How I Got A Literary Agent

Back in July, I signed with a New York agent, Rachel Ekstrom and then I explained the reasons why I want to pursue a hybrid career with my writing, with some books in traditional publishing and some self-published.

envelopeMany people asked in the comments of those posts and in subsequent emails how I actually got an agent, especially an American one since I live in London, so in today’s post, I share the details.

In terms of an update, I have just finished a round of edits on Pentecost, the first book in the series and Rachel will be submitting it to a number of publishers in the coming weeks.

The traditional way to get an agent

For many years, there has been a well-trodden path to getting a literary agent. Here’s the short version:

* Find agents to target
* Write a query letter
* Get rejected, hear nothing or get asked for a partial or full manuscript
* Send submission package, including partial or full manuscript
* Get rejected (go back to the top of the list) or sign with the agent

This process took many authors years and the number of rejection slips seems to have become almost a matter of pride for some.

How I got an agent 

I never even considered querying my fiction the traditional way. I don’t like the energy of rejection or the amount of time I could see being spent in the querying process.

pentecost prophecy thriller novelsBy the time I wrote Pentecost I already had an online audience through this blog and knew a lot about self-publishing from my first non-fiction book. I was already devouring fiction on the Kindle and could see the opportunities with ebooks.

I’m also a business-woman and saw self-publishing as a better, faster way to get my books out there and earning. So I decided to spend my limited time on writing and marketing my own books.

But when the sales of Pentecost and Prophecy reached over 40,000 in the first year, I began to get some commercial interest. Both books still rank as Amazon bestsellers in the UK store, so they are quite clearly in the commercial fiction arena, and with ideas for a series of at least 7 books, there is potential for growth.

How to get publishedThen in the first half of 2012, I created the ProWriter courses with New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons.

CJ & I collaborated on multimedia courses, one of which was How to get published, the traditional way, based on CJ’s extensive experience. I learned so much from her about agents and the possible opportunities through traditional publishing that I began to be more interested in getting an agent. [Click here to find out more about the course, available now, if this is a route you are interested in too]


J.F.Penn with Lee Child Thriller authors

J.F.Penn with Lee Child at Thrillerfest

In July 2012, I attended Thrillerfest in New York and so I had the opportunity to meet some agents, as well as to pitch in person at Agentfest, which was part of the program.

A few weeks before that, I was introduced to Rachel Ekstrom at Irene Goodman Literary Agency through a personal connection based on my indie success and my existing platform which enabled me to jump the slush pile and submit the full manuscripts directly without querying. I met Rachel in person at Thrillerfest.

At Agentfest I pitched three more agents, and two of them asked for full manuscripts, and the other for the first 30 pages. Within a week, I had an offer of representation from two agents and decided, after much deliberation, to sign with Rachel because of the rapport we had but also because of the fantastic agency she is with, and how happy the Irene Goodman Agency authors are. More about why in my post on the subject here.

You can also listen to me talking about going from self-publishing to getting an agent on the Self-Publishing Podcast [language warning for this, not a clean podcast. I come in at about 17 mins]

If you want an agent, it’s important to look at what you want to achieve as an author as the agency contract may have terms you can’t agree with. I specifically chose Rachel and the Irene Goodman Agency because they have a demonstrated commitment to their author’s success, incorporating self-publishing as a possible option for a hybrid career.

The indie author’s guide to getting an agent (or, the new way)

checklistSome would say this is not the “normal” route to getting an agent, but to be honest, I think it is becoming more usual in a crowded market. Indie authors who hit high on the charts get offers of representation very quickly and I’ve had a number of them on the podcast: check out the interviews with Mark Edwards and Rachel Abbott.

For me, it came down to:

  • Writing a good, commercial book that had already been edited. Pentecost continues to sell well and rank on Amazon and I always intended to write commercial fiction that would be applicable to the mass market. Traditional publishers are a business and so they want to buy books that will sell and make money. This is probably why there will be more experimental fiction in the self-publishing arena as time goes on (and that is no comment on what is “better” writing).
  • Establishing a platform that enables you to meet other authors and prove your professional approach, as well as demonstrating to the agent that you know what you’re doing marketing-wise. This can lead to personal introductions and also makes your ‘package’ look better. I gave the agents a glossy, color 1-sheet that included my platform figures including blog subscribers, podcast downloads, social media contacts and more. It proves my ability to sell and market myself as an author as well as the books.
  • Successfully self-publishing. When I pitched to the agents, none of them were worried about the fact I had self-published. They were only interested in the numbers and 40,000 in a year was enough to be considered interesting. I don’t believe it’s worth mentioning it if you aren’t selling a decent amount, and in fact, “failing” at self-publishing can be a distinct turn-off for an agent/publisher.
  • Investing in conventions where you can meet agents in person and stand out from the crowd. Yes, Thrillerfest is one of the more expensive cons, but it is full of professionals in the writing and publishing world. Meeting agents in person meant I jumped the slush pile as they were able to catch the passion about my books (and being a Brit in America also helps as I was memorable!)

