The last panel I attended during the 2018 AWP conference was in a room filled to capacity—seats full, onlookers standing in the back of the room, scattered along the walls. The panel, “If Only I’d Known: Advice for Navigating the Publishing World,” covered the often unspoken traditions and expectations of novel publishing with the big New York publishing houses: How do I get the attention of an agent? Should I sign this publishing contract? What should I expect from an editor? What’s a good advance? The panel consisted of four novelists—Mitchell S. Jackson, Courtney Maum, Rebecca Makkai, and Julia Fierro—and was moderated by novelist Jean Kwok.
The rich, informative discussion that followed was full of insider advice about taking a book from manuscript to publication to audience. Kwok began by noting that publishing is a world of unspoken rules and traditions that one can, and does, unknowingly violate. “It’s kind of like navigating a minefield,” she said, and the panel was there to offer audience members the beginnings of a map.
It was way too much information to get into a single post (and interested readers should keep an eye out for Maum’s forthcoming book, After the Book Deal, on the topics covered by the panel)—but here is some of the advice they offered on the subject of getting a literary agent.
For traditional, corporate novel publishing, you need an agent. (Self-publishing and the independent publishers were beyond the panelists’ purview.) And most of the panelists have had more than one agent, due to the first agent not being a good fit, for reasons varying from communication issues to lack of enthusiasm.
Fierro got her first agent when she was at Iowa in graduate school—“too young,” she noted. Her first book didn’t sell with this agent, and then she didn’t write for seven years. Her next book that she says she “wrote to write a book” was much more successful.
Makkai similarly “sent stuff out way too early” to agents, but said she nonetheless “got a lot of bites” with her agent query letter—which she thinks is common for any good letter, for which she feels a 10% response rate should be expected. If it’s not getting a response of some agents, she said, the problem isn’t the novel but the query letter, which needs to tell a good story. “This is, theoretically, a lifelong partnership,” Makkai says of authors and agents. “There’s no reason not to start with your dream agent—when you’re really, really ready.”
Maum has had three agents, and found the first basically in the phone book. She didn’t have an MFA, didn’t even study English in college. Maum said that the easiest way to find an agent is to “have your friend recommend you,” adding that of course not everyone can do that. Do research, she says.
Jackson distilled his response to a single word: “promo.” As a writer without a book he nonetheless approached editor Jonathan Galassi and novelist Walter Mosely at events trying to make connections and tell them about his work. They didn’t take him up on the offer, but they remembered him. “What I realize now,” he said, “is that I was heralding something that was coming.” Regarding when you know your novel is ready to send out, he said: “You can’t let the book go until someone you respect is willing to put themselves on the line for it—if not: hold it.”
“An agent is a matchmaker,” Makkai said. They might love your book, but they can’t take your book unless they can think of a handful of editors who would also love it.
Kwok’s own agent story “began like so many stories—like a fairy tale then ending in tragedy.” She signed young with an agent and then spent ten years writing a novel the agent passed on. A month later, she sent the same book to her dream agent and got a request for the manuscript—this is the same agent still representing her today, and that first novel went on to become a bestseller. “The attention of a good agent is priceless,” Kwok said, advising that Agent Query is a great website to learn about what agents are out there and what they want. Do not call them, she said. Do not send an attachment. And do not send to major New York publishing houses on your own. Don’t be unusual in your query letter, she added. Don’t be cute.