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How I Found a Literary Agent – the Irene Goodman Agency

How I Found a Literary Agent Irene Goodman AgencyHere’s how I found and signed with a literary agent at the Irene Goodman Agency in NYC. I divided my experience into 12 steps that can help all writers find their own agents…

First, I gotta share a quip I found from Irene Goodman herself:

“Writing is your job, just like your postman has a job,” says Goodman. “He delivers the mail every day, rain or shine. Successful authors sit down and face that blank screen every day. You don’t actually have to do it every day, but you do have to do it on a firm schedule…If you write only when the muse strikes or when you feel like it, you will have a very hard time finishing a book.”

These are unverified words – I found them on the internet – but boy do I love them! At a writer’s conference recently, bestselling author Bob Mayer said something similar: he can’t afford writer’s block. He has bills to pay and a family to feed…no time to wait around for the voice of the muse.

Regarding agents: check out the Guide To Literary Agents if you’re seeking representation, and read on to learn how I found Special Agent Jon Sternfeld of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency….

How I Found a Literary Agent – the Irene Goodman Agency

I’m (currently) a nonfiction writer, but the following tips are also applicable to novelists, poets, children’s writers, etc. The major difference is that, unless they’re Stephen King, fiction writers need to write the book first. Nonfiction writers can get an agent with just a well-written book proposal and 2-3 sample chapters…

1. Hammer out your idea. It should go without saying that you need a great hook, a well-thought-out idea, and strong writing skills to catch an agent’s attention…but I have to say it anyway. I know that writers rush in where fools fear to go (no offense, fellow scribes! I’m one of the quickest writers out of the starting gate, which often backfires). Also important; make sure you’re building your writer’s platform.

2. Prepare an airtight book proposal. My favorite resource is Elizabeth Lyon’s Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write. However, I see that Stephen Blake Mettee recently released The Fast Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal, which might be worth a peek. There are lots of book on the market about book proposals; read as many as you can stomach, then trust your gut when you’re actually writing your book proposal.

3. Polish your book proposal until it sparkles. The first agent I talked to (not Sternfeld at Irene Goodman) said he can’t believe how unprepared and unprofessional writers can be! Don’t just edit your book proposal (or novel) until it’s finished…edit it until there’s absolutely no way you can make it better. To be a successful writer, you have to go beyond “good enough.”

4. Research agents. Use Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide To Literary Agents, explore Predators & Editors, or Google “literary agents in America/Canada.” I also asked a colleague for her agent’s name, she emailed him, he emailed me, we spoke later that day, and he sent me a contract a couple days later. I didn’t sign on with him – I’ll tell you why soon.

5. Follow the submission guidelines. The websites I visited had clear submission guidelines. Take them seriously – you’ll stand out as a potential successful writer that an agent would want to sign!

6. Query far and wide. I don’t know if all agents and writers are on the same page here, but agent Janet Reid recommends sending your query to as many agents as possible. I e-mailed 14 of the “highly recommended” ones on Predators & Editors.

7. Avoid “resting on your laurels.” Move on to something else while you’re waiting – pitch a few magazine article ideas, play around with a new book idea, catch up on your blog. It took Sternfeld less than a week to contact me – but it can take longer. Sometimes years.

8. Respond if an agent calls. Sternfeld emailed a request for a phone conversation less than a week after I sent my book proposal, and I emailed him back a few minutes later. We talked within half an hour – I think we both wanted to strike while the iron was hot!

9. Make sure he’s riding your wave. It can be tempting to sign on with the first agent you talk to, but hold up a second. The first one I spoke with (my colleague’s agent) suggested a fairly significant change to my book. That didn’t light my fire, but I’m open to thinking about stuff. He sent the contract and left the ball in my court…and I decided not to play with him. Sternfeld, however, was thrilled with my book proposal! “Even if you don’t sign with me,” he said, “don’t change anything about your book. It’s great the way it is.” Finer words were never spoken. 🙂

10. Read the contract. Maybe it’s necessary to have a lawyer review an agent’s contract before you sign it…and maybe not. I signed on with Irene Goodman without a lawyer’s rubber stamp (but I did compare it to my other contract – which was 5 pages long. Goodman’s was one page).

11. Do a “background check” on the agency. I did this step twice: first when I researched literary agents, and then again when I was offered a contract. It was easy with Irene Goodman, as they’ve been around for 30 years, are highly recommended on Predators & Editors, and are reverred on the Absolute Write forums. But, do make sure you research your agent’s name and the agency’s name – you may not be able to look under every rock, but it’s worth a shuffle through the forest.

12. Sign your book publishing contract, and celebrate! As I said, who know what the future holds – but signing with an agent at the Irene Goodman Agency is definitely a milestone to celebrate. But don’t party too hard tonight, fellow scribes, because tomorrow morning you gotta get back to work….

Here’s how bestselling author Lionel Shriver sold her book without an agent (after her own agent — and many others — rejected it).

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If you have any tips or stories about finding a literary agent, please share below!

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8 thoughts on “How I Found a Literary Agent – the Irene Goodman Agency”

  1. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for your comments, Sammie…I really appreciate them! Sometimes I get discouraged, because so few readers give me feedback – much less a compliment.

    You made my day 🙂

  2. Laurie, Hello! :O) Thank you for responding. And yes, a hand written letter from a publisher. I will always save it. You are so right. That was not the kind of agent I would want to work with so it turned out as it was suppose to, each of us going our different paths. I will keep you posted on my publishing efforts. I have spent the morning on your website and have enjoyed it. It has a lot of great information. Keep up the important work.

  3. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen


    A handwritten letter from a publisher? Wow. And it sounds like the agent you queried wasn’t someone you want to work with anyway.

    I gotta say that finding a literary agent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. One day, I’ll write a post about what happened with my agent at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

    Good luck with your publishing efforts – keep me posted! I’d love to hear how it goes.

    Happy writing,

  4. Pause. Sigh. I send out submission query letters to agents and publishers. One time I erred and sent an agent a letter that I normally send to publishers. The agent’s ’tone’ suggested that I was stupid, my letter was mindless, and to the point she could not understand what I was communicating, and no publisher would want what I had written. I apologized to her for the correspondence. A major publisher who received the same letter rejected my novel but based on my letter was interested in anything else I had written, and I have never published a novel before. I actually get more encouraging letters from publishers than agents. One time a publisher wrote me a hand written full page letter. I have some letters already sent out to more agents, but I will not try to go through an agent beyond this last effort. They are making me tired. I will focus my efforts on publishers.

  5. Thanks for this tip, Brad!

    Good luck with finding the right literary agent — keep us posted on your progress.
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..10 Tips for Interviewing Sources for Articles =-.

  6. I found a website that helped me find a potential agent: litmatch.net

    Much info, a submission tracker and my first search yielded 98 possible agents to query.

  7. Great post on nabbing an agent. I’m going to check this out when it comes time to use you advice! : )

    Alexander Field’s last blog post..The Rejection Goal!

  8. The Irene Goodman Agency sent me the most wonderful e-newsletter today! No, Jon hasn’t sold my book 🙂 but the email was full of hope, encouragement, and faith.

    They said that book publishers need authors, so keep writing. They said don’t despair because of the economoy, because they’re still negotiating good contracts. They said don’t worry about recent cutbacks in the publishing industry, because editors are still buying books.

    One of their agents sold 32 books in 2008; her goal was to sell 30. Wow, that’s about 3 a month!

    It was a positive, optimistic email – and it made me proud to be part of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

    And, my fingers are crossed that a publisher picks up my book in 2009…..or even sooner!