Most authors have a box full of rejection slips from agents. It is easy to get them electronically too, with so much of the query process being handled online.
So what is the secret to getting a good agent?
If you have the answer, please share it here. I would be the first to tell you if I knew. But there are a few things that I do know.
Having talked with authors who are represented or trying to find representation, and from my own personal experience, it is a tricky business. Luck often plays into the equation. (Let’s all operate under the assumption that your work is fabulous and deserving of the best agent in the business.) Even J. K. Rowling had trouble finding an agent.
And there are tons of websites offering advice to writers looking for agents. A lot of agents are blogging now and they give great tips for new authors or unrepresented writers.
There are considerably less blog posts dedicated to what authors wish agents knew. So here is the list I’ve accumulated. Please feel free to add yours in the comment section.
1. If you are closed to new authors, just say that on your website. Most of us look there first to determine whether or not you are accepting new material.
2. If you are looking for something specific, please mention it. If you represent sci-fi but have all the authors you desire in every sub-genre except shape shifters, a note with an asterisk saying something along the lines of ‘closed to all material except manuscripts featuring shape shifters’. See. Not difficult.
3. Any other ‘absolutes’ before you will consider representation should be mentioned there as well. ‘Must have MFA in Creative Writing from Stanford’ or ‘Must have already published a best seller.’
4. Authors are busy people too. We’ve heard the urban myth about the socialite writer who parties all night, sleeps in until noon, jots down her memories of the previous evening, then races out for another tantalizing adventure. Jackie Collins aside, I’ve never known one to exist. So spare us the whole, ‘I’m too busy and incredibly important to reply to your query’ routine. If you would follow suggestions 1, 2 & 3, your inbox would have fewer undesirable emails.
5. We are nearly paralyzed by the pressure of the query letter. Most of the advice I have read and that other writers I know joke about, is the impossible task of getting everything right in a query letter. It seems to contradict itself. ‘Have a great hook, but be serious, though not too serious. Tell them the plot but build the suspense. Lead with a catchy opening, but keep it professional.’ And my favorite – ‘Tell them how you know them.’ Here’s a tip query-writing-advice-givers. If I already knew the agent, I wouldn’t be sending a query. I would be serving him or her barbecued ribs on the back deck pleading my case in person while making sure their glass never emptied of a rich Zinfandel.
6. Give us enough respect and courtesy to at least pretend to have read the query letter that had us nearly catatonic for two weeks before hitting ‘send’. ‘Your project doesn’t seem to fit our agency. Good luck.’ If that comes back to my inbox within three seconds of sending the query, I am not stupid enough to believe you actually had time to read the letter, much less the first two pages of my manuscript.
7. We’re not as fragile as you make us sound. Many of you state that you give no response at all because you fear hurting the sensitive writer when you have no interest in their work. Here’s a little secret. This is the nastiest form of rejection. It robs us both of integrity. You tell us to be clear and concise. May I suggest that in a rejection letter as well? ‘Your manuscript about sea lions taking over the world isn’t a fit for this agency because we like our science fiction to be believable and this plot did not convince us it was possible. Furthermore, there were twelve misspelled words on page one alone. We pass. Good luck.’ The author might then change the sea lions to gorillas, run spell check, get a proofreader and an editor, and come back with something better than ‘Planet of the Apes.’
Query Tracker is a great place to get information about agents. So is Writers Digest and Writers Market. On Query Tracker, there is a section devoted to writers experiences with the query process. And so many have the same response from the same agencies – the canned rejection that passes the query being sent out in cyberspace in its anxiousness to get back to the author so he or she can begin to feel horrible as quickly as possible.
I understand the importance of having a good agent. Writers tend to be creative souls wishing to leave the nuts and bolts of the business end to someone else. And face it, if we are constantly marketing ourselves, when would we find time to write?
On the other hand, agents only exist because of the work of writers. So please show us a little respect. To not reply at all, is unprofessional and undignified. And according to Wayne Dyer, bestselling author and inspirational speaker, “The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.”
Writers have trimmed their pencils on the adage of ‘rejection happens’ and can handle it. Give us the chance to prove that – please.
Now it’s your turn. What did I leave out that drives you insane about the process of acquiring an agent?
Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.
Well said, Renee! I too have had it (had it years ago!) with hearing earnest editors and agents speaking on panels at writers’ workshops tell us all about how busy they are (by way of explaining how hard it is going to be for us to blow them away with our talent and interest them in our work). I’m sure they are very busy. But, as you point out, so are we! That’s no excuse for not finding better ways to manage the workflow and practice a little common courtesy too.
Thank you Janet. With your expertise on the subject, I’m sure you have heard almost everything.
Concise, to the point, well done.
Well done. Every suggestion shows a call for healthy respect. No. 7 is excellent – and appropriate to everyone in life. It takes more effort to be thoughtfully honest, but who wouldn’t want an agent willing to go the stretch?
Glad I popped around.
And saves everybody a lot of time and effort. Thanks for reading and joining in.
You make good points on the give-and-take of any relationship, even if it is a denial. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks for stopping in and commenting. I think it’s all about fair play.
