Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding an Agent: One Writer's Experience

I first learned about Jay Gilbertson's wonderful series of novels when he attended several of my writing retreats on Madeline Island.  Jay has a special relationship with Madeline, an island off the northern coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior.  Madeline Island is the home of the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall, but it's also the setting for his Moon over Madeline Island series.

I wanted to interview Jay about his process of finding an agent and getting his first (and highly successful) novel published.  How did he do it?

How long did it take to find your current agent and what caused the "click" with this person?
It took one year.  Over 300 rejections, and this was by agents, not editors.
What clicked was that each time an agent was kind enough to actually write a personal note with suggestions of how to make my manuscript better, I took each and every one to heart and moved my work forward.
By the time my present agent found me, my work was very polished. She also could not believe I was a he as I write in a largely female dominated genre (a relatively new genre called "Lady Lit").
Did your agent request rewrites before signing you?

Yes. Tons. And I loved it. If you can't take criticism, you are in the wrong profession.
What was your favorite way to research agents?  Which online sites did you use, if any?  Where else did you scout for possible matches?
I was determined to find an agent and made it a part-time job (I have had the same agent for many years). 
I went to the library and copied the Literary Agents Listing and started at 'A.' The Very BEST way to find an agent, and the only way in my book, is to find novels similar to yours and look in the acknowledgements and find out who their agent was/is and pitch them. Using the listing mentioned above, follow their submission requirements TO A 'T!' I cannot emphasis this enough.
Did you attend pitch conferences?  If you did, did it prove useful?
I did. To me, they are not for finding agents OR editors. They are good for networking to find other writers to be in contact with. This can be a very lonely endeavor and finding and connecting with others is so helpful. And, if you do go to an event where you have the opportunity to pitch your work, ALWAYS take it. Why not? It's great experience and only makes you a more polished writer. You just should always know that it's a one in a zillion an editor will take note of your novel. But there is always the chance.
What kinds of information did you keep track of (agent contact info, comp titles, etc.)?

All of it. You should be an expert in your particular genre. And be clear of just exactly what genre that is before you even think of writing a novel, memoir, nonfiction, letter to your mom.
ALL publishing houses use what is called comp titles when choosing their future new authors. Where do you fit on the shelf? What books came before yours?

Be the most polite and respectful human on the planet. Keep in mind with all our gizmos and gadgets, the world is very, very small. And the publishing industry is even smaller. Everyone knows everyone. Period. It's like one big, huge high school where everybody is vying for attention. If your work has a voice and a message that is individual and powerful and new enough; the sky is yours.
If this is not your time in the sun, push on and keep going. Writers Matter!You can read more about Jay on his website.  When he's not writing, he's working hard on the eighty-acre certified-organic farm in northern Wisconsin he shares with his husband; they produce the nation's first pumpkin seed oil.  Jay is happy to answer questions about finding an agent.  Please email him at

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