We feel your pain.
Securing an agent is just as hard as landing a publishing deal these days, and requires savvy, a thorough submission, and persistence. When we heard one of our former clients landed an agent, we asked him to share his journey, as well as any advice he picked up along the way.
After over thirty years of working in media and the arts, Curt Weiss knows a good story when he hears one. Now he’s ready to tell the oh-so-good story of one of the most influential and overlooked musicians of their time: Jerry Nolan of the infamous Punk Rock granddaddies, the New York Dolls.
Tell us about your path to seeking and securing an agent.
I had been writing and researching my book on and off since 2006. I hadn’t really given much thought to how I was going to sell the book, thinking I would figure it out after writing it. Little did I know…
In the summer of 2013 a writer friend of mine told me about the Willamette Writer’s Conference. When she explained to me that this was an event where you could meet literary agents, I figured that, after seven years, it was time to jump in feet first. My book was about 95-percent finished so I had no reason to wait anymore.
I researched the event and realized that I needed to learn how to pitch my book to agents. The whole gist of the event is setting up meetings (either one on one or in small groups) with literary agents where you’ll have a limited amount of time to convince them that you’ve got something that’s right up their alley. I needed to learn how to sell my book and myself in no more than two minutes (group pitch) and up to five minutes (one on one pitch).
Before I even learned how to pitch, I had to figure out which agents to pitch to. At conferences like Willamette, you pay for each agent you pitch to, so you need to be selective. Before reserving a spot with an agent, I read their bios (available on the conference website) and found agents who were looking for books like mine. As I was selling a non-fiction oral history on a junkie New York rock and roll musician from the Punk era, I looked for agents interested in the arts, urban grit, bios, etc. Conversely, if their interests were, for example, romance novels, science fiction or young adult genres, I didn’t waste my time and money booking time with them.
The week before the event I attended a pitch workshop given by Cynthia Whitcomb in Portland. I worked her system, practiced and practiced and then practiced some more. She reviewed and critiqued it by e-mail afterwards and my writer pal did the same. It was also important to time myself so I wouldn’t be rushed when the time came to pitch my book.
There was a pitch slam on the first night of the conference, where people lined up and one after another pitched to a panel of agents in front of hundreds of people. If you have trouble speaking in public, you need to get over it quickly. Besides getting in more practice of your pitch, I got to hear others. I noted what worked and what didn’t and kept refining my pitch as well as my delivery. I realized that you can’t read a script. It’s one-part conversation, one-part sermon, one-part advertisement, and another part political speech. You’re selling an idea (your book) but you’re also selling yourself, your abilities, and your credentials. No one can tell this story except you. And no matter how emotional your story is, DO NOT CRY. Practice selling emotion without crying.
The next day, I began two-and-a-half days of meeting agents and pitching. Here’s a tip: if you’re in a group pitch, sit in the center, opposite the agent. The agent will usually go in a circle and as you don’t know whether they’ll start on the right or left, you don’t want to be last and feel rushed if the pitch session is running long. Sitting in the center means you won’t go last and you can face them head on.
I had 13 agents to meet. I ended up getting 10 requests for proposals. Of course, I had no proposal and barely knew what it was. As I was doing 13 pitches, I started to see the same people at the agent’s tables and I started to talk to them between meeting agents. I noted who had already published a few books and asked them about their processes and any tips or suggestions. Like most conferences, there was a table of books for sale, including some related to writing non-fiction book proposals. I bought one that was suggested to me: Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon.
After working on the proposal for a few months I decided, as this was the first book proposal I’d ever written, I wanted some professional input. I chose to take Jen and Kerry’s proposal workshop and after that, used their individual review service. They helped me edit and hone it.
I was finally ready to submit a proposal. In spite of getting cards from each of the agents, I still needed to check their agency websites for particulars. Some require you to use a central mailbox as opposed to the individual agent’s e-mail address. Some want one sample chapter, some more. Always put the name of the conference and the agent’s name in the subject header.
