Why Getting a Literary Agent is Harder Than Writing the Book

Currently doing some prep work for a potentially career-changing event taking place tomorrow, and I find myself thinking about the road I have been on the past few… hmm… let’s call them years.

Yeah. Years.

And that’s the road going from someone with a completed, porcelain-polished manuscript sitting in a cabinet to getting that shiny lil’ peach onto bookshelves and into Kindle libraries from here to Pluto (not a planet but should be).

Specifically: getting a literary agent.

So, I am sure there are hundreds, if not two hundreds, of people/writers/aspiring writers/authors/semi-successful authors/gardeners with a penchant for prose/ who have tackled this topic, but whenever someone asks me about this process, I always get variations of the exact same reaction:

“Holy Hot Damn. There’s a lot more to it than I thought.”

And all I can say to that is . . . I think that is pretty much true about everything.

But especially querying an agent.

So a quick overview on agents and why a writer might NEED one:

A literary agent is, in playful terms, a ticket to the party of publishing. If you want to self publish, you can do that in a matter of minutes (and more power to you), but if you want to go through traditional veins, i.e. get your book printed professionally and sent into your local Barnes and Noble, you need an agent. Period. Full stop. We could spitfire the pros and cons of self-publishing over traditional all day, but the bigger market books tend to overwhelmingly be traditionally published. Traditional is also inarguably harder to do.

That is because of one simple, irrevocable, bastardly, dastardly truth:

Publishers almost always refuse to talk directly to writers.

That agent, whoever they may be, upon successful agreement with a writer, usually takes 15%+ of whatever deals are made until one of three things is dead: the career/the contract/the writer themselves.

On the surface this doesn’t sound great. Sounds like a raw deal for the writer, right?

Oh contraire.

I have often heard an agent described as worth their weight in gold. It is true. A (good) agent is your confidant, your negotiator, your hype hero, your therapist, your editor, your partner in crime, your biggest advocate, your first line of defense, your last line of defense, and a charcuterie sample platter of other accoutrement before the main dish of making a book deal.

And in a strangely paradoxical, both cynical and optimistic, way of looking at things, having someone who bases what they make off of a percentage of the deal finagled for you (the writer), means that someone is going to try double damn hard to get everything they possibly can. Win Win Win.

Which leads me to my first point (which is one of the reasons getting an agent is hard in the first place): they don’t make a dime . . . until the writer does. Let that sink in for a minute for all the unsung, overworked agents out there. They editor for hours. They spreadsheet for days. They shop your story for months. They advise/schmooze/plan/organize for years . . .

. . . all without making a dime up front.

Sounds nice for the writers, and it is in a lot of ways. That, however, also means that agents are incredibly selective in what client they will take on, and what they will even read. They love what they do, sure, but they gotta eat like the next pair of boots, too.

A few rough and tumble analytics before diving into it:

On average, based on a extensive (it wasn’t) and thorough (absolutely not) review of several different websites and agent Twitter accounts revealed that most agents receive about 20-80,000 queries a year. This miraculous and undoubtedly mind-numbing stack is lovingly referred to by agents as, “the slush pile.” Now I was jesting about my quick research, but I can guarantee every single agent worth her salt receives roughly as much as described. Of those thousands, they ask for larger writing samples from a thousand or so maybe. Then of those samples they request full manuscripts of a few hundred. Then of those they consider perhaps 1-10 new clients to take on a year.

“Holy Hot Damn” was right.

So let’s take a look at the process:

To approach an agent, a writer needs to prepare quite a few things before even approaching the idea of sending a query.

  1. The Query Letter
    • Basically a 4-5 paragraph (Each agent has a different opinion on this) letter of no more than 350 words (Each agent has a different opinion on this) where you are meant to do a few very important things (Each agent has—you know…I’m not…)
      • Hook the agent’s attention
      • Explain your story/characters/conflict
      • Talk about yourself/why they should care at all about you as a writer
      • Mention the “stats” of your book (word count, target genre, similar books, any human sacrifices made to promote said book, etc.)
      • Tailor it specifically to the agent in question (More on this later)

      All within as few words as possible. Sounds simple enough, aye?

