A Right Fit: Navigating the World of Literary Agents

August 15, 2012 | 102 8 min read

Imagine that one night you have a dream in which you are in an enormous bookstore lined with shelves upon shelves of books, each bound in the same plain white cover displaying only the author’s name, the title of the book, and a brief description of the book and its author. This is an anxiety dream, so it turns out that your livelihood depends on your ability to search this enormous bookstore and figure out which books are good and which aren’t. The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad – trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years. You know there are some really good books in this store, maybe even one or two genuinely great ones, but from the outside they’re indistinguishable from the terrible ones.

How do you choose? Do you sit down at the first shelf and read each book all the way through? No way; you’d starve, if you didn’t kill yourself from boredom first. Do you glance at the descriptions of the book and author on the back cover, and then read a page or two of the ones that sound more interesting? That’s better, but we’re talking a huge room here – thousands and thousands of books – and what can you really tell from a couple of paragraphs, anyway?

So you begin to look for shortcuts. You decide to only consider the kinds of books you already know you like – mysteries, say, and literary novels with strong female protagonists. Still, there are a lot of mysteries and novels with strong female protagonists in this bookstore. So you look for other shortcuts. If you recognize the name of the author as someone who has already written something else good, you read that one. You might also look for other people in the bookstore so you could ask them what good books they had read lately and start looking for those. You might even take some of them out for lunch – it’s okay, you can expense it – to pick their brains.

For several hundred people, most of them living in New York City, this dream is their daily reality. They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency at this time. In that moment you tore open that thin self-addressed envelope or read the two-line return email, you probably hated them. Not just that one agent, but all literary agents, as a class. How could they not see the brilliance in your manuscript? How could they possibly guess at the quality of your manuscript based on a one-page letter and a synopsis? And what the hell does “not a right fit” mean, anyway? Is that even grammatical English?

This is a perfectly natural and human response. It hurts to be rejected, and it hurts even more when you walk into a real bookstore, one with chirpy sales clerks and splashy book covers, and see truly godawful books by authors represented by some of these very same agents. But as natural as that rage might be, as satisfying as it is to rant to your friends or online about the idiocy of the people in mainstream publishing, this anger is misplaced. There are good literary agents and bad ones – the gap between the two is huge – but literary agents are only middlemen navigating the rough seas between the swarms of unpublished writers and an ever-diminishing readership for literary fiction.

If your book isn’t selling, literary agents are not to blame. It may be that your book doesn’t really belong in mainstream commercial publishing, in which case you should consider self-publication or send your book to an indie publisher like Ig, Two Dollar Radio or Small Beer Press. Or it may be that your book would appeal to a mainstream publisher, but you haven’t done the groundwork you need to do to get out of the slush pile and onto a literary agent’s radar. Or perhaps your book just isn’t ready yet. Whatever the case, you would be wise to pay attention to what literary agents are trying to tell you, even if all they’re saying is “no”.

I should know because I recently finished a novel and have spent the last six months hearing polite, carefully hedged versions of “no.” This can be an enormously confusing, even maddening process. One agent will say she found my book too commercial, and then a few weeks later another will say she thought the plot “too quiet” and wished it had been more overtly commercial. Well, which is it? Commercial-minded pap, or wannabe Henry James?

One of the nice things about being a journalist is that when you want to know how something works, you can call up people who know and they will sit down and explain it for you. So earlier this year, on assignment from Poets & Writers magazine, I spent a day at the offices of Folio Literary Management in Midtown Manhattan to see for myself what literary agents do all day.

In the piece, which appears in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers, Folio co-founder Scott Hoffman explains that the agency receives roughly 100,000 unsolicited queries a year, or about 200 a week for each of the nine Folio agents who accept unsolicited queries. Hoffman has taken on four new writers in the last year, only one of whom came in through the slush pile, putting the odds of an author without connections getting Hoffman to take on his or her book at roughly 1 in 11,111. When I sat down with another agent, Michelle Brower, as she read her slush pile, I watched her power through 19 query letters in 14 minutes, rejecting 18 of them and putting one aside for more consideration.

Now, it may sound heartless to reject 18 query letters in 14 minutes, and every time Brower hit send on a rejection email, my heart sagged a little at the poor writer seeing yet another rejection from an agent, but you have to see it from the agent’s perspective. Literary agents work on commission – typically, an agent takes 15% of a client’s earnings – and every minute an agent spends working on a manuscript that doesn’t sell is a minute that agent is working for free.

This, I think, helps explain the anger and angst so many writers feel toward agents and other publishing professionals. Most writers when they show their work to someone – a professor, a friend, a spouse – they have a reasonable expectation of getting encouragement or at least some useful feedback. But an agent isn’t a friend. An agent isn’t a teacher, either. An agent’s job is to find an author whose novel is ready for publication, or so close to ready that it makes economic sense for the agent to put the time into helping make it ready, and connect that writer to a publisher. That’s it. The better agents attend writing conferences, visit MFA programs, and scour literary magazines for fresh talent, but all the rest of it, getting your work to a publishable level, building a track record that will be attractive to a publishing house, wangling connections that will get you out of the slush pile – that’s your job.

