How to approach a book agent, how to recognize a book idea, and other things I learned on a panel yesterday

Yesterday, I sat on a panel titled, “Secrets of the Book Biz!”

603616_10151464837797851_1636888449_n

I didn’t actually know any secrets, so I was relieved to learn my fellow panelists did.

Alison Singh Gee is the author of a memoir called “Where the Peacocks Sing,” about meeting her now-husband and finding out he grew up in a palace in India. She got there in great anticipation to learn it was “a total tear-down.”

9780312378783

Is that a gorgeous cover or what?! I think the subtitle is important to note: “A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home.” Alison said that while it’s a love story and a travelogue too, in the end it’s really a woman’s search for home.

Our moderator, Julie Dam of People magazine (and author of “Some Like It Haute”), asked how our books came about. I told my crazy story about my magazine article turning into a TV pitch turning into a disaster turning into a novel.

Alison said something far more useful: that her story made all her friends lean forward. When she updated them on the situation with the loser boyfriend and the magazine job and this prince from India, they all leaned forward, wanting to hear more. That’s when she knew she had the makings of a book.

The other person on the panel was Kirby Kim, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor. His takeaway was basically this: when you approach an agent, be ready. Write the best damn pitch you could possibly write. Sweat over that query letter. Bleed over it.

But don’t stop at the query: be ready with your work. Because if and when the agent professes interest and asks for a few chapters, you want to send him a version polished so bright he could brush his teeth off its reflection. Biggest lame-o mistake: sending an agent a draft, and then, a couple weeks later, sending another, “better” draft. That’s sure to land your ms in the bin.

How I met my book agent

I walked up to her at a journalism conference.

Books by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

How I met the agent who sold these books.

I don’t actually remember this. I could swear I cold-queried her after finding her name in the copy of “Guide to Literary Agents 2000,” which I still have on my office shelf.

No, she says, I walked up to her after she spoke on a panel about nonfiction books. I just waltzed right on up to this A-list superagent who reps some of the bestselling authors on God’s green earth, apparently, and introduced my unimpressive self.

There’s no way I would do that, I tell her. I don’t have the balls. But she insists. And she’s always right.

I do remember she said my pitch sucked.

That was after the conference, over lunch, after I had with great excitement pitched this idea I had about a reported memoir of my parents. And she didn’t actually say it sucked, because she doesn’t use that kind of language. But I got the message.

Crushed, I went back to my job as a staff writer at Money magazine. Then I did this fellowship, after which I became a Tokyo correspondent for Time, after which I transferred to Time in New York. Through it all, I kept in touch.

I mailed her copies of my splashiest stories. Occasionally, I dropped her an e-mail. Sometimes she responded; sometimes she didn’t.

Then I got a call from a publisher.

It was when I was back at what we call the Mother Ship, or Time headquarters in New York. I had written a feature story about how Baby Boomers were reinventing funerals as celebrations of their lives. A young woman called to ask if I had considered turning the article into a book.

I had not. But now I did.

I told the agent. She read the article, thought about it, and agreed it could work as a book. I can’t remember ever signing anything. But at some point, the agent became my agent.

And, at some point much later, she became my friend. More than that: she’s the big sister I don’t have, my sista from anotha mista.

That’s how I met my book agent.