All great points. The total lack of response is dismissive and hurtful. Just ask my children. Do they really have automatic denials? Wow. I don’t look forward to getting one of those. And by the way, your carefully crafted query is going right in the recycling, thanks! Sigh. Makes ebooks pretty tempting.
And as you mentioned, it is exactly what authors will do. They will just circumvent the agent route altogether. Ebooks are looking pretty good these days.
Yes, I imagine it has already cut into the market share of publishers and agents. Book buyers still prefer books published by publishers, I think, but I’m guessing that will change over time.
I can’t think of anything to add, Renee. In my mind, the writer-agent relationship is one of mutual need and benefit. An agent who sets up too many obstacles for new writers is like a store owner who refuses to acknowledge a paying customer. And if I’ve learned one thing from blogging, it’s that there are far more great writers out there than traditional publishing would have ever had us believe.
Good analogy. There’s a fortune waiting to be made on writers not being given a chance by traditional methods. Perhaps that is the real threat of self-publishing and ebooks.
Usually, it’s the author who is kissing the agents A##!
Love this concept: **I wouldn’t be sending a query. I would be serving him or her barbecued ribs on the back deck pleading my case in person while making sure their glass never emptied of a rich Zinfandel.**
Awwwww, I’d love that. I’d also loooooooooove to be interviewed in such a way!
Xx Superb post.
I’m chuckling. Come over Kim, we’ll kick back some ribs and wine. Feel free to invite all of the agents you know and bring them along.
Well done! A little respect on both sides, please.
Email/internet has changed some things – agents should be able to update their website easily about what they are targeting/focussing efforts on.
Don’t know which is worse – an instant “sorry” or waiting weeks for a snail mailed “sorry” in a self addressed stamped envelope
At least someone licks the envelope in snail mail. On the internet I think there are key words some agents let slip past and the rest get automatically rejected. Sigh.
First of all, I love the typewriter. Is it yours? I have a fetish for old typewriters.
Second, good points in the post. I know some struggling authors who tell me about their experiences with agents and I just stare at them in disbelief. It is an odd, and oddly run, eco system. If what I hear is true, and I have no reason to believe it is not, I am in wonder that any business could be run that way. If other businesses treated their clients and customers and dismissively as agents do authors, they would be out of business in a heartbeat.
I wish it was mine, but sadly, no. I do have an old typewriter, and a newer typewriter that is still a dinosaur, but has a word processor built in. Of course, I never use them since computers took over the world.
I love your comment. I wonder why writers put up with the shenanigans. We are as valuable, our time is as valuable, and our product provides them with their jobs. So why the BS?
It must be smoke and mirrors. Maybe I’ll start a union of writers demanding their rights. What do you think?
I think they take it because they think they have to and because they, along with the publishing companies, have built up the walls and defenses and the rules that say the authors themselves are at the bottom of the food chain. Well, at least until they become best selling authors – then they go around saying “look who I discovered!” Well, you didn’t discover them, they beat down your door.
I think that whole thing is another reason why self-publishing, in all its various forms, is become bigger. Much like YouTube helps musical acts bypass a lot of the BS, self publishing can help authors bypass the process. Or at least get noticed by the good agents who are really working it and who really do care about the authors and the writing and the work.
This is a fabulous post! So much of what you said struck home. I agree — it is a huge oversight that the majority of the attention on getting an agent is focused on the agent’s point of view. This line said it best, “Authors are busy people too.” So true! And so often we’re shooting in the dark, as you mentioned, with the lack of clarity on agent websites as to what they’re looking for. Or the paralyzing fear accompanying the Query Letter (yes, I used caps). I really enjoy your take on this. This post should be Freshly Pressed! 🙂
Thank you for your input. It is comforting at least to know I am not alone in my perceptions. And your point on the focus belonging solely to the agent is spot on.
I will say this here, and it’s the first place I’ve said it publicly.
The traditional publishing avenue is the most unprofessional business model I have ever encountered. (I have worked for two decades as a certified public accountant with all manner of small businesses. I’ve run a multi-million dollar law firm. And, I’ve worked for the past decade as my own boss in a management consulting firm.) How could I possibly trust one of these people with my manuscript, I mean business, when they do not even capitalize the first word in the sentence of an e-mail reply? Or lack enough knowledge about e-mail to generate an auto-response letting me know they got my query?
My business is more important to me.
It goes back to their own advice on professionalism. We can do better than this and as you say, if they can’t, how can they represent us well? Thank you for this thoughtful comment.
Renee, if there is one thing I don’t like it’s when I can’t contribute anything meaningful; throw in my penny’s worth of nothing.
I am not a writer. I just sprinkle a few words here and there. For which I do not need an agent. Being published most certainly not on my mind. However, working in the world you are referring to, it’s no mean feat to be an agent. Their inbox full to bursting point. Which is no excuse to behave as if the devil wore Prada. To answer all those (often unsolicited manuscripts) you need staff. For light relief and comfort, Renee, you may like to log on to any ordinary English employment agency’s website and what do you find? That most cheerful line of “Due to the amount of applications we will not be able to respond unless you are one of the chosen” or some such. Fuck you too. Still, at least they give you advance warning.