If you are sending out query letters blindly to dozens of literary agents, as I did when I finished my first book five years ago, you’re engaging in the same kind of magical thinking that makes people buy lottery tickets. You might get lucky, but the odds of that are, well, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 11,111. If you want to improve your odds, you have to do serious research. You have to find agents who represent books similar to yours, and then craft your query letter to them to let them know why they should be taking you on. Many writers now have websites that name their agents, and most literary agencies have sites online that say what kinds of books they are looking for and which authors they represent. There are also databases, such as the one run by Poets & Writers, that list reputable agents and offer links to their websites.

But, really, that’s only a small part of what you need to do. Like most human enterprises, publishing is a relationship business. Literary agents – the good ones, anyway – are smart, quick readers, but these are books we’re talking about. It can take three or four days to read a book, and agents spend their working hours negotiating contracts and networking with other publishing people, leaving their reading to nights and weekends. They simply don’t have time to read all the books they’d like to read, even the ones from writers who sound like they might be talented. So, agents work with people they know, and friends of people they know.

If that sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right: a lot of very dumb books get published because somebody knew somebody. But that’s the way the machine is built, people. It may come a-tumbling down in the near future in the face of e-books and indie publishers, but for now, if you want to get published by a major publisher, you have two choices: you can keep banging your head against a wall and be angry, or you can figure out how to get yourself into the club.

To do that, you have to immerse yourself in the literary community. Five years ago, with my first book, I sent roughly 60 query letters to agents and editors at smaller publishing houses. I had an MFA, a few publications in small literary magazines, and not much else. My success rate – that is, the percentage who asked to see all or part of the manuscript – scraped along at about 10%. It was, let me tell you, dispiriting as hell. Then I went to a couple writing conferences, and my success rate began to climb. I met agents in person and told them about my book. I met other writers who referred me to their agents. By the end, my book was getting read by about half of the people I sent it to, a fair number of whom seriously considered taking it on.

That experience, painful as it was, taught me more about writing than I ever would have expected. Agents and editors began writing me real letters, not form rejections, but long, thoughtful responses telling me precisely where they had stopped reading with interest and why. Until then, I had always written for other writers – classmates, friends, the dead greats I imagined myself competing with – but that experience taught me to write for a reader, a smart, curious person who just wants to be told a good story.

By the time I finished my most recent novel, I had published a few more stories, plus I was now writing for Poets & Writers, as well as The Millions and other book reviews. More importantly, I had built up an inventory of agents interested in seeing my next book and writer friends who felt comfortable referring me to their agents. By my count, I’ve sent queries to 11 agents and editors, nine of whom asked to see the full manuscript. Their responses have varied from a few lines of boilerplate regret to two hours on the phone discussing my characters and story in brutally honest detail. Ultimately, of course, no is no, and I still don’t have an agent. But that’s my fault: I haven’t written a book an agent can sell yet.

At this point, I am seriously thinking about revising the book from beginning to end before I send it out again. If that sounds like a sad ending to this tale, then I haven’t made my point. I did the groundwork and got the attention of first-class literary agents who have helped launch bestselling authors and Pulitzer Prize winners. They took me seriously, and I learned two things from their responses: first, that the book I’ve written is definitely in the ballpark, and second, that it isn’t there yet. I can cry and tear my hair out, but this is the real world. If I want my book published, and I do, I have to make it better.

Mainstream publishing is a Rube Goldberg machine of perverse economic incentives, in which large numbers of mostly idiotic self-help guides, diet books, and airport thrillers subsidize an ever-shrinking number of mostly money-losing literary novels and books of poetry. But just because publishing operates on a crazy economic model doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. There is a market, however tiny, for good books, and there are a small number of smart, hard-working people who live for the thrill of finding a talented author. If you are one of those talented authors, then it is your job to stop whining and figure out how to make it easy for them to find you.

Image: Unsplash/Christin Hume.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. Would you suggest sending query letters to new literary agents just starting their career? Is this a golden opportunity or a big waste of the writer’s time?

  2. This is an insightful post and something I’ll be sure to keep in mind as I finish up my current manuscript and start looking for representation. Having connections is definitely a great way to make your way into the publishing business and like you wrote, simply getting to know literary agents in person will change everything.

    I’m looking forward to testing out the things you’ve mentioned here. Great post!

  3. I’d have said the way to get the attention of literary agents is to publish in smaller venues. I don’t think agents just work for their acquaintances — they work for the people who seem promising, and publication online or in print is one indicator that a writer can find readers. “Who you know” is something like “who you know from print,” not “who you know from cocktail parties.”

  4. This essay is insightful and full of good advice, but don’t be too quick to discount the slush pile. I got my current agent that way, with nothing to recommend me beyond a strong query letter (and a good manuscript, of course). And almost all of my published friends are the same.

    I did once get an agent because I had three friends who recommended me to her. But in fact, it didn’t work out so well — I think she felt compelled to take me on more out of social pressure than because she loved my writing, and once we started working together, it became clear that our visions for the book were worlds apart. We wound up parting ways.

    If you want an agent who is truly enthusiastic about your *work*, skip the networking and stick with the slush.

  5. Really great article. I’ve just started this process of submitting cold queries to agents, and within the first three weeks I’ve gotten three responses asking for an excerpt of my novel, one of which came from the agent of a professor from college, but the other two were from agents I had no connection to whatsoever. With only one short story publication to my name, and the piece of paper with my name in spiky ink only a year old, I took time to craft a query email that showed I cared, and it at least got me through the first round of the slush pile. Maybe I’ll get no further, but for now I feel like I’m past the 1-in-11,111 stage. In my three-week career as a seriously-submitting writer, I think it still comes down to writing — querying, sampling and selling, even in short sharp snippets.

