Tips from a Slush Pile Find: How One Writer Got an Agent

by Ronlyn Domingue
The Internet Writing Journal, February 2006
When people ask how I got my agent, I often respond, "Divine intervention."

In May 2003, I finished my first novel, or thought I had. Within a few days, I mailed query letters and excerpts to five agents, one of whom I'd met at a conference. Three sent polite rejections, one read the manuscript then declined, and the last (the one I'd met) said he liked what he saw but didn't think it was finished yet.

Cover of The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue
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I revised The Mercy of Thin Air one last time, my confidence solid. The manuscript went back to the interested agent -- then he passed on it. Frankly, we were both disappointed things hadn't worked out. And I don't recall breathing for about a month.

Once I emerged from the anaerobic stupor, I approached my agent search like a job.

First, I set my criteria. I only considered agents who were members of the Association of Authors' Representatives. I wanted someone with a track record of sales to major publishing houses. And finally, which was out of my control, I wanted an agent whose faith in this novel was as intense as my own.

Second, I created a database that held the names, addresses, and pertinent information on dozens of agents. They represented writers I liked or novels similar to mine in subject matter or theme. Each was ranked based on how interested I thought they'd be in my work and on how much information I could find. Some were held pending more research; others marked "do not send" because they were allegedly disreputable.

Third, I sent out individually tailored queries and accompanying excerpts to those ranked highest in my database. In total, I submitted to 60 agents. From 50, I received outright rejections. The other 10 read the manuscript. I was surprised to get sincere compliments from several who declined and equally bewildered by those whose soul-testing, awful comments made me question my very existence.

Yet, there was Agent #10. Call it a miracle, indeed, because the first 30 pages of my novel arose from a slush pile into the hands of an intern who gave it to the agent who was, in turn, intrigued enough to see the whole manuscript. In late August 2004, the phone rang (good news doesn't come in an SASE) and on the other end was Jandy Nelson -- an AAR member who routinely sold her authors' work to major houses and who loved The Mercy of Thin Air as much as I did.

Occasionally when I tell this story, an acquaintance will stare in horror and gasp, "You sent to how many? It took how long?" My response is always the same: "It's all about persistence." This is a competitive business we've chosen -- or been dealt -- and only the persistent survive to get published.

Below are some tips I developed that I hope will be helpful to other not-yet-published writers. You might get lucky with the first submission -- or it may take you 50, 100, or 200 attempts. No matter what, you must have an unwavering faith in what you created and be willing to keep trying.

  • Make a list of writers you like and of published books that are similar to yours. Then, find out who represented these works. Check each book's acknowledgments or do some sleuthing on-line. (I never had to resort to this -- it seems too sneaky -- but I've heard that you could call a publisher's publicity department, claim to be interested in the rights to the book, and ask for the writer's agent's name. Phew.)

  • "Google" every agent. It may be necessary to search multiple sites to ensure that you have correct data. A number of agents will be listed on literary agency websites, but updates to those sites are sometimes delayed. Agents -- especially ones who haven't been in the business long -- move around a lot. Basically, do your homework. (In many cases, once an agent's listing hits a market guide you can buy at a bookstore, the information is obsolete. The internet is going to be a far better resource.)

  • Find out exactly how to approach each agent. These days, more agents accept email submissions, but many still want snail mail.

  • Send an agent only what he asks to see and in the format he wants. If he wants a query and the first 30 pages, send that. Some agents have guidelines about margins and font styles. If you can't find information on someone's requirements, it's typically safe to mail your query letter, the first 20 pages of your book (one and a quarter inch margins on all sides, 12 point Times New Roman font), and a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply.

  • Personalize every query, and make a connection to the agent. State what you like about a client's work or how you think your book fits into her interests. Please, address each person professionally, spell correctly, and double check addresses. (Note: Mass mailings -- snail or otherwise -- are obvious and off-putting.)

  • Never email or snail mail your entire manuscript unless it's requested.

  • Always, always, be gracious and courteous, even when you're rejected. This industry is a small world of its own, and you want all bridges to remain open.

  • There are dozens of resources online, but these sites were the most helpful to me:

    Ronlyn Domingue **After graduation in May 2003, Ronlyn worked as an independent consultant for nonprofit organizations and with the fund development and philanthropy firm of Bertman + Associates. She spent several months revising her thesis -- her first complete novel -- and, concurrently, more than a year searching for an agent. Ronlyn signed with Jandy Nelson of Manus & Associates Literary Agency, who sold The Mercy of Thin Air to Atria within days.

    Ronlyn lives in Louisiana with her long-time partner and multi-talented renaissance man, Todd, their three cats, and a menagerie of urban back yard wildlife. She is at work on her second novel. For more information, visit her website at ronlyndomingue.com.

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