Ten Tips for How to Get the Most Out of Meeting an Agent

Muse & the Marketplace season is approaching! But how can you make the most of the Manuscript Mart? Here are ten tips that I’ve gathered from the collective wisdom of Novel Incubator alumni who have survived their own manuscript marts and gone on to publish, as well as a few observations I’ve made while running the Mart/attending my own meetings.

1. Spend some time researching the agent/editor you’re going to meet with. They are, after all, just a person. Yes! They eat breakfast! They have hobbies! They might be into Korean skin care! These are all things you can talk about if you feel nervous. And it helps to have picked up a tidbit online to give you a specific ice breaker. Like, oh! You represent the Queen of Jordan. What is she like on the phone?!

(But don’t spend too much time doing this—the meeting is after all about your work.)

2. Spend some time researching yourself. Reread your pages so they are fresh in your mind. Brainstorm a list of questions to ask your agent about your pages/query/synopsis/plot. You have twenty minutes to ask an industry professional for feedback: use it.

3. Bring: business cards, the pages you sent in, and a method for taking notes. Some agents will provide written feedback, but not all of them will. There are attendees who bring in tape recorders so they can replay the meeting later.

4. Arrive about five to ten minutes early. The Manuscript Mart is held in a large room with several tables. You’ll receive a map, and it’s nice to take a few minutes to study the map to figure out where you’re going, but the waiting room is right next to the Mart. During particularly packed times, there’ll be a long line of attendees and agents checking in as well, so it’s nice to have a couple minutes to get yourself settled.

5. “Go in expecting feedback, not love and adoration.” –Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne

We can’t stress this enough. Don’t think of the meeting as your one shot to sell your novel, but rather as the rare opportunity to get feedback on a work-in-progress from an industry professional. Most literary conferences have quick pitch sessions. Grub’s Manuscript Mart is unique in that you can actually show an agent your work and get feedback. (In the real world, if you send an agent your work and they don’t like it, they reject you and you can’t send them the same book again.)

In Manuscript Mart land, you can take their feedback, revise, and email the agent a few months later and say: Hello! We met at the Muse! You gave me some excellent advice, which I’ve now incorporated into my novel.

6. “The meeting should be a conversation. Asking about specific craft elements is the best way to remove the emotion from the experience. Also, remember that they’re judging the quality of the pages, not the quality of you as a person. But most of all, remember that this business is highly subjective. It only takes one person to say yes. Sometimes you have to hear a lot of no’s first. But professional feedback such as the kind you get from the Manuscript Mart can unlock problems in your pages that will eventually get you to yes.” –Kelly J. Ford

7. Don’t be shy about asking questions. If your agent/editor is spending a lot of time on say, just your query letter, redirect the conversation to your pages. You have only twenty minutes and they are your twenty minutes.
(But, actually, twenty minutes is actually a lot of time. Truly. Last year, I came armed with a list of questions for my manuscript mart meetings and by the end of each one, I had gotten everything I needed.)

8. Don’t freak out if the meeting goes poorly.  It’s just the opinion of one person. In addition, the agents and editors have been up early to catch trains, planes and taxis to get to Muse. Meanwhile, they’ve also been up late at parties, while their day has been filled with meetings. Writing is highly subjective: think dating but possibly worse.

“My first manuscript mart after Incubator crushed me. Afterwards I went straight to the bar. …I was expecting I love your book. Instead I got advice about how my book might not fit in the market. I wasted far too much time brooding over that. Less than a year later different agents told me different things about the market.” –Emily Ross

If something truly egregious happens, let the Marketplace staff know. We take attendee feedback very seriously and if an agent/editor is consistently unprofessional we don’t invite them back.

9. If an agent does ask you for a full or more pages and you aren’t ready: don’t send pages. Take your time. Revise. Get feedback from someone other than your parents, partner, or pet.

As one agent told me last year, she didn’t care if it took me three months or three years to get back to her. “I don’t have the time to read your book more than once,” she told me. “Send me your very best work.”

10. If an agent gives you their card, write down a detail about your meeting on the back of it. When you query the agent later, you can always refer to the detail to jog their memory.

And because it bears repeating:

No matter what, keep going. Writing is not about being a talented rabbit who pirouettes into the publishing world. It’s about being a badass turtle warrior who keeps going. (And because you don’t actually know any better, because writing. It hurts so good and you can’t stop, won’t stop, don’t you dare stop.)

Special thanks to the following Novel Incubator alumni who drew upon their own experiences from the Mart and as published authors for this post: Emily Ross (Half in Love with Death); Kelly J. Ford (Cottonmouths), Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne (Holding Onto Nothing, forthcoming), Jennie Wood (A Boy Like Me) and Desmond Hall (Your Corner Dark, forthcoming). This post is an amalgamation of their thoughts and in some cases, I have quoted their words directly.

Disclaimer: while I do work for Grub in the capacity of running the Manuscript Mart for 2018 and 2019, this post should not be seen as a reflection of GrubStreet, anyone at GrubStreet’s opinions, or the sovereign truth. Also, seriously, no one else should share the blame for the phrase badass turtle warrior.