How I Got an Agent in 8 Minutes, Over the Christmas Holiday, Without Asking to be Represented

by John Robert Marlow

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In the interests of full disclosure, it might be fair to say the entire process took 48 hours—but the most important part took 8 minutes. (Besides, “How I Got an Agent in 8 Minutes” reads better.) Onward…

PRELUDE

Breaking into Fortress Hollywood keeps you busy. There are archers and catapults to be avoided, boiling oil, barred gates—the works. It kept me so busy I hadn’t written a book for a few years. By the time I decided to writer another—nonfiction this time—I had no agent to help sell it. I’ll explain the reasons I wanted an agent (and why you should, too) in another post—but for now, suffice to say that agents generally sell things faster, and for more money.

I will get into one reason, though. My first book—Nano—had been a novel. This time I’d be writing nonfiction. And while I’d written scads of magazine and online articles in the past, I’d never done a book. When you “go out with” (try to sell) a novel, you write the whole thing up front, send the first chapter or three, and if they like it they read the rest and make an offer.

Nonfiction is different: generally, you write a few chapters, outline the rest of the book, include some additional material—and send a book proposal. So, really, you sell the book before most of it has been written.

The book I wanted to write would be about adapting books and other stories for Hollywood. Not that I knew everything there was to know about the topic—but I’d learned an awful lot about it over the past few years. And what I didn’t know, I could find out by asking friends and acquaintances I’d made who actually did know almost everything about the topic.

I thought that by combining my own knowledge and experience of the book and film worlds with the collective wisdom of authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others whose works are in many cases household names—I could pretty much cover the field. And maybe even come away actually, truly knowing almost all there was to know on the subject—thanks to the generous input of everyone I’d consulted.

I could even offer something that most such established luminaries could not: the perspective of someone just recently looking to “break in” to Hollywood with an adaptation. That would be a book like no other—and one I know would have saved me years, had it or something like it been available for me to read when I first set my sights on Hollywood. I decided to call it Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood.

Still, I’d never done a book proposal before. And while there are a number of how-to articles online, I wanted professional guidance from someone whose livelihood depended largely on selling book proposals and nonfiction books. In short: an agent.

I figured if he or she had been at it a while and hadn’t starved, that would be a good start. But—how to find this person, and get them interested in what I had to sell? For the past several years, my focus had been on Hollywood, not New York. I needed to catch up.

RESEARCH

Since I grew up with real books—the kind that get soggy and don’t electrocute you when they’re wet—I turned first to the book I’d used the last time I’d been looking for a book agent: Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents—which not only lists the agents and their contact info, but also what they’re looking for, often in their own words. As well, I referred to the Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino. [Note: resources mentioned in this article are linked at the end.]

There’s plenty of overlap between the two, but each has info not found in the other, so I paged through both for leads. Taking my quest online, it didn’t take long to find Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog—which has a long list of agent blogs, allowing me to find out more about the agents I’d already zeroed in on, and add a few more to the list, as the blog is updated more often than either of the books.

Nothing (well, few things) makes you look like an idiot faster than sending, say, a query about a hooker’s life story to an agent who only handles young adult Christian fiction. So I was looking for someone experienced at selling nonfiction and, more specifically, how-to and “prescriptive” (a fancy word for “how-to”) nonfiction. Oddly, I wound up with an agent not associated with either—but more on that shortly.

All of this was preliminary work, so the 8-minute clock mentioned in the title isn’t yet ticking. Another part of the preliminary work was looking for other books on the same topic. I found very little in print, nothing up-to-date, and nothing remotely similar to the approach I had in mind. Which meant that my particular area of interest happened to be an unexploited niche in the marketplace. Always good.

On the other hand, this also explained why I’d had to learn everything the hard way myself: no one else who’d trod the path had written about it in this way. Lucky me.

While I was doing this research, I was also writing the Self Editing Blog (where this article will be cross-posted). To give myself some time off for the agent hunt, I reached out to other bloggers—including a few who were also agents—for a few guest posts. One of those was Andy Ross, whose Ask the Agent blog I’d found listed on Chuck Sambuchino’s website.

In discussing blog topics by email, the subject of adaptation came up. I referred Andy to an online primer of mine in the May/June issue of Women On Writing (later revised, updated and run as the first post on the Make Your Story a Movie blog). I also told him I was planning to start a blog on the subject.

This led to Andy asking me to do a two-part interview about adaptations for his own blog. Which of course completely ate up the “extra time” (and then some) I’d thought to gain by running Andy’s guest post. But, as you’ll see, it all turned out okay…

QUERYING ON CHRISTMAS DAY

So I compiled my agent list, put together the best query I could, and found myself finishing it up just before Christmas. When, as any fool knows, most of the Western World is out of the office. What to do? Well, one thing to do would be to wait until January, when everyone’s back at their desks.

Then I thought, screw that, I’ll send it out now. Probably no one else is doing that, so if my targeted agents are checking email now, there’s a better chance they’ll get to mine soon. Maybe they’ll be impressed by my work ethic. And sending it just before the holidays had an additional advantage: if their holidays turn out to be miserable disappointments, I’ll have caught them early—while they were still in good and hopeful spirits.

