil Wears Prada meets Weightwatchers.

firstdraft

I also self-published Mousetrapped. This was back in early 2010 and, being in Ireland, I benefitted from big fish/small pond in a big way. The book did well and I quickly established a blog, Twitter following, etc. I was interviewed on national radio, featured in various newspapers and even appeared on TV. I was invited to give talks and lead workshops and participate in panel discussions at various literary festivals and writing seminars. I even got to do a session at a Guardian Masterclass, to lead the first ever self-publishing workshop at Faber Academy in London and got put up in a dream-like 5* hotel in the English countryside by the (very generous) organisers of ChipLitFest. Because Irish publishing has, like, 50 people in it (okay, slight exaggeration…), I also got to know a lot of people who were in the industry and made lots of great contacts and new friends. The first year I went to the Irish Book Awards it felt like the office Christmas party, I knew so many people there.

One of these new friends was Vanessa O’Loughlin, who founded Writing.ie and works as a literary scout (and who, under her crime-writing alter-ego Sam Blake, is about to release her debut crime novel Little Bones). She loved my Prada/Weightwatchers novel and she gave it to an editor at Penguin Ireland, who called me in for a meeting. They didn’t love that book but they liked my writing, and wanted to see something else. For a couple of years I tried writing Something Else, but I was making a few mistakes, the biggest being writing what I thought would get me published (women’s commercial fiction) and not what I really wanted to write (crime/thrillers).

Looking back, I think I was scared to. It was all I’d ever wanted to do since I was a teenager – what if I couldn’t? Luckily in the summer of 2012 I got a clue and started writing Distress Signals.

In the meantime though, Penguin Ireland had a title coming out that they thought would really benefit from some focused social media marketing and since I’d had success using it to promote my own books, they asked if I’d be interested in trying to make it work for them. I was and it did – and so they gave me more projects. That was in the autumn of 2012 and although I am winding down my work for them now – because, in the midst of all this, I went back to college and got a book deal so I don’t have the free time that I used to! – I have been working for them, freelance, ever since.

Got all that?

So to recap: it’s September 2014 and I’m a writer with a novel that I dream of getting published, who has already successfully self-published, has media experience, does well speaking in public and has been paid to do it, works for the biggest publishing house in the world (after the merger, anyway) and has a proven track record for selling books, not just her own but other people’s too.

Surely, I thought, there’ll be a queue of agents ready and waiting to snap me and my book up. I look so good on paper. Everything is in place. I’m a publisher’s dream.

Right?

Jane wasn’t the first agent I submitted to. I actually had no plans to submit to Jane at all, because it’s like deciding you’re going to gatecrash an Oscar party and then aiming for the Vanity Fair one. The chances of success are better for winning the lottery. She gets 5,000 submissions a year, takes on 2-3 new clients annually and only allows a submission in the first instance of the first ten pages of your work. Plus her roster of clients reads like the Female Crime Fiction All Stars team. I thought there was no hope.

So before I submitted to her, I submitted to a few other agents – more realistic choices, I thought at the time. Below is the actual text of the (loooong) cover letter I sent to them.

(FYI: Distress Signals was called Dark Waters back then and this letter is a couple of years old.)

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.55.33

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.55.40

Great, right? I was downright smug about this cover letter. I was the mayor of Smugsville.

But the agents I submitted it to? They weren’t impressed. They all said no, because they didn’t like the book that came with it.

On a day in September 2014, I remember very clearly sitting at my desk – where I’m sitting now – browsing the Gregory and Company website. I couldn’t get over the idea of the ten pages. How could they possibly tell whether you were good or not from a mere ten pages? I read over mine and thought they’d never cut the mustard. But… What did I have to lose? So, feeling like I was probably completely wasting my time, I sent in my submission.

Time out here to say something very important: follow the submission instructions to the letter. To. The. Letter. I didn’t send nine pages. I didn’t send eleven. I sent ten, which is what they asked for, even though this left them hanging mid-chapter. I had done my research; I knew Jane specialised in crime fiction. I personalised my letter. I sent it to the e-mail address they specified. I didn’t telephone to ask any questions, I didn’t email five days later to check if they’d got it and I didn’t Google Map their address, fly to London and post a chocolate bar through their letterbox with a note saying, ‘Something to enjoy while you read my submission!’ I just did what I was told. Nothing more, nothing less.

