How I found a literary agent - An interview with author J. B. Bergstad

firstwriter.com – Sunday January 15, 2006

J. B. Bergstad recently acquired an agent using firstwriter.com's database of literary agencies. We asked him about his writing, and how he found success.

fw: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulations on placing your book with a literary agency. What is your book called, and what is it about?

JB: The title of my novel is Hyde’s Corner. The primary story unfolds between 1938 and 1946. The setting is Sundowner County and Hyde’s Corner, Oklahoma. The novel details the life and times of Selmer Burks. He is a man driven to the brink of madness, first by the loss of his immediate family; then by the death of his wife and daughter. The rape and slaughter of the Burks family is a result of greed, thievery and imagined accusations. Cedric and Jared Hyde seek vengeance. But Selmer Burks is elected Sheriff of Sundowner County, Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Hyde’s Corner. A bastard grandson, product of his daughter’s rape and death, saves Selmer from total insanity. Selmer Burks embarks on his own path of bloody revenge against the Hydes. The people of Hyde’s Corner learn that, for Selmer Burks, all “high and mighty” people are “Hydes”.

fw: Where did you get your idea from?

JB: Hyde’s Corner started with a simple phrase: “You can’t stop a pack of fools from doing foolish things”. This is generally how most of my novels and short stories start; a few words or a phrase begins the process. A sequel, Hyde’s Corner, The Aftermath, has been structurally written. Eight other novels are also in various stages of construction. I like the freedom of working on several manuscripts at the same time. It keeps imaginative juices flowing for all the storylines.

fw: Once you'd got your idea, how did you go about turning that into a novel?

JB: The best way to go about writing a novel is write it. Write, write, write and write some more. Nothing you write the first time will or should remain the same. Re-reading and editing are part of the process. It took a year and a half to complete a first draft of Hyde’s Corner. I edited my “first draft” dozens of times during the writing. That beginning was completed on August 23, 2004, at 12:36 A.M. I signed with my agent on October 2, 2005. In the intervening fourteen months I rewrote the beginning, middle and end of Hyde’s Corner so many times I couldn’t hazard a guesstimate regarding the literal number.

fw: Had you written anything before Hyde's Corner?

JB: I began writing in my early twenties. I’m now sixty-seven and still learning. Reading is the most valuable tool in mastering the craft. If you can’t find time to read, you’ll never write coherent prose. Like him or not, Steven King first advanced that premise and it is a truth accepted by the best in the literary arts today. I have yet to be published in the mainstream press. I am confident my agent will accomplish that task.

fw: Do you think the fact that you didn't have a publishing history in the mainstream press made it harder for you to secure an agent?

JB: It stands to reason that publishing credits are a plus when agent shopping. Agents are business people. Agents earn a living selling manuscripts and making a commission. Small press and / or noteworthy publishers are a big plus. Even more important, however, is an author who has a target audience, a saleable manuscript and a marketing plan.

fw: Did you start looking for an agent straight away, or did you try querying publishers directly?

JB: Once confident I had a “presentable manuscript”, I began soliciting agents. After my first fifty or so rejections, I tried querying publishers interested in my novel’s genre. After thirty or so publisher rejections, I went back to the drawing board. Each rejection should teach a lesson, thus improving your chances the next time. Researching agents and publishers is a most critical criterion to follow. Keep in mind the words “Presentable Manuscript”.

fw: What kind of research did you carry out?

JB: Lot’s of research: Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents; Kathryn S. Brogan’s 2005 Guide to Literary Agents; Sarah Parsons Zackheim’s Getting Your Book Published For Dummies; Predators and Editors; and many other writers' websites too numerous to mention. But the only reference and research that paid off was done through firstwriter.com.

fw: What made firstwriter.com so effective for you?

JB: firstwriter.com provides an excellent database of agents and publishers. It provides a simple method of choosing genre, sub-categories of genre, country of origin, etc. Extremely helpful is the automatic email update feature. When a new agent or publisher is added to the database,firstwriter.com will email the information to individual members based on the criteria they provide. My agent’s new listing was sent to me. The rest is a history I’m looking forward to with optimism.

fw: What would you say was the most important thing you learned when approaching agents?

JB: Agents are busy people. At least the successful ones are busy. Most are looking for new material, but they want to be solicited on their own terms. The resources I mentioned previously list agents, the genre they handle, how they wish to be contacted and a few other individual wants and needs. I can’t emphasise the point enough... follow agent guidelines to the letter. DO NOT DEVIATE. Don’t do cutesy things with colours or fonts to get attention. You simply prove you’re an amateur by doing so. Know how to format a manuscript, know what font and font point to use. The books I’ve mentioned and many other writer websites have tutorials on query letters, manuscript format, synopsis preparation, chapter outline, etc. Study and research everything before approaching any agent or publisher. If you don’t appear professional your presentation will be recycled without one word being read.

fw: How many agents did you have to approach before you met with success?

