After querying dozens of literary agents to pitch my non-fiction book about miscarriage and its impact on women’s faith, I finally got a response from an agent (and my TOP PICK at that!). Breathless, I opened the email.
It was a no.
I wasn’t devastated — I had prepared for this. You go into agent queries understanding that you’ll hear no more than you hear yes. So, I knew this was coming. But what caught my attention was the second paragraph. After declining to represent the book I pitched, she said, “I’d love to chat with you. If you’re open to chatting, let’s set up a call.”
Of course I was open to chatting! Listen, if there’s one thing you need to get into your brain, it’s never turn down a phone call. Even if you think the call might be a steaming nothing-burger, take the call. If it is a nothing-burger, all you’ve lost is a few minutes out of your day. But you never really know what you stand to gain. Worst case scenario, you’ve made a new connection you didn’t have before. Someone who, perhaps in a different time or circumstance, might be there to open doors for you.
After arranging the call, I decided to have another look around her website to prepare myself for our conversation. I guess that’s my second tip of this article — absorb whatever information you can about the person you’re having the call with. Read their website, browse through their socials. You’ll feel more confident on the call, and it’s so much easier to navigate these “cold calls” when you feel like you already know the person a bit.
Anyway, back to the website. I noticed something on her page that I hadn’t noticed when I sent my queries: she offers consultation and coaching to authors who need a little help breaking into the industry.
Crap. Maybe she just wanted to offer me her consultation services. My heart sank a little. My ego handled the no just fine, but I didn’t think I was ready to hear that I need to pay for coaching before I am ready to test my sea legs in the industry. No doubt, I would have still been deeply grateful for her mentorship, but damn did I really want to accomplish this on my own merits. Nonetheless, I stuck to my word. Always take the call. Always take the call.
I text my friend who had also been querying agents about a book of her own and told her the news. I told her I still had hope that maybe there is an in for me with this agent, but that it’s more likely that the agent just wanted to offer her consulting services.
“When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras,” was my friend’s advice to me. Set your expectations appropriately is what she meant. It’s more likely a consultation pitch (horses), and not an opportunity for representation (zebras). I agreed with my friend, but still held on to a small bit of hope that it might be a zebra anyway.
The next day was my scheduled call with the agent. I had prepared myself to listen with an open mind to her pitch for her consultation services, and then to let her know that I would be back in touch if I didn’t get offers for representation from the other agents I had queried. That’s the third bit of advice here — don’t close doors just because you’re not ready to walk through them right now. I wanted to see if I could land an agent on my own first, without paying for coaching. I deserved to find that out for myself. But if nothing panned out, getting valuable insights from a top agent in the industry, even if I had to pay for it, would be of endless value to me.
The call began, and I was surprised by how upbeat and fun she sounded. Successful women who have learned how to maneuver in male-dominated spaces tend to put on a solemn, professional tone on calls like this. It’s a mask I’ve learned to wear, too. But I much prefer being my naturally sunny self, and I was delighted to hear that same sunshine in her voice. I matched it immediately.
She told me that although she could not offer representation for the book I had pitched, she wanted to know if I would be willing to pitch a different book to her instead. I had been wrong — she wasn’t offering her coaching services at all. Perhaps sensing the confusion on my end of the line, she explained:
“I’ve spent the day looking at your online presence. I love your TikToks. I love how you stand up for women and advocate for mental health. Your message on your social platforms is incredible! So, it makes me wonder, what are you doing writing a book about miscarriage? She handled this gently, making sure I understood that she gets how important and special that topic is to me. But like anyone who is as accomplished as she is, she was not afraid to be honest with me about it.
“You just have a branding issue here,” she said. “You don’t talk about miscarriage anywhere on your platform, so you don’t really show up online as someone who would be writing a book on that topic. What you do talk about on your platform is what you need to be writing books about.”
I thanked her for the feedback, but I was still pretty damn confused about what was happening on this call. Then, she took my breath away.
“I want to be your agent. I just need you to get me the right book!”