I sent out six query letters. In addition to the one offer of representation, I received three rejections, one non-response and another acknowledgement of receipt that arrived after I signed my representation agreement. Before I sent out the next four, I got an offer, so I never pursued them. I took notes from the responses to my pitch and used them in each query. Here is the query I sent to John Rudolph of Dystel & Goderich on May 14th:
Dear John Rudolph,
Thanks very much for requesting my book proposal and sample chapters at the Willamette Writers Conference last August. My book is titled Hit It! The Secret World and Public Life of Jerry Nolan: A Drummer’s Story, Before, During and After Punk Rock. In my notes from the conference, I wrote that you were interested in music and non-fiction. If that is still the case, my book should continue to be of interest to you.
Coming out of rough-and-tumble New York in the 1970s, Jerry Nolan played drums for two of the most influential and infamous bands of their time: The New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers. He was one of the driving forces and most memorable characters of both the American and British Punk Rock movement. Told as an oral history, HIT IT! features more than 100 new interviews, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame legends like the Sex Pistol’s Glen Matlock, Blondie’s Clem Burke and Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth. Unlike other books on Punk Rock, HIT IT! examines both the New York and London Punk scenes from their earliest days, and lays out Jerry’s important contributions, both musically and stylistically.
Those who knew Jerry say he had what it took to be a star, and his resume showed it, spending time in bands with Bette Midler, Suzi Quatro, and Punk icon Sid Vicious. Sadly, his battles with heroin stymied his career and caused him to contract HIV, ultimately ending his life at the age of 45. He is remembered as a cross between a Martin Scorsese film character and legendary Jazz drummer Gene Krupa: a stylish, wisecracking raconteur, with a streetwise charm and powerhouse drumming skills. But there was a destructive streak behind his attractive veneer that manifested in his prodigious drug use, ability to scam for “chump change,” lying to promoters and managers, or stealing from the women who loved him. Jerry was a walking contradiction: one part loyal, trusted friend and mama’s boy, another part duplicitous, junkie thief.
I knew many of the people involved in Jerry’s life and saw him play numerous times. During the 1980s, I drummed with major label artists including the Rockats and Beat Rodeo, with members of the Violent Femmes and B-52’s, and on recordings produced by Richard Gottherer (Go-Go’s, Blondie), Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, ‘Til Tuesday) and Scott Litt (REM, Nirvana). Transitioning to television in 1992, I joined the award-winning Seattle PBS affiliate KCTS, where, as Unit Manager, I worked on international productions as diverse as Perilous Fight: America’s Second World War in Color, The ACLU: A History, and Vaudeville: An American Masters Special. I have also written for Classic Drummer Magazine and guest DJ for original New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain’s “Rampage of Songs” web page.
I believe that HIT IT! would strongly appeal to male readers, aged 40-70, with an interest in the music of this era. At this time, I am also approaching other agents who have requested proposals.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
John responded on May 16th by asking for a different chapter, one with more “big names.” I sent it and he offered me representation on May 23rd. By May 27th, we had a signed agreement.
A proposal is not something you’re going to write in a weekend. It took me from August 2013 until May of 2014 to complete a proposal that I was happy enough with it to submit it to prospective agents. If you’re like most people you probably have a job, kids, aging parents, a lawn that needs mowing, etc. All of those things need to be attended to while you write and research your proposal. It’s hard work and it takes time. Not only do you need to convince someone that your book idea is great, but you have to present potential audience and market data, a promotion plan, a bio and, particularly if your book is non-fiction, establish yourself as a credible expert on your subject. You may also need to set up a website, blog and or Facebook page to establish your “platform:” how will you stand above the crowd? And of course, a sample chapter…or chapters. That’s many months of work. Just keep your eyes on the prize and keep at it.
What surprised you during the querying process?
Trying to settle on a format. There are so many to choose from and I kept finding conflicting info on the web: statements made about what the right format is, with examples contrary to the formula. Look for examples of a successful query in your genre and start there.
What’s the next step toward publication?
Working with my agent to get him the proposal that he’s happy with. Every agency has a format they like. It’ll probably be somewhat different from what your workshop suggested, which is different from what the book suggested. Your agent is your sales person. Give them the tools they need to make the sale. Grit your teeth and do what they say. I’m on version four. Still gritting my teeth!
For more on Curt, check out his website at curtweiss.com.