Some people have said how this route could be seen as a shortcut but it’s absolutely not in terms of time or effort.

I could have queried Pentecost back in Feb 2011, so that’s 18 months that could have been spent querying. I’ve spent a lot of effort on writing, marketing and everything that goes into self-publishing. So there are pros and cons for either way.

However, I definitely prefer this indie approach as it means I have had 18 months of income as well as over 40,000 people reading the books and I have build up an email list of fans who will be ready to buy the next book when it is released – whether self

Recommended resources and links if you are considering a literary agent

Do you have an agent, or do you want one? Do you have any tips or stories to share? Please do add a comment below.

Images: checklist by BigStock , and my own, envelope purchased from iStockphoto

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  1. says

    Thanks for always sharing all of this, Joanna – it’s a real inspiration! I don’t know if I’ll be able to mimic your success, but at least I have a good idea of what it takes to build that platform and get your book(s) in the hands of readers. Good luck to you going forward; keep showing us the way!

  2. says

    I think it’s great you found an agent who believes in and supports the hybrid model. This is definitely something I’m interested in, so I hope more agents are amenable to it in the future. Congratulations again, Joanna!

    • says

      I think the market is changing so fast that smart agents will need to get on board with this – and authors will increasingly want to have flexible revenue options. The hybrid model works for everyone so I think it will become more mainstream as time goes on.

  3. says

    LOVE the conclusion here about your effect: amassing a readership instead of “playing the game.” But so glad your success in one area is opening up new opportunities in other areas. Congrats Joanna!

    • says

      It was funny when I thought about it Dan, as when I decided to get on and self-pub, part of the reasoning was the amount of time I thought it would take to get an agent & trad pub deal. I seriously think the amount of time is probably the same but I certainly reckon having money in the bank and a big list of followers is worth more than passive waiting :) but each to their own … the way is different for everyone.

  4. says

    As you know, I now have an agent and a pub deal thanks to an indie book. I’m thrilled to embark on this new ‘hybrid’ journey. Also like you, I found my agent due to my indie success and realized that with the offers I’d received, joining forces with someone who knew the trad pub world better than I did was a smarter plan rather than trying to figure it out on my own. I signed with her, not based on a book but on a career and I like this new venture. I’m excited that it’s opening doors for successful indies. There are so many options for authors now.

    • says

      Steena – you’ve done amazingly well (much better than I have done with your indie sales!) so congrats on your deal. I hope you’ll continue to share your hybrid success :)

  5. says

    Thank you so much for this Joanna. Excellent stuff, and inspiring.

    Shortcut? How is the hard work you have put in over the last few years a shortcut to anything? “Dispensing with the unnecessary nonsense while working hard at the things that can make a positive difference to an author’s career” might be a better description.

    I suspect that in 5 years, or even 2, this will be the “normal” way to get a literary agent and a publisher. Times are tough. They have to know you mean it. They’re not charities.

    You are obviously a good investment for a publisher and I wish you the very best in either the trad or indie publishing streams.

    • says

      Thanks Belinda, and I know you’ve been around for the last few years so you’re aware of the work put in :) I agree that this will more the normal route in years to come.

  6. says

    Absolutely spot-on advice from a gal who has walked the walk. There is nothing easy about the business of writing, and as you say, there is no “normal” way to reach one’s goals. Good luck with your next career phase!

  7. says

    Great Stuff! I’ve been following your career Ms. Penn, and hope to pick your brain one day! After reaching out to editors and agents, I too have decided to self-publish. It was something I never wanted to do but I MUST get this story out of me. I’m pacing myself to make sure I release the most promising product I can. Now, I think it’s the best decision I could have made. Imagine “X-Men” meets the Bible. Three young adults are given extraordinary powers from God after each of their lives is shaken by tragedy. “The Assigned”, coming this November.

    • says

      I love the idea of X-Men meets the Bible – sounds awesome! I always thought the book of Judges was a bit like that – super-human characters doing crazy stuff and high body count all over the place! All the best with it and yes, I hope to meet lots more of my readers one day.

