The Long & Winding Road: Part III – Talking To Agents


Recap: The Long & Winding Road is a multi-part essay about my endeavors to get an agent and publish my first novel. Part I discussed writing my first novel and seeking representation, Part II discussed "revision hell." 

In my experience thus far, I found nothing is truer of publishing than the age-old adage of “hurry up and wait.”  And never was it more apt for me than at this stage of my quest for an agent.

After The Girl Who Would Be King was forwarded to my friend’s agent connection, things started happening very quickly. First and foremost, I almost fell off my chair when I realized which agency it was (heretofore referred to as “Top Agency”). Then I did fall off my chair when I learned the agent had asked for my phone number so that we could speak about the book. We spoke on the phone that evening for perhaps twenty minutes. He obviously hadn’t finished reading it, but he was very interested. He asked a lot of wonderful questions both about me and about the book, and it was the single greatest phone call of my life up until that point. Even more amazing was that this had all happened in the span of a few hours. Well, multiple years and a few hours. But who's counting?! It was incredible.

The next day I got on a plane for a visit home with my family, and because I was already unemployed, I extended the trip so that I could stay and help out while my father was laid up after surgery. Waiting, especially while “on vacation,” was brutal.

Everything up to this point had happened so suddenly, but now I somehow knew I had to settle in for the long wait.

However, about a week into my waiting, I got an email from the agency that had re-requested the full manuscript back in October, which we’ll now call “Dark Horse Agency” (not because they were in any way lesser than “Top Agency”, but because they came out of nowhere). “Dark Horse Agency” was loving the book. They hadn’t finished it yet either, but they wanted to let me know that they were interested and they’d be getting back to me within a few weeks.

I wrote them back to inform them that I was of course delighted, but felt they should be aware that I’d spoken with another agency that was also considering it.  “Dark Horse Agency” sped up their timeline – they’d be back to me in a week.  During that week I spoke to the agent from “Dark Horse Agency” and had a similarly great talk like I had with "Top Agency." Again, the agent asked great questions and had such enthusiasm for the book. My mind reeled.

If that first week of waiting was brutal, the second week of waiting was excruciating, but at least it was a hopeful kind of excruciating. And at the end of the longest week of my life I had two offers...

One thing both agents had agreed on when I spoke with them was that The Girl Who Would Be King was YA. This was a shock to me. However, as they talked about why, it all made sense. So much sense that I wondered how I'd missed it. Chalk it up to another example of my naivety about just about everything. I had known more revisions would be necessary before the manuscript would be ready to sell to publishers, but my stomach rolled at how much revision would be necessary if I was retrofitting the book from an adult/crossover audience to a YA/crossover audience. I wrote some notes based on their thoughts and mine, but mostly tried to put it out of my mind.  I didn’t want to get too attached to anything until l knew they wanted me.

If that first week of waiting was brutal, the second week of waiting was excruciating, but at least it was a hopeful kind of excruciating. And at the end of the longest week of my life I had two offers, one from “Top Agency” and one from “Dark Horse Agency.” 

I informed “ideal agent” (remember him?) that I’d had two offers and, having not yet read the book, he thanked me and bowed out gracefully. 

But now how does one decide?

It’s like the worst possible best thing ever. As a new writer with a first time book I had no earthly idea how to pick between these two agents.  They (and their firms) both had advantages and disadvantages, but in the end they felt incredibly equal to me.  Both were highly respected, large sized agencies with solid sales records. Both agents were smart and savvy with lots of enthusiasm. The agent from “Top Agency” had been working longer and had more sales, but he also had a much larger client list and I knew I’d be likely to get less personal attention than with “Dark Horse Agency.” I scheduled calls with both of them so that I could ask them questions and then compare their responses.  