  6. Excellent article — even a little bit of a heartbreaker. I finally have my agent (after 25 tries) but she’s been unable to sell my book to a publisher, even though she tells me she loves the story. Now that’s a real heartbreaker. Once you have an agent you’re in the door, right? Wrong.

  7. I sympathise strongly – it took me a year of searching to connect with my agent. There also were a few other close calls, but she was utterly delightful and professional, so now we’re working together.

    HOWEVER the bad news is it’s been over a year of her submitting to publishing houses large and small, and there have been only kind, thoughtful rejections. Or silence. Deafening silence. One house I have my heart set on is still considering it, but I cannot hurry them. I can do nothing.

    But I don’t feel angry, and never have. Hey, most of my turbulent emotions just sweep right back at myself. Gives me one way to occupy my time. The other is in writing a second novel. I hope I’m not being too pessimistic when I say, I don’t think I’m alone in this. I write literary fiction after all.

  8. I have a similar story, though I’m a couple years behind you. It is crushing to get those noes that were ALMOST yeses, but on the other hand, getting to almost yes is a real step in mainstream publishing. I’m taking a wee break from that route to do Something Completely Different under a pseudonym, but in a year I will commence my next trek up the big hill of traditional publishing. Maybe next time will be the actual yes.

  9. I appreciate the spirit in which this article was written, but I’m afraid I don’t agree at all with the idea of “you have to know someone” to get published.

    I’m an author with 4 books currently out and 4 more under contract with a major NY publisher. The agent who got me those contracts pulled me out of the slush pile. I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t anyone important. All I did was write a good book.

    Actually, I wrote two books. The first got rejected by everyone. So I wrote another book. I also did some reading on how to write a good query letter. Other than that, though, the only thing that got me to where I am today was that I didn’t give up, and I didn’t settle for bad writing. I kept trying until I had a novel worth publishing. That’s all you need to get a contract, you know. A book worth buying.

    I’m not saying new authors shouldn’t do research on agents or try to learn how the industry works, that’s just common sense. But the idea that you need to know someone to break into New York publishing is just not true. Of all the published authors I know, and I know a lot now, only 1 was a publishing insider before she got her contract, and she had her first book rejected too.

    Trying to get published is hard enough without perpetuating the false idea that you need inside connections to break through the wall of agent indifference. Sure knowing someone might get an agent to take a closer look at your query letter, but it won’t make them sign a book they don’t like. Agents are actively looking for good books to sell. If you’ve written one, you’ll get a contract. And that’s all there is to it.

    I appreciate the look inside an agent’s mind as she reads slush, but frankly, I believe this article drew the entirely wrong conclusion from the experience.

  10. These points (it is a business, it helps to know people in the business, keep working on your writing) are all very important. Thank you for sharing the insights you have gained from your experiences.

  11. I have to agree with Rachel Aaron, even if I am likely to go to my grave only dreaming of comparable success as an author. I do work in the publishing business, however, and know enough to take issue with some the article’s characterizations – most especially concerning authors who are turned down. They (that is, we) don’t always react to rejections with such vituperation, and usually well understand the difficulties of literary agents’ professional lives. Most of us do our research as you instruct, as Ms. Aaron noted, and work hard to fine-tune our strategies – not because we take ourselves to be geniuses (or the agents to be fools), but because we have stories to tell, and would like to tell them to somebody other than ourselves.
    This isn’t going to sound charitable to publishers or agents, I know (but then, writers don’t catch any breaks in this article, either): Their system guarantees nothing to anyone. As you admit with the powerful phrase, “literary agents are only middlemen navigating the rough seas between the swarms of unpublished writers and an ever-diminishing readership for literary fiction,” a “best-seller” is only a book that sells a certain amount in a certain segment of the market, and that’s all. It doesn’t mean it’s well written. Conversely, a book turned down because it isn’t “a fit” shouldn’t be assumed to be poorly written – one rejection letter I received urged me to consider the agent’s conclusion as wrong, and to keep working at it, however I chose to do it. This is the best advice I have received.

  12. The whole “That’s just the way it is” attitude makes me gag. That’s just the way it is? Well, maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the way it works doesn’t work. “That’s just the way it is” is the easy go-to for the haves when faced with the ire of the have-nots. “That’s the way it is,” because that’s the way you’ve made it, not because it’s some natural law, which is exactly what “That’s just the way it is” reads as. The only thing that falls under “That’s just the way it is” is death. Everything else is subject to revision.

  13. “Just because publishing operates on a crazy economic model doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense.”

    Thanks for the article, Michael, and good luck with your manuscript.

    In my estimation (and based on my background in pharmaceutical marketing) literary agents are the equivalent of high-throughput screening of drug candidates in the pharmaceutical industry. High-Throughput Screening allows a researcher to quickly conduct millions of chemical, genetic or pharmacological tests. Through this process one can rapidly identify active compounds, antibodies or genes which modulate a particular biomolecular pathway. The results of these experiments provide starting points for drug design and for understanding the interaction or role of a particular biochemical process in biology’s.

