I recently asked the lovely writer Katharine Schellman to share her experiences getting an agent and a book deal for her first novel with The Writing Habit, my free online creative writing club, and her answers were so in-depth and helpful that I thought I’d also share them here. If you’re curious about how to get an agent and what happens after you’ve found one, I’m sure you’ll love her insights and advice!
And, if you’re not already subscribed to The Writing Habit emails, you can sign up here.
Now, over to Katharine…
On the path to traditional publishing, there are two big milestones: signing with an agent and signing with a publisher. But in between is a foggy grey period of time called “being on submission” that no one talks about much.
It’s a bit like getting an agent, in fact. Writers talk a lot about querying, and everyone hopes that their query will land them an offer. But what exactly does that look like? What makes an agent a “dream agent”?
There’s no single answer to those question, of course, because everyone’s needs and goals and writing journey are a little different. Your experience may look a lot like mine. It may look nothing like it. But either way, I think it’s helpful to lift the curtain a little and share what happened in those foggy grey areas of my own writing journey. I hope you’ll learn a little bit that can help or encourage you on your own way.
Why You Don’t Need a “Dream” Agent
To start, let’s go back a little over a year to April 2018 when I first started querying. Now, I was the writer who wrote five drafts, based on feedback from five beta readers, over three years, before I sent a single query. (And yes, I had beta readers for my query letter too.)
Unsurprisingly, I was highly organised about querying too. I had research. I had spreadsheets. I had agents divided up into four rounds. But there was one thing I didn’t have:
I didn’t have a dream agent.
Many writers have a single agent they know they want to work with, but I never did. Instead, I submitted widely, heard back from surprising places, and ended up with an amazing advocate and partner.
In fact, the agent I ended up signing with, a month after I sent out my first query letter, had been on my round two list. Not because I didn’t think she’d be amazing to work with (I did, and she is), but because she didn’t specifically list my genre on her wishlist, though she listed adjacent genres and said she “loved to be surprised.”
When I started talking to agents, here were four things I looked for instead of thinking about “the dream.”
- Do they love your writing?
My agent got my manuscript on Tuesday, emailed me on Wednesday to say she’d already finished it, and offered me representation on Friday. She clearly loved the book. That told me that she would be a passionate advocate for it.
You and your agent are going to be looking at this book a lot. You’ll do multiple rounds of revisions and talk about it on every phone call. It might be a project you are working on together for years. You want to sign with someone who is as invested in your book as you are.
- Are they in it for your whole career?
Is this book meant to be the start of a series? Do you plan to write in just one genre, or do you want to branch out a bit? Are you hoping to turn writing into your full time career or publish once a decade or so?
You want your agent to be invested in your whole career. So talk about what you want that to be and see if your expectations line up. One of the first questions my agent asked me—before she offered representation— was what I wanted the future of my writing life to look like. That showed she was interested in me, not just the one book.
- What do other writers say about working with them?
One of the questions I asked during that phone call was whether she was willing to put me in touch with any other writers she had worked with. I wanted to get a sense of whether we would work well.
She happily gave me emails for two writers, and both had glowing things to say about working with her. In fact, one of them went out of her way to send a message through her assistant, even though she was on deadline, because she had so many nice things to share. I could tell that if I signed with my agent, I’d be getting an amazing partner.
- What does your gut say?
Signing with an agent is a big decision. You want to get all the facts you can. But at the end of the day, you also want to trust your instinct, because the right choice might not always look the way you expect
When my agent offered me representation, I was 90% sure that I wanted to sign with her. One week later, I did. A big part of that certainty was listening to my gut. I could feel that we were going to work well together and that she would be as passionate about my work as I was.
Of course, when an agent offers you representation, you’ll talk about a lot more than just four things. (If you want a whole list of questions to ask… well, that was in one of my spreadsheets too. Reach out, and I’ll happily send it your way!)
But when it comes to deciding who the best agent for you is, someone’s Twitter profile or Instagram posts (no matter how delightful) aren’t going to give you all the information you need.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a dream agent. If you have one, go forth and query, I’m cheering you on! But don’t stress if you don’t know who your dream agent is, either. Query widely and keep an open mind when you discuss representation, because you never know who your perfect agent is going to be.
Okay, so that’s getting an agent, but what happens after that point?
What Actually Happens When You’re On Submission
Going from a writer seeking representation to a writer who is agented is a big transition. All of a sudden, you’re part of a team, and that team is deeply invested in getting your work out there in the world.
But while there’s a lot of information out there about how to query, and a lot about what to do after your book sells and you need to get ready to market and promote, going on submission isn’t talked about a whole lot. And the reason is that it can feel like not much is happening at all.
