Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to Acquire Enough Rejections to Wallpaper Your Kitchen (Or My Four-Year Quest for an Agent)

I first started looking for an agent back in 2002. Fresh out of grad school, armed with my new MFA and a shiny bound copy of the novel that was my MFA thesis, I didn’t think that finding an agent would be that hard. (I was wrong, of course!)

I bought the book, Guide to Literary Agents, made a list of about 50 agents and set out querying them over the course of the next year. In response, I received requests for some partial manuscripts and a few full manuscripts, but mostly I got form rejection letters. Of the few agents reading the full manuscript, three or four wrote back personal responses that all basically said the same thing: they loved my writing, but the book was too slow and was never going to sell. I was upset and frustrated, but the little voice inside my head also told me that maybe they were right.

At around the same time, I also lost my job as an adjunct professor due to budget cuts. It was too late in the year to look for another teaching job, so I decided, for a few months, to devote all my time and energy to writing a new novel. Two months later I had the first draft of what would eventually become The September Sisters.

I revised the book for a few more months, honed my query letter, and then I sent it to about 20 agents. Many of them requested to see at least part of the manuscript. One agent even e-mailed me while she was reading to tell me how much she loved the book. But a few weeks later, she e-mailed me again to let me know that she just wasn’t sure she could sell the book, and thus, did not offer to represent me. She was kind enough to offer some suggestions for revisions, as was one other agent who also rejected the full manuscript.

But I was frustrated, ready to give up, and for a while – nearly two years -- I did. I had a baby. I became lost in that world of caring for a newborn, devoid of sleep and adult conversation. I got another teaching job. I got my real estate license.

Then, in the summer of 2006, my husband asked if he could read a draft of my book. He’d never made it through an entire draft of my first novel, but this one he read quickly and insisted upon the fact that it was good. He started bugging me about looking for agents again. He even went through my Guide to Literary Agents and put together a new list of agents he thought I could send to. I reluctantly took out the draft, read through it again, and with fresh eyes, was able to make some revisions. And I decided that I would give finding an agent one more shot.

In the fall of 2006, I sent out around 20 more queries. Several agents requested a full manuscript. Two very nice agents even called me to tell me that they loved the book, but they didn’t offer to represent me. They offered to read the book again if I made some changes, but their suggestions were both different, and I wasn’t sure if they really reflected what I wanted for the book. I decided to query a few more agents that I’d heard good things about and then decide.

This is when I queried The Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. I came across their listing on the AgentQuery website, and I remembered that a professor of mine in grad school had told me they were a great agency. I e-mailed an agent there, and a few days later, she requested a few chapters. A few days after that, a different agent at the agency, Jessica Regel, wrote back to me. She said my material had been passed on to her, and she wanted to read the full manuscript. I sent that off, and within a week, Jessica offered to represent me. That first time I talked to her, I knew that she understood my book and me perfectly. And I was absolutely thrilled to accept her offer of representation.

Jessica’s belief in me and my work truly continues to awe me. And not only is she a fabulous agent, but also a lovely, patient, kind, and brilliant person.

So here’s to sticking with it, no matter how much rejection you get (and to the people who love us, who refuse to let us give up on ourselves!)



Kerry said...

Gosh! Four years is a really long time, your dedication is amazing!!!
After you had an agent, was it long before you had a publisher? Can't wait to read your book! From Kerry

Tracy Madison said...

Great post! And you're right, you have to stick with it. No matter what!

lisapatton said...

I can so relate to everything you say. I'm with you on the four years front, one sure has to grow some tough skin!!

Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks Kerry and Tracy!

And Kerry, yes it did take a while longer, a little over a year, for a publisher to make an offer. But that is another long story, perhaps for another post!!

Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks, Lisa! Absolutely, tough skin is a necessity in this business!!

Lesley Livingston said...

Once again, in the catagory of "smart cookie agents" - Jessica Regel!!

She's lucky to have you and (I have it on the best authority) you're lucky to have her!


Great story! (and some interesting parallels to my own... hmm...)

Jillian Cantor said...

I totally agree, Lesley. We are both very lucky to have Jessica in our corner. Can't wait to read your story tomorrow!

Maureen Lipinski said...

One thing I'm seeing loud and clear as we all post our stories is one thing--perserverance!!