If there is one milestone in a writing career capable of launching a thousand daydreams and anxieties at once, it’s when a literary agent calls to discuss representation. Known among writers as simply “the call,” this phone conversation could potentially change a writer’s life by leading to representation and, if all goes well and the stars align, a book deal.
The call has attained such mythic importance that authors who have experienced it can often recount, with perfect clarity, where and when it all went down. I fielded my first agent call for my novel, Body of Stars, published in March by Dutton, during my lunch break at work, where I reserved an entire eighty-person conference room to ensure I’d have privacy. Vera Kurian, whose debut novel, Never Saw Me Coming, will be published in September by Park Row Books, invited two writing friends to her apartment so they could listen in on her end of the conversation. “Like we were in middle school and I was talking to a boy,” she recalls. And when Julie Carrick Dalton, author of Waiting for the Night Song (Forge Books, 2021), received her agent call on Halloween, she fixed her gaze on a bowl of Kit Kats to ground herself. “It felt like the earth was moving under my feet for a few seconds,” she says. “It felt like all my dreams might really come true.”a
LAURA MAYLENE WALTER is the author of the novel Body of Stars (Dutton, 2021). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, the Sun, Literary Hub, Slate, Ninth Letter, the Masters Review, the anthology Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond (Harper Perennial, 2021), and other publications. She has been a Tin House Scholar, a recipient of the Ohioana Library Association’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant, and a writer-in-residence at Yaddo, the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, and Art Omi: Writers. She works as a writer and editor for the Cleveland Public Library and is editor in chief of Gordon Square Review.
As momentous as this call might seem, a lifetime of literary dreams is a heavy burden to place on a single phone conversation. In practice the call is not about a godlike agent plucking a writer from obscurity. It’s a conversation, a way for both parties to determine whether they have the professional chemistry and shared vision to establish a productive working relationship.
“When I’m setting up a call to reach out, it’s with an eye to talk more about the writer’s work—to tell them what I love about the manuscript, get a sense of their vision and expectations, go over some editorial thoughts, and gauge our general compatibility,” says Sonali Chanchani, a literary agent with Folio Literary Management.
So how do such calls come about? The process usually goes like this: A writer gets a manuscript into the agent’s hands, whether through a query, referral, solicitation, or by connecting at a conference. The agent reads the manuscript (or the proposal, in the case of nonfiction), falls in love with it, and contacts the writer to set up a phone call. If the chat goes well, the agent may offer representation right there on the phone. Hooray! At this point, aside from celebrating, the writer takes some time to contemplate the offer while informing other agents in the mix to give them a chance to consider the manuscript too. If additional agents are interested, the writer might end up with multiple phone calls and offers of representation.
Not every call leads to representation, however. The agent’s editorial vision might not align with the writer’s, or perhaps the call was more exploratory to begin with. Regardless of the outcome, this phone call is not a unilateral process or a test for writers.
“Don’t enter into the call thinking you need to impress me,” Chanchani says. “It’s more about compatibility, seeing if we have a shared vision, and mutual respect.”
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