Field Notes / I got an agent! Boom, leg kicks!

I got an agent! Boom, leg kicks!

It took five months, but I’ve officially signed with a literary agent. Here are three takeaways from the process that you can use to tackle your own hairy audacious goals.

Let’s not bury the lede. I got an agent! That’s it. That’s the news of Q1.

In other words, someone other than my mother read my horror novel and thought it’s worth publishing. Several people, actually, as I was lucky enough to receive multiple offers of representation, and I’m happy to say I’ve signed with Jill Marr at SDLA.

Choosing Jill was a no-brainer. She’s a badass. A force in fiction. A literary agent with a keen eye for feedback and a track record of 160+ deals with top editors in publishing.

Here are some of the books Jill has previously sold. Hoping to see mine alongside them soon 🙂

Some of the books my new agent has previously sold. Hoping to see mine alongside them soon.

It was a helluva journey. Lots of highs, lots of lows. The odds of getting an agent are awful — as low as 1 in 6,000 by some estimates (although that stat smells sorta bullshitty to me) — and it was by far the toughest goal I set last year. As someone who believes in making your own luck, I’m proud of how hard I dogged it and didn’t settle until I was satisfied.

In hindsight, the process taught me a lot about how to tackle difficult goals, so I thought I’d share three takeaways for anyone trying to do something hard when the odds are stacked against them.

Hopefully this helps you make your own luck, too.

What I learned about tackling difficult goals

Seth Godin says almost everything in life is about being good at marketing.

Want your company to sell more products? Get better at marketing.
Want your nonprofit to raise more money? Get better at marketing.
Want your political candidate to poll better? Get better at marketing.

As a marketer myself, I like the sentiment but I disagree. Marketing is valuable, sure, but sometimes traditional sales and business development is even more critical. In fact, I could easily title this section “Tips for good business development” and nothing else would change.

Personally speaking, I’ve found that achieving big hairy audacious goals — especially goals that require convincing a small number of people (like agents) to see value in what you’re doing (like trying to publish a book) — is less about being good at marketing and more about being relentless in terms of sales and business development.

Sure, sometimes marketing is more important than biz dev (for example, if my book ultimately gets published, then it’s all about marketing), but sales and marketing are different muscles, and it’s important to exercise both.

Here are 3 takeaways for tackling goals by improving your biz dev skills.

Takeaway #1: Focus isn’t enough. You need intensity.

When you’re targeting a small number of people — e.g., dozens or hundreds, not thousands or millions — you need more than focus. You need intensity.

You need to be obsessed — nay, possessed — with your list of targets.

In my case, that meant researching 200+ agents to learn who specializes in horror, who’s open to queries, who has a good track record of doing deals with top publishers, etc. Once I knew that, I created outreach templates for specific segments with personalized messages. I kept a makeshift CRM in Google Sheets and updated it religiously. Then I hustled. I replied within 5 minutes to every email, requested referrals off rejections, and created talk tracks for objections when someone was on the fence.

Focus is a prerequisite for achieving anything difficult — and when you bring intensity, magic happens.

Can’t write a quarterly update without a Shaan Puri quote. This one’s a fave.

Takeaway #2: There’s no substitute for leverage

If you don’t have leverage, you’re a plebe. A peasant. The bottom of the totem pole. Tackling big goals is all about finding leverage.

In my case, leverage came from tapping into FOMO. As soon as a few agents started requesting my manuscript, I emailed the rest of them saying I’d received interest — and as soon as I did that, the requests flooded in.

This is typical in publishing. It usually takes agents 2-6 weeks to get back to you, but as soon as they hear that other agents want to see the manuscript, they’ll return messages immediately. Of course they want to see something others are interested in! So all of a sudden you’re out of the slush pile and into the mix.

If you’re in a similar situation where you’re waiting too long to hear back or people aren’t even replying, sit down and figure out how to drum up more leverage. It’s worth it, guaranteed.

Takeaway #3: Persistence wears down resistance

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 10+ years of marketing, it’s that you need to contact people way, way, way more than you think.

