Non-Traditional Ways to Get an Agent and a Book Deal

By Kellye Garrett

The classic story of “Writer writes manuscript. Writer queries agent. Agent sells book to publisher.” now has some twists and turns. Though traditional querying is still the most popular way to get an agent and—eventually—a book deal, it is no longer the only way.

I’m proof. In 2014, I entered Pitch Wars, an annual contest that asks agented and more established writers to mentor un-agented writers to help them revise their manuscripts for an Agent Round. That manuscript got me my agent, Michelle Richter with Fuse Literary, and will be released (albeit with a title change) by Midnight Ink in August.

Besides contests like PitchWars, writers now find agents and publishers through Twitter Pitchfests, competitions, conferences and more. We invited three writers and an editor to weigh in on finding an agent and publisher without querying.

Our panel:

Let’s start with finding an agent. I know Peter and Lisa have really interesting stories. Can you both share a bit of your journey to find an agent?

Peter: I found an online crime magazine called Mysterical-E that published novellas (the story was 15,000 words) and sent it in. I was very pleased when they accepted and published it but I also remember being a little hesitant, thinking that it would disappear into the glut of the internet, and who knew if anyone would ever read it. I didn’t even know it had been nominated for an award till I heard from Nat Sobel via email in March of 2011. He had read my story online because it had been nominated for a Spinetingler Award. He asked if I had an agent already (I did not) then asked me to call him for a conversation (I definitely did). After that conversation he became my agent.

Lisa: I signed up for a 30-minute, 40-page manuscript critique with Stephany Evans at the Unicorn Writers Conference in spring 2014. At the time, Unicorn was a brand new conference, but tons of writers and publishing folks—all genres—showed up and I signed up for critiques with one other agent and an editor. As soon as I (very nervously) sat down at Stephany’s table and we’d introduced ourselves, she smiled and held up my manuscript to me face-out. It said “Love it!” at the top, with a smiley face. I still have that page!

As Lisa just mentioned, conferences are an amazing way to meet agents and editors. Terri, what has your experience been like as an editor?

Terri: I have acquired a lot of books that I can easily trace back to writer conferences. Either I took a pitch there and requested the manuscript, or I have gotten to know authors who eventually asked their agent to submit to me. At conferences I also talk to other editors and agents. Sometimes I refer an author to another editor. And of course, as the agent gets to know me and what I like, the submissions tend to be better.

 Can you give as an example of a book you acquired from a conference?

 I met Isabella Maldonado at the Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths Chapter’s writers’ conference. While there, I took pitches and did a panel discussion on the industry. Isabella heard that I was looking for diverse characters and she grabbed me and very politely asked me if she could pitch me outside of the pitch session. I said of course. I liked the concept – a Latina cop trying to take down a Mexican cartel that was bringing drugs and other criminal enterprises into Phoenix. The fact that Bella is a retired cop sealed the deal. When I read the manuscript, I loved it. She didn’t have an agent when she got the contract, but she and I talked. BLOOD’S ECHO comes out on March 8, 2017. I just finished reading book 2 and it’s fantastic!

 (Ed. Note: Read Isabella Maldonado’s recent Debut Author Spotlight with Jennifer Hillier HERE.)

 I know not everyone has the time or money to be able to attend conferences. Luckily, there are writing competitions that are online and don’t cost a thing. The most well-known are probably the ones sponsored by St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books, which select the best debut novels in three categories. They have kick started several careers, including Stefanie’s. Can you share your experience?

Stefanie: Any book that makes its way into print owes something to hard work and writing talent — but also to good luck and timing. My own first novel is no exception.

I came across the St. Martin’s Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel competition by happenstance. I’d nearly finished a draft of my first book, IN THE SHADOW OF GOTHAM, and I knew that if I wanted to be published, the next stage was to find an agent. But I was also a fan of both Steve Hamilton’s A COLD DAY IN PARADISE and Michael Koryta’s TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE, and I knew both had published their first novels thanks to a St. Martin’s contest (Best First Private Eye Novel). On a whim, I decided to visit the St. Martin’s website to double-check the rules—and that’s when I discovered they had just announced a brand new contest titled the Best First Crime Novel competition. The rules were broad—a crime must be at the heart of the novel—and I decided to enter.

I worked up until the day of the deadline, sent it in, and figured that at least the contest had forced me to complete my first manuscript. Then three months later, I received a phone call from an editor at St. Martin’s. She had selected my manuscript as their first winner—and I was going to be published. There are few moments in my life that have been more thrilling.   

That’s amazing. Were you agented or querying at the time?

Stefanie: I actually hadn’t begun to query. I’m a perfectionist, and I’d decided to complete one last revision before approaching agents. (So) I didn’t have an agent then. But at our first editorial meeting, my editor suggested a handful of names to contact for representation—and I did. I’m sure the contest win helped, but I mainly think it was my editor’s recommendation that made it easier.

