An Offer of Representation: A Success Story
by Brian Mercer
I am standing in a room full of literary agents. There are eighteen of them, sitting at individual tables along the periphery of the room. There are three rooms just like this one, more than sixty agents and editors in total, and I have access to them all.
Time is limited. I'll have three minutes per agent to pitch my novel, this after standing in line in front of each table to get a chance to meet them. Lines for the agents vary. Some are as short as two or three people, others have as many as a dozen, so it isn't just a matter of choosing which agent I want to speak with; it's finding the shortest line in front of those agents. Normally, two-and-a-half hours might seem like a long time, but I know the two-and-a-half hours I have to spend in these four rooms will pass in what seems like an instant.
Is it hot in here or is it just me?
This is AgentFest, put on every year by the International Thriller Writers Association. It is a part of a writers' conference called ThrillerFest, held annually in New York. It lasts four days and is broken into two parts: CraftFest, which takes place the first two days, comprises various breakout sessions about the craft of writing novels in general and thrillers in particular. The second two days is a fan/reader appreciation event, with various thriller writers speaking about their books and careers.
One of the many highlights of the four-day event is AgentFest, an afternoon for aspiring new writers to pitch their projects to literary agents.
This year at AgentFest something extraordinary happened. Simon Gervais, pitching his thriller The Thin Black Line, managed to receive an offer of representation in less than forty-eight hours, breaking an AgentFest record for the fastest time for a participant to find an agent.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with Simon to learn more about his AgentFest experience.
Brian: Tell me a little about yourself, Simon.
Simon: I live in Ottawa with my wife and best friend, Lisane, our two children, and our Golden Retriever, Louna. My wife and I met while I was serving with the Canadian Forces as an Infantry officer. I've been a federal agent for the last twelve years, specializing in protective operations. I'm presently tasked with guarding foreign heads of state visiting Canada.
Brian: It sounds like you're living a thriller just by going to work every day. Who have you protected?
Simon: I'm on the Canadian Prime Minister Protection Detail, but I've also been detailed to President Barack Obama, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Chinese President Hu Jianto and many others.
Brian: So tell me about your book.
Simon: It's about a counter-terrorism expert who has lost almost everything to a suicide bomber. After the attack, he and his wife are recruited by the International Market Stabilization Institute, a privately funded anti-terrorism organization operating outside official channels.
Brian: Sounds intriguing. Is any of it based on your experiences?
Simon: Before I was a protective operations specialist, I served as a covert field operations officer with an anti-terrorism unit. I was deployed in Europe and the Middle East, where events similar to the ones in The Thin Black Line took place. I won't comment on my duties within the unit, but I'll tell you this: What you'll read in the book isn't that far-fetched.
Brian: When did you know you had to write fiction? Was it while you were deployed?
Simon: Actually, I knew I would have to write something while I was still in the military for the simple reason that I had run out of books to read. I had read all the W.E.B. Griffin, Larry Bond and Harry Coyle stories I could find in the small library near the base. The fact that they couldn't write fast enough was what prompted me to start writing myself. Truth be told, I didn't know where and how to start, so it took me almost ten years before I put pen to paper.
Brian: How did you learn to write?
Simon: I don't have any formal training. Many of my author friends have MFAs or literature degrees, but I don't. I learned the craft through reading hundreds of books, mostly political thrillers and spy novels. My father was a newspaper reporter for over thirty-five years, so maybe it's in my genes.
Brian: You know, I've learned that voracious readers tend to make great writers. It's like you're analyzing writing and story structure without even realizing it. How did you know your novel was ready to show to an agent?
Simon: Like most writers, I was convinced my manuscript was good enough the moment I typed "The End" at the conclusion of my first draft. I followed the advice of a close friend and I decided to send it to a few beta readers before submitting it to agents. I was expecting cheers and compliments and was shocked when they started telling me the manuscript needed work. I spent the next year editing my book. The plot changed, characters were deleted, and I cut thirty-five thousand words. When I was satisfied with the re-writes and edits, I contacted a well-known New York editor and asked him to take a look at my book. With his help, I was able to make the novel tighter and even more entertaining. Once we were finished, I made a last pass before we both agreed the manuscript was ready for submission. When an editor who's spent close to twenty years working for one of the big-five publishers tells you your book's ready, it usually is. That was my cue. Having said that, it doesn't mean you won't have to edit the book again; it simply means it's good enough to start submitting to agents.
Brian: I don't think it hurts to find a good editor with the type of experience your editor had to review your manuscript before it's submitted. It makes sense to show it off when it's at its best. So, your manuscript is ready. How did you approach finding an agent?
Simon: After reading a few forums on the Internet, it didn't take me long to realize that finding an agent might prove to be a challenge. I approached it with the same methodology I used at the office working complex investigations. I conducted a lot of research. A lot. I bought The Guide to Literary Agents and Writer's Market. I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace and attended the 2012 and 2013 ThrillerFest. You'd be surprised at how much information is available from open sources on the Internet. You simply have to take the time to do your homework. Ultimately, what worked best for me was AgentFest.
Brian: And we know how well that turned out. So, given your success at AgentFest, what advice can you offer writers when they're pitching their work to agents?
Simon: Make sure they pitch a completed and edited manuscript. This way, you'll be able to send it right away before the agents forget all about you. Having a synopsis is also important. It should be between two and four pages long. What was a big help for me was also the ThrillerFest website. A few months prior to ThrillerFest, the webmaster posted the names of the editors and agents that would be attending. I researched all of them. I looked at their sales through the Publishers Marketplace website, I visited their agencies' websites, looked up their clients and the types of books they were interested in representing. Out of all the agents and editors who were attending AgentFest, I highlighted fourteen agents and two editors. I ended up pitching to two editors and fifteen agents.
Brian: How did the pitches go?
Simon: My batting average was excellent. When it was all said and done, fourteen out of fifteen agents requested material and the two editors did, too. I was thrilled that all my hard work paid off.
Brian: Tell me about the offer.
Simon: One of the agents I pitched to was Eric Myers of The Spieler Agency. I knew Eric had a great reputation among advance-paying publishing houses, had solid sales numbers behind him, and had worked extensively as a publicist within the motion picture industry. I must have impressed him during my pitch because he contacted me a few hours later. He'd already read a few chapters of The Thin Black Line and visited my website. We exchanged a few emails, spoke on the phone and a few days later met in the lobby bar in the hotel where ThrillerFest was taking place. Eric and I realized we had the same vision about my book and career. In my opinion -- and I think Eric would agree -- it took only a few minutes to confirm we were a good match. He offered to represent me at the end of our meeting. I can honestly say that working with Eric is a real pleasure. He's responsive, professional, and knows the ins and outs of the industry. I'm confident that with his help, we'll find a good home for my manuscript.
Brian: The best of luck.
Simon Gervais's manuscript, The Thin Black Line , is currently making the rounds in New York. Meanwhile, he is busy writing the sequel. For more information on Simon, please visit his website at www.simongervaisbooks.com.
Brian Mercer, whose AgentFest experience took place in 2011, found an agent four weeks later. While he had almost as many requests for his manuscript as Simon, he found his agent by querying her the traditional way. His supernatural YA novel, Aftersight, was published in September 2013. Brian’s web address is www.brianmercerbooks.com.