      Negative.

      This is the backbone of your pitch/the lifeblood and the biggest pain in the a—

      Basically, you have seconds to catch the agent’s attention, because they’re likely waist deep in the slush pile I mentioned before, and if you ain’t stickin’ out, they ain’t stickin’ around. You have 4-5 sentences max to get to the point and capture their imagination. Otherwise it is curtains . . . gentle wafting curtains.


      I must have rewritten/tweaked/changed my query letter around six hundred times. Opening up my “Agents” file shows twenty-seven pages of one-page queries. Not to mention tweaking a sentence here, changing an adjective there, all to create a punch, capture my voice, and pitch to a complete stranger an idea that is literarily (geddit?) my baby. I remember agonizing for hours over a single sentence. Several times. Easily spent 120+ hours.

       

  2. Synopsis
    • Pretty straight-forward, but a tricky little blighter to nail. A one to three-page summation (including the ending) of your story. Basically agents use this to check your ability to explain your story succinctly/check to see if your story has a consistent and effective arc. There are very specific grammar rules (ALL-CAPS each characters name the first time it is mentioned, etc.) that must be adhered to. Trying to punch this out, project a bit of your style and voice into it, cover the vital points, AND make it sound original and like the sexiest thing since sliced bread can be… difficult.And the real kicker is that only about a third of agents even request this. Better have it though, because you can bet that every other foot is going to want it.



      This one wasn’t as hard for me, but it did suck up several hours as I tried to cover the main focus of the story and avoid mentioning all the “really nifty stuff” in my book and focus on the essentials. I would say it went through about . . . ten iterations? Not too bad or bangarang. Probably 10 hours.

       

  3. Make a Website (For Yourself and/or Your Book)
    • Now this one is pretty subjective but I think it is important to establish and have at least some sort of online professional presence. This comes not just from my own opinion but from what I have read and seen in interviews of real agents and what they expect to see when they delve into a writer’s credentials. This can be a simple shu-lack job thanks to WIX biscuits or WordPress Cider sauce, but it needs to get done. The more OCD you are about appearances, content, borders, colors, etc. can mean hundreds of hours tweaking/teaching yourself patchwork HTML/CSS rules on the fly to get your site the way you want it. If you are creating a website for the book, that means creating content related to said book, too. It can be as little or as big as you want it, but something needs to show up when that agent googles “Writer Wunderkind Thunderbus.”

      This was a big (and arguably unnecessary) time sink for me. I spot-taught myself how to do some of the coding mentioned, hired artists to create custom, world-related content/commissioned pieces to give my website some personality and distinctive book-related flair. Made dozens of pages of content dictating different aspects of my world. Countless other little bits and bobs. Easily sunk 400+ hours here.

       

  4. Edit Your Book. Edit It Again. Oh, and Do it AGAIN
    • Agents won’t touch anything that isn’t polished to a pristine, mirror shine. Once you have gone back through your manuscript a few times and you are more sure of its perfection than a parent of their spawn…do it again. Then when you’ve completed that, hey do it a few more times.Flat out serious. Mainly because, with the exception of a very favored few, the rest of us have to grow and evolve as writers. So does the story, the characters, the plot, the arc…all of it. That means being mired in muck and dirt that doesn’t come off after the first rinse. Plus, to continue the metaphor, there is a big difference between professionally clean and a Starbucks backroom sloshing. Get off your pride horse and do it. Odds are we will never meet/be “one of those few.” And we will be better for the journey, I promise.

      I actually love editing (to an extent). The mechanics of crafting the perfect sentence/twist/flaw/the perfect phrase is insanely appealing to me. That being said, I must have (even after two rounds of paying a professional to edit it) gone through my book 10 full times and made endless spot edits completely separate from when I actually wrote the book. I don’t even want to talk about how long. 800+ hours conservatively.