    This is why I take issue with the quote from your article because to operate with a crazy economic model doesn’t make much sense. There are many different ways traditional publishers could augment the capacity of literary agents and increase the number of candidates for consideration, they just don’t want to change. Publishing companies, just like drug companies, are only as strong as their pipelines ,but publishing companies are relying too heavily on the abilities of too few (albeit super-qualified) literary agents.

    Clearly, the rise of indies, indicates that the process you outline in the article is out of touch with what paying customers want.

    This next bit is slightly off-topic but still relevant to the conversation. I am currently consulting with a major published author who has released 10 novels over the past 12 years with a traditional publisher. I proposed some tried and true strategies to boost her ebook’s visibility on Amazon, which were summarily rejected by her publisher. The result, her ebooks sales have plummeted just a week after launch. My point is that even when you get “in the club” you still have to deal with this crazy economic model that prioritizes a very few superstar authors and marginalizes the midlist authors on the roster.

  14. An interesting article, but I have to agree with Rachel too, that to suggest that getting an agent or getting published is about contacts is mostly a myth that acts as a sop to those still struggling to get represented. Most agents would absolutely love to find an undiscovered gem in their slushpile. Keep writing, keep revising, until you have something that cries out to be published. Publishing is a business; if you write something that they think they can make money from then they will snap you up.
    I recognise that my experience is not typical, but with no profile whatsoever, and never even having met another writer or industry professional in my life my first book was taken on by the first agent I approached, and then went to auction between every publisher she sent it to. The truth is I spent many years quietly and privately honing my skills as a writer until I was absolutely ready. Learning to write to a publishable standard is a long game that requires patience and dedication. We seem to be livng in a time when people expect instant gratidfication. Keep at it, Michael, and you will get there in the end, but it won’t be by expanding your contacts list, it will be by going back and rewriting until it is as good as it can get.

  15. Michael, your logic works here but you have diminished yourself in the worst way–this kind of thinking may lead to a tight lyric sentence that entices a few elite readers, but in so doing you have ceded your chance to be a great author. You may get your book published this way, but that seems to be your -only- goal. You are trying to determine quality by consensus of the money-oriented which means your novel is never going to be complete and self-affirming on its own terms.

    You say you are “writing for readers” but the only “readers” you are writing for are the agents and editors–and their friends. What do you think you know about real readers ? Ever think that it is the publishing machine of which you speak that has made it such that your potential audience is ever-shrinking ? Ever think that modulating every aspect of your thought to fit what others want is part of the reason that no one reads this stuff outside of other unsure writers lacking any sense of authorial confidence ?

    You present yourself in this essay as a traditionalist who needs more than anything to preserve and defend some classic model. The point you miss is that the classics are great because they can stand for themselves in any age. I can almost definitely say that your book–if editors and agents ever permit it to see the light of day–will not. Your glowing hour will be disappointing.

  16. Is this article intentionally trolling or is the author merely content to slap together any old pile to bring in a check? His conclusions are luridly cynical and almost comically lacking scruples (“being ass-kissy with people in the industry in person is the only effective way to get considered by them”; “all the agents who read my book must be right; I might as well re-write it in a conscious effort to please them, since I have no real voice of my own to be true to”). The opening gambit is corny, and padded out too — why should it take more than 3 paragraphs to explain that literary agents are busy and have a lot to read, and why does The Millions think its readers do not already understand this? — and things continue tumbling downhill from there. The tone is insulting to anyone with a handful of brain cells to rub together. “It hurts to be rejected . . .” You don’t say! Fascinating. “[A]n agent isn’t a friend.” Etc. And yet the comments thus far are full of people cooing about how “insightful” it is. Bizarre. But I suppose an unapologetic suck-up will naturally make other suck-ups feel good about themselves.

  17. I can certainly relate to the slush-pile frustration, as I’m about 18 months and 60 queries in on my novel with very little interest. Then again, I’m an unpublished Midwesterner with a degree in the hard sciences. The only writer I “know” is a guy who lives in my in-laws’ building. I once saw Garrison Keillor walking with his family, but that doesn’t really count for much. And I don’t have the disposable income to spend on East Coast writers’ conferences. Point being, I’m an outsider, and I don’t see myself becoming an insider any time soon.

    So, am I screwed?

    No. It’s all in the writing. If it’s good enough, someone will discover it. That’s how literature has worked for hundreds of years (or that’s what I tell myself, at least).

    The “it’s all about who you know” attitude typifies this insistence that Brooklyn is the new capital of the literary world, where everyone has a neighbor who runs a small press or whose sister is an agent, etc etc. Thus the Brooklyn crowd spends a whole lot of time networking while the rest of us outsiders spend that time writing.

    Which is all good and fine – hey, if I lived in Brookyln I’d probably do the same thing. It just means this article really only applies to Brookylnites. For the rest of America it’s all about talent, persistence, and a little bit of luck.

  18. “The whole “That’s just the way it is” attitude makes me gag. That’s just the way it is? Well, maybe it shouldn’t be. ”

    I think it really would have been better framed as “that’s the way it has to be.” There is simply no way, the author seems to be arguing, for literary agents to devote enough time and energy to every single query or submission they get. It is just impossible, far too many wannabe writers out there.

    That’s just the only way it can work given other constraints. If peopel bought more books and the publishing industry had more money and agents got more money and so on, then they’d have more time. But being an agent is a job, not a charity.

  19. “Clearly, the rise of indies, indicates that the process you outline in the article is out of touch with what paying customers want.”