JB: I’ve spent fourteen months researching agents and querying those handling modern historical fiction. I’ve approached over two hundred agents in that fourteen-month span. While I waited for replies I re-read and rewrote Hyde’s Corner, my query letters and synopsis. It was and remains a tremendous learning process. Each agent maintains their own criteria. Be prepared to rework what you’ve already done for someone else. If you get sloppy, or try shortcuts, you’ll lose every time.

fw: That's an important point. All too often, writers try spamming agents with a mass mail approach, and end up burning all their bridges before they've even got off the ground. You really do need to give individual attention to each approach, but did you find that giving that level of care to each query – making that emotional investment – made it worse when you were rejected?

JB: I’ve received over two hundred rejections. Each one hurt, but I tried to understand why I failed to connect. You may find a tiny minority of agents who’ll give a clue regarding their rejection of your query. Most often your query didn’t grab their interest. That bit of magic must be done in the first two sentences. After that, the issue is most often a lost cause. Most rejection will be nothing more than a printed forum. Some individuals just scratched "No Thanks" in a corner of my query. If the writer enquires in a professional manner – if he or she has followed the agent guidelines – then there’s no excuse for that type of discourtesy.

fw: Which agency signed you in the end?

JB: I signed with The Joan West Literary Agency [now Bennett & West Literary Agency]. Doctor West reviewed my query and requested sample chapters and synopsis. She also required I provide a comprehensive marketing plan for Hyde’s Corner. After reviewing that material, she sent an offer of representation. I reviewed her contract. It was done in plain English, equally fair to both the author and Joan West Literary Agency. I may appear disingenuous, being a first time fiction author at sixty-seven. But I had an opportunity to sign with two other agents before Doctor West accepted me. I turned both offers down. I did so because the agencies asked for up-front money. Beware of anyone offering a contract on that basis. Beware of any agent suggesting your manuscript needs polish, offering either an in-house editorial service, or book doctor.

fw: What do you think was the critical factor in winning this agent over to your work?

JB: I think, after two hundred rejections, I finally got my query close to correct. I believe the concept of Hyde’s Corner intrigued Doctor West. After reviewing the research I’d done regarding my target audience, and seeing my marketing plan and past experience, I believe she chose to take a chance on me. I choose to believe Doctor West is a bit like me, something of a risk-taker. If she believes in a project she has the tenacity and perseverance to give it her best shot. Doctor Joan West, in my opinion, is someone the author and the editor can rely on to play it straight from the beginning. It’s impossible to predict whether Doctor West and I will prove a good match. So far she has performed in a fantastic manner. She has submitted to several publishers and reported each to me. She has given me the benefit of her experience and advice. At this point I hope we have a long and profitable relationship.

fw: What have you found to be the benefits of having an agent? Has it all been high-powered meetings in New York?!

JB: Having someone believe in you is all encompassing. For a writer, having a professional agent believe in you is a confidence building experience. For a younger individual the experience might result in a dangerous and destructive ego trip. For me, at this time in my life, it’s a confirmation. It’s an acknowledgment of my ability to tell a story in a marketable manner. For me that’s a great gift and I’m grateful. A writer should expect performance from their agent. Just as the agent should expect performance from their client. Doctor Joan West is doing her job at present and apparently doing it well. I don’t expect any meetings in New York, either high or low powered. Of course if the Pulitzer or Nobel should be offered for Hyde’s Corner, I’m sure my wife, Doctor West and I will be making a few trips to New York and elsewhere. I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath, folks.

fw: Do you have any general tips or advice for other writers trying to get published / get an agent?

JB: For the beginning author, I believe I’ve covered the most important tips and lessons I’ve learned in my previous answers. If I had to stress the most important ingredient in procuring a publisher or agent, it would be professionalism on the writer’s part. Attention to detail in manuscript format, following guidelines to the letter, spell checking again and again... and whatever you do NEVER MISSPELL THE AGENT OR EDITOR’S NAME. Never send a manuscript unless directed to do so. When sending queries make sure you address the agent or editor by name. Dear agent / editor just finds the round file. Most of us, having completed a novel, believe we’ve written a great masterpiece. Some will be so confident in the magnificence of our work we will badger agents / editors with phone calls, emails and faxes ad-nauseam. Those who choose to follow that road will fail miserably. Instead, prepare to edit and edit again. Prepare to accept changes and harsh criticism. At the end of the day be professional. Adhere to that principle and you will be taken seriously. You will be treated as a professional. If I remember correctly there are only seven plot scenarios and forty-seven different situations in which to use those plots. Our unique masterpieces are not that unique. What is distinctive is your turn of a phrase. How well you’re willing to listen. How hard you’re willing to work.

fw: What next? Do you have any publishers in the pipeline – or more books? Where are you taking your writing now?

JB: What next the man says? I have enough projects to keep me busy for some time. I’ve pitched an idea to Doctor West about a biographical, “life in the fast lane” type of book. I’m doing a first interview with the subject this week. We’ll see if there’s a story to tell. You can be sure I will continue to write and learn and expand whatever ability The Old Man Upstairs has chosen to give me.

fw: Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us! I'm sure it will prove an inspiration for other writers out there...

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