Five Things I’ve Learned Since Getting A Book Agent

iStock_sharkfinThis is a story about some guy – just a guy like anyone – who decided to start a blog. The next thing he knew…well. I’ll let him tell you about it. Please welcome Josh Hanagarne, the World’s Strongest Librarian.

At the time of this writing, my blog at the World’s Strongest Librarian is five months old. Somewhere around Month Two, I woke up one morning to find an email from Seth Godin in my inbox.

I read the first line. After wetting my pants and regaining consciousness, I read the rest.

“There’s a book in this,” said the email from Grandmaster G. “I’m copying my agent on this.”

Long story short, Seth noticed my blog, that agent became my agent, we wrote a book proposal (still unsold), and that brings us to today’s topic:

What I’ve learned since starting a blog and ending up with my very own book agent.

From-The-Hip, Uncited But True Statistics

The statistics about how many writers – good writers are not spared – have their work rejected are pretty staggering. The statistics about how many writers acquire good agents aren’t much cheerier. Actually, let’s look at a few statistics:

A survey commissioned by the Jenkins Group back in 2002 reported that 81% percent of people think they have a book in them and should write it. Some obviously decided to do just that, because according to a 2006 UNESCO report, 170,000 books were published in the United States of America.

Now, census data as of July 2009 estimated that 307, 212, 213 people live in the U.S. If the Jenkins Group study was true, this means that approximately 250 million people think they should be writing books.

And we already know some of them might even do it.

The Writer’s Market guide to agents lists, “550 agents who sell your work.” An agent has to have some credibility to get listed in the Writer’s Market, but there are probably more agents than that who could sell your work. So let’s multiply the available agents by 100.

That means 55, 000 agents who sell your work are spread across 250,000,000 wannabes.

Worse, even if you are lucky enough to find an agent to represent your work, that agent may not be able to do anything for you.

Before I had an agent, I had some pretty epic and naive ideas about what agents did and didn’t do. Now that I do have one, I am happy to report that she is everything an agent is supposed to be.

But there have been surprises, each delivered by the merciless, callused slap of reality.

Five of the Zillion Things I’ve Learned

1. A good agent is a book person first

This is the most encouraging thing Lisa said to me: “I want this book to succeed because I’m a book person. It’s a cool story and I want to help get it out there so I can read it.”

Sure, she’ll make money off my book if it ever gets published, but books need serious champions to push them through to that point. The lure of money alone doesn’t produce the kind of insight and intuition that agents and editors need to really create something special.

2. You shouldn’t feel rushed

“This is worth doing right,” Lisa told me after we slaved over the first proposal. Honestly, I still felt like she’d leave me at any second. Or that the first rejection would arrive in her hands and she’d say, “I knew this was a mistake, you tall imbecile!”

If an agent really believes in a project, that person gives it time to breathe and grow. You don’t have to make it all happen at once.

Once there is overwhelming evidence that the project should be dropped, though, don’t expect an agent to stick around until the end of time.

3. The waiting game stinks, but it’s a game you have to play

If sharks quit swimming, they can’t breathe. My own battle with Tourette’s Syndrome is similar, having created a pathological productivity in me so that I can swim. If I quit moving/producing/writing, my symptoms get the better of me.

So I work hard, fast, and constantly. I can bulldoze my way past anything as long as I’m my own timetable.

But when I entered the agent/writer relationship, I realized that my own timetable no longer mattered as much. All you can do is write. The schedules of editors, publishers, agents, interns, and who knows how many other people are suddenly the priority.

You can’t rush them and you wouldn’t want to rush them.

I get the feeling that some authors are very, very high maintenance and need constant reassurance and updates. It’s better to learn to wait than to burn bridges with the needy bonfire of your own insecurity.

Agents do owe you feedback and responses, by the way. You just have to figure out how and when it works best for each of you. I recommend setting very clear expectations for the relationship as early as possible.

4. Admit the things you don’t know; ask the questions you should

Holy crap, talk about being in over your head! Since I was never chasing a book deal, I never familiarized myself with the publishing world. Suddenly I was tossed around in a whirlwind of jargon, rates, contracts, emails, etc…

My volcanic need to be the smartest guy in the room and my divalicious tendencies to pretend I know everything were immediately put to the test. Suddenly I felt like I was playing dress-up in big-boy clothes. My web of lies and pseudo-knowledge was crumbling!

I gave up and gave in. I asked questions and asked more until my jaw ached.

One good thing about the email or telephone relationship with your agent is that the agent can’t see you nodding dumbly. You have to give answers to their questions and clarify that you understand. A good agent makes you do it.

5. Getting an agent is just the beginning

Getting that email from Seth was wonderful. Getting those initial emails and phone calls from Lisa was just as good. Signing the contract to be represented by her and her agency was even better.

But all that meant is that I have an agent. I have not signed the contract for a book deal. I have not written a book. Back when it began, I hadn’t even written a book proposal. No publisher had ever heard of me. No one was offering me any money.

It was a thrilling beginning, but just a beginning…

A Piece of Advice I’m Always Stealing Without Giving Credit (until now)

My good friend Kat Ricker always says, “Keep it fun or you won’t keep it.”

So far, that perspective has helped me stay on track with blogging, work, the book proposal, and my relationship with my agent. Few of the hassles and headaches and worries that come with being a writer (or being alive, come to think of it) are actually life and death.

If you’re trying to get an agent – or if you’re trying to do anything at all, really – keep this advice in mind: Keep it fun or you won’t keep it.

Once you have an agent, tattoo that advice on your arm, because you’ll forget it if you start sitting around and staring at your telephone or hitting refresh for your inbox every five seconds while you wait for good news.

It should be fun.

Josh Hanagarne is the twitchy giant behind World’s Strongest Librarian. Unless someone figures out what a poser he is, you may soon have a memoir called The World’s Strongest Librarian in your hot little hands. Subscribe to Josh’s RSS Updates to stay updated.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.