    Not sure this totally follows. I LOVE the indie lit world and think many of the best books published are published there. However, the indie lit world rarely sells individual titles at a high enough level to make it worth while for a literary agent. There are exceptions, but many of those are people who already have a platform to promote their work or are already connected in the lit world through the steps the article suggests. How often does an unknown writer with no “name” recognition or platform make tons of money on an indie book?

  20. The large number of submissions that an agent has to plow through seems to be the problem here. The emergence of self-publishing may improve this landscape. Creating a two-tiered system where new talent can get noticed and then picked up by a larger press. I relate this to the efficient two-tiered system whereby players make it to the NFL. One in forty high-school players makes it to a good college team. One in forty of those college players makes an NFL team. More gate-keepers (the large number of college teams) means talent has a chance to get discovered.

  21. This article is bang-on. I did some follow up research myself from the front page of the New York Times, and nearly every author reviewed came from another field, had connections through an MFA program, or was a previously reputable journalist. Out of 17 fiction and creative-non-fiction books reviewed, only one came from a previously unpublished author.

    A lot of other people are talking about how the “quality of the book” should be what determines your success. Good for you. But that’s not the point of this article. Some people are fine with small-scale success. Some want financial security. That’s why success is a deeply personal question.

    I understand that a lot of people here have had luck in the slush pile, but I would hesitate to universalize a personal experience. And I would also remind everyone that small press literary agencies are a lot different than the “big six.” You can keep hoping, but I am reminded then of the old adage: those who live on hope die fasting.

  22. Great blog. I am in the process of finding an agent now. I am doing as you suggest and attending festivals, doing courses and workshops and networking – and doors are opening. I am also entering competitions which so far have put my work across the desks of editors of two major publishing houses. I’m getting closer…

    I wish you great luck with finding an agent and publisher.

  23. Having worked in the entertainment industry I can completely understand the comment of “who you know.” In entertainment agents and especially A&R, every second counts as well. At times I’ve seen A&R (Artists and Repertoire=the people who sign the bands) play a few seconds of a song submitted by an unagented band/singer-songwriter and then go to the next one if it doesn’t hit them right away.
    My take is that by the time you get an agent, you are pretty much ready for it, having learned the professionalism and mostly experience required in this industry and other industries as well.

  24. This article was worth a tweet AND a plus 1 (in today’s world, I think those words convey as much meaning as yesterday’s proclamations of love). You say it exactly right, in my own experience at least. Today coincidentally a piece I wrote about “How I Got My Agent” is up on the Writer’s Digest blog, and my path is just about as circuitous and twisty as the one you are walking. My very best to you along it. It sounds as if you’re one revision or six away.

  25. Seems like something’s missing here.

    If you read agents’ blogs, you will often be told firmly that publishing is a business, it’s an agent’s job to sell books.

    Well, you can see that looking at it this way is the dominant strategy for an agent – the only transaction that connects an agent with revenue is selling a book. Providing other services to writers has no direct connection with that clinking clanking sound.

    So. Fine. What if you’re a writer and you have ALREADY FOUND A BUYER? Maybe you sent it out and it got picked up from the slush pile. Maybe a producer optioned it and showed it to a publisher. Maybe you went to New York to talk to editors about new work, and someone asked to see a book you wrote over a decade earlier.

    In a gentler, kinder world you would not need someone to ride shotgun. You could get your contract vetted by the Authors’ Guild, or the Society of Authors, or a lawyer, and get acceptable terms. The publishing team would then, as a matter of course, comply with the terms of your contract.

    Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue. In Kansas, a publisher with a mere legally binding contract to keep it honest may well tell the author to feel free to ask any questions. If the author asks a question, this is luvverly – it shows that the author does not know the answer to the question, so the publishing team can lie with impunity. The contract is written in the author’s native tongue; the author imagines that s/he can rely on compliance with its terms. The team do whatever they want to do; all goes horribly wrong; the author is distraught; the team say innocently: “We didn’t know you cared.”

    So – let’s say a deal is on the table. The terms of the contract are perfectly acceptable; the question is whether anyone will comply with the contract in the absence of a hired gun. The only way to bring in protection is to hand the deal over to an agent. But you have then put the deal at risk. At one point you have a deal for $500K+ on the table, and no way to enforce the contract; next thing you know, the deal has gone south. You’re back doing secretarial work to pay your taxes.

    Working on your writing skills, clearly, is not the answer – you found a publisher for the book. Maybe schmoozing IS the answer. If compliance with a legally binding contract depends on knowing the right people, though, it’s hard to believe something isn’t wrong with the system.

  26. Hi Michael,
    I’m an author, one book published, one self published, currently looking for an agent for my non-fiction, young adult book about a friend of mine who went through the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia from 1975-9. I’ve written a 14 page proposal, complete with bio, synopsis, chapter summaries, marketing, etc. Even a sample intro and first chapter. I don’t think I’ve missed a beat. I’m a teacher and librarian. I’ve got the educational background, all the sources I need, know how to document everything to a “T”, but no takers as of yet. My friend’s stories are incredible and our goal is to bring it to a generation that really knows little about the subject. It amazes me, there are books galore on the Holocaust (which there should be), but this time in our recent history, that killed close to 2 million, gets little attention, even among Cambodian Americans.

    Thanks for writing the article. It did help tremendously. I wish you the very best and if you ever want a partner or research help on your project or would like to give advice on mine, I’m game. Take care.