The vast majority of submissions that come into agents’ offices – and for as long as I live, this is something I’ll never understand – don’t follow the agency’s submission guidelines. Even though they’re right there, on the website. I just don’t get it. You’re hoping this person will enter into a long-term business relationship with you, that you’ll become partners at the wheel of your career. That they’ll risk investing time in you that they might never get paid for. And they’ve never met you. All they know is what you present. And you start off by completely ignoring what they’ve politely requested you do?

It reminds me of the time I was working in a B&B and we needed a new part-time member of staff. I put an ad online that asked for people to email a CV and, because the B&B was incredibly busy and we barely had the time to answer the phone to prospective guests, I specified that application was by e-mail only (important because the position would involve a lot of emailing with guests, etc. and the e-mail itself would provide us with an insight into their skills in that area) and that the person doing the hiring would not be at the property itself, so please don’t call. But what did people do? They called. And they called to ask questions that were either answered by the ad or that weren’t appropriate to ask at that stage of the application process. Of all the calls like this I answered, not one caller had a legitimate reason to call. So it may sound harsh but anyone who called got put in the “No” pile – because, by calling, they had proved that they couldn’t follow simple instructions and other people who wanted the job had proved that they could, so…

In summary: follow the instructions. Just by doing that, you’ll already be putting your submission head and shoulders above most of the rest.

Anyway, a couple of weeks after I sent in my submission, Gregory and Company asked me for the full manuscript and a couple of weeks after that, they offered to represent me and I celebrated with Starbucks and champagne. (Thanks, Denise!)

photo-16

It all had all been worth it. That’s what I thought. All those years – five of them, at this stage – that I’d spent worming my way into the publishing industry, establishing myself, selling books… It had all been worth it because now I had managed to write a cover letter that had convinced an agent – the agent – to take me on.

Except I hadn’t.

Because Jane wasn’t interested in the cover letter or its contents. When we first met, she asked me a few things that made me suspect she hadn’t even read it, or perhaps someone else on her team had and they’d just recapped the highlights for her. She was only interested in one thing: the book. She made her decision based on one thing: the book. I got a book deal based on one thing: the book.

The other agents rejected me because my cover letter theatrics weren’t enough to make up for the fact that they didn’t like the book. They didn’t “love it enough”. Not one of them said, “Well, I think this is good but I don’t think it’s great… But I’m so impressed by everything you’d done over the last few years and I think you could still manage to flog a few copies of it even if it isn’t great, so… I’m going to offer to represent you anyway!”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I have had a lot of fun since 2009. But I always had my eye on the prize. Whenever I got an invite to somewhere cool or I met someone important or I was interviewed by a newspaper whose name everyone would recognise, there was a part of me that mentally banked it for the cover letter that I’d ultimately send in with my submission. That’s always what I was working towards. And there was, admittedly, a part of me that also thought, Even if they don’t think the book is great, wouldn’t they still take me on because of all this stuff? I’m such a catch! 

Sometimes I slipped in little puddles of despair and looked around at all my friends with agents and book deals – some of them friends who didn’t have blogs or websites, or who rarely used Twitter – and got annoyed. Why didn’t I have agents and book deals, eh? Hadn’t I done my time? Paid my dues? And then I’d remember the big difference between us: they’d all finished books. I’d been too busy adding to my CV to finish mine.

Maybe you had the thought, when I was on here squealing and exclaiming about getting a book deal or getting an agent, of course she did. She works in the industry and she has great contacts. That’s fine for her but I don’t have those advantages. I don’t have a platform and I don’t know anyone on the inside. 

But I’m here to tell you – and this was as surprising to me as it might be to you now – that when it came to it, none of that mattered. It really didn’t. It was only about the book. I didn’t know Jane and Jane didn’t know me. I just went to the website, got my instructions and submitted the first ten pages of my book, just like approximately 5,000 other people did that same year.

And I’m not the only one whose story is like this. Most of the writers I know, their stories are the same.

