Like most writers, I've had a long, convoluted relationship with a series of agents. Agent N represented a couple of my faculty advisors at FIU, and when I finished Mahu I sent him a query letter, as all the writing books instruct. He wrote back "I enjoyed the writing enough to want to read the balance of your manuscript."
However, there were warning signs. N is a straight man in his sixties who lives in New York City, and perhaps has a different view of the world because of it. "There's no longer any shame in being gay," he wrote. "My first problem is in Kimo's relating to his homosexuality." He didn't seem to understand that even in a time when "gay cops even parade with other gays," a gay man can be conflicted about his sexuality-- and other people might react negatively to his coming out.
He also wasn't that excited by series mysteries. "After a couple of books, most publishers seem to abandon the work." Well, gosh, nobody told that to Ed McBain, Janet Evanovich, or Sue Grafton. Imagine being told when you submitted "A is for Alibi" -- "Sue, you'll never make it to "G is for Gumshoe" no less the current book, "R is for Ricochet."
But I really wanted an agent, and N had made some good deals for people I knew. He is a real hands-on agent, sending me pages of (generally) good advice. I went through three rewrite for him, and Mahu is a much better book because of his advice. He even suggested the title, because he felt my first title, "Death in Waikiki" sounded "too much like a category mystery."
Finally, though, he wrote, "I've decided not to take your book on." He cited three significant flaws, the most damning of which was that he felt the book was dated, because "I can't quite believe there would be so much hostility to a gay cop." At that point I didn't think it was worth sending him all the news clippings about gay men being beaten to death simply for going to a gay bar, being in the army, etc. I accepted his letter and went looking for another agent.
I'd started writing a sequel to Mahu while I thought I was represented by N. After all, I figured, when he went to sell Mahu it would help him to be able to show that I had ideas for a series. When he declined me, I stopped work on the sequel.
I sent out new query letters, and Agent M (a lesbian) requested the whole manuscript. Six months later, Agent M called me. She'd read the book a six weeks before, and the fact that it remained in her head convinced her that she should represent it. She took the book as it was, and submitted it to a selection of gay and lesbian editors.
While M was working, I finished writing the sequel, energized by my new representation. Then I got the rejection letters-- alld the agents M had queried had turned the book down. Some didn't like the writing, and some felt that it wasn't right for their house. I accepted the results.
M submitted the second book in the series to a smaller group of editors-- the ones who had liked my writing. Unfortunately none of them were interested. M was very supportive and encouraged me to write other books. I did-- a gay romance, a mainstream novel with gay characters, and a proposal for a non-fiction book. Over six years, nothing sold.
Then a couple things happened in quick succession. I went to the Miami Book Fair, and heard from Jay Quinn that Haworth (who had originally rejected Mahu because it didn't fit their line) was expanding their offerings in gay mystery. By the time I was ready to send the manuscript, though, agent M had retired from the business. So I sent the book in unagented, and probably signed a contract that was less favorable than if I'd had an agent.
But that was OK. I was getting published.
Then at Sleuthfest (the Mystery Writers of America conference in Ft. Lauderdale in March 2005) I met agent R, a straight guy who was intrigued by the idea of Mahu and its sequels (there were now 2 more in the series.) He asked me to wait, though, to query him formally, until I had a proof copy of Mahu.
I finally had that a few weeks ago, and sent it to him on a Friday with my standard query letter. Only I was so rusty at querying that I forgot to include my phone number and email address. Tuesday afternoon, he called-- first to remonstrate me for not including my phone number in the letter.
I didn't want to say "So far, nobody has called-- they usually just send the manuscript back in the mail." Instead I apologized profusely. He told me he liked Mahu and thought he could make a deal for me. By the end of the week I had signed a copy of his agreement and sent it back to him.
Let's hope this story continues in happier mode!