  27. Great article and totally parallels the world of an artist representative. During the many years I was a commercial photography agent, I wish I had had your article to include in the rejection letters I had to send out.

    May your advice serve to advance the careers of the talented and proactive, and get their in front of the right agents.

  28. Duh! I’m obviously in need of a copy editor!
    In the last line of my comment meant to say: “May your advice serve to advance the careers of The Talented and Proactive, and inspire them to get their portfolios in front of the right agents.”

  29. This is a good article, but I disagree strongly with your conclusion that “it’s all about who you know.” You yourself just proved otherwise. You put all that work into getting yourself “in the club,” and your book STILL got rejected.

    Yes, getting to know agents personally can make it easier to get them to read your stuff, or to spend a little more time and energy telling you why they rejected it. That part I agree with it, having experienced this firsthand.

    But if you haven’t written a book they believe they can sell, being “in the club” won’t do a damn thing for you.

    It’s all about the book. And I don’t say that altruistically, suggesting that only Great Literature will suffice. No, as I said earlier, it simply needs to be a book that agents believe they can SELL. Without that, all being “in the club” will do is give you more people to talk to at literary conferences.

  30. For a new author, the point that matters in the article is that only 1 in 11,111 queries to agents results in representation. Perhaps that means that only 1 in 11,111 books can be sold to readers by legacy publishers, which leaves authors of the other 11,110 books with some choices to make.

    I don’t believe that writing queries to agents is totally useless. In the case of my first book which collected approximately 40 rejections from agents, I did benefit from the exercise. One of the agents who rejected it did nevertheless provide substantive comments about my manuscript which helped me tremendously to improve the book (thank you, Janet Reid). And continually revising the queries forced me to refine my summary description of the story which ended up, eventually, on the back cover of the book.

    After many months of rejection, I made the choice to self-publish. I discovered that it is amazingly easy to produce a book in paperback and ebook formats. I spent some $$ on marketing and was able to attract readers who seem to like the book.

    What I also discovered is that literary agents are not the only guardians of the gates into the legacy publishing ecosystem. Book reviewers who ply their trade at newspapers and other media outlets and who, in other words, could make a big difference, don’t just refuse to consider indie-published books; they seem to take pride in doing so.

    Perhaps, as Michael Bourne suggests about agents, the reviewers are more accessible to writers they meet at conferences and social events. But I suspect that once they determine that the person making their acquaintance is a self-published author, they quickly find reasons to talk with other more interesting people.

    I’m not happy about this situation but I guess I can understand it. Agents are attempting to perform a curating role for legacy publishers that are struggling for survival; book stores are disappearing; and the newspapers that reviewers work for are shrinking and dying. Life is unfair, and not only for authors of books.

    My second book is now almost ready for my legions of eager readers. I’m going straight to self-publishing this time, figuring that 1 in 11,111 odds don’t justify the months it would take to test the patience of agents, once again. Now, if only I could figure out how to let folks know about this book so that they, as readers, can issue the ultimate verdict about how good it is.

  31. Thanks for writing this. There is comfort in realizing we are not alone. I thought writing my first book was a massive undertaking, but one I enjoyed — like going on a journey with just a train ticket and no particular destination. But then came the editing, like pulling my hair out strand by strand. Oh my. Probably two months on the first edit, which I thought Well, that should do it. Then I put it aside for a week and went back and found: more editing required. Again and again.

    I submitted last fall to probably 50 agents, rejected by all. That’s when I decided yet another edit was required. Which is now finished and I’m starting in once again.

    At least I’ve found lots of names, and online resources about query letters, synopsis, the basic formatting to use.

    If I can’t get an agent, I suppose eventually I’ll give up, or self-publish as a vanity undertaking. But my bigger concern is getting myself to work on the next book. It’s like I’ve been stood up at the alter, but now I need to get back out there and prepare to date again.

    This writing stuff is not for sissies.

  32. Thank you, an enlightening insight into the world of the literary agant and I now know who Rube Goldberg is too.

  33. Interesting article, but I have to admit I find the amount of agents who have posted links to this article on Twitter with supporting comments like ‘see, see, see – we’re not evil. Honest!’ very amusing. Me thinks they doth protest too much!

  34. There’s a great deal that I love about this article, but I’m afraid I also have to disagree with the notion that getting an agent is a function of who you know. When I’d finished my first book and needed an agent, I just started researching agents and querying them, and the thirteenth or fourteenth agent I queried pulled me out of a slushpile and took me on. I had never really published anything before that. (I maintain that the poem I published in an anthology when I was a fifteen-year-old growing up in British Columbia doesn’t count.) At the time I acquired an agent I knew absolutely no one in publishing. I don’t have an MFA.

    To whoever it was who wrote in the comments that everyone in Brooklyn networks while the rest of America depends on luck, talent, and hard work: come on now, that’s just silly. I live in Brooklyn and I go to maybe — maybe! — one literary event every two months. I can’t really go to many more events than that, because when I’m not at my day job I spend all my time alone in a room trying to perfect the writing, same as everyone else does.

  35. What’s sad here is that instead of instructing writers on navigation, the article basically says, to keep the metaphor going, you need to have a better boat and some sailor friends to show you the ropes. That’s not meant as a critique of the piece – the logic here seems to be on the same level as the logic of most others talking about the game – it’s simply unfortunate when a reader is looking for a little boost from some new insight.

