How to Secure a Literary Agent
By Sheniz Janmohamed
With spring just around the corner (we hope), there’s a renewed sense of optimism in the air. Writers are slowly emerging from the depths of their hobbit holes, and some have manuscripts ready to be released from death grips of doubt and self loathing.
With that in mind, I thought it would be the perfect time to investigate how fellow writers win over those fabled beings who seem so far out of reach...
And so, I begin the first of my two-part interview series with Melanie Mah, winner of the 2017 Trillium Award for her debut novel, The Sweetest One.
1. How did you a secure an agent and what were the challenges in finding one?
Years ago, I tried finding an agent. I'd finished my MFA at Guelph, and I thought my manuscript was strong. I thought the latter was all I needed to secure an agent, but I was wrong. I sent queries to agents, containing short a sample of my work where stipulated on the agent's website. But agents can be black boxes, after a fashion. They get heaps and heaps and heaps of applications, and often they can't reply to each one, and you know this going in, but you hope you'll be the one, that your work is so strong that they'll want you. You have this enormous hope that like Jin Auh or someone is going to represent you and that you're going to make a crap ton of money from writing, and then as the days following your application stretch on, hope diminishes like gas from a leaky tank, but the hope is still there. Like, "I haven't heard a definitive no, so maybe they just haven't gotten to my application yet." It would be better for writers if agents could just flat out say, "Sorry, but we're not interested," so that we get some closure. I understand why some don't, but it would be better if they did.
I also understand why I couldn't get an agent earlier on. Agenting is a business mostly based off of commissions. Agents get money when their authors' books get sold to publishers or various rights are sold after that. Your belief in your work, even if the work is good, does not guarantee that you'll be making the agent money. My novel was the very first thing I'd ever published creatively. Most people who get agents before their first books have been released have published in magazines or have won prizes. Pre-application track record is important. In retrospect, it was sort of crazy for me to think that I could get an agent at the earlier stage when I was initially trying to get one.
I eventually sold my novel without an agent, and I was super lucky. I won the 2017 Trillium Award, and at that very night in the Bluma Appel Salon where they hold the event, a more experienced colleague said to me, "Yeah, so you should probably be talking to agents now, eh?" I hadn't even considered it, but I did what he said. I followed a few agents on Twitter -- at least one or two of them were ones I'd applied to first time around -- and I wrote them PMs, and set up a couple of meetings.
2. How did you know that the agent you have was the right one for you?
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I've heard people say that agents have to be a good personal fit. I'm a little bit shy as a person, and one of the agents I talked to seemed a little less intimidating. Our interaction was easy, but something felt a little wrong at the meeting. I can't remember if it was that there was no promise to represent me until I had finished a big enough chunk of my second book. I think it was something like that. The other agent I spoke to was Sam Haywood. I was initially a bit intimidated by her, but she showed immediate belief in me and my work and brought some ideas to the table during our first meeting about how we could proceed. Like I have a few ideas for books; one is a collection of short stories and the other is an intergenerational memoir told in essays, and I told her a bit about the projects, and she said, "Where do you see your career going?" and "Here's what we can do to get you where you want to go," and "These are the publishers you could go with for these or those reasons." This was basically free career advice, since I hadn't even signed with her at this point. She made it clear in that first meeting that she was interested in cultivating long term relationships, not just single book deals, so it would be fine for me to eventually want to publish a short story collection, and it would also be fine if I chose to publish with another small press, even if a larger press came calling. I've also come to see that she works super hard.
Sam's roster is full of young women and POC writers whose work I really admire; these are things that initially got my interest. Getting in touch with some of her clients, I saw how respected she is and how much her work is appreciated. I also quite like her personally, even though I'm still a tiny bit intimidated. There are really quite a few reasons why I chose her.
I should mention that I've only been represented by her for like a year, and it's been a year during which we have not communicated all that much, probably in no small part because I like to work alone for a while before showing my stuff to anyone. But I've been in touch asking questions, and she's been quite generous with her time. If you can't tell from all this, I feel quite positively about things!
3. Were there additional challenges in securing an agent as a writer of colour?
I have no idea. I do know that there aren't a ton of agents of colour in Canada, which might affect the degree to which WOC can get agents. But "diverse" lit is getting more popular, it seems, and so maybe it's evening out in some ways?
4. What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers looking for literary agents?
Make sure you try to publish in magazines first. The higher the profile of the magazine, the better. The better your published work is, the more it will increase your profile and chances of winning National Magazine Awards. I'm sure it helps to win contests, and it probably helps to network, though I've never been so good at that.
(says the author with a Trillium Book Award).
Be sure to come back in a few weeks for my exclusive interview with agent Marilyn Biderman.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Sheniz Janmohamed was born and raised in Tkaronto with ancestral ties to Kenya and India. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and an Artist Educator Mentor certificate from the Royal Conservatory. A poet, nature artist and arts educator, she regularly visits schools and community organizations to teach and perform. Her nature art has been featured across Turtle Island, including the National Arts Centre and the Art Gallery of Mississauga. She has performed her work in venues across the world and has three poetry collections Bleeding Light (2010), Firesmoke (2014) and Reminders on the Path (2021). She recently served as the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus and is the founder of Owning our Stories, the first writing circle of its kind for South Asian women in Ontario.