I did some research to come up with a set of questions. There are a lot of great sites with good suggestions about what to ask, and I recommend anyone headed into one of these calls to do that research (here are some good places to start). I took many of the more general questions (such as: what publishers do you have in mind for my project?) and then added many of my own that addressed me more specifically as a writer (such as: I write both graphic novels and prose, are you comfortable representing both? And, what happens if I write a book that isn’t YA, will you still represent me? How does that work?). However, using a list created by someone else for my base questions was invaluable in that it left me feeling much more confident that I hadn’t left out anything critical.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, who are we kidding?) I was dealing with two great agents and agencies, and so they both answered the questions with ease and assurance.  There was obviously some difference in their answers, but all of the answers were sound.  And since I felt a good connection and rapport with both of them on the phone and in emails, it felt like an impossible choice to make.

After many emails and a few phone calls there were really only two major differences between the agencies and offers.  “Top Agency” was unwilling to offer a contract initially, but they wanted the exclusivity of working on the manuscript with me with the understanding that down the line, when we had a saleable draft, we would sign a contract.  Though this sounds like a big deal, in all my research I’d learned that Literary Agency contracts weren't too big a deal before a sale anyway. In other words, either party could at anytime (and for any reason) end the agreement with 30 to 60 days notice. So while I wanted the contract (if only so that I could jump up and down and say “I have an agent!”) I could see that logically it didn’t offer any kind of magical protection for either of us.  “Dark Horse Agency” was willing to sign a contract immediately.  I would be lying to say that didn’t appeal to me greatly (I really really wanted to shout, “I have an agent!” from the rooftops). The other major difference was that “Top Agency” had floated the idea of bringing in a professional freelance editor (formerly of a top publishing house) to help us revise the manuscript. This appealed greatly. As a first time writer I figured I could use all the professional help I could get, and since I now knew I had a YA book on my hands and I wasn’t sure how to write YA (had I even read YA since I was an adult? Other than perhaps the first Harry Potter book years ago, I wasn’t sure) I figured a professional editor could be a huge bonus in getting the book right, getting it into saleable shape, and maybe even getting a bigger deal as a result.

After days of mulling over the decision I finally realized that while it was impossible to know which was “the right” choice, neither were likely to be “bad” choices. They were great agencies and I was unbelievably lucky to even have a choice.

In the end I went with “Top Agency” primarily because I had come to them through a personal connection, they were discussing bringing in the professional editor, and the agent I was working with was “bigger” and had a longer track record. I suspected (and worried) that this would mean less personal attention, but I hoped that it would pay off in a bigger sale down the line.

With the decision made official via two phone calls, it was back to waiting for my first ever agent notes to come rolling in. I was (and am) the most impatient of writers (though I try my best to hide it) and “Top Agency” suggested it would take about a month for them to get back to me.  I settled in, nerves fraying, but hope still burning brightly. 

Make sure to come back next month for Part IV to find out how long it took to get agency notes, what they were like, and how long it took me to revise, plus…will we ever go on submission with this thing…!?


Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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CStodd's picture
CStodd from NY is reading Annie Prouxl's Fine Just the Way It Is May 21, 2012 - 3:35pm

Amazing! Such a wonderful problem to have; two agents trying to wrangle you over to their side. We all can hope for such results. Best of luck...

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 21, 2012 - 7:28pm

@Stoker: Thanks...but the story is long from over! ;)


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books May 22, 2012 - 7:13am

So many twists and turns left. It kills me that I already know what happens.

ElliottCox's picture
ElliottCox from North Carolina is reading Selby...I'm always reading Selby May 22, 2012 - 7:15pm

I'm loving this column...well done, Kelly.  I read the first three parts back to back to back and now I have to wait a whole month for more?!  You know what they say, 'Chickens are decent people'.  No, wait, only George Carlin says said that.  They say, 'Always leave 'em wanting more'.  Yeah, that's it.  I don't know who, exactly, "They" is, but "They" is pretty smart.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 24, 2012 - 9:15am

@Josh: Yeah, especially lately!

@ElliottCox: Thanks Elliott - there are indeed many twists and turns still to come - so remember to come back! ;)

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle June 18, 2012 - 9:03pm

Thank you for posting your chronicles. It's very good to hear a real-life agent shopping story, so we all know what to expect. :)