Saturday, October 10, 2009

For the Women's National Book Association-One Way to Find an Agent

By Mary Jo McConahay

“Only connect,” counsels E.M. Forster. I had begun to think the British novelist invented the phrase for would-be authors, and their would-be agents. My book project had moved along considerably in 18 months, but where did one go from here?

As I wrote, researched, and rewrote, I made sure I also was “putting myself out there” at literary events, just as the manuals advise. I met one or two agents, amenable but failing to connect to me or to my work, and I, unable to connect with them. I even bid at a benefit auction, for lunch and pitch time with an agent whose name you would know; as other bidders peeled off, I got scared, but raised the prize $10.00 each time against those who remained. The poor agent would be my captive audience; I would order something that didn’t stick in my teeth; after a last glass of Napa Merlot, I would walk out past the kind of dustless palms that grow only in restaurants, a represented author. When the bidding reached $700.00, I quit.

No one had ever told me getting an agent might be the hard part.

Now a chance was coming to talk not just to one agent, but a dozen, each pledged to give me three full minutes of attention. The process, unfamiliar to me, had a name I kept referring to mistakenly as “Kiss and Tell.” By the time I reached the Women’s National Book Association venue, I knew to call it, “Speed Dating.”

Last March I joined a hundred other men and women from the WNBA San Francisco Chapter at Sinbad’s Restaurant for its annual Meet the Agents event. From the windows, views of the Bay were the blue of dreams, and expansive enough to calm the most nervous. I won’t say I wasn’t a little jittery as I looked around the room, at the agents waiting at their little tables, and before each, folks like me lined up in orderly queues.

From the WNBA website, I had taken down the agents’ names days before, and researched them as thoroughly as I might have fact-checked a sentence in my book. One specialized in novels – not my genre – but had once written about geography similar to that in my book, so she ranked on my list anyway. Another had represented a National Book Award nominee, that again, was fiction, but rooted in the country I described, so I considered that a bridge. With one agent I could see no point of contact at all, except that his last name was Polish, like my mother’s; I decided I was not above using any contact point, real, or a stretch, with anyone behind a table, and would talk to him, too.

There was one particular agent I hoped would love me, or at least be drawn to my project, because I really liked his life story (you can find anything on Google), and non-fiction specialty. Others I would have been perfectly happy with. Only one fell into my category of any port in a storm, but if she liked my project, I would admit to having misjudged. You’ll notice the hubris with which I walked into that room, and stood in the lines: as if any of the men or women there would take me as a client, I who had a good writing record, but new in the book publishing world. However, without possessing, or pretending to posses, the confidence that I would “only connect” with someone, I would never have had the nerve to subject myself to the strange, but unexpectedly enjoyable, process.

By the end of the morning, I had talked to every agent, some of the WNBA officers, and many other writers, and learned something from each one. As I find the opening lines of a chapter to be, the first was the hardest.

“Have you got something I can read?”

No hello. I handed over Chapter 1.

“What is this supposed to mean? ‘Surf line.’ What is that?”

Damn, I knew I should have cut it.

First lesson: Follow your gut.

His voice was loud. I felt like disappearing into to the Ladies’ Room. He continued to read silently.

“Good,” he said, and gave me his card, without ceremony.

When I stood to leave, he did too, and put an avuncular arm around me.

“Send it, please.”

Second lesson: Hang in there.

Others, much more talkative, invited me to send a chapter and outline, or the entire ms. when finished, or simply and graciously said I might be a better fit with someone else. I drank three cups of (free) coffee. Had many laughs with fellow authors. Discovered I could encapsulate my project in a 30-second sound bite; explain why Rysard Kapuscinski and Joan Didion are my models; compare my project to a bestseller, while making it different enough to pique interest; and of course, describe my platform, how I might help “sell” the book. In fact, the hours were so learning-intensive and fun, that something in me will miss the experience at the next Meet the Agent event, while I’ll continue to recommend it to anyone who asks.

Because, Dear Reader, I called an agent I met, to whom I felt connected, and within a few days we were literary representative, and client. This week, some six months later, I sign the publisher’s contract.

Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads: Travels Through Time and Space in the American Rainforest, will be published by Chicago Review Press. Her agent is Andy Ross.