How Do You Get An Agent? (Part III)
In a little over a week, we got a response back from that agent, saying she thought the book was very funny, but, after thinking it over, she really wasn't sure where she could sell it--in part, she said, because she didn't know much about superheroes, and therefore didn't know which editors would be best for such a project.
But she thought we might have better luck with another agent she knew. His name was Robert Shepard, and she thought his sense of humor would be a good match for ours.
We sent Robert our standard query letter (as seen in this previous entry) with one important addition: at the very beginning, we told him on whose recommendation we were contacting him, and we quoted the part of the other agent's e-mail where she talked about how much she liked our book, and why she thought Robert might be a good match for us.
Robert asked to read our manuscript--and when he had read it, he asked to represent us. Here are his thoughts on why he responded well to our query:
--Of course, a big factor that helped you get my attention was an enthusiastic endorsement from one of my colleagues, someone I know well and who has excellent judgment. Publishing isn't, strictly speaking, an insider's game--not like Hollywood, anyway--but the personal touch goes a long way. Acquisitions editors look to agents to help sort viable proposals from those that either wouldn't be a good fit or that simply aren't well written. In much the same way, when an agent receives a referral through an existing client or from another publishing professional, it means that someone with experience has already vetted the proposal. At the very least, every agent likes to be addressed as if he or she is a real person, not some faceless "Dear Agent."
--As it happened, I'd never represented a humor book before yours. In fact, I'd always intended not to! I don't think most humor books are as funny as their authors think they are, and it's a really heavily published category. There are lots of great humor books, but not many that haven't been done before--and bookstores don't have a lot of room for humor books that don't tie in somehow with major "franchises," from Dilbert to Mad Libs. So an agent learns to be skeptical. Why did I take on your book? I read your book proposal. And why did I request the full proposal? Well, your query did what it needed to do to pique my curiosity, it had that personal touch, and it packed just the right information into a very short space. Most of all, it told me that you'd thought hard about the market and saw an unfilled niche, and it told me that the two of you had great credentials for writing a book like THE GOVERNMENT MANUAL FOR NEW SUPERHEROES. You were both writers with some work already published--which was a big plus--you had helped found a comedy group in college, and you even had some television background. Did this guarantee that you'd know how to write a humor book? No. But it guaranteed that you knew more about writing one than most people would, and would know how to help a publisher market the book once it was published. And the touch of humor in your query was perfect--just enough to suggest that you were funny, and not so much that it sounded like you were trying too hard.
--Did your query have any weak points? Nothing serious. I'm always a little worried when I hear that a manuscript is completely finished. What if it needs revisions? Will the authors be receptive to criticism, or will they consider the manuscript cast in stone--a red flag to agents and editors alike? And 15,000 words is usually a quarter or less of a book, not a complete manuscript. But those are mechanical concerns, and easily addressed by an email exchange or a first conversation on the phone. They didn't trump the other strengths you presented.
After talking to Robert and the one other agent who was interested in representing us, Matthew and I agreed to sign with Robert and call off the search. It was clear to us that Robert was incredibly smart, that he understood the book and our sense of humor, and that he had a coherent and effective strategy for getting the book published.
Now we had an agent. Like a lot of first-time book writers, I thought my job would be pretty much over at that point, but in fact, it was only beginning. But that's a topic for a later posting...