The Story I’m Not Supposed to Tell (But Always Do)

by Rob Gregory Browne

My writer friends warn me that I should never talk about how I got my literary agent. 

Why? 

Because I didn’t have to go through the hell they went through, and they assure me I’ll be jumped if I tell the story. 

You see, I was lucky enough to — as William Goldman put it in Adventures of the Screen Trade — jump past all the shit.

Years ago, I won an international screenwriting competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences that opened up all the Hollywood doors and got me a screen agent.  The next thing I knew I had a deal at Showtime and life was good.

Fast forward as my career took a slow, steady nosedive and I wound up writing cartoons.  And I don’t mean The Simpsons.

When that finally dried up (taking my desire to write along with it), I shuffled around for awhile, wondering what I was going to do.

My screen agent left agenting, became my manager for awhile, then finally moved on.  After a couple more years of banging my head against the wall with a new agent, I decided screw it and went out and got a nine to five job, figuring I was done with writing for good.

Oh, if only it were that easy.  As the writers in the crowd know, you’re not done with writing until it’s done with you and before I knew it, I started to get the bug again.  So I finally wrote the novel I’d always been threatening to write — working sporadically over the next three or so years until it was done.

Once it was finished, I thought I had something pretty special, hoped I wasn’t deluded, so I contact my former agent — the first one who had quit agenting while I was still her client.

You see, this former agent — whom I’ll call Marion (mostly because that’s her name) — had a LOT of connections, and I figured if anyone could help me get representation for the book, it would be her.

So I sent her an email, asking if she’d be willing to read the book.  She answered immediately and said, “Of course.”  I fired off the manuscript and a week later she called me and said, “Do you mind if I send this to a friend of mine in New York?”

Well, that friend happened to run Trident Media Group and a couple weeks later a hot young agent there — whom I’ll call Scott Miller (mostly because that’s his name) — called me and said he’d like to represent me for this book “and anything else you want to write.”

About three months later we had a deal with St. Martin’s Press.

You see why my friends warn me not to tell this story?

Please don’t jump me.

Believe me, I’m not gloating when I tell it.  I’m a very lucky, lucky guy.  But if anyone thinks I didn’t pay my dues, be assured that I spent many, many years getting kicked around in Hollywood, so I paid my fair share.

(And the great thing is, is that I’ve been able to return the favor, so to speak, by recommending a couple of writers to Scott)

So what’s this got to do with anything?

The REASON I’m telling you all this is because that aforementioned agent — Mr. Miller (is that really his name?) — has graciously agreed to answer some questions for us, and give us some insight into the agenting process.

Before he can do that, however, I need a nice, fresh set of questions to ask him.  So I want to ask YOU what YOU’D like me to ask Scott.  I’ll cull the best questions, talk to Scott and do a nice little write-up about him next time.

So imagine this:  You’re an aspiring writer.  If you could sit across from one of the hottest agents in New York (meaning you-know-who), what would you ask?

In the meantime, I’d love to hear “how I got my agent” stories from the writers in the crowd.  Everyone’s way in is different.

Until next time…

14 thoughts on “The Story I’m Not Supposed to Tell (But Always Do)

  1. Chris Hamilton

    I could tell you how I got an agent, but that would involve time travel and probably a smoke monster on an island–in other words, I don’t have one yet. But I’ll let you know when I get one.

    But your statement about luck resonates with something JT wrote about being lucky. Luck is the residue of design. Branch Rickey said that. It’s also the residue of hard work and putting yourself in the position to be lucky. Nothing wrong with a little luck every now and again. As someone seeking to be lucky, it’s the work that’ll get me there.

    Reply
  2. Eika

    Well, first there would be the obligatory five minutes where I tried not to babble incoherently, faint, or hyperventilate. After that, though…

    I know how to write a ‘good’ query letter, even if I can’t do it. But what sets apart the outstanding ones? Not just the ones that follow the instructions and are spell-checked; what really makes a query letter outstanding?

    And, for the sake of my ego, how does he feel about first-person present tense? Or multiple viewpoints? (not necessarily in the same story).

    Reply
  3. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Rob:

    I’d love to know what Scott’s approach is to digital media at present, and what he thinks it will be in the future. Is he actively trying to sell electronic rights to his client’s work or does he not yet see the point, ROI-wise? Does he advise his clients to pursue e-book deals whether he profits from such deals or not? From an agent’s perspective, what value does he see in Amazon selling an e-book version of KILL HER AGAIN?

    Also, what would he say to a client considering using POD to reissue his backlist?

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    Rob, I think your story illustrates that luck is not enough. You’ve got to have the talent to catch that agent’s eye. Having said that, though, I can’t wait to see the Scott Miller blog. Should be fascinating.

    Reply
  5. TerriMolina

    I don’t know how anyone could say you jumped past all the shit after knowing the full story. Just because you landed an agent right away with your novel doesn’t mean you didn’t struggle to get there.

    I’m currently between agents right now and have pretty much given up trying to land one. But, I did for a brief moment have one…okay, two brief moments.

    My first agent was with the Sandford Greenberger agency, she requested the full for my first book Forget Me Not after reading three chapters (that’s the guideline for submitting to them). Also, at the time I had a full request out with Avon after I submitted my query letter. This was way way back in 2004, but it was August that year when I signed with Johanna Castillo (that’s her name).

    My book only went out to about five houses then sadly, in January of 2005 Johanna decided to accept a position at S&S as an editor. I spent the whole rest of 2005 looking for another agent. I met one at National–the year before I had pulled my submission from her when I signed with Johanna at SG.

