In Search of an Agent

While I was still in New Zealand, I showed the proposal to my friend, Ray Richards, who is a literary agent in New Zealand. He liked it but felt I needed a U.S. agent. Besides, he wasn’t taking on new clients.

I sent the proposal to my children’s book agent in New York and asked her to submit it to their adult department. They didn’t want to handle it. The comment was (they didn’t even reply directly, but through my children’s agent) that they didn’t like the fact that I was writing in the present tense and there was something else they said that I have managed to block. I think they didn’t like that I was writingh in the first person. Anyway, my first and second shots at an agent were failures. I went to the U.S. and bought a giant book of literary agents. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. The 2011 edition is out.

Hundreds of pages told me more than I ever wanted to know about every literary agent in the country (not every one, I found out later). I went through every listing, highlighting agents who were interested in travel and women’s issues and adventure and cooking and memoirs. Most agents were quoted as saying that they took on less than ten percent of submissions.

I had decided to pick nine agents and send them only the first four pages of the proposal: what the book was about and why the world needed it….and a little bit about me. I was visiting my daughter, Jan, in Seattle when I was preparing to send out the letters. I was very nervous; I hate getting rejected. After all these years, I still want to cry every time someone rejects a manuscript.

“Send them out FedEx,” said Jan, who was an officer at a business.

“Are you crazy? You want me to spend fifteen dollars times nine instead of a total of two dollars and eighty eight cents?”

“When I get a FedEx,” she said, “I open it immediately. Just do it.”

I did. A couple of days later, I went to L.A. I was at a dinner party at my friend Nancy Zaslavsky’s house (She writes great Mexican cookbooks.) and I was seated next to a friend of hers who was in the publishing business.

“You’re looking for an agent?” he said. “Send it to Elaine Markson. She’s the best.”

Elaine, for some reason, wasn’t in the big book I had. But she and I had been friends back in Greenwich Village in the late sixties, before I was a writer and she was an agent. I knew she was good, but I’d forgotten about her. I FedEx’d her the whole proposal a couple of days later. By that time I was in NY getting ready to go to Mexico the next day.

“I’m very interested,” she said.

“Can I come over now?” I asked. It was Friday and closing time.

We sat in her office and she said that she wanted the weekend to think about the right nine editors to send it to. She would send it out on Monday.

“In ten days, we’ll have a sale.” I went home and wrote to the other agents. Five of them had already asked for the complete proposal.

I got the news ten days later in an e-mail. The book was sold to Crown for $45,000, twenty now, twenty when the manuscript was finished, and the last five when the book was a book. An agent’s fee is 15%, from the beginning and for as long the book makes money.