What about Peter and Lisa? Were you querying when you found your agents?

Peter: I wrote three complete novels before my fourth was published. For the first novel I wrote, I sent multiple query letters and actually found an agent. She submitted the book and an editor at Simon & Schuster became interested. I remember thinking: that wasn’t so hard. Of course, it all fell through. My agent left the agency, and the editor transferred to children’s books. I sent query letters for my next two books but didn’t receive any positive responses.

I was taking a bit of a break from (querying) at the time (I met Nat). To tell the truth, I had somewhat given up on the idea of getting published, but I’d made the decision to keep writing because of how much I loved it. Getting the email from Nat Sobel was a total surprise.

Lisa: Actually, the first manuscript had just gone on sub with two other agents who requested it a couple weeks earlier from a Pitch Madness online contest. That encouraging little spark gave me the courage to sign up for the sit-down meetings at the Unicorn conference.

I entered my pitch for Pitch Madness because (I kid you not) a newbie writer friend wanted me to keep her company in the contest. The funny thing was, I had zero social media experience and had to instantly figure out Twitter. I loved it! I was so impressed by all the work Brenda Drake and the rest of the organizers put into the contest, and how they made everything fun and exciting for us writers. The initial pitch winners were placed on teams (I was “Team Fizzy”) and I was thrilled to bond and form lasting friendships with some of my fellow writers. (I’m happy to report that the friend who encouraged me to enter was also a finalist.) It was super cool (and plenty nerve wracking) to watch the agents stop by to “bid” on manuscripts. Mine was the last one to be auctioned and I remember being totally stressed when one of the agents had to get on a train during the bidding. (They ended up giving the manuscript to both agents!)

Brenda does Pitch Wars too. She has been responsible for jumpstarting so many careers—including mine—with her contests. What about anyone else? Did you guys attend conferences and do contests when you were looking for agents?

Stefanie: In retrospect, I really wish I had, because so many conferences and organizations offer tremendous support to authors just starting out. ITW is one of the best. But at the time, I didn’t know about any of them, or what they offered new/aspiring authors.

Terri, as an editor what are your suggestions/advice for the best way for un-agented writers to get their manuscripts or pitches in front of editors? Particularly at conferences.

Most conferences require authors to sign up for and sometimes pay for pitch appointments. It’s totally worth it! Sign up early and often. But do your research! Don’t waste your time pitching someone who doesn’t acquire your type of book.

If you can’t get a pitch appointment, there are other ways. You can often talk to editors outside of the official pitch appointment time. But you must be professional and savvy if you are going this route.

Here are some tips:

Thank the editor for taking the time to come to the conference. It is a TON of work for us and we sacrifice our personal time to attend these events.

Talk to them like a normal person. Always research the editor beforehand. What do they acquire? Have they mentioned that they are looking for a certain type of book? What do they do outside of work? I will be much more willing to hear your pitch if I feel like we could potentially have a good working relationship.

Be respectful of the editor’s time. Yes, get to know me and have a chat, but don’t monopolize my time either.

Read the situation. If the editor looks beat or cranky or whatever, hold off on that pitch.

Do you notice any mistakes writers make?

Pitching a book when it isn’t finished. Just don’t do it. Ever.

Going for the hard sell. Again, don’t do it.

Being rude to anyone, at any time. Those things stand out and make me inclined not to like your work. People notice that. I notice that.

Very good to know. I also want to talk about any differences an author can expect if they do go a non-traditional route. Peter, I know that an award-winning short story eventually became your first book, The Girl With a Clock For a Heart. How was the process of turning it from short story into a novel? Did it take a long time?

Peter: It was about a year and a half. During that time I turned The Girl with a Clock into a novel that was originally in the first person, then, on Nat’s urging, I revised it into the third person. It was a lot of work. I kept my expectations low because I’d had an agent before and been disappointed. Nat ended up selling my book without ever telling me he was going to start submitting it. He sold it over lunch to an editor at William Morrow. I was shocked when he told me it had sold.

What about everyone else? Stefanie, you sold your second series (the Eva Rossi thrillers) the traditional way. And of course, Terri, you’re an editor. Did either of you notice any differences in the process?

Terri: It’s really not too different and happens all the time. I hear the pitch and if it sounds interesting, I tell the author to have the agent submit it to me. I highly recommend doing that. I get so many submissions that it takes a long time for me to get to them. But if I heard a pitch that I like, and I know it’s coming through an agent, I’m more likely to look at it right away.

Stefanie: Ironically, from my perspective anyway, both routes were strikingly similar. I wrote something. I sent it out. I crossed my fingers and hoped an editor would like it enough to want to publish it.

And I was beyond thrilled when someone did.

Finally, what advice do you guys have for authors looking for an agent or a publisher today? Terri, I’m curious how you would handle it if you were an author.