    Agent 2 (who shall remain nameless) and I had breakfast and she pretty much interviewed *me*. A couple of months later I heard she was leaving the big agency she was at to open her own so I had to resubmit at the new digs.

    My work–2 books– went on submission in January 2006. We got interest from an editor at Kensington. I revised the hell out of the book (per her suggestions) and then we met for drinks at National in Atlanta (that summer–when I beat Toni in pool and she used a lime wedge to chalk her cue stick. HAHA) and she pretty much courted me.

    A few months later the editor contacted me asking if I could write up a novellla for an anthology she was planning to do. She wanted to use the anthology to jump-start my career before my novels came out—although she hadn’t actually bought the novels, she was still planning to push them through. Needless to say, the editor left Kensington in January of 2007 flushing my publishing drieam down the drain…..no, not taking that personally.

    In July that year my agent decided six houses was enough to send my work to and that I didn’t write fast enough for her so she dropped me (after telling me a month before she had no intentions of dropping me…my spidey senses kept telling me something was off)

    Anyway….after my awful luck with agents I decided to just submit directly to editors. I had the novella published with an Electronic Publisher (it’s still available if ya wanna read it… heh) and I’ve had several requests for fulls…..but, still haven’t hit the right editor.

    That’s my sob story….hah. congrats for getting to the end.

    Reply
  6. TerriMolina

    Oh, I forgot my questions or Scott.
    =)
    100K is the standward word count for most novels, but what is the minimal-ist word count for a stand-alone?

    Also, I was told by an editor that a paranormal is considered a ‘hard sell’ if it’s not in a series. Do you have an opinion on that?

    Thank you. If I come up with anything more, I’ll let you know.

    Reply
  7. Mike Dennis

    You’re right, Rob. Everyone’s way in is indeed different. And you know what? Almost no one has gotten in using the "prescribed" method of cold-querying. Before I got a book deal (with no agent), I used to ask published authors how they got their first agent. I bet I asked that question to more than 50 authors, some of them quite well-known. They all had a different story, usually including a whole lotta luck or an inside connection, but not one of them got his/her first agent by cold-querying. Not a single one.

    This is not to say that no published author has ever gotten his/her first agent by that method. Just that it’s very, very uncommon, and yet is widely trumpeted as the "best" way to get an agent.

    There’s a message there.

    Reply
  8. Rob Gregory Browne

    Mike, I’m not sure query letters are trumpeted as the best way to get an agent, but certainly it’s the easiest way — if you’re lucky and have the goods — merely because it requires you to do what you do best (hopefully) and can be done while sitting at your desk.

    Most other methods require you to actually go out into the world and make yourself known on a personal basis either to the agent or someone who knows someone. That’s difficult for a lot of writers.

    Terri, if you go to my writing website, castingthebones.com, you’ll find a great query letter by my buddy Bill Cameron. A query letter that worked.

    Reply
  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Yeah, I’d like to know if Scott Miller would be interesting in representing me….wait, Scott Miller? Hey, you stole my story, Rob! Scott’s MY agent!
    And he’s friggin’ awesome….

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I second Gar’s excellent questions… even though I already know some of what Scott will say, because Scott by far wins as the agent repping the most Rati.

    Which says something about his taste but I won’t speculate as to what that is…

    Reply
  11. BCB

    Gee, Mike, thanks for that depressing as hell information. 😉 Now I’m hoping Scott can come over here and tell us that he has indeed signed writers who came to his attention via cold-querying.

    I’m "almost" at the point of sending out queries for the first time ever and have been trying to learn all I can about the process. And about agents. Most of them, at least the ones who speak publicly though blogs and twitter, sound pretty insistent that writers must conform absolutely to their submission requirements — while at the same time saying they want something fresh and new that grabs their attention. Y’know guys, it’s damn near impossible to accomplish both in one short letter.

    I certainly understand the need to write a concise polite informative business letter, but some of the odd little dos and don’ts I’ve heard make agents sound like they’re very easily offended by anything other than utter query letter perfection. I’m sure that’s not the case, but good grief. Not trying to be difficult here, but it makes me want to provide nothing more than contact info and a short note, "Here it is, call me if you’re interested." Not that I’d DO that. Probably.

    So I guess I’d like to hear advice to someone like me who has never queried. What mistakes do writers make most often during this process? Or what do you wish more writers knew before they sent you queries? If a query letter doesn’t pique your interest in quite the same way professional back cover copy does (yes, I know that’s the goal), do you still at least read the first few lines of the manuscript? Just how doomed are we in this process?

    Thanks in advance for your willingness to be interrogated (and to Rob for tying you up and holding you dow– um, for inviting you).

    Reply
  12. tess gerritsen

    coming in late here — is there still a conversation going? — to say that I got my first and second agents by cold-querying. Actually, I landed several book deals by cold-querying editors, too.

    My third agent was through a letter as well, but by then I was already published and had some qualifications I could point to.

    So it can work. Which is why I don’t knock it as a way to approach an agent, esp. if you live in a remote part of the country and don’t have the funds to travel to writers’ conferences.

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    I do believe Marcus Sakey landed Mr. Miller through a cold query…

    Maybe a question should be why the perception is so few authors get agents through the cold query route, since we know that it does happen.

    Also, how many queries he fields a year?

    And I’ll fourth my compatriots who are represented by the divine Mr. Miller – he’s got excellent taste.

    Reply

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