And so it was that my query made its way into the world on December 25, 2010. I had a number of agents to approach, so I began sending the query out in batches—personalizing each email based on my earlier research. Along with the agents, I also sent one query to an editor at a likely-seeming publisher that, really, anyone with half a brain could see would be a natural for this. (Except, as things turned out, the editor at said likely-seeming publisher.)

EIGHT-MINUTE TURNAROUND

Just after the first batch of queries went out, it occurred to me (head-slap) that I was missing a bet here: why not ask an actual agent to review the query for me before sending off the remaining batches? After all, I now knew an agent whose blog was in fact called, “Ask the Agent.” So—on December 27—I sent the following email to Andy Ross:

    Hi Andy,

    From what I gather, prescriptive nonfiction is not your thing. But I’m about to pitch a
    ”Make Your Story a Movie” book to several agents.

    And I was wondering if you might be willing to look over my brief query and–from an
    agent’s perspective–suggest any improvements that might come to mind?

Eight minutes later, I received the following email from Andy:

    I’d be thrilled to represent it, if the material is as good as your interview. I have worked with prescriptive books as well. There is not that much difference in the process. If you have a good proposal and it makes a good case that the material is new, fresh and compelling, that is what counts. I’d be delighted to work with yours (if it looks promising). You decide though. You need to have a good agent relationship and that is the most important thing. At any rate, send me the proposal and I’ll mark it up. Andy

Now, mind you, I’d never actually asked him to represent the book—but, as Dexter Morgan might say (in print, not on screen), I thought it impolitic to point that out. Of course, he did leave me an out (once), and himself too (twice). But, hey—I had yet to hear back from any of these other slackers I’d spent so much time researching, so what the heck. Andy had made some good sales, represented Daniel Ellsberg among others, had run and owned a large independent bookstore, was obviously knowledgeable (as his blog amply attested), and seemed like a nice guy to boot.

So, at about noon the same day, I sent him my query, which will appear in my next blog post. [I’ll link it here when that happens, a few days at most.] The cover email went like this:

Well, thank you. It never occurred to me, actually. From your stated wants, I figured you were more a Daniel Ellsberg-type agent—and I’m fresh out of classified documents. (Though there is this guy Julian…)

It’s just a query at this point, rather than a proposal, but it wouldn’t take too long to work one up as I already have a good deal of material in articles and a good idea of where I’m going. (A sample of a recently-sold proposal from you would help.) Have a gander and lend me your thoughts…

THE PAYOFF

He offered to help put together the book proposal—which, he said, wouldn’t be all that hard. So far as I know, this is the only lie he’s ever told me.

We talked and emailed a bit about the proposal, and he sent me his agency agreement. That was 26 hours after my email to him, and less than 48 hours after I’d started sending out queries.

And there you are—an agent in 8 minutes. Or, if you prefer, 26 hours. Or 48. Regardless, I think we can all agree that “How I Got an Agent in 8 Minutes” has a much nicer ring to it.

The book proposal went out to publishers on January 6. Less than two weeks later, we received an offer from St. Martin’s Press (a division of Macmillan), which we then negotiated and accepted.

I never did send out the rest of those queries to the agents I’d spent so much time researching—but it’s best to be prepared, and the research itself was an education. I did eventually hear back from the first batch of agents I’d queried—some of them months after the book had been sold. How many of the other agents on my list would have taken on the project, had they seen the query, I’ll never know.

TAKEAWAYS

So, what did I take away from this?

Things can go faster than you expect. Be ready for the next step, in case it does come fast. (Most likely, it will not.)

Thoroughly research agents and their needs; while you too might land an agent in 8 minutes (or less), you can’t count on that, and need to prepare for (and expect) the more typical long slog.

Also research what you’re planning to sell, as if you were looking to buy it instead. Are there other, similar projects already out there? This is particularly important with nonfiction, and with hugely successful fiction. If another project already covers your nonfiction ground, yours must differ in some significant way. If you’re toiling away on a young adult novel about an orphan boy at a school for wizards, you’re screwed.

Relationships matter. Get to know people in the business. Not just because they can help you, but because you have shared interests. Maybe there’s some way you can help them. Ask not, what your contact can do for you—but what you can do for your contact. Then, if they can do for you sometime down the road, they likely will if they can.

As Native Americans have said for centuries: Be kind to strangers, because any one may be the Great Spirit in disguise. Seems a tad less than altruistic, but it does promote good relationships. Help may come from unexpected sources; I had no idea Andy would have any interest in representing my book.

Have the goods: write the best damned query you can. Consider seeking professional help with your query and with the work itself—because if your first impression isn’t your best, it may be your last. (And may I humbly plug the services page…)

Hang for a while after sending important emails, on the off chance someone happens to spot your message (and get back to you) in, well, 8 minutes…

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Resources cited in this article…

Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood
Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, by Jeff Herman
Guide to Literary Agents, by Chuck Sambuchino
Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog
Ask the Agent (literary agent Andy Ross’ blog)
Make Your Story a Movie blog
Self Editing Blog
Make Your Story a Movie post from April, 2011 (first post on the MYSAM blog, now updated and vastly expanded by the
MYSAM book)


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