Tuesday, July 26, 2011

This Week's Success Story

My request to hear from published authors who weren't on my Published Author Success Story list led to the following email. Enjoy!

I credit a SA contest for helping me clarify my thinking big time, which ultimately helped me find my agent. Here's my story:

I was in the early stages of querying when I entered the SA contest judged by Kate Schafer Testerman. I was entry #6, and I received a lot of positive feedback that helped me feel a huge confidence boost (even the "negative" comments actually boosted my confidence, because it drew reactions I could live with). But the SA said, "Strong voice, certainly, but not for me. Whether it's the profanity, or the sense that this is yet another book about a boy trying to prove himself as a man, this didn't work for me personally."

So, when it was revealed that the SA was Kate, I was totally floored and flumoxed. Here's why: I had, before the contest, decided Kate was my "dream agent." She was next on my query list and I was sure she was "the one." In retrospect, I thought that for some good reasons (her mad skills and reputation) and some silly reasons (some OZMG "it's fate" kind of reasons that had nothing to do with her skils, tastes and preferences or what I write).

So, after her response to my first page, I was really thrown for a loop - how could I query when I could be so wrong about my "dream agent?" And so I did what I do when faced with something like this - I started researching, and quickly realized that I was an idiot.

If I'd bothered to look beyond what a fantastic agent Kate is, I'd have realized that there was no way she would be the best agent for my book - in fact, she might not even like my book. (Now, admittedly, this was easier to realize considering she'd just pretty much said she would not like my book). And I realized a few of the other agents I'd queried also were very unlikely to connect with my book, if I'd bothered to really look at their lists and preferences. BUT, these revelations made me change my focus - look at not just how skilled and good an agent was (because Kate surely is that), but to look at, of those skilled and good agents, who would get and connect with and be best to sell MY writing. I might not have queried the agent I signed with if I wasn't so focused on the agent's reading preferences and passions, on those less measurable bits of information that mean the agent might get the book/my writing, beyond their skills and reputations.

So, in a way, Kate's comments really did help me on the path to finding the right agent for me - and it was an important lesson to learn, one I might not have learned without the SA contest. I now do breakout sessions at SCBWI conferences on researching agents, with a focus on how to look for the information that would help you make a good connection with the right agent - ie, those factors beyond the agent's reputation and mad skills - because the lesson I learned from the SA contest really made an impression.


E.M. Kokie
PERSONAL EFFECTS, Candlewick Press, Fall 2012


  1. Thanks Emily, this is an interesting post from a different perspective. It's also more evidence that help comes in many guises :)

  2. Thanks for doing these. Invaluable lessons, and considering I just had a "the one" moment, perfect timing. I've done a bit of research on too few agents to know for sure who could best represent me. Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for sharing your story with us. We're starting to hear that a lot more, it's not whether an agent is qualified to sell your book, it's whether the agent is the right fit for you and your writing. An important thing to keep in mind as we query.

  4. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing the story, and for a much-needed (at least by me) reminder that finding an agent is like trying to create any relationship. It is not how smart or hot or nice or experienced the other is, it is about how the two of you can work together and bring out the best in each other (or each other's work).

  5. Thanks for sharing you epiphany moment, Emily. It's so true that we can develop tunnel vision when we feel a connection with an agent even though we may be off the mark.

  6. Great story. It's such a good lesson - thanks for sharing :)

  7. Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing your story. :)

  8. That's a great outcome, and you deserve a lot of credit for finding the silver lining, for having such a winning attitude. I wish I could take your workshop. I never seem to find the right agent with whom to share my work. I think I'm down to comparables more than anything else. Finding someone who represents a (midlist) book like the one I wrote.

  9. I'm really glad my story was helpful and/or entertaining. And good luck in your respective agent searches.

    Gale, finding the right agent comes down to many factors, including, partly, luck. Keep working at it!

    And I'm hoping to visit some SCBWI regions beyond my own in 2012, and maybe take the breakout session on the road ;)

    My one piece of advice is that whatever story you are querying, it has to be something you are passionate about, something you think is exceptional. If it's not, you may be giving off a bit of insecurity in your querying efforts - and that can hurt your presentation.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "midlist" book, but if you use that to mean it's too quiet or not flashy enough, then it might mean you haven't found the right agent, or it might mean it's not the right novel for your debut - ie, it's a better novel to be published from someone who already has established readers.

    So, my advice is to work on something new while you are querying (always), and maybe lean toward a project that has more commercial appeal if you are equally excited about several different ideas.

    And good luck!