Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Final Act of Getting an Agent

James O. Born

Once again I won't bore you with a complete summation of the past two weeks (excluding the Thanksgiving break). I tried to get an agent, I finally landed one, but he couldn't sell the novel. Same old story.

I sent my third novel, Walking Money, to my friend, the private editor, who called me within a week and said, "This is a pretty good story." He had a few suggestions and I remember them clearly. He wanted the protagonist, Bill Tasker, to be more proactive. He suggested that minor elements be cut out of the plot and the ending sharpened. They were not drastic changes. It wasn't a rejection. And I was more than willing to make the changes.

I worked on the novel for another few months and in May of 2003, I sent him the revised manuscript. Perhaps a week later he called me to say he liked it and he had a friend who was an agent who had looked at it and wondered if I needed representation. I should mention that by this time I was completely without an agent because the first gentleman who showed interest in my work was no longer in the business. I gave him permission to give as much of the manuscript as necessary to this new agent. A week later the agent called me directly at my office. He immediately started talking about sending it out to publishers and I naïvely stopped him and said, "Does this mean you want to represent me?" He chuckled and said, "Yes." It wasn't like other times when an agent reluctantly agreed to look at my work or even show it to a publisher without much enthusiasm. This guy was excited about it. I was giddy with excitement. I don't often get giddy. I don't even like using the word, but for a week, I was on top of the world.

He had me make a few minor changes. Nothing big. And by mid-June, he was sending it out to several publishers. Just a few days later he called me. It was the call. The one every writer waits for. The one every novelist dreams of. He had an offer. A good offer. An offer for this novel and another one. I remember how I scurried from around my desk and closed my office door quietly so I could talk to him without distractions and not worry about anyone else hearing my conversation. My heart started to beat like the percussion section of the Miami Sound Machine. I had done it. I had crossed the finish line to a marathon. I had wanted to give up 1000 times and now my perseverance was paying off. We took the offer and Walking Money was published by Putnam about a year later. I won’t say I haven't had ups and downs in my publishing career, but I can say I have been consistently published and employed since the sale of that first book and I have no regrets whatsoever.

The funny thing is, I kept every rejection letter ever sent to me. Now that I have some perspective and distance, I even use the letters when I teach classes on writing. The actual letters. The ones I could barely read in the privacy of my own room. Now I read them out loud to students and get great enjoyment from their horrified reactions. It's like watching a movie of your own car accident. You survived it, recovered and now it's just part of your life. It's who you are.

I hope this three-week exploration of my painful journey to publication has given at least a few of you renewed hope because that's what life is all about. If you don't have hope it's difficult to go from one day to the next. Hope is what pushes all of mankind to achieve. We once hoped to travel to the moon. We hoped to end segregation. Now we hope to cure cancer or protect all children. We hope to end hunger. It's what keeps us going. Once we're satisfied as individuals or as a species, there's not much more that will happen. You might as well lay down in front of the TV and turn into a giant gelatinous blob. 

Dare to hope and don't give up. And you have my permission to smack anyone who tells you otherwise.

Next week I hope to hear from some of our colleagues about their challenges in finding an agent.


  1. Your open and honest comments about the struggle to get published offers hope to us all. Thanks, James O.

  2. You're a good story teller. This had me engaged even though I guessed how it would end. I like how you leave in the BS that others would never admit.

  3. James O. Born12/04/2014 1:37 PM

    Thanks, guys. I have Jackie's tale of landing an agent coming up soon.


  4. Thank you for this! I am going to start the process of trying to get an agent this spring (and am totally nervous!). These posts have been heartening and I will probably come back to them as I start to get my first rejection letters :)

  5. from Jacqueline: Jim, reading this post I was reminded of visiting Jack London's home in Sonoma County (The Valley of The Moon). And there in a special display, in all their glory, were the hundreds of rejection letters he'd received over his career (maybe 600), and a heap of them for The Call Of The Wild, the book that rendered 9 year-old Jackie Winspear so sick from her tears that she had to go to bed for two days with a bad stomach ache. The first refusal letter I ever received had almost the same effect (and I quote: "So what makes you think your book is any different to anyone else's?). That manuscript is still languishing in a drawer somewhere.