“How do I get an agent?” It’s probably the number one question I get asked about writing and publishing.
There are a lot questions about publishing. Like, how is it that these multi-national, multi-million dollar manufacturing concerns still, in the 21st century, do not advertise their products? Why are business decisions in publishing largely made by people hired for their aesthetic judgment and no business training? Why is there no Billboard-like public accounting of actual book sales? Why is it that no writers actually work at the publishers, as such, despite the fact that they generate all the product the company sells? (Imagine a car company that didn’t advertise, who kept sales a secret, whose business decisions were made by the administrative staff and no one who actually made cars worked there.)
Questions about publishing go on and on and my answer to most of them is: I have no idea.
I do know however how to get, or rather how I got my first, literary agent representation.
I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-nineties after my life had been leveled by a homophobic co-worker at the ad agency where I’d worked in South Carolina. With nothing to lose I thought, what the hell? I hadn’t actually intended to be in advertising anyway. What to do? Well, Thelma and Louise came out that summer and I already had a convertible. I didn’t have anyone to ride with and I skipped their Grand Canyon detour. I got behind the wheel and drove. The 20 starts in Florence, South Carolina, merges with the 10 in Texas and ends at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica on the west side of LA.
At the time my first book, Say Uncle, was already written. I had tried to scrape an acquaintance with agents through friends, other writers, government agencies and gotten nothing more than the pain of rejection for my trouble. I had given up on writing and was using the book as a doorstop. My plan was to pursue on-the-air arts and entertainment reporting, a relatively new field in the early ‘90’s, and one I had been working in part-time, for several years back east. I set my sights on E! which was just getting started. I never even got an interview.
The only part time work I got was from the temp agencies. Following the end of yet another Bush administration, unemployment and real estate sales in California were in a state similar to today’s. I was lucky to get the work I got: answering phones mostly.
I was working at Geffen Records when there still used to be a man named Geffen working there. I was in the office of John Kalodner, the really famous A&R guy who worked with Cher, and Aerosmith, Billy Idol and Journey and Bon Jovi and everyone. I never met or talked to any of them. I was his third receptionist – if his assistant didn’t answer and her assistant didn’t answer, I answered. It didn’t pay much, but it didn’t require much either. John didn’t even come to work until after lunch. I think he did most of his work at night so I hardly saw him and I had a great deal of free time.
There was a computer on my desk, still huge and slow and not all that common. I knew, from talking to the other temps, that if I could become more proficient at using the computer — particularly at Word Perfect and the programs’ mail merger — I could really move up the temp ladder and earn the big money. Eight maybe even Nine dollars an hour. I was pretty much living on tuna and Ramen, so I used my time to work on my computer skills and my prospects.
I brought in a play I had written and typed it up as practice. I was editing it one day when someone, I have no idea who, stopped by my desk and changed my life. The truth is, I think it was an angel, because I cannot make myself recall anything about her or even if it was a her. Anyway, my divine messenger stopped by my desk.
“What’re you working on?
“I’m editing a play,” I explained, shamelessly.
“Are you a writer?”
“You should get an agent.”
“I’ve tried and they don’t seem to agree with the part about me being a writer.”
“Have you tried The Writer’s Market?”
Now if you are a writer, or want to be one, you probably know that Writer’s Market is like a phone book that lists agents and publishers. It also seemed to me to be the last thing that would possibly work.
“You think?” I answered my angel, adroitly.
“Do you have an agent?”
“How’s that going?”
“So, I guess it couldn’t make it any worse.”
And then the phone rang more than five times or something and that was the end of my divine intervention.
Now the price of a copy of The Writer’s Market was about what I was spending on a week’s worth of groceries at the time. So, it was a big decision. In the end, I opted for an all Ramen week and splurged. The book suggested, as I remember it, that I should collect the names of the agents I recognized, those who were nearby and those who represented works similar to mine, three groups. Then I was to write a one page query letter following their guide and mail it to the agents on my list.
It was a PERFECT mail merge project! I could learn the program and do this thing I did not think in a million years would work. It took a little while, but I managed to do the mail merge, letters and envelopes. I sent them down to the mailroom and, on Mr. Geffen’s dime, I sent out the letters. (I know, but I sent him a free copy and a note of thanks when the book came out.) I figured the rejections would start to roll in, in a few weeks or months, but I could do a Word Perfect mail merge. I let the temp agency know.
When I got home from work the following day, I had my first phone message requesting sample chapters. Within days, I had seventeen affirmative responses out of twenty-something mailings. I had an agent in a few months. I had a publishing deal in a less than a year and a movie deal a few months later. AND I got a temp job doing mail merges for a mortgage services brokerage firm in Century City — the strangest place I ever worked. I was fired for laughing.
But the point of the story I think is, the way that I got an agent was the way I hadn’t tried. Today, if I’m trying to accomplish something and I haven’t, and someone suggests something that I think will NEVER work, I try to remember the wise suggestion of my angel from Geffen Records.
“It couldn’t make it any worse.”