At a recent writers’ conference, I enjoyed my first “speed dating” experience.
Maybe I should clarify. “Yes, you should,” says my wife.
These were “speed dating for writers” sessions, in which writers sat down for rapid-fire five-minute appointments with editors, agents, and authors (many conferences provide writers with the opportunity to sign up for fifteen-minute appointments, which pass quickly enough, but five minutes?). I was assigned a table where I met with writers to hear a pitch or answer a question as completely as possible before a whistle (yes, an actual whistle) signaled the end of the encounter. In three fifty-minute sessions, I met about thirty fellow writers.
It was fun, once the copious amounts of coffee I consumed before and during the sessions kicked in. And it got me thinking (which is seldom a good thing) about some of the ways in which obtaining a literary agent is like dating:
- First impressions are important.
Dating can be brutal, partly because first impressions can make or break you. So it is with writers and agents. It may not be fair, but if I see a hundred other agents in the “TO” field of your email, you just gave me an easy “no.” If I meet you at a conference and you repeatedly call me “Steve,” I’ll feel insulted (I think I look a lot younger than Steve). If my first acquaintance with you is on Twitter and your tweets are toxic or rude, I’m unlikely to greet your book idea favorably.
- There’s no accounting for taste.
Agents are people. And readers. And, as in the dating world, not everyone is attracted to the same thing. So, no matter how desperately you may want to get an agent, if I’m not excited by your genre or style or hook or plot, you want me to say “no thanks.” You don’t want an agent who doesn’t care all that much for superhero fiction. Or senior citizen romances. It doesn’t mean that your writing stinks, it means this one agent is not a good match for you. You want an agent who “gets” you, someone who is excited by you and what you do. And some of that is subjective.
- It pays to listen.
On my first date with the woman who became my wife, we took a long walk and then sat on a bench and talked. Well, she did. I listened. Okay, I was mostly waiting for her to stop talking so I could try to kiss her. But I listened, too, because I was enchanted. You may not be enchanted by a prospective agent, but you should listen. Closely, in fact. Pay attention to his or her guidelines and preferences. Don’t send a query if she says she prefers full proposals. Don’t pitch a fantasy, saying, “I know you say you don’t represent fantasy, but I think you’ll change your mind when you read this.” I’m always amazed at pitches and submissions and authors that seem to pay no attention to what I say.
- Courtesy and respect go a long way.
The best and longest-lasting relationships are based on mutual courtesy and respect. So I’m occasionally mystified when, having replied to an unsolicited submission with a polite “no thank you,” I am accused in a follow-up email of not having read it or not giving it the time it deserved or not grasping its genius. I find it especially strange when my accuser pleads for me to take another look! If I did so badly the first time, why would you want me as your agent? And why would I want as a client someone who makes such accusations? Take heart, however; such responses make a short, courteous, and respectful “thank you” more impressive and memorable—and indicative of possible future success.
- First base is only first base.
I suppose there may come a time when I meet a writer for the first time, see a gem of a proposal, and say, “Here’s a contract!” But it hasn’t happened yet. The typical process, like a dating relationship, involves a lot of getting to know, understand, and like each other. It also typically requires some tutoring, like my wife patiently teaching me which side of a sidewalk I was supposed to walk on, and more. Much, much more. But you get the idea. Similarly, when I see a promising proposal from a writer, we may go back and forth for weeks—even months—before we tie the knot, so to speak. In fact, I checked back into a few clients I’ve signed; it took an average of nine-and-a-half weeks for a submission to result in an agency agreement. And then, of course, it could take nine months or more for the first “baby” to come. But that’s a different metaphor entirely.
Submitting to a literary agent IS like dating! That’s why they call them “book proposals.” ? Thank you again for your insight.
Thanks for the comment, Elisabeth! You get it.
…and getting an editor from the House ith which one is contracted is rather an arranged marriage, eh, Bob?
Oh dear. Now you’ve gone and done it, Andrew. This could get out of hand very quickly.
I love this! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Melinda. I appreciate the comment, especially since by now more people usually have much more on which to comment. Maybe this time I finally said it all. Except for what Andrew said.
Finally! An article that alleviates the stress of securing an agent. Because we’re all dating experts. 🙂
Thanks for a fun and informative post!
I like your analogy and I’m ready for the next one — nine months until delivery.