But there’s plenty going on, and plenty you can do to continue growing your writing career while you wait for news. So here, a brief rundown of what you can (usually— again, I’m just one writer sharing one experience) expect after you sign with an agent and go on submission.
Step 1: All the revisions
Most likely, the first thing you and your agent will do is talk revisions. Some agents are hands-on editors, others may give a few suggestions and leave it at that. (Ask about this before you sign with someone.)
My agent is a former editor, so we worked together pretty closely on one more round of revisions. Since I was hoping my amateur sleuth would get a series, I also put together outlines for books two and three.
How long revisions takes depends on how much work your agent thinks your book needs. At some point, you’ll both agree that the work is ready to be sent out.
Step 2: Go on submission, also known as… waiting
Once the book is ready, it’s time to go on submission. This is when your agent will send your manuscript to acquisitions editors at publishing houses. Your agent will take a lot of lunch meetings, arrange lots of calls, and talk you up more than a high schooler with a crush. They’ll keep you up to date with who has your manuscript and what sort of responses you are getting.
This is when the process is suddenly out of your hands, and for a lot of writers this can feel incredibly jarring. All of a sudden, your book is in the hands of your agent and publishers, and you are just… waiting. Hoping to hear good news back. Wondering what to do with yourself.
If you’re anything like me, the first couple weeks on submission might make you anxious because you want to have control over it. But being on sub can last weeks… or it can last years. Which I eventually found quite freeing: there was nothing I could do for this part of the process, so I was free to work on other things.
Being on sub is a great time to work on other parts of growing your writing career, like going to conferences, building your social media presence, working on a website, networking with other writers, getting to know booksellers at your local indie bookstore, or submitting short stories if that’s your thing. But there’s one big thing you should be doing, and that’s…
Step 3: Start writing another book
Preferably one that’s not a sequel to the one on sub, because you don’t want to risk spending your time writing the second book in a series that doesn’t sell.
Writing something completely different is also good for you. If you’ve worked on the same book for years, you can end up in a bit of a rut, creatively. So pick a different genre, time period, main character, or theme (though make sure it’s one you want to be writing). Do some research, write an outline, or just dive in and start writing.
At some point in your writing career, you’re going to need a next book. Now, when your agent is handling submissions, is the ideal time to start working on it.
Step 4: Come up with plan B
Here’s a hard truth: some manuscripts won’t sell. Sometimes the book that gets you an agent is not the one that gets you a publisher. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a writer, or that the book was terrible. It just means that for whatever reason, publishers weren’t buying that book right now.
After my book had been on submission for several months, I sat down and admitted to myself that maybe it wouldn’t sell. And after the first minute of sadness, I was honestly okay with that—because I was so excited about the book I was working on.
If you’ve been on sub for a while, you and your agent will need to sit down and talk about plan B. How long are you going to submit for before you regroup? Are you going to do another round of revisions, or will you start sending out a new project? This is when having that second book already underway will be a huge comfort to both of you.
Step 5: Get an offer
Of course, my wish for you is that you end up where I did: less than two weeks after I had that conversation with myself (and with Instagram, to be honest) my agent called to say we had an offer for my book.
If that happens, congratulations! It’s an amazing feeling— but it doesn’t meant the process is over.
Step 6: Lots of negotiating
Your agent is there to get you the best possible terms on your publishing contract, so once an offer is made, a lot of negotiating happens. This goes beyond your advance and royalties. My agent negotiated on everything from how long the publisher would have right of first refusal on a sequel (three months) to whether I could keep film and TV rights (yes) to whether I would have input on cover design and flap copy (yes and yes).
You and your agent may decide that the deal isn’t the right one to take. Or you may decide this is it, we’re publishing a book! Even then, there’s still probably negotiating to do. My final draft had been submitted for copyediting, I’d already started talking to the marketing department, and my book had a cover design before the final version of our contract was printed and signed. And you can bet that whole process made me incredibly grateful to have a knowledgeable agent on my side.
Step 7: Sign and celebrate
Once all that negotiating is done, though, it’s time to sign the contract and celebrate! Your book is going out there in the world, and that’s an amazing thing. Take time to really celebrate yourself and your hard work.
And then get ready to keep writing. Because no matter where you are in the publishing process, you should always be writing.
Katharine Schellman studied theatre and history at the College of William & Mary, after which she went on to dance professionally, marry her college sweetheart, and collect addresses up and down the east coast of the United States. Her debut novel, The Body in the Garden, is forthcoming from Crooked Lane Books in Spring 2020. Katharine currently lives and writes in the mountains of Virginia, and she is still recovering from that time she worked in political consulting. Learn more by visiting her website or Instagram.