  8. says

    Where would we all be without the generosity and good spirits trailblazers like you bring? Writers and other creatives are discovering what other professionals have come up against–(gulp) I’ve gotten myself into a business. Physicians no longer pop out of school and hang out a shingle, and attorneys must prove they’ve digested their education by clerking for judges. The changes in all professions go on and on, and they can be a disappointment at times. You always make the journey sound like an adventure, and that’s very much appreciated. So, thank you

    Portions of this post made me giggle with memories. Before the indie revolution came along, there was much less guidance on landing an agent, what to expect, and how to manage the partnership. Writers did outrageous things, like spending $600 a month contacting agents before writing the first word of their novel, or in my case, sending out 120 query letters at once. What a jumble that was! I did get an agent, but she ended up giving me the DoorStop Award (she used my manuscript for propping open her office door), and I was stuck with no way out.

    The process is different for everyone, but foolishness is fairly consistent. We should all be grateful for the ones who walk before us and clear the path. It’s been a thrill watching you reap the rewards of your efforts and set an example. You go, girl.

  9. says

    Thank you for an informative and practical article. I am currently building my reader platform, having published my first novel with almost no understanding of what it means to be an Indie author. Fortunately I am beginning to make sense of it, and following the release of my second novel I am beavering away with the online marketing and considering my options for future books. I am trying to find an agent, but so far the ones who have very kindly rejected me have done so because they couldn’t afford to take me on! Take what you will from that excuse, but I will not be deterred. I aim to be on the international best seller lists as soon as possible, and I refuse to back down, agent or no agent!

  10. Charlotte Perez Smith says

    Hi Joanna,
    I have absolutely no idea where to start. I just know that I love to write. The problem is that I find that I am possibly over critical of my own writing. I have signed up to numerous online agencies and would just like an honest opinion of my ideas. I write primarily fantasy novels but I have also attempted children’s books as well. If you could offer any advice it would be greatly appreciated and very useful. The only person to read anything I have written is my partner and he is very positive and i need a little bit of constructive criticism.
    Thank you so much

    • says

      Hi Charlotte,
      Being overly critical is something we definitely all have, but you need to put that aside in order to get something out of the door. You will also improve if you get constructive criticism and feedback. I recommend paying for a pro editor – here’s some resources on that or you could join a critique group locally, or online. It’s also best to get the first book done and get into the second, and the third etc – you only learn more by writing more. I hope that helps.
      Thanks, Joanna

  11. says

    I don’t think anyone can help me find a mainstream agent that really wants new material. I have 5 unpublished novels written so far, but I find agents are looking for reasons to reject books rather than helping promote them. That said, I do envy the likes of Rollins and Brown (though I do wonder how they got an agent to get them started).

  12. Charles Lewis says

    Hey, my name is charles lewis, I am the author of (THE GAME WONT LET ME BE) It is an urban book and I have got rejected by about four agents in New York and cold calls from the others. Now I would like too know is it because I am not in New York, because I resided in Louisiana. It is a lot of people in my town like my book. I was thinking about going too New York and seeing an agent face to face, is that a good idea, because then agents will see I am serious and stand behind my project 100%. Can you email me back with some feedback anybody.

    • says

      Hi Charles – I do think face to face can help a great deal. Most genre writing festivals have pitch-fests where you can talk to multiple agents, so maybe go along to one of those and give it a go. My #1 tip – don’t start with the agent you really want – practice your pitch a couple of times first :)

  13. Christelle says

    Hi, thanks for sharing your story. I am a major noob novelist, though I have been writing short stories and poetry for longer than I can remember – writing only for the sake of writing. I have never considered publishing before, but have recently decided to take a swing at it as I am writing my very first novel. Anyhow, after enthusiastically submitting my manuscript and synopsis to several publishing companies in South Africa (I am South African, worth a mention) I got more, or rather less, than I had bargained for. I have always been an extreme optimist, you know the type – the starry eyed dreamer in a crowded room, the one fascinated by the most minute detail of a crack in the wall while everyone else is merely waiting for the cake to be cut and dished out. I’m a little weird, I suppose. But I’m getting off track here. What I would like to know is this, and I am sure that this shocking question is quite laughable given my new but extreme ambitions, where do I start? I’m talking the very first step to publishing my book. Your input will be greatly appreciated. (Is it strange that I am getting the most alarming deja vu while typing this comment?!)

  14. says

    Hey Joanna,

    I loved your post but it left me somewhat stumped. I live and work in Egypt and the few sales that I’ve had with my novella brought back some excellent commentary. People liked it :) I created social media pages, and put endless hours into everything, but the sales reports indicate that there’s something(s) that I’m not doing right.

    My efforts to secure an agent have been futile, could it be because I am based so far away in Egypt?



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