The signal is given and you sit down across the table from your chosen target, the first of several you will try to impress with your talents, poise, and intellect. You have three minutes to amaze. Actually, it is more like a minute and a half to make your spiel and you either connect, or you do not. By one minute you are desperately looking for signs of interest – a glimmer in the eyes, a slight smile, a request for your contact info. What you do not want to see are their eyes glazing over, or worse, casting a dragnet over your shoulder at the next in line. If all goes well you exchange email addresses and…ding…time is up. Move to the next in line.
You are not looking for a date; you are looking for a literary agent.
It felt like my first time, and it was. After more than 30 years as a working scientist and thousands of interactions with other people ranging from clients to regulators to scientists to project managers to lawyers, I still felt the butterflies churning in my stomach as I sat in front of my first potential agent. This was a big deal. I had written many a published paper and hundreds of reports as a scientific consultant, but here I was trying to sell my idea for a book. My book. To someone who would find me a publisher.
Ding. Time for the next agent.
I talked with five agents that day, carefully hand-picked from the fifty or so slumped behind tables lining the hotel ballroom, each scanning the crowd for the next million-selling author. My pitch was for a non-fiction book combining science and history, so I compiled a list of the top five agents whose specialties seemed to overlap my interests. Despite competition from hundreds of writer-wannabes, I was able to meet with them in my order of preference. All five said they would be interested in seeing my proposal, though I sensed that their interest tailed off after the first two, coincident with the tailing off of my own interest in working with them. Or perhaps I was just running out of social energy (it’s an introvert thing).
I was very interested in the first two agents, though I say that hesitantly for the first one because he struck me as a bit over exuberant when talking with the people just before and after me. His personality struck me as a bit too bubbly, his interest just a bit too saccharine. The point became moot when I met with the second agent. Serendipity entered the room and my second three minute “date” changed my life.
Marilyn Allen and her partner Coleen O’Shea run a boutique agency focused on core non-fiction projects. Marilyn showed great interest in the book I pitched, but then, with plenty of time left on our three minute clock, said, “Hey, you’re a scientist. Would you be interested in writing a book on Nikola Tesla?”
I did not immediately say yes. My initial reaction was that my background was in environmental science and Tesla was an electrical engineer, but sure, maybe I knew someone would be a good fit for the project. Ding. Time to move on to the next prospect. As quick as that I had met the woman who would shortly become my literary agent and a publisher interested in contracting me to write a book. Surely this was a dream.
And it was a dream. My dream. I had always enjoyed writing. School papers were usually well received by teachers from grade school all the way through graduate work (my writing had “flow”). My scientific writing was usually clear and, the tricky part for highly technical material, not boring. I wrote and published several newsletters for scientific groups over the years, and more recently, wrote on several blogs dealing with science and Abraham Lincoln.
After returning from a three-year secondment in Belgium I decided that it was time to bring my Lincoln book idea to fruition. I found out about the Writer’s Digest conference only a few weeks before it was to occur, but with a little prodding, I decided to opt into a very expensive few days in New York City. Suddenly I found myself queued up with others who thought they could write the next great American novel, all vying for the attentions of a small cadre of gatekeepers into the publishing world.
Ding. Next in line.
Later that day as I sat in an Amtrak coach grinding my way back home I wondered if I would ever hear about Tesla again. I did, and in short order the agent, the publisher, and I were all working on a new book.
Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity has been a great success, with over 70,000 copies into its fifth printing. As I post this I have am finishing a companion volume about Thomas Edison for the same publisher, due out in 2016. I also have a Tesla e-book on Amazon, with a second about to be published. A long list of books are queued up to be written.
And that book I pitched on that fateful day? That one is next in the pipeline.
All because of speed dating for agents.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.