That’s why those who spout words for a living need to keep perspective.
Don’t know about the American market. Here we have a yearly handbook (published by McMillan) which details – at great pain – anything an agent is looking for. Who they MIGHT handle, who they might drop like a hot potato because they don’t do starch. “The Writer’s Handbook”.
I think writers are too precious. Sure, all of you think your prodigious output worthy of note. But it isn’t. There is supply and demand. And, please all of you forgive me for this: There is too much supply. I come across people who THINK they can write where I’d just like to put my editor’s pen to their prose, thin it like I’d weed my garden, and then maybe, just maybe, it might catch a reader’s interest.
Writing (for profit) is a luxury. Enjoy if you can afford it.
Ursula, your comment was longer than many of your blog posts, so I feel privileged. And one point that you brought up stands out clearly to me too. Many novels we read are so flawed – fifty shades of ‘I can’t take another sentence’ – that we all know agents cannot be looking for well-written material. They make money when they sell manuscripts so it can’t really be about the writing, but about the selling.
And as for their full inboxes, that could be rectified by being more specific. I’ve come to the conclusion they are keeping them open because they think J.K. Rowling or James Patterson will send them a query, not because they are truly looking for new and deserving clients.
But I love your penny’s worth and will take it and another nickel’s worth. And I will respond because I respect your time and effort. Thanks for joining in!
What amazes me most, Renee, is that agents continue to treat prospective clients like the porcelain they perch on every morning.I keep hearing how agents and publishing houses and indie book stores are dying because of the huge success of the self-pub industry. Apparently things aren’t really all that bad for agents and pub houses. Or, are they pulling a Postal suicide? The list you compiled looks like a list of best business practices. Why in the world would anyone NOT do as you suggest? For their sake, I hope these knuckleheads have their pension plans safely locked in, because they are operating on borrowed time.
(I’m not gunning for indie book stores because they are victims, caught in the middle of a sea change in business models and many of them are responding in admirable ways by actively seeking indie-authors and supporting them with readings and local marketing events.)
Well said Linda. And I think the tide is turning. Lately I’ve noticed several blog posts selling the necessity of having an agent – what agents do for authors, why we need their services more now than ever, one even asked: “Are agents a dying breed?” or something dangerously close. I take that as an indication they realize a shift is occurring. It’s an interesting time to be a writer, for sure.
Yes! Good luck with it. The industry as a whole is being reinvented. Only the ones who are willing to change with the times will survive.
This is great, Renee, I really appreciate this article. Especially the QT link. I’m going to look at that for sure. Thanks.
It’s interesting to see the shared experiences of so many authors. Let me know how you find it.
Number four is my favorite. So many agents are too full of themselves and I find that obnoxious. good luck with everything.
Thanks. And to you as well.
Writing is something just about everyone thinks they’re good at. So there’s an abundance of writers and not enough agents. I imagine agents much cut through the chaff to get to the really talented ones. Which is why I’m staying out of this dream of being a published author. I’m okay with blogging and finding readers that way. I just wish I had more time in my day to read all the amazing novels and memoirs being published every day. I read the reviews and so many sound worthwhile! Good luck to all who do pursue this dream! As for me, I’ll wait until it falls into my lap, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s been a lot of fun just blogging. 😉
I’m glad you have found the niche you are happiest with. That’s part of the effort.
Well formed arguments, Renee! It’s amazing how ignorant and indifferent some agents are to new inquiries. On some level I think they don’t want to close to the door for a possible first “home run”, which is understandable, but less so is when they don’t care to take all the others serious enough.
Mutual respect is never passé. Thanks Munchow.
Good one. I do think that the paradigm is shifting and that literary agents CANNOT AFFORD TO BE AS ARROGANT AND “Don’t call us, we’ll call you…” There is a whole new world of publishing out there and authors are doing it themselves and keeping much more of the profits…rather than having to split what they earn with agents who are like locusts and cankerworms and certainly not worth the time and effort themselves, especially in that they are so arbitrary and capricious about taking on writers….unless of course it’s President Obama, Andrea Merkel or Dick Cheney’s memoirs about his sexual adventures… If a writer doesn’t come with huge celebrity or cache, they look askance, like why should I spend the time. Actually, why should writers put forth the effort getting rejected when they can self-publish and self-promote…they will have to do it anyway. Even famous writers have to promote themselves on shows and do signings…so it’s a given. Why split percentages with these fleas?
But who is ghostwriting most of those memoirs? That is another marketing area all by itself isn’t it? And when we want a good read, nothing is more satisfying than a alluring tale by an author nobody knows about yet. Lovely.
Excellent article! Nice to see a writer giving advice to agents for a change.
Thanks. Our side is equally important.
February 28, 2012 rejection letter humor. Renee I think you will enjoy my post re this topic. I am not trying to promote my blog on yours so delete this comment – I just wanted you to see it.
I don’t see the link but send it and we’ll leave it up. Who doesn’t need a little rejection letter humor?