How I Got My Literary Agent—Part I

I recently announced that I’m thrilled to have signed on with Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Tricia is a fabulous agent and I cannot express how excited I am to work with her! I truly feel honored and can’t wait to roll up our sleeves and get started. 

Many “How I Got My Agent” blog posts exist on the web but because each person’s journey is a little different (and many of my writer friends want to know the details), I’ve decided to launch one more “agent journey” story out into cyberspace.

Before I get into these past few weeks, a whirling dervish of events, I wanted to share what led up to getting an offer. Let me start with some numbers. 

12. I started submitting my work to agents twelve years ago. And I had no business doing so! I had only been writing for two years so I hadn’t had enough time to fully develop my skills, learn the craft, or even find myself as a writer. Oy! What was I thinking?  

69. This is the number of agent submissions I made before receiving an offer of representation. I had subbed to 22 agents prior to getting my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and subbed to another 47 after I had graduated in July 2011. Did I mention how persistent I can be? 

Yep, it had been a very, very long journey. I had so many “downs” that I can’t begin to explain how I kept going, other than to say I didn’t see any other option. What was I going to do? Not write? Also, I couldn’t disappoint my family and friends but most of all I could not disappoint myself and give up on doing something I love so much. 

What did I learn along the way? 

1)   Do not listen to “them.” “They” (those voices that claim to understand how things work in this business) are not always right. General guidelines and opinions are helpful but not meant for everyone. For example, after I graduated “they” kept saying that picture books were a hard sell and that the only way I could get an agent was to sell a novel and then later approach my agent about my picture books.  

So, I spent almost a year and a half subbing my novel (I would submit it in spurts, letting my ego heal after each wave of rejections). The biggest problem with this plan was that my novel wasn’t my strongest writing. Picture books were my strength.  

The other problem was that while at VCFA, I found myself as a writer. I discovered that my true passion lies with picture books and easy readers. I knew this to my core. So, for that year and half I was trying to sell my novel, in a sense I was betraying who I truly was as a writer. I should have blocked out what “they” were saying and followed my heart.  

2)   The second thing I learned was to submit smarter. Because I had multiple picture book manuscripts, I made two sets of mss to submit—those that went to agents and those that went to editors. Admittedly, I focused most of my energy on agent submissions, so agents got “my best stuff” but I did use a couple of mss for editorial submissions (the idea behind subbing to editors was that if I got a contract offer I could use it obtain an agent). Also, if an agent requested to see more of my work (because that’s what they do with picture book writers), I would have other polished mss to send them. 

3)   The third thing I learned is to BEND THE RULES. This was hard for me because I’m a rule-follower. Always have been. I squirm and sweat if I know I’m breaking a rule. My heart rate increases. I become physically uncomfortable. So in a business where making even one mistake can be cause for immediate rejection, breaking rules was out of the question for me. But I did learn to bend them. 

So, after a year and a half of novel rejections, I decided to do something different—not break a rule, but bend a rule. I’d read somewhere that Tricia Lawrence (of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency) was building her picture book client list. The problem was EMLA was a closed agency and I’d never met or heard Tricia speak. I decided to write Erin Murphy (whom I’d met in person at two SCBWI events) and ask her if I could send a picture book manuscript to Tricia. Erin kindly wrote back and said yes. You see, this is why I call this “bending a rule.” I didn’t just send an unsolicited manuscript to Tricia (that would be breaking a rule); I approached Erin first (out of respect) and hoped like heck that she would grant me permission. I’m so glad she did! (Thanks, Erin!) 

The next rule I bent came when Tricia asked to send more of my work. She wrote me a few months after my initial submission and asked to see 3-4 picture books. Little did she know that I had fifteen completed manuscripts! Choosing which ones to send was so hard, so I bent a rule (the rule being, do exactly what an agent requests) and I sent her six manuscripts. Okay, please don’t take that as meaning you should flood an agent with all your manuscripts! I had a full body of completed work from my MFA, plus I had written and revised more stories since I graduated in 2011. These were all highly-polished stories. I researched Tricia online even more and sent her the six I thought would appeal to her the most. 

