How I Got a Referral

You may recall that, before I got an agent, I had a referral to another agent. A lot of writers believe you have to know someone to get an agent -- that the industry is exclusive and likes to stay that way. It's an understandable belief what with all the rejections we all get, and there's even a teeny tiny bit of truth to it (e.g. we read things more favorably if we know the person).

This leads to the further belief that a referral is gold: just get someone to like your work, and you're in. It's not true, but a referral can help. Here's the method I used to get mine:
  1. Be friends with other authors. Whether they're published or not, without caring what they can do for you. (Note: Commenting on published authors' blogs and responding to their public tweets is not the same as being their friend.)
  2. Critique other authors' manuscripts. Again, whether they're published or not, and without caring whether they can critique yours in return. In fact, assume they won't.
  3. When you have a manuscript for critique, ask these same author friends. When you ask, treat it like the huge favor it is. Critiquing an unpublished novel is a lot of work, so be very, very nice when you ask, and make it clear that you understand if they can't/don't want to do it (that is, make it easy for them to say no). It's hard to go overboard on this.
  4. If one of your critiquers is in a position to give you a referral, don't ask for it. Asking for a direct referral only puts them in an awkward situation. If they love your manuscript AND think their agent will love it (these are two different things, by the way), they'll probably tell you. If you think they're not for some reason, then just ask if they think it would be a good fit for their agent.
People don't always like this advice, because supposedly it "never hurts to ask" and because what's the point of creating a network if you never use it?

The thing is, it can hurt to ask, especially if you're pushy and don't take no very well. You can lose a friend. (I guess you could also lose a network contact but, I dunno, I think losing a friend is worse).

And in this case, in my opinion, it doesn't hurt to not ask. The query system works, guys, and I'm not just saying that because I got picked out of the slush pile. I've always said that. If your work is good, and it's right for the market, it will find a home. If it's not, a referral isn't going to change anything.

Usually a referral will only get you a quicker rejection, and handled badly, it can lose you a friend. To me, that's not worth it. Don't hunt for mythical shortcuts. Use that time to become a better writer instead.


S.A. Larsenッ said...

Great point about responding to tweets/blog comments. Friendship is more than that. I've met some amazing writer friends through blogging, but a friendship grew out of care for each other's work. Nice post!

Sarah said...

Thank you for point #4. And I agree--I firmly believe the query system works, no short cuts or contacts necessary. Excellent post!

Myrna Foster said...

Amen. If you develop the friendships and the critiques are a result of mutual admiration for each other's writing, it's hard to go wrong.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I had a referral and I was at great pains to let my friend know that NO MATTER WHAT happened with the agent, we were still buds, and I hugely appreciated her love of the story and willingness to go to her agent for me. The friendship is WAY more important than the business side of things (which will work out if it's meant to).

Angela Brown said...

I can appreciate your advice on getting a referral. Actually, I can recall hearing some of the same advice you mention here from an agent at a conference I attended a couple of years ago.

The query process may not make us feel like perfection in a delicious waffle cone, but it does work.

Matthew MacNish said...

I would never ask for a referral directly, because it's incredibly arrogant, and as you say, it puts someone in an unfair position. Plus, IF they're you're friend, they're going to offer to refer you anyway, if all the things you pointed out come together.

But there's a way around it. If you have a friend who is published, they most likely know more than just one agent. There is nothing wrong with asking (assuming they've told you they like your novel and think it's ready): do you know of anyone who would be a good fit to represent this? That way (assuming they didn't think their agent would be a good fit, because they would have offered) they can suggest other agents they know.

erica and christy said...

Agreed. First and foremost it's important to have writing friends and those we can ask to critique our work for us. And, no matter how many great friends we have, unless our writing is good, no amount of referrals will help us get anywhere with agents or editors. Thanks for the advice and congrats to you and your writing! christy