       

  5. Research Agents
    • Okay, so you have made it this far, and now you have a punchy query letter, a singularly genre-shattering synopsis, your website is a whirrin’, churnin’ beaut, and your manuscript is a declaration of art incarnate. Now the legwork begins. Go on Google, enter in your genre (hopefully you have ascertained that by now) and “literary agent” and watch how your computer explodes. Which is some good news, actually. There are veritable tons of agents to choose from. Which is also some bad news. There are veritable tons of agents to choose from.
      This part is pretty enjoyable, though. It is a lot like Tinder for authors if Tinder ran on a 1990s internet infrastructure. It is loads of searching through agencies, going down agent by agent to see who is looking for what, who is interested in what, etc. Every single agency arranges this information differently. Some make it super easy for the writer (listing their agents clearly/making a list of genres each agent accepts that is easy to read/etc.) but others seem to delight in burying this information in the middle of six paragraphs of how much an agent loves their cat sweaters/The Detroit RedYankles or some such. It is infuriating having to click on ever single face on an Agencies “Team” listing and trying to figure out who to pitch a book to since every single one has a very selective list of genres they will deal with. Eventually you get there, though. For this, I would recommend doing a few things:

      1) Make SURE the Agent is accepting queries.
      Plenty of times I was halfway through writing the email and this one got me. Cross-check Twitter/The Agency Site/Etc.
      2) Make sure that your book fits exactly with what they want EXACTLY. Don’t pitch High Fantasy Epic to an agent who just writes “Urban Fantasy/Upmarket Fantasy/Fantasy Elements” as these aren’t the same thing. You will be wasting your time and theirs.
      3) Review all the words I just wrote and any other related words to your specific genre/market. There are so many, and none of them will make sense to you right away. It makes things a lot easier once you do, though.
      4) Make a Spreadsheet listening Prospective Agents. Yeah it is even more work on top of everything else, but it will work wonders in keep things straight in your head and quickly seeing who you have already submitted to.
      5) Try finding who your favorite author’s agent is. If it is the same genre as your book, then it is possibly a good fit considering our favorite things tend to influence us quite a bit.

      A few sites to help any prospectively agent-querying writers out there:

    • Publisher’s Marketplace (A place agents often list what they are looking for)
    • Twitter (Just search “#mswl + (any word variant of your genre/book) and see agents start popping up)
    • ManuscriptWishlist (Similar to Twitter search but specific to books)
    • QueryTracker (A dandy little website that lists tons of Agents by Genre. Possibly not strictly up-to-date)

      This part took ages for me. It was entertaining for the most part, trying to sift through all of these people who might one day champion my book. It did become a war of will after a while, but every now and then I would find an agent who was so pitch-perfect (zing!) for my book that I quite frankly would “woop.” Yes I am a wooper. Probably about 50+ hours.

       

  6. Tailor A Specific Query to Every Agent On Your List
    • This is the culmination. The showdown. The most mind-numbingly trudge-worthy part of the process. The biggest battle of focus/discipline/attrition of the whole affair. You have to take that agent list, go back to each of their Twitters/personal websites/agent bios and tailor an opening paragraph/email directly to them… like they are the only person in the world. It is akin to cyber-stalking for a few clever lines of dialog. You don’t have to, but it dramatically increases the chances of an agent not just tossing your query into the forget-me furnace. And if that wasn’t enough, you also have to make sure to hit the parameters of exactly what they want precisely how they want them to be. For example:

Agent A Wants- A query, a ten page sample pasted IN THE BODY of the email

Agent B Wants – A query, a one page synopsis, a 25 page sample ATTACHED to the email

Agent C Wants – A specifically three paragraph query, a RESUME, a first 3-chapter sample pasted INTO THE BODY email

Agent D Wants – A query on a special QueryManager website, requiring you to dissect your email/synopsis/sample into different boxes.

That is just the start. Every single agency and every single agent has a very particular set of skills set of things they want and need that the writer needs to perform flawlessly to even get that aforementioned 4-5 sentence window of attention. You make a mistake, a single mistake, and you’re likely toast. Attach rather than copy paste into the body of the email, gone. Send them 25 pages instead of 15, bye bye. Misspell their name (Some people have rather interesting last names), fin. Mention their cat that is actually that agent two agents back ago’s cat, Donezo Washington.