The next day, I sent a status query to another agent who had been holding a manuscript for three months, whom I will call Agent B. I mentioned that another agent had requested to see more of my work (not an offer, just a request to see more). He wrote me back the next day and asked if he could see two more PB mss. Instead (there I went again, bending another rule), I sent him an “elevator pitch sheet” I’d created that listed all my mss with a 1-2 sentence description of each. That afternoon, he let me know which two mss he wanted to see. 

A few days later, another agency (I’ll call them Agent C) asked to see more of my work. They wanted a couple more picture book manuscripts so once more I bent the rule and sent them five. The reason I bent this rule so much was that I thought it was critical to show my range (because I write fiction, nonfiction, verse, and prose picture books).  

At that point, I had three agents holding multiple mss. I didn’t get my hopes up too much (because this business loves to chew up writers and spit them out!), but I had a feeling something big was about to happen. And boy did it!

Stay tuned for Part II…


Pint-sized interviews that leave you smiling.

Erin Murphy got her start in publishing at Northland Publishing/Rising Moon Books for Young Readers, where she was Editor-in-Chief; she still lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she founded her agency, Erin Murphy Literary Agency, in 1999. She loves knitting with a cat in her lap, walking through the woods with her dogs, traveling in the off season when the destination is quiet, watching DVDs (especially whole TV series in marathon sessions), kayaking, eating dark chocolate, and of course, reading. Her favorite genre to read in her downtime is fantasy. She works with more than sixty authors and author-illustrators. See a list of her most recent sales and her clients’ new releases by clicking here.

What advice would you give to a writer who feels that he/she is ready to get an agent?
Know what you want from an agent. Be aware of agents working in your genre–new ones coming along, established ones expanding their list, assistants beginning to sign their own authors–by reading blogs, being active on the boards online, watching deal announcements on Publishers Lunch, talking with other writers, and so on. Choose a targeted few and go after them with confidence, but keep other emotions out of the picture the best you can so that it is a professional approach. Submit multiply, but let everybody know you are doing so, and don’t blow all the options on the first try. Keep everybody informed as you receive any interest–interest from one often leads to quicker responses, and more interest, from others. Be brief in all follow-ups, just keeping people informed, rather than expecting a conversation to develop. Above all, keep writing, even as you wait.

We often hear of agents turning down manuscripts because they just didn’t “fall in love” with it. Out of the manuscripts that you do reject, what percentage of these do you feel are actually good, marketable manuscripts that just didn’t fit your taste or needs?
I’d say about 95% for me–but this is because I don’t read unsolicited submissions. *All* of the manuscripts I get are from people who have been referred my way, or who I met at a conference, and I generally ask to see a writing sample before I ask for a full manuscript–so by the time I sit down to read a manuscript, I’m already fairly sure of the writer’s experience, professionalism, subject matter, grasp on the market, and so on.

At this point, for me, I only sign someone new if it makes my stomach hurt to think of them working with someone else. Their work has to be so wonderful and so unlike anything else I’ve ever read that I just can’t pass it up. This means I turn away a lot of people I really believe will get published–just, with the help of someone else, or on their own. When possible, I try to refer them to another agent who might be a better match for their style.

I know that’s a terribly hard reality. I definitely don’t share it in order to be discouraging. I just encourage people to push themselves beyond their comfort zones and to write the best material they can possibly write. Publishing is a business of love. Those who write fearlessly, who really put themselves out there in their work (with a strong foundation of craft and knowledge) are most likely to connect with an agent or editor.

What’s your favorite children’s joke?
Q: How much did the pirate’s earrings cost?

A: A buccaneer! (Buck an ear.)

Thanks so much, Erin!