  36. Michael, this is a terrific article. It’s straightforward, well-researched and wonderfully civil. We live in an online world full of very unnecessary rage and vitriol. On behalf of well-intentioned gatekeepers everywhere, I thank you!

  37. I’ve had two literary agents rep my book and it hasn’t sold. However I’ve left the situation feeling like this. 1) Publishers can publish anything they want and they publish a lot of crap that doesn’t sell because they really don’t know what sells and this is frustrating to know. 2) Both literary agents hit a wall with my book but I don’t believe in this wall. I think that they should always be shopping a book even if their initial submissions were a bust instead of sticking it into the it will never sell pile. 3) I can’t help but feel if literary agents just give up on a book, what’s the point of having them? If they can’t perform a hard sell then why should I give them 15 percent for a book that’s an easy sell, which is all they tend to be looking for anyway?

  38. This is immaculate and true, true, true. I am going to send this article to everyone who asks me about marketing their first novel…I currently tell them to do what I did, which is to buy a *current* copy of The Guide To Literary Agents by Writers Digest Press, read it cover to cover, select ten agents to query, and keep fielding rejections until you find the Fit. My agent, Kim Witherspoon, plucked me from the slush pile and sold my debut novel to Knopf, after working with me for six months to polish my (extraordinarily rough and some would say messy) first draft. That was sixteen years ago. I would posit that literary agents do not impetuously “give up on books*…they do their damnedest to market their selections. It doesn’t always succeed, unless and until it does. They work, in advance of any book deal or hint of revenue, for their paltry fifteen percent — a bargain. Because without them we do not have a clue as to what the market will bear or what the publishing process is, really …nor do we have the eyes and ears of our potential Right Fit editor in NYC. There is no magic bullet for a first novel, or a second or third, but you have provided excellent and thoughtful advice. I have a feeling you will be going to press soon. All best to you.

  39. Interesting article that confirms to me that my choice to forgo finding an agent to search for a publisher was the right choice for me. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 58 years old. I’m 62 and have released four fiction novels, about to release my fifth under my own imprint.

    The independent/self-published choice at least allowed me for the last four years to make money. I don’t pay a vanity press to put me out there; I do it all by myself. I shudder to think how many rejections I’d still by crying over today, if I hadn’t taken control of my destiny.

    I’ve done fairly well, had a banner year, and made it to the best seller list with two of my titles simultaneously for historical romance, as well as making the movers & shakers for sales on Amazon. I am happy with the outcome, even if I am a long ways from being a NY Times best seller..

    However, if I had been in a situation where I spent years being rejected, I probably would have died never seeing my dream of writing a book come true. You have to ask yourself are you really willing to let your book sit for years on end with no one ever reading it? At least, I have readers now who like my work, and consistently purchase my books.

    To be honest, I probably would love to be picked up on just one of my titles to puff out my chest and say I was actually good enough in a literary agent’s eyes and big house to be published. The only benefit would be to validate that my work isn’t all vanity, as some may think, and stroke my ego a tad. For the most part, I get my validation from readers, and for now I’m satisfied.

    Anyway, we all make choices being writers. There is no right or wrong way. You just need to choose the path that is right for you. The article confirmed to me I took the right one.

  40. I’m in the same boat, Vicki, or at least climbing in. After successful nonfiction publishing—three titles, one in three editions–I decided to stop dreaming and do what I wanted to do. The result is four novels and two books of short stories and an immensely satisfying decade+. I had an agent who loved my first novel. (Is that a redundancy?) She got it up the chain in several New York houses but couldn’t bring in the sale. Since, I’ve sent out several mss, with only mild interest. Each subsequent ms. has been sent out less, and I’d settled in to pleasing myself and my three critique groups, which is pleasing, indeed.

    But it’s not publishing. Along come these new electronic and pod opportunities, so I’m going to steal a chunk of time from writing and do that. Hey, I’m older than you, but I’m not dead. Thanks for your article.

  41. Someone told me it’s who you know a few months before I was ready to query. I thought, ‘nah, agents will see the how great my book is.’ Of course, they didn’t and after dozens of rejections, I went the self-publishing route. I’m so glad I did because at 35,000 people thought my book was worth buying. I’d rather have 35,000 readers anyway, since the ultimate goal of writing a book is to get people to read it, not to get an agent.

  42. Love the analogy of the black and white bookstore! It’s fascinating to me how many people either cling to the reality “Yeah! It’s who you know, and that’s why I can’t get published!” or deny it “It is not! And that’s why I can’t get published!” rather than accepting it and making a strategy that works with or against the existing conditions. It’s fine to fight it–but denying it exists, or claiming it has all power over you, are not helpful.

  43. Hi. I’m an ex-pat living in a non-English speaking country but writing in English, because that is my language, so I can’t go to writers’ conferences or meet agents that represent English-language authors in person. I do take part in on-line communities, but that is it. I also don’t work in a literary-related profession at all nor in a profession that has any relationship with literary people (okay I have a menial, minimum-wage job). Does anyone have any suggestions how I can meet “the right people”, that is, the right “English-speaking” people, please? Thank you.