(Of course, there are exceptions. Some people meet their agents at novel fairs or conferences or even online. Meeting at conferences seems to be a big thing in the U.S. And I’m guessing celebrity memoirs and celebrity novels aren’t quite all about the book, because at the end of the day the clue is in the name – it’s called the publishing industry – and brands sell books. But we’re not talking about celebrities, we’re talking about you and me.)

For us, it’s all about the book.

So don’t worry about anything else. Just make your book the best book it can be. When you start agent-hunting, you’ll have just as much chance of success as anybody else.

Well, provided you follow the instructions anyway.

What do you think? Agree/disagree? Has this been your experience? How did you get your agent? Are things very different in the U.S.? Is this the longest blog post you’ve ever read in your LIFE?! Let me know in the comments below. (By the way, my new design means my comment policy went bye-bye, but the “rules” are: no links, no blatant self-promotion and try to keep it relatively short. Ironic coming from me at the end of this post, I know. Thank you!)

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Distress Signals is out on May 5, but would you like to start reading it now? Well… Not now, exactly, but on Friday? This coming Friday (25th), everyone on my mailing list will receive access to an exclusive preview of the book’s opening chapters. Make sure you’re signed up so you don’t miss out! 

37 thoughts on “How Did I Get My Agent? (The Answer May Surprise You)

  1. Sara Flower Kjeldsen says:

    Wow thank you vert much for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s my dream to land an agent and get published one day. I am very happy for you! It is good to see hard, creative work pay off for a writer. I want to read your book!

  2. kathmcgurl says:

    I’m published but don’t have an agent, although I did submit to many at one stage before finding my current publisher.
    I think book fairs and writer conferences where you have a chance to actually meet an agent do help – because then at least the agent knows you don’t have two heads and are able to hold a polite conversation, etc. They also know you’re serious enough about writing to want to attend/pay for the conference.The nearest I got when submitting to agents was the two I’d met at a conference who both asked to see my full MS. You did brilliantly to land an agent from the ‘slush pile’!

  3. Susan Holt says:

    Well done! It is good to know that authors can be selected on the merits of their actual writing, rather than anything else. Thanks for re-inflating my hopes! I’m in New Zealand, so hope the pond is small enough.
    And, yes, isn’t it SO STRANGE that people can’t follow simple instructions. But we see it all the time.

  4. Tim Yearneau says:

    Interesting blog. I’ve read your Self-Published book, and have a blog and all that, but I like that in the end, it all comes down to the book. It’s a truism, quality sells. Nice job.

  5. Paul Adams says:

    I finally gave up on self publishing after my third book failed to sell. (I’ve sold maybe 1,200 in total).
    Some of us authors can write, but can’t do the commercial side.
    I have a website and do Facebook, but no blog and can’t get my head round Twitter! I tried to build an email subscriber list, but failed miserably.
    I’m wondering, now that you have a real deal, are you still expected to do your own marketing? A visit to last years’ Perth Writers’ Festival seemed to indicate that, even with the better known publishers (Fremantle Press), that that was the case.
    It seems a ‘no win’ situation. If I can’t market my self published books successfully, why would it be any easier with a trad published book?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Because you’d have a publicist and a sales and marketing team to help you. No, the publisher doesn’t do everything and support varies, but if your publisher believes in your book, they’ll work to sell it. You and them want the same thing: to sell books. I don’t have to be doing all I’m doing to push my own book, but I want to and I enjoy it. This is my career and I feel responsible for it.

      • Paul Adams says:

        Seems you have one of the better publishers if you have a marketing & sales team. I asked a trad pubbed author at the festival and he said he still did a hell of a lot of his own marketing. He had to. There was not a huge amount of support from his publisher as the marketing budget was limited, especially for new writers with no track record.
        Just to put it into perspective how important an agent is to getting a trad pub deal – Fremantle Press quoted the following figures –
        Unsolicited manuscripts received – 1,000 p.a.
        Unsolicited manuscripts that got published – 4 p.a. (yes, just four!)
        Manuscripts submitted via agents that got published – 100+ p.a.
        These were sobering figures!

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          Most – if not all – of the major UK publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions, so you can only get your book to them via an agent.

