A mathematician’s journey finding their literary agent

After many, many queries and many, many rounds of edits of my novel, I’m proud to say I’m represented by Jordan Hamessley, a literary agent at New Leaf Literary.

To back up, I wrote a novel in 2015. The SFF book is about first contact with aliens, and it has mathematical themes that are accessible to a wide audience.  As I’ve published extensively in the mathematical world, with over a hundred papers and three books, I figured it would be a relatively familiar experience publishing fiction. How naive I was. I had to roll up my sleeves and learn the craft of writing and the business of publishing from scratch.

Round 1

After I completed the novel, I read everything I could find about publishing and literary agents. I chatted with novelist colleagues at my university. The consensus was that you needed an agent if you wanted to be traditionally published. Writers can also self-publish on venues such as Wattpad or Amazon. A famous example of the latter is Andy Weir’s The Martian. Even Weir, however, worked with an agent after he topped the science fiction charts on Amazon.

Image result for the martian novel

I went the agented publication route. I’m glad I did, but the road was far from short, simple, or easy.

The math of querying

While there isn’t clear data on the success rates of querying, we can make educated guesses.

Suppose an agent received one hundred queries a week. That implies they receive about 5,200 queries a year. Let’s be conservative and say they receive 5,000. This may be highly conservative, as I’ve read about agents receiving 20,000 queries in a year, and some much more than that. A new agent might take ten to twenty clients. Being generous, say they’ll take twenty. In that case, in a given year they would they would accept 20 out of 5000 or 0.4% of querying writers as clients. This is a liberal estimate, as an agent may take much less than twenty clients. Of course, the 0.4% statistic needs to be taken with a massive grain of salt, as I’m making the assumption that any two queries are accepted with equal probability.

So how do writers find their agents? There is no magic formula, but the commonly accepted principle is: Don’t query more, query better. You can greatly increase the probability of success by having an excellent query letter and a terrific manuscript.

Writer’s conference

An important juncture for me was attending the 2016 Writer’s Digest conference in New York City. I’d been to many math conferences before this, but it was my first writer’s conference. I attended talks on how to plot your novel, listened to panels with authors and agents, and took part in an agent “Pitch Slam” where you deliver an in-person query to agents. I had several requests for the manuscript from that, and I went home emboldened.

Image result for pitch slam writers digest
Writers lining up to pitch to agents.

An agent from the conference requested the full manuscript. She sent me personalized e-mails, and I was sure we were making a connection. In the end, however, she said no. She said it politely, but it was still no.

Back to the drawing board

I worked with an editor on the first draft of the book, but after a friend critiqued the book, I realized I should have new eyes look at it. I found a new editor through recommendations on an agent’s website. She was fantastic, and her edits took the book to a new level.

I queried again with renewed hope, but I received the now-familiar form-letter rejections. I was starting to think my fiction career would be short-lived.

Wattpad helped a lot at this point, as I posted some short stories like ST SAM AND THE GENDER MACHINES, and had good feedback from readers. If you are not familiar with Wattpad, think of it as YouTube for writers. That story even made it to the Wattpad science fiction charts.

St. Sam and the Gender Machines
One of my short stories on Wattpad.

With more editorial guidance, I realized PATTERNS was actually better placed in the Young Adult (YA) genre, where the audience is 12 to 18, give or take a few years. Think Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, and so on. The book featured a 16-year old protagonist, but I originally pitched it as adult science fiction. My story had rotating points of views (POVs), and some of these were adult POVs. I did a major rewrite and reduced the adult POVs to a minimum.

Last summer, I participated in #pitchmad, which is a Twitter contest, where established authors can select your book and polish it up for submission to agents. Based on comments I read about the contest, the odds of getting selected were very low.  I entered, and I had two requests for full manuscripts from authors. In the end, no author from #PitchMad picked me. One author wrote a thoughtful critique of my book, however. I thought many of her ideas were very good, so I revised the book once again.

How many revisions had I made now? At least three major ones over at least two years, and many smaller ones.

#SFFPit

While visiting a mathematician colleague this last December, I noticed the #SFFPit contest trending on Twitter. In that contest, you tweet about your science fiction or fantasy book and agents can like it. If they like your tweet, then that’s an invitation to query them. It sounded fun, so I tried it.

This was my tweet:

“ARRIVAL meets CONTACT. At 16, Kris solves the world’s deepest mathematical problem. Almost simultaneously, orbs appear from nowhere—black, floating, and alien. Kris is helpless as she watches her mom and millions of others vanish. The race begins to return them.

I had likes from two agents. I looked them up, and their profiles seemed like great fits for me; for example, their favorite books and manuscript wish-lists seem to gel with what I was writing.

When I returned to Toronto, I queried them both with samples of the book. Being battle hardened with plenty of rejections in my past, I tried not to get too excited. As I noted above, agents receive many queries so I knew the chances were slim I’d hear back from them.

To my excitement, Jordan asked for the full manuscript. A few weeks later, she wanted to chat on the phone. In my research on agents, I read that “The Call” didn’t necessarily mean an offer of representation was coming, but its usually a positive sign. I remained cautiously optimistic.

Image result for phone call gif nerves
Waiting for The Call can be nerve-wracking but so worth it.

The great news was that she loved the book! She wanted the remaining adult POVs removed, and had other edits in mind. It wasn’t a total overhaul, but it was a major revision. She wanted to see my some of my short stories and have me respond to an edit letter. I responded to her letter and we had a second call. We made it official.

I finally got to “Yes.”

Finding your literary agent isn’t easy. But if you keep querying, editing, querying, and editing, your odds of success will increase. Any feedback you get along the way from agents is golden; use that to elevate your book, no matter how much it challenges your preconceptions. And Twitter contests, like #SFFPit, are very much worth it, in my opinion. There is nothing to lose by trying them and everything to gain. You can receive immediate, positive feedback from an agent liking your tweet-sized query. That increases your overall probability of success, as they’ve indicated with a like that the book is of potential interest to them.

A mathematician friend told me recently to never give up on my dreams. It’s cliche, and I tell this to my own students, but it’s so true. I know there is much work ahead and we don’t yet have a publishing deal for the book. But with the guidance of an awesome agent who loves my book, I’m confident PATTERNS will find a great home.

Onwards and upwards!

Anthony Bonato

 

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