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Signing with a Top Literary Agent: An Author Success Story

Success in landing an agent
With the oncoming holiday season, my thoughts turn to heartwarming topics like success for those who persevere, and for once, the win going to deserving writers.

I’ve been in the querying trenches with many authors, and if you want traditional publication, success landing an agent is a huge deal. Agents have turned exceptionally picky, and it isn’t easy to find representation in this tough market.

Today, I’ve invited M K Pagano, author of GIRLS WHO BURN, a YA Thriller coming out Summer ’24 from Penguin Teen. She is represented by Barbara Poelle and Sydnie Thornton of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.

When she’s not busy pondering the angst of the fictional people in her stories, she can be found reading (from her own TBR and that of her children’s), dreaming of restoring an old French chateau, and wandering the weirder parts of New Jersey, where she currently resides with her family.

Take it away, MK!


My path, like so many things in publishing and in life, has been long and winding.

But in the end, I got there!


Have you ever sought traditional publication? Sought an agent? Found success? Do you have questions or comments for MK Pagano?

At a glance:

It took ten years, six books, three rounds of submission, and two sets of agents.

 But I did get there.

 So here’s how it shook out:

My first book I started writing in earnest in 2011. I rewrote it dozens of times, taking no breaks, and queried it in 2014. It was kind of a mess, genre-wise—I think I pitched it as a “coming-of-age mystery with fantasy and speculative elements.” It was also over a 100K words, as a young adult novel. God bless the agents who actually took a chance on requesting that full. I thought it didn’t matter, you see: it was good.

Spoiler alert: it was not good. It did not get me rep. I moved on.

The second book I completed was a YA contemporary, or so I believed. That one I entered into a brand-new mentoring program I’d seen on Twitter, called Author Mentor Match. To my shock, I was picked as a mentee. This was in 2016. With immense amounts of help from my amazing mentor, I whipped that MS into shape and started querying it in 2018. And I received an offer of rep only six weeks after I started, after only querying fifteen agents. I was thrilled!

My first agent had me go through a couple of rounds of edits, and that book went out on submission mid 2019. I got several glowing rejections—I’ve kept them all—mainly in the vein of how my book was too quiet, “especially for a thriller.” I was confused and intrigued; I’d thought I’d written a contemporary. But that was the first time I thought—hmmm, thriller.

With my agent, I tried to up the pacing of my book, make it less quiet and more thriller-like. We revised and did a second round of sub early 2020. I’m not sure if it was 2020 or the book still not being good enough, or a combo of the two, but that version received all glowing rejections as well.

In the meantime, I’d written 3 other books, another YA contemporary, a YA epistolary contemporary, and a YA fantasy. I also had the seed of an idea for an actual YA thriller. My first agent liked the straight-up contemporary the best, so we revised that. And revised it again. And revised it again.

Finally, late 2020, my agent sent me The Email: this isn’t working, my editorial notes aren’t resonating with you, I don’t think I’m the best agent for you, I set you free.

I cried. I vented to my writer friends in the group chats.

And then I set to work on my thriller idea.

I worked on that book for about six months, sending it through several drafts and a dozen critique partners and beta readers until I was convinced it was good enough to query. I kind of saw this as my last chance at YA, though I’m not sure why. My request rate for what would become GIRLS WHO BURN was decent, especially for 2021, though response times were definitely slower than they’d been in 2018.

Early on, I queried a “dream agent” on referral. She requested right away, and seemed excited. She actually got back to me fairly quickly; it was a pass, but she had some ideas on how it might be improved, and if I wanted to revise I could feel free to send back.

I sat with her ideas, realized they were brilliant, revised, and sent it back.

It was still a no. But now I had a stronger book.

I had more agents left to query. With the newer version of my book, my request rate went up. I queried another top choice on referral, this time at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. She wasn’t looking for any more YA, but had I considered her colleague, Barbara Poelle? Barbara was the resident “thriller queen.”

Barbara was closed to YA, except on referral. I decided this counted as a referral, and queried her.

Barbara requested the full quickly. This was about 4 months after I’d started querying. In the meantime, I kept sending out queries, racking up rejections now alongside full requests.

Then, in early 2022, I got an email from Barbara. She and her colleague, Sydnie Thornton, would like to discuss my book, and would I like to hop on a call?

My heartrate picked up. It was an R&R, I was sure. But a phone call R&R was the most promising sign I’d gotten yet.

I took the call. It was not an R&R. It was an offer. Barbara and Sydnie were offering to rep me as a team, as Sydnie was still a junior agent being mentored by Barbara, a senior agent.

I choked. Then cried. Very professional.

Then I notified the other agents who still had fulls. Some stepped aside due to not having time to read. Some stepped aside because they didn’t want my book. Some ghosted me.

But then, to my shock, I got another offer. Then another. Then another.

Four offers, from four stellar agents. This was a situation I hadn’t encountered the first time. It was agonizing, in the best possible way. How would I decide?

I talked to clients. I talked to former clients. I looked at everyone’s editorial notes. I looked at everyone’s sales records. I flipped coins.

And I went with my first instinct. Barbara and Sydnie had the sales record. And they just got the book.

And the rest is history.

Well, not really. They sold my book really, really fast, but that still means it doesn’t come out for another year and a half. I have a lot to learn about the entire book publishing process, as well as the marketing for it, along the way.

But I have a trad pub book deal with a big 5. My book is on Goodreads, and you can add it here. It will be a physical thing I can hold in my hand, see on a shelf. It’s a dream I’ve been working toward for so long, and it’s actually coming true.

People have asked me for advice on how to survive the trenches. My advice is twofold, and simple:

Have friends you can vent to about the process. And keep writing.

Have you ever sought traditional publication? Sought an agent? Found success? Do you have questions or comments for MK Pagano?

My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar is an AMAZON FIRST READ this December–download it for free if you’re an Amazon Prime Member. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads , enter the Goodreads Giveaway, or pre-order it to make my day.
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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • dgkaye says:

    Wow, what a journey. Just shows what persistence can do. Congrats to MK! And happy holidays to all 🙂 <3

  • Janet Alcorn says:

    CONGRATULATIONS! And thanks for sharing your rollercoaster of a journey. It’s so hard not to get discouraged in this business, so thanks for the positive news and encouragement.

  • John Hric says:

    Always take along Harvey the invisible rabbit. Especially when going to the bar. If everyone else abandons you – you will not have to drink alone. And in all things never give up.

  • Congratulations to Mary Kate Pagano and Happy Holidays to you both.

  • cleemckenzie says:

    Persistence pays off, and when I read about that happening, it makes me feel very good.

  • Susan Scott says:

    A for amazing! Well done MK, all success to you!

  • Pam Webb says:

    Very encouraging! I am also searching for an agent. I appreciate how your experience wasn’t smooth but had a lovely resolution.

  • WONDERFUL news. Congratulations MK. Your hard work was definitely rewarded (which doesn’t always happen).

  • The persistence required to get a book traditionally published these days is daunting. It requires hard work, but also tons of patience. Congrats to MK, and thanks for sharing her story, Damyanti. 🙂 Happy Holidays to you both.

    • Mary Kate says:

      Thank you!!!

    • Christine Robinson says:

      MK, such persistence, and endurance. Congratulations! I didn’t get past the query stage, before deciding to self-publish. I had an awesome, successful professional team behind me. Will stick with them for the sequel in progress. Your story was proof of the tight trad market today. Impossible to break into as an unknown, newbie, author writing historical fiction. 📚🎶 Christine

  • That was amazing! I would be exhausted and probably would have given up long before you (never) did! Bravo endlessly to your stamina and success.