          A good agent will also work to get you a good or great advance. This, in turn, bodes well for your PR and marketing support because there’s more at risk for the publisher – they’re not just hoping to recoup the cost of publishing the book, but hoping you’ll earn back all the money they paid you too.

          • Paul Adams says:

            Penguin AU were taking unsolicited manuscripts last year. Not sure if this is still going. Something like the first Monday of every month. I think that’s the exception for such a large pub house.

            As an aside – I had to smile when I read you dropped out of Lancaster Uni after 3 weeks. I stuck it there for 4 years – the main positive being it gave me a heck of a lot of material for my 3rd (self-pubbed) novel!

  6. steven herrick says:

    Great post, Catherine. In my long(ish) experience in the field, I’ve learnt that publishers (like agents) are only interested in the quality of the writing. It’s always mystified me why we authors think otherwise.
    I’ve published 22 books, all without an agent. Maybe I’ve been greedy and wanted to keep all of my royalties. Although, I imagine it must be much more difficult now than when I began, when it was still possible to send a manuscript straight to a publisher.
    Good luck with the book.

  7. Luke Strickland says:

    Super useful thanks, and timely as I’ve been wondering about this recently anyway… not got an agent yet but thinking about it for both writing and speaking. Feel like I’m better armed now, thanks.

  8. Audrey says:

    Great post, thank you Catherine! I’ve been reading your blog and “Self-Published” over and over again, following your advice religiousely but it is really hard to get noticed in this industry and it is easy to get discouraged so this blog post was a good pep talk for me! Congrats on the book deal, I can’t wait to read the novel.

  9. miladyronel says:

    Awesome post… despite the length ๐Ÿ™‚
    Thanks for sharing your journey to get an agent. And for the reminder that it’s all about the book.

  10. Mary says:

    Hello Catherine, thanks for sharing your experience. I find the story encouraging and I’ve a couple of questions on the topic.

    Did you get your MS copyedited and structurally edited before you gave it to the agent?
    And if you did, how much did the editing cost (approximately)?
    How long after the agent read the MS did you get your book deal?

    Congratulations on your success. I hope everything that follows the publication of your book surpasses your wildest dreams. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Mary

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi Mary.

      I answer these questions with the disclaimer that there are no hard and fast rules to this process and all this answer will provide will be the details of my unique experience.

      No, I didn’t. I wrote the book, polished up the book and sent it off. While I don’t see the harm in getting a manuscript assessment or feedback from beta readers before you submit to an agent, if your goal is to get traditionally published than the last thing you’d want to be doing is paying for editing BEFORE you submit to an agent. That’s not your job. My agent took me on in October 2014 and I got my deal in March 2015. I rewrote the book with her in-house editor in between and that timeline, even with the agency, is not typical, as my agent can work with a debut author for up to two years before their book is ready to go out on submission.

      But as I said, there is nothing typical about this. I know someone who submitted to an agent on a Monday and had a book deal brokered by that agent by close of business Friday. I also know writers who were taken on by agents who never got deals – or who had to write a whole other book before they got one.

      All you can do is work as hard as you can and be professional about submitting. That’s all you can control.

  11. Sarah Potter Writes says:

    This post is so inspiring and timely, as I’m trying to get up the courage to write a crime thriller because it’s my favourite genre to read. It would be a radical switch from the quirky cross-genre stuff that I produce now but would fit into an identifiable market. I’m finding self-publishing quite a slog and would like to better my chances of finding a traditional publisher. Literary agents have told me that that my writing is good but the subject matter too hard to market. I think that I agree with them about the marketing now, having tried it myself!

  12. Kevin Cully says:

    A lovely bright,optimisitic read. I had my novel ‘A Ring of Rocks’ published by Random in 1992. At the time I had no agent. Modest reviews and sales. I got an agent at Curtis Brown. Submitted my next novel. Nothing. Submitted another one and again nothing. Huge crisis of confidence. My writing was liked but not ‘enough’. Years went by and my teaching became more and more time consuming. Still nothing. Published my original on Amazon Kindle. Sales in single figures. Have another novel but lack the confidence to go through it all again. I’m retired now maybe too old but your blog inspires.

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