Now there is a fair bit of professional decorum that comes into play here and it is on us, as writers, to comport ourselves as such and keep cats straight, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly challenging process…all to give yourself a brief chance at someone’s attention. Not to mention the HUGE learning curve that comes from writing a GOOD query letter, a bad one, a masterpiece, and every step in-between.


This part, for me, was the worst (okay, second worst). I have lost count of how many queries I have sent since I began querying almost exactly three years ago. I took plenty of breaks to revise, restructure, live life, give myself some time away during that time. Even so, I sent easily over 100 queries. That is roughly 20-30 minutes apiece of research on each person, tailoring a few clever lines from that information learned, and specifically formatting the query letter to their specifications… that is 30-50+ hours conservatively.

So, to summarize this soiree, I spent roughly 1,430 hours (sixty full days) total of time querying agents. Not even mentioning a “Round 2.”

And so you sent those queries off, you did your homework, and waded through the deluge of Twitter feeds and personal blog spots to craft a series of laudable, magnificent even, beseeching requests for partnership. Now time to close your computer and move on to the next, and most agonizing part of the process:

The Wait.

This is worse than all the other parts put together and tripled. Each agent varies wildly in their response times. Wildly. I have my own evidence here:

  1. My Shortest Response Time: 3 hours (ouch)
  2. My Longest Response Time: 18 months

So writers can look forward to an agent reply anywhere between a Marvel movie and a year and a half.

Luckily most agents keep it anywhere between a month to three months. You learn a thing or two about patience. Then you take what you have learned about patience, break it in half, and learn something else entirely. Eventually (sometimes) you get a bite. An agent requests a partial (anywhere between 50 pages and 10 chapters). This means they like what they have seen so far and want to read more. Have a small dance. This is good. Then up to a couple months later (yes), you hopefully get a reply from that same agent requesting a full manuscript. Rejoice again. Then wait up to another couple of months. (See the pattern developing here?). The longer you wait without word back, supposedly the better it is. I have had heaps of partial/full requests only to be rejected a week later. In this, no news is good news. It means they are still reading/still considering/or else dead (Hopefully not dead).

I should mention that all of this waiting is because agents do a LOT of things, and unsolicited queries (the submission process I just outlined) are at the very bottom of an agent’s to-do list. Not that they don’t want to get to them. Most seem to love it. It is just that they have an entire roster of clients to support/edit/make deals for, have their own lives to deal with, have 87 other agenty things to do none of us not in the business are privy to, and then they can scratch out some time for “da slush.”

So the writer waits. Hopefully writes. But this does lead to the rather saddest and most frustrating part of the process: Rejections

Sometimes you get a rejection with your name on it. Sometimes you get a “Dear Author” canned response, but some of the time, a lot of the time really, you simply won’t hear back from an agent at all.

That is the hard part. Especially if you were really jive-timin’ and Rick-rollin’ for a particular “perfect fit” agent and they do you like this. Don’t take it personal. Try not take it personal.

After hundreds, thousands of hours of working, months and months of waiting, retrying, re-tweaking, re-submitting, re-strategizing, re-analyzing and ever “Re-” you can imagine, one day out of nowhere, the writer hopefully gets her due. The clay is shattered. The mold falls free. A dream is revealed. You get an offer for partnership.

Then the real work begins.

Hopefully that gives you some perspective into the process. It is a long march. An insane fight to be heard. To be glanced at. A seemingly endless slog where the only light at the end of the shadows is the hope that you have something to share with the world. The gut-flip feeling that you have talent, that your characters are worth wandering into someone else’s lives. Sometimes the only voice whispering that truth to you through the wave of rejections is your own. Some days it is as strong as a fervor fever and it sings your bones. Other days it is so faint and fragile you just want to fall down, cover your head in dirt, and forget you ever put pen to page.

Don’t.

Stand up.

Keep going.

No one else will. You owe it to the world you created.

The good news is that every story is worth sharing. The bad news is that not everyone wants to pay you for it.

The best news is that if this is truly something you love and want to do, it won’t matter and you will nit grit, buckle down and fight till your lungs give out.

Us writers are just bred that way.

One thought on “Why Getting a Literary Agent is Harder Than Writing the Book

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