Terri: Connections are everything in this business. I would ask some writer friends to read my work. I would ask them how they like their agents. If my friends liked my work and I got a good feeling about their agent, I would ask them if they would introduce me to their agent. I would keep going from there. Just make sure to research the agents to make sure they’re interested in your type of work. The best suggestion I can give is go to as many conferences you can and network.

Peter: I didn’t do Twitter Pitch contests or Pitch Wars, but I recommend doing all those things. They can’t hurt, and you never know what will get you noticed. For me, it was a short story I published on the web. So my advice it to put yourself out there, and don’t be shy. On the flip side, make sure you’re also writing every day, and not just querying.

Lisa: Honestly, I think everyone needs to find the approaches that work best for them. Some people are very nervous during in-person pitches (don’t be—all editors and agents are human and they WANT to sign your manuscript!). You can learn so much from other writers who are on sub and it’s great if you can form a mini support group with a few in your genre. My other piece of advice is: Just go for it! You’ve got to be in it to win it and every “pass” is another step on your journey. Also, there are so many different opinions and viewpoints out there. Be a good listener, consider every suggestion, and be true to YOU and your manuscript. And be patient—it took several months on sub before my awesome editor at Carina Press/Harlequin said “yes.” Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.

Stefanie: While I think any medium can forge a connection between writer and agent, there’s really no substitute for word-of-mouth. Talk with people at any conferences or workshops you attend. If you have friends who are already agented, ask them about their experience. What do they appreciate most about their agent? What would they change, if they could?

And recognize that every agent has a different style. Some will hand-hold; others stay hands-off. Some edit heavily; others merely gate-keep. Some will stay involved at every step of the way; others will step in only when there is a completed manuscript to sell. It’s a matter of fit, and figuring out the kind of working relationship that is best for you.

Thanks everyone!

Kellye Garrett spent 8 years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for the CBS drama Cold Case. People were always surprised to learn what she did for a living—probably because she seemed way too happy to be brainstorming ways to murder people. A former magazine editor, Kellye holds a B.S. in magazine writing from Florida A&M and an MFA in screenwriting from USC’s famed film school. Having moved back to her native New Jersey, she spends her mornings commuting to Manhattan for her job at a leading media company—while still happily brainstorming ways to commit murder. Her first novel, Hollywood Homicide, will be released by Midnight Ink in 2017.

To learn more about Hollywood Homicide, click on the cover below:

Peter Swanson is the author of three novels: The Girl With a Clock For a Heart, an LA Times Book Award finalist; The Kind Worth Killing, winner of the New England Society Book Award, and finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger; and his most recent, Her Every Fear. His books have been translated into 30 languages, and his stories, poetry, and features have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Measure, The Guardian, The Strand Magazine, and Yankee Magazine. A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College, he lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and cat.

To learn more about Peter Swanson’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

Stefanie Pintoff’s first novel, In the Shadow of Gotham, won the Edgar® Award for Best First Novel of 2009 and earned nominations for the Anthony, Macavity, and Agatha awards. In the Shadow of Gotham introduced turn-of-the-century New York Police Detective Simon Ziele, who appeared again in A Curtain Falls (2010) and Secret of the White Rose (2011). Stefanie launched the Eve Rossi series of thrillers in 2015 with Hostage Taker, a Barry Award nominee for Best Thriller. The second Eve Rossi novel, City on Edge, was published in November 2016. An avid photographer and voracious reader, she lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her family.

To learn more about City on Edge, click on the cover below:

Lisa Q. Mathews grew up on a steady diet of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, working as a lifeguard, a figure skating pro, and a children’s book editor before she began writing her own mysteries for grownups. She started her publishing career editing Nancy Drew and later became Creative Director at Random House Children’s Books.  She also wrote under pseudonym for kids’ series such as Mary-Kate and Ashley and The Lizzie McGuire Mysteries. Lisa now resides in New Hampshire with her husband, a lucky black cat named Lucy, and a crazy Golden Retriever named Farley. Like her co-sleuths in The Ladies Smythe & Westin series, twenty-something Summer Smythe and seventy-something Dorothy Westin, Lisa enjoys swimming, rich desserts, Nora Ephron movies, and above all a good mystery.

To learn more about Lisa Q. Mathews’ most recent book, click on the cover below:

Terri Bischoff joined Midnight Ink as Acquiring Editor in October 2009.   She leads all editorial directions and creates the seasonal lists.  She has dramatically increased the number of titles per season, publishing between 36 to 40 titles per year, as well as expanded the type of crime fiction MI has published. Terri has a wealth of experience and knowledge in both mysteries and in bookselling, particularly as book buyer and reviewer.  She has worked at Kramer Books in Washington, DC, and more recently, Terri owned and operated Booked for Murder Mystery Bookstore in Madison, WI.