Was this, like, a half offer for representation? The promise of an offer, contingent on me being able to deliver the right book? It didn’t matter — I was ecstatic!
For the rest of the call, she gave me some guidance about what kind of book she would be interested in representing. I hung on every word and took diligent notes. I still have that piece of paper — it’s going in a frame one day. I hung up from the call feeling dazed and euphoric. I had an opportunity, and I had the instructions that would help me claim it.
I text my friend. IT WAS A ZEBRA!
The next day, I planted myself at the local coffee shop and got to work on a new pitch based on the feedback from our phone call. I sifted through all of my social media content, distilling everything down to what fit with the theme of the book and what didn’t. I was fortunate to have already created so much online content that I could pull from to curate the topics for the book. Within a few hours, the book pitch had formed itself before my very eyes.
I put the title and a brief synopsis in an email to the agent, along with the simple question, “does this have legs?”
Within minutes, I had a reply. This was the book she wanted. I had the green light to get started.
Over the next two weeks, I cranked out a proposal for the book (84 pages — the fastest I have ever written in my life!). I sent the proposal for her to review, and later that week, I had a contract in hand.
Just like that, I had become an agented author.
I can’t share the specifics of that first phone call with you because a lot of it was particular to my book, which is still a work in progress. But for authors out there who are feeling hopeless or directionless, here are some of the key tips I walked away with that I think any author needs to hear:
#1. Your platform matters, especially if you are writing non-fiction. Agents are looking for non-fiction authors who are seen as authorities in their topic area. That doesn’t mean you have to have degrees or special credentials (although those certainly help). It just means that your online presence needs to have a cohesive message that aligns with the topic of your book.
#2. You need a website. It’s not enough to rely on social media. Social media platforms are fickle, and they certainly aren’t concerned about your success. Even if you have built a massive platform, the owners of that platform hold the keys. As many of us have learned, these platforms can decide whether your content is visible to your intended audience and even to your own followers. You need to have your own website where YOU control how your content is distributed.
#3. Your website needs an email list. Email lists are still the most effective form of marketing. Your website needs to offer some incentive for your potential audience to provide their email address to you. Those incentives can include things like access to unique content that is only available to the email list, or even a free download that they can get by providing their email. I’ve just finished a free guidebook for practicing good mental health at home that will be offered on my website soon.
#4. Don’t get too attached to your project. As my story demonstrates, you may find an agent who loves your vibe but not your project. And even if they love your project, they may ask you to modify it in ways that make it discernibly different from your original idea. You may also be asked to change the title. Be flexible and willing to receive feedback. Take nothing personally. It is the job of literary agents to know what is marketable and what isn’t, and to keep their finger on the pulse of the publishing industry. Listening to their feedback could mean the difference between success and failure.
#5. Don’t talk about your in-progress work. There is nothing wrong with putting out teasers about the fact that you are working on a project, but don’t talk too much about the actual work. It’s a good way to get your ideas stolen, and you run the risk of burning out your audience before the book is actually ready.
#6. Take advantage of opportunities for coaching/consultation. If you keep sending queries and proposals but aren’t getting the yes you’re looking for, it may be that your pitch or your proposal needs a little work before it’s ready to go to agents. There are highly reputable agents, with years of experience in the industry, who offer paid coaching and consultation to aspiring authors. They do this because they want to help authors break into the publishing world. If you can swing it, it’s not a bad idea to give it a shot. I’ve learned since signing with my agent that most reputable agents think it is unethical to decline representation to an author, only to funnel them over to their paid consultation services instead. So be on the lookout for that. You might not want to work with an agent who is using their no’s as a way to channel authors into their consultancy projects. But if you can’t seem to get past the query or proposal stage, you might benefit from the consulting services that some agents offer. Some agents, like mine, will occasionally offer representation to authors who they consulted for first, so it’s definitely a way to open doors for yourself in the future.
To the aspiring authors out there, I hope you get your yes soon. Try not to let the no’s get you down. You can do this. You just need to believe in yourself, and know that you deserve to keep trying.
Amber is represented by Rachelle Gardner at Gardner Literary.