David L. Winters
Great advice. I know it must be hard for experienced Agents to listen to new writers. We haven’t learned all the lessons that you have over the years. At a recent conference, I heard a newby arguing with Steve Laube over a point where the newby was obviously wrong. Unfortunately, that is part of the learning process.
The listening goes both ways. Although the agent may have a path forward in mind for a writer, that doesn’t mean the writer understands it or has bought into it. Results matter. Unfortunately, neither the agent or the writer has control of decisions of the publishing house. All the writer can expect is that the agent is actively supporting and advocating for each of his or her manuscripts.
I don’t think that’s ALL a writer can hope for. But it is important!
Rebekah Love Dorris
Great headline and last line! Bravo! (And in between was helpful too:)
Phew! Thanks for the parenthetical addition, Rebekah. Had me worried for a second.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Hey Bob…who is also apparently known as “Steve,” thanks for sharing your ideas on getting an agent. I went to my first conference (ACFW) two years ago and interviewed with four agents. Three asked for my manuscript; one was …not my kinda gal (she wanted nothing to do with me. By the end of our 15 minutes, it was mutual). As things ended up, one agent retired within a year, one agent is still a good friend even though he didn’t sign me (my success is dependent upon his rejection, or so he has blogged), and one signed me. God is good and so is the fit with my agent.
I have run into similar situations like the ones you describe with my college students. They can be brutal when I give them criticism which is meant to help with their writing or the speech they are going to give. They don’t understand that I am trying to help their grades. Interestingly enough, I had one of those brutal students last semester who treated me like dirt. A few weeks later, he asked for a letter of recommendation. Go figure!
Ouch, Sheri. But for both students and writers, revealing exchanges are, well, revealing, and therefore helpful. Just not necessarily in the way that the student or writer would like.
Thank you for an enLIGHTENNG appointment at #BRMCWC. Thank you for your prayers, laughter, and words of encouragement. Thank you for demonstrating how to pray more intimately, effectively, and earnestly. Thank you for helping me create a clearer vision of how and what to write. But above all these, thank you for praying with me. Continuing to hold you and yours before Jesus.
Jan, thank YOU! Your prayers mean so much to me and mine.
I almost wish I didn’t remember you, though, so I could reply, “Whatchoo talking about, Willis?”
What a great post! Comparing the agent-acquiring process to dating is exactly what it feels like! And that’s how I’ve described it to my husband. Except instead of waiting by the phone and wondering if they’ll call, you’re constantly checking email. 😉
Thank you, Rebekah. You might should be careful about the comparison when talking to your husband.
I want to hear more stories about you and your wife! (There I go, all romance-writer). This is excellent. It needs a follow up about How rejections are like breakups. It’s not you, it’s me. We are headed in two different directions. It’s not good timing. I kissed dating goodbye. Or we struggle to communicate (which is a nicer way to say, “you used the phrase fiction novel”).
Oh boy. So many possibilities. So many. That may just be a whole other post.
At conferences, whenever I stand awkwardly by the agent/editor’s table, as the previous appointment bleeds into my time, I picture the show The Bachelor. Everyone’s trying to get the person’s time!
Rebekah Love Dorris
Thank you! Entertaining and helpful!
Don’t even get me started when, on twitter, you see “Rep’d by Superstar Agent” and the jealousy we writers feel!
Alice H. Murray
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Might I add another way that getting an agent is like dating? Being set up doesn’t always work out. I’ve had friends, conference faculty, and fellow writers who’ve told me, “You ought to contact Agent X, he’d be perfect for you.” Or not….It doesn’t matter what well-meaning folks think, the two people who are in the relationship have to find a spark or the relationship is doomed.
Bob, you completely took me by surprise with that title. And yes, it makes total sense. I’d write more, but I have a few dates with some book dudes…
The comments above said it all. Have I mentioned that I love eavesdropping on these conversations? Revealing, informative, and fun. What more could a wannabe want? Thanks again, Bob.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Great stuff, Bob. Must one kiss a lot of frogs to find the prince? I’ve gotten a “second date,” that is, an invitation to submit a full proposal, a number of times, but then I get a breakup response that is very much like, “It’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve been told they love my writing, but won’t touch the controversial historical setting of my book series. Do I find a different pool of frogs, er, agents to query, or jump into a different pool myself? Wow! This IS a lot like dating and hoping for a fairy tale ending!
Bailey T Hurley
This was really important for me to read! First time authors, like myself, fantasize about a contract being offered magically and I think this is an honest and realistic perspective of what an agent meet-and-greet will be like. Thanks!