Last November, I achieved one thing that all (or at least most) early-career and aspiring writers dream of: I signed with a literary agency. I was lucky enough to achieve something of a double whammy when I signed with Gandolfo Helin & Fountain Literary Agency, earning representation on the literary side with publishing industry veteran Renee Fountain, and on the film/entertainment side with the ever-impressive Italia Gandolfo.
Now, everyone's publishing path is a bit different, and everyone's journey takes its own unique (and often very winding) road. Mine was the same. I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I've self-published under pseudonyms and I've published non-fiction with major traditional houses, but all the while my ultimate dream has been to be a novelist, replete with representation and a publicist and, hopefully, an advance nice enough that it kind of makes up for the hundreds of hours I spend in front of my laptop.
When I wrote my first book, The Isle of Gold, I didn't go the traditional route. I was lucky enough to land a publishing offer with an up-and-coming small press. The book itself--still a baby as it just released last October--has done well, but more importantly, it earned some really wonderful reviews from very well-respected outlets. It also introduced me to my publicist, Sarah Miniaci at Smith Publicity, who has coaxed me gently (read: pulled me kicking and screaming) into the barest bit of limelight with things like media interviews and blog tours (the horror). These experiences allowed me to parlay my very meager publishing success and footprint into my query for my next book. (I'm such a strategist...not really.)
When I finished my next project, I queried a few agents I'd had my eyes on. The process was sort of similar to sending in college applications; the list was comprised of the usual suspects, some pretty solid leads, and, of course, the reaches. I received some nice no-thank-yous, some non-responses, and a handful of requests for partials and fulls. But, along my journey, I also started talking to friends and peers in the writing community, particularly those who had endured good-bad-ugly experiences with their agents (or former agents). I spoke with friends, who talked about their agent experiences, I got active in Twitter’s booming #writersxommunity, I started writing columns and networking in the Women’s Fiction Association. Now, I know some people say publishing is more about who you know that what you've written, and I'm sure this is true in some cases, but it truly wasn't in mine even though I got “to know people.” Online friends became life support, colleagues became mentors, and slowly but surely I found a home amongst the bookish.
I found the agent I wanted to work with in Italia, who started out as a woman I was terrified of (in a good way!), became an ally, and a mentor, I polished up my package and sent it over.
About a week later, after Renee had finished reading the manuscript, Italia and Company made the very courageous and somewhat questionable decision (I kid, I kid) to sign me. I received other interest from my query attempts, but signing with Gandolfo Helin & Fountain had already begun to feel like home and putting my name on her contract was a no-brainer. So far, my manuscript has been sent to some pretty impressive houses, and while we're still working the process, I can't speak highly enough of these women who have brought me into their tribe. They're phenomenal, exercising the sort of patience and encouragement that a young writer needs in their corner. Between the two of them, they've answered probably hundreds of questions, listened to great and not-so-great ideas on my next projects, and talked me off a ledge or two. Most of all, they've shown me in just two months how empowering and inspiring having people who believe in you and your work is, and they've encouraged me to work even harder going forward.
For what it's worth, my best advice to writers seeking an agent is this: find your home. Find an agent who not only knows the business but who champions your project, and you. Find an agent you can be friends with because you will laugh, cry, and vent together, and probably both get on each other's nerves a LOT. And I know this sounds very trite, particularly when you're just seeking an agent, but at the end of the day I believe firmly that it's not just about the house or the agency or the royalty paycheck, it's about the shared passion for books, and finding an agent as passionate as you.