I’m too lazy to dig up the stats, but they say something like 6-8 email follow-ups are required to maximize response rates (and the higher the value of whatever it is your pitching, the more follow-ups required). By and large, folks aren’t rude — they’re just busy. They’ve got a million priorities. You need to be persistent.

That’s why I was extremely focused on polite-yet-persistent follow-up. Everyone, especially agents, are swamped. I followed up 4, 5, even 6 times before getting responses in many cases. No one was irritated; in fact, the opposite. I got dozens of thank-yous for the kind reminders.

Don’t get in your head too much about this. Just keep following up — more than you think is appropriate — and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

So I’ve got an agent, now what?

The next steps look something like this:

– Finish revisions with agent
– Create a proposal for editors
– Wait on pins and needles while the book is shopped around
– Pop champagne, whether to celebrate or drown sorrows
– Write the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

The first two steps are actually done, and we’re starting to submit to editors today. Huzzah! Apparently it’s good timing, as everyone’s back from the holidays and eager to acquire — plus, horror is hot right now.

If the book sells (no jinxsies), then the journey continues with a publisher. More development, more excitement. If not, well, we’ll see.

Either way, the most important step is to keep writing. Because here’s the thing: when it was just me in my basement at 2AM jotting down creepy stories, it was a hobby. A lark. Now it’s more like a job, and just like any job, it’s about showing up and putting in the work. Whether or not this current book sells, I need to be focused on the marathon, not the sprint.

There’s a great scene in Tick, Tick… Boom! when Jonathan Larson gets a call from his agent and she tells him that everyone passed on producing his show. When he asks what he should do next, she says: “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey.”

Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes.

Best scene in any movie about rejection and persistence (Credit: Tick, Tick… Boom!)

What about consulting and other projects?

Oh right, paying the bills. How am I doing that again?

I’ve still got a steady stream of income from affiliate and analyst projects, so not everything is all bohemian and starving-artist-ish around here. I also have two big video series that need to be done in the next 30 days, which more than cover living expenses for a while.

All of this means I’ve virtually stopped taking on new consulting clients so I can focus on publishing stuff, as I feel like now’s the time to make the big shift into entertainment. Hopefully I’m right, but again, no jinxsies.

Happy New Year, y’all!

I think those are all the updates for now.

If anyone cares, here’s my updated goal tracker for Q1 2024.

Nice to see some progress on the board already. Also feels good to see “Get a book deal” instead of “Get an agent” — and like I said before, I should have a good idea whether or not that’s going to happen by my next update.

Catch you then, and good luck tackling your own audacious goals!


Pictures from the field this quarter

Things I was obsessed with this quarter

>> How I Write. It took me a few episodes to get into it, but David Perell’s How I Write series (both videos and podcasts) is super well done. The guests are top-notch, and the production value is **mwah**. I don’t think I’ve taken away any tangible writing tips, but they’re awesome interviews.

>> Smartless. I’m late to the party with Will Arnett, Sean Hayes, and Jason Bateman’s hit podcast, Smartless, but better late than never? My best Xmas gifts this year were swag from the show, including my new favorite mug.

>> Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson is one of those authors who’s so prolific it doesn’t make sense. He’s also a better marketer than most marketers, and even though I haven’t read his novels (I’ve tried, but high fantasy isn’t my thang), I spent a lot of time this quarter digging into how he’s built his community. Turns out the guy with the all-time Kickstarter record knows a thing or two about community building.

>> Vintage action figures. My best friend and his brother (also a great friend) gifted all their childhood action figures to my kids because they don’t plan on having kids themselves. When we went home for Xmas, there were six ENORMOUS bins of toys waiting… and it’s safe to say I was more excited than anyone. I got a head start on sorting, but there’s a lot more to do to, including convincing my wife to not divorce me over them.

>> Dad’s retirement video. My dad sold his business and retired this year, and for a retirement gift, I got 100+ people to record happy retirement messages and edited them together into a tear-jerky montage. So worth it. Not a dry eye on Christmas.

That’s it, that’s all. Catch you in another three months ✌️


Devon Hennig

Devon Hennig is a writer, marketer, and ex-game-show host. He quit his job as a software executive to make a go of it on his own. Follow along as he tries not to go broke.

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