Karen Rivers

how i got my agent, left my agent, got a new agent, lost my agent, and got another new agent.

Karen Rivers

When I got my first agent, it was 1999 and the world was a different place.   You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.   Here's the truth:  I found her in the yellow pages.   You know, in a phone book.   The actual book.   

Like most things I do in my life, I did it all backwards.   The first thing that I did was to write a book.   It was adult literary fiction and I took five years to write it, in between little things like school and nervous breakdowns and work and anti-depressant taking.   When I was finished writing, I had no idea what to do.   Although I'd studied creative writing in college, we'd learned nothing about the practicalities of publication and certainly nary a word about agents.   Also, I didn't really want anyone to read my book.   What if they didn't like it?  I wasn't ready for another nervous breakdown.   Really, one is enough.

This was a real conundrum.   If I SHOWED it to anyone, I was exposing myself to ridicule and if I didn't, I was just another writer with a book in a drawer.    So I took a different approach.    I wrote another book.   One that I didn't feel particularly invested in and I'm embarrassed to say how little time I took writing it.   Then I sent it to a publisher.   This is where the story gets downright humiliating:   The book was about a killer whale.   So I sent it to a publisher named Orca.

How could they not buy it, right?

Exactly three days after I mailed the manuscript, I got a phone call.    Yes, they were interested.   Did I have an agent?

Uh, no?   Also, was this a prank call?


Well then, send me a contract!   Why not?   

The contract came and although it was a relatively straightforward document, my brain immediately filled with panic and white noise.   None of it made sense to me.  What was I agreeing to?   I had no idea.  

Hence the Yellow Pages.  

Hence the agent who may not have been the most appropriate but was the closest to me, geographically speaking.  

Why was that important?   I don't know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

I held my breath, shut my eyes, and showed her my adult novel -- my preciousssss -- and she didn't laugh.   She raved.   Within two weeks, it, too, was sold.

The rest would be easy, right?


Ten years later, I struggled with a decision I knew I had to make.   Where I wanted to be was a far cry from where I was and the path to get there meant I needed a new agent.   Specifically, an American agent.    So I let my agent go and there I was, ten years into my career, suddenly alone again and in many ways, starting over.    

I began looking for an American agent in all the ways that made sense to me.  I researched who repped the writers I compared myself to and writers I liked and writers whose careers I envied.   I made lists in order of preference.    And I began querying.   

I did everything wrong.   After all, the information on "how it works" is out there but you don't necessarily know to go looking for it.   You can't know what you don't know, right?

I found an agent who had a remarkably similar background to my own and who repped books that I loved and wrote books I loved and seemed accessible and kind.   I wrote a casual, chatty introductory letter that pointed out some remarkable coincidences in our lives and opened to the door to talk about what I was doing and what I had completed.   

It was probably ripe-pickings for "Slushpile Hell" or "QueryFail" or any number of other ways that writers can be held up to ridicule on the web.   (Don't get me wrong, some of these ARE funny -- when they are done with the writers permission -- but most of me reads them and cringes inside and thinks, Wait.  Maybe these writers just don't know.)

I got no response.   None.

I waited.   I checked the website.   "If you haven't heard from us in 6 weeks, it means 'no'," it said.   (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.)  "Do not query any of our agents again.   A 'no' from one of us means a 'no' from all of us."

I was... hurt.   It sounds stupid now, but it's true.   I didn't know how it worked, I did it "wrong", but the "no answer means 'no'" approach is just flat-out rude.   An intern (or an agent) is reading the query and deciding 'no'.   A few keystrokes and a form rejection at least closes the door politely but firmly.   No answer is just a "you're not even worth my time".  


I went down my list and did an exclusive query with my next pick.   His website said that exclusives were read faster.    He said in an on-line chat that if he hadn't responded within four weeks to send him a friendly reminder.   I waited.   I reminded.   I heard absolutely no response.  

It may have only been two (implied) rejections but it was feeling impossible.

I felt terrible.   I wasn't worthy of ANYONE'S time or attention.   I was wasting my time.   I'd had twelve books published and I couldn't even get a polite "no".  

I wanted to give up, but I couldn't.   I write.  It's what I do.   So I did what all writers do when the first thing doesn't work:  I started again. 

This time, I followed the rules laid out on the agent's sites with exacting precision.   I was neither casual nor chatty.   I pointed out no coincidences.  I laid out my letter to the ... letter.   I gave them exactly what they said they wanted.

And I decided, while waiting, to be proactive.   I picked my dream editor at my dream publisher and I sent a query into the slush.

And I waited.

And waited.

And then, all in one week, weeks later, I got a request from the editor for a full.   I got requests from five agents for fulls.   I got offers.  

Real offers.   Multiple offers.   I was back in the game and it felt fantastic.   In this industry where you are only as good as your latest sales figures, I felt again like I might have something to offer.     

I chose my agent (Colleen Lindsay) based on nothing more than a gut feeling.   She was extremely well connected, she was funny and personable, and I liked her, although I liked my other choice equally well.   I felt like that Robert Frost poem with the two roads, diverging.   Both good roads.   Both good choices.    

And in the same moment that I decided on the agent, the editor, my dream editor at my dream publisher, said "Yes".

Colleen wanted to see about other offers, and within a week, we had multiple publishers interested in a book that I hadn't been able to budge in Canada, that everyone said wouldn't work.   

But it did work. 

I worked.   

Oh, sweet validation.

Of course, no path that I've ever taken has ever been straightforward and before the contracts were signed, Colleen was forced (through no fault of her own) to quit.

And for a few frightening minutes, I was agentless again.   

And then... THEN... I was assigned a new agent (Marissa Walsh) at my old-new agent's agency (Fine Print).    And so far, Marissa has been fantastic.   I love her and I'm really excited to see what's going to happen next.

And that, my friends, is the whole story, so far.

Are YOU looking for an agent?   Want to talk about it?   Post your comments!   If I can offer advice or sympathy, I will.