  44. Came across this page while searching for something else and had to take a look. I must say that as a new writer starting a search for an angent, this article made me want to cry and laugh simontaniously.
    Michael, you don’t sound like an uneducated person but what you have written makes me question your intelligence. As you say, agents work on commission and there is not a chance that they would look through their slush pile, see something that is well written with a good plot and throw it a rejection letter. Well known author or debut novellist, if you can write then you can make them money.
    Agents look for well written, good stories that have stand out charictors they can connect with and if you recieve 60 rejections then you need to go back and tear your work to peices and start again. If it is good it will get there in the end. But don’t give up easily, keep ploughing through those rejections with a pinch of salt and only look over your story if you recieve at least 40 rejects.
    Sarah the ex pat – you don’t need connections, let your writing speak for you and if it is good enough (i have no doubt that it is) you’ll get there in the end.

  45. I agree with Hubert Sorrentino.

    If the agency/traditional publishing model worked, the industry wouldn’t be in the shambles it finds itself in. Too bad agents are so hurried and harried. So are writers—and we usually don’t get 15% of anything for our trouble.

    I’ve been wondering when the agency/publishing industry would get creative and think of new ways to evaluate manuscripts, ways that didn’t require agents and editors to race through the submissions they receive, fretting every step of the way about how they can’t take the time they’d like (and need) to pay closer attention to submissions. I do feel for them, but I feel for writers, as well.

    And I love hearing stories of books that were rejected repeatedly, which went on to sell very well and earn important prizes, like Tinkers and The Help.

  46. And I love hearing stories of books that were rejected repeatedly, which went on to sell very well and earn important prizes, like Tinkers and The Help.

  47. Four months after you posted this I am going to argue your point. Why? Because the majority of agents are still accepting unsolicited queries. If the business really was all about who one knows then it would be very closed off. But surprisingly it’s very open. Every agent takes every query from every little trembling no-name writer seriously. Talent can not be taught. One can not go to school for six plus years and expect to get a novel published, as you have proven. As Terry Goodkind has wisely said,

    “Ultimately, though, here is my sincere conviction: I believe that real writers are born writers. I do not believe that the intellectual aspects which are critical to good writing can be taught. You either are a writer, or you are not. Writers are, for the most part, self-made. If you are born a writer, and you possess the will, you will do what you need to do in order to write. There is no secret, no magic key that will get anyone published. I wish you the best in your adventure of writing.”

    Aspiring authors our motto is edit, edit, edit, you can do better than someone out there with an MFA and multiple publishing credits if you are feeling “inferior.” You can run out of left field waving your manuscript with passion and get it published. Patience and talent rule. The most talented and interesting writers have been ruthless rebels with complete disregard for any kind of rules or “system”, and intrigue me thoroughly with their writing. When I’m perusing new books to read I always read the bio of the author and am more inclined to read their work if they have had no formal education, or have dropped out of college. This means that their talent could not be held down, and they write with their heart and are completely self-made.

  48. For those still finding this article who are stuck in the horrible mire, I bring you my personal experience of this horrible system.

    I wrote Dearly Beloved Novel (DBN) and gave it to my small group of beta readers who all raved about it.

    Encouraged, I dove in face first into the Query process.

    I accumulated close to 60 rejections, all of them form, some with nothing more than ‘Dear Author’.

    I got one request for the full manuscript from a fantastic agent about six months after submissions. She ultimately rejected (crushing).

    Dispirited, I went back to my Beta readers, one of which was a published author in another field. She asked her publisher if anyone might be interested and a week later I get a request for my Query and Synopsis from a Big Six publisher. Three days later they ask for the full MS.

    Not heard back from them but the trend is clear – Even the most tenuous link possible in the publishing industry got me much further along in my journey than the slushpile ever managed. Six months of torture and hard work doing and redoing my query letter, vetting agents, worrying and eating hundreds of rejections only got me one request for the MS which got heat-breathtakingly rejected.

    Even had this agent picked me up, I would then be stood at the next level anxiously waiting for the agent to manage to get the MS read by a publisher, which might easily fail.

    One call from a friend of a friend and I have a real opportunity to be picked up by one of the biggest publishers in the world.

    So, from my experience, the slushpile is broken. My little novel was good enough for a publish house, unagented, but not good enough for the agency slushpiles.

  49. You touched my soul, as that’s where all my writing comes from. I live to write but agents and publishers have better things to do than evaluate my stuff. I’ve been scanning agent lists and writing to ones that supposedly belong to my genre. At the end of it I wonder how many of their names I know by heart.

  50. Querying is often a disheartening enterprise. Thanks for an insider view of what agents do when sloshing through the slush. I have to be better about using my connections instead of doing my primary focus on craft.

  51. What about those of us who do not live in the United States and can’t go to all those writers conferences (ie 90% of English speakers). I live in Ecuador. Our only option really is the slush.

  52. This is true and infinitely depressing.

    It makes me want to run down New York’s finest, plushes streets throwing Molotovs into the gilded and evil edifices.

    I guess I am just a raving Marxist-Leninist at heart.

    People will assert that my politics betrays a lack of respect for Democracy. They’re correct. I don’t respect Democracy because most people are stupid and reward idiocy and inanity — after all, Donald Trump is president and thousands of gifted writers are leading miserable lives.

    Do not infer from this that I am engaged in, or planning or conceiving, any illegal or violent acts .

  53. Excellent article — even a little bit of a heartbreaker. I finally have my agent (after 25 tries) but she’s been unable to sell my book to a publisher, even though she tells me she loves the story. Now that’s a real heartbreaker. Once you have an agent you’re in the door, right? Wrong.

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