An Agent/Author’s Crash Course in Getting Published, by John M. Cusick

My career began with an American Bulldog. I’d climbed five flights to interview at S©ott Treimel NY, a boutique juvenile literary agency in the LaGrange Terrace penthouse at Astor Place. Five months previous I’d graduated college, set to dazzle the world with the profundity of metaphor in Russian literature. I wanted to be a novelist, and was also interested in the book business. Now, 20 interviews later, beat and red-eyed, I clasped my double-espresso like a scabbard and faced 100 pounds of slobbering Cerberus. Its nametag read “Petey.”

Speaking of metaphor, Petey was an apt one for what I hoped to become. Agents can seem like fanged gatekeepers, blocking the entry to literary success. I didn’t know what lay beyond the big dog, and neither do most writers. Getting past doesn’t mean getting published. In fact an agent’s inbox is just the beginning of the fraught, uncanny journey to the bookstore. I know this well. Now that I’m an agent, I read dozens of queries a day—vetting, culling, and mostly rejecting. I crumple with prejudice. I delete with a vengance. But I’m also a writer, and know what it’s like to send a query hoping someone will discover my talent. It’s a Jeckle & Hyde identity—part fiendish rejecter, part doe-eyed scribbler.

Writer-agents aren’t unheard of, though my situation is a bit unique, as my agent is also my boss. Not long after starting at STNY, Scott suggested I write something for teens. Solicited? Woot! I’d have a book deal by Christmas. Right?

…Right?

Writing young adult after four years studying 19th century novels wasn’t easy. I couldn’t hide behind complex literary tricks or sweeping description. I had to tell a good story. Period. My characters would have to do things, not just sit around feeling and thinking. Feeling blocked, I flew to L.A. to attend the Book Expo America on behalf of STNY. Landing at LAX, I glanced out the window and saw a city where I knew virtually no one. I thought of the first day of school, when everyone seems to be friends but you. And then BAM I had it. My story was about isolation, feeling alone in a crowd. I opened my lap top and started typing furiously— just in time to hear, “Excuse me sir, you’ll need to stow that.”

Four months later I presented my manuscript, and immediately wished my agent didn’t read literally 10 feet from my desk. As Scott read, I tried to concentrate on work, jumping out of my seat whenever he went “Hmm.” This went on for days (an eye-blink compared to most agency turn-around times), Scott scribbling in the margins, me grinding the enamel from my teeth. I knew to expect notes, but wasn’t prepared for anything so exhaustive. Scott said he had “some thoughts”: My story was set in the future. Scott suggested a contemporary setting. It was told in the present-tense. He wanted simple past. It was in the first person. It should be in third. And that was just the beginning.

Getting notes is like being punched in the nose and saying, “Thanks!” Revision is resetting the bone. It hurts. But I was lucky. Not only did Scott hold my hand through months of rewrites, every day I saw our clients—veteran writers—take their notes and go back to work, rethinking, refining, and polishing. Without their example I’d have despaired. More than ever, agents develop manuscripts before submitting—editors can’t risk purchasing underdeveloped material—but it still shocked me how many drafts any manuscript undergoes before it’s acquired, let alone hits the shelves.


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