Stalking the Elusive Literary Agent

I recently met a writer who had begun submitting her first novel to literary agents and had a lot of questions:

  • "Why did an agent tell me that I should work with an independent editor and then resubmit it? Why didn't he offer to help me himself?”
  • “Why do agents mail out form rejections instead of personal notes?”
  • “Why do book agents at panels always say that a book has to be ‘ready' or ‘perfect' before they'll take it on?”
  • “Why do agents only want to see query letters or the first few chapters? How can they judge my work fairly without reading all of it?”

I realized that she had yet to learn an important agent fact of life: Literary agents work on commission. Like real estate agents, they earn a percentage of what you make, so if they don't make sales, they don't make money.

Most people who work in-house at publishing companies are salaried. Independent publishing professionals, such as editors and writing coaches, may charge by the hour, on a per-project (flat-rate) basis, or even by the word or page. However, the fact that agents work on commission structures much of how they operate. It isn't that they don't want to help you get published. Quite the reverse—it's what they live for. But if they want to stay in business, they have to make the most efficient and effective use of their time. 

Creativity and Commerce: The Yin and Yang of the Book Business

Publishing is a business, and the eternal tug of war between art and commerce is like yin and yang, where each facet contains the other and neither can exist without the other. As a writer, you would no doubt much rather be writing than thinking about “the market” and how your work is going to get into the hands of readers. But once you leave your creative space and begin exploring the process of getting published, you realize that:

  • There really is a marketplace out there.
  • It's a buyer's market.
  • People in publishing, however creative they may be in their area of expertise, will view your work as a commodity to be priced, bought, and sold.

Someone once used the following phrase to describe what it takes to cope with the yin-yang conflict between creativity and business in the world of rock-and-roll: 

Don't accept it—but accept the reality of it.

If you can accept the reality of that world, however harsh it seems at times, you'll be much better equipped to survive and succeed.

When Agents Read Submissions, They're Mining for Gold

Many agents I talk with report that each week they receive around 200 submissions either by snail mail or e-mail. Each time they open a submission, whether fiction or nonfiction, they hope it will be what they call “market ready” based on their sense of what the market is looking for, the quality of the writing, and whether the basic storyline, concept, or premise makes them want to go on reading.

However, out of every 100 submissions, only one or two meet the gold standard of a strong concept backed by exceptional writing. If yours measures up, you'll be asked to submit the rest of your manuscript.

Occasionally, if a book has a weak concept but the writing shows promise, an agent may invite you to submit your next book. On the other hand, perhaps 90 percent of submissions suffer from both a weak concept and weak writing and are easy rejects.

Finally, suppose your book has a compelling concept, but an agent feels it isn't ready because your writing or other elements need work. This happens perhaps three or four times out of every 100 submissions. If yours is one, the agent may invite you to resubmit after you have had it professionally edited or you have worked with an editor on a rewrite.

Every once in a while, agents will decide to work directly and in depth with an author, but in most cases they offer only general suggestions and will recommend that writers hire an independent editor. Why don't agents work more with writers? Because they are supposed to make their living from sales, which also means that it isn't considered legit for them to charge authors for any editorial services they might decide to offer. Also, the time an agent might spend working with writers would inevitably cut into time that could be devoted to selling books that are ready.

This is another parallel with how things work with real estate agents. If your house isn't ready, the agent will tell you to take care of what's needed. But he or she isn't going to come over with the cans of paint and do the work. You're the one who has to hire (and pay) the painters. Once your house measures up, the agent, who in the meantime will have been working with other clients whose houses are ready, will happily start moving on your listing.

One further parallel: real-estate agents can spend as much time selling a mid-priced house as a high-end one, and the same holds for books. Agents look for potential big deals because they can spend as much time and work trying to sell a “midlist” book as a blockbuster. So guess what they'll go after? Wouldn't you?

What Does “Time Is Money” Mean in Publishing?

After the writer I was talking with began to understand how the time-is-money equation affects agents, she started answering most of her own questions:

  • Agents use form letters to save time because too many submissions either aren't ready or aren't right for them, and one of those 200 envelopes or e-mails that they have yet to open may contain an ideal salable manuscript.
  • Agents talk about books needing to be perfect or ready because of the larger economics of publishing. Like other businesses, publishers try to stay in business by trying to minimize their risks whenever possible. Spending company resources on having in-house editors devote substantial time into developing writers can be a risk because any book may lose money. Although books are copyedited and usually receive some editorial attention before going to press, editors too are looking for books that are ready—and not, in most cases, for books that need substantial work (especially from new, unpublished writers who have no track record of sales). This is why independent editors, who help writers to develop creatively so their manuscripts reach that all-important marketable level, have become so important in the publishing world.
  • The concept/writing and time-is-money considerations that agents operate under explain why they limit how much of your work they want to see when you first submit. A well-written query captures the concept of your book and communicates a lot about your skills and professionalism. Your first few chapters (or even your first few pages) tell agents whether your concept and storytelling are compelling enough to make them want to read more. However, if your submission materials indicate concept or writing problems, your book isn't ready, so it isn't a good use of an agent's time to read more. 

Do's and Don'ts of the Agent Search

Because literary agents are the first publishing industry gatekeepers you'll face, here are several do's and a couple of don'ts to keep in mind.

  • DO accept agents' guidelines about what they are (and are not) looking for and how they want you to submit. These guidelines let them work efficiently and effectively both for their existing writers and for the promising new ones they hope to discover.
  • DO treat agents and publishing professionals with respect. They are doing what they do because they love books and writers, and they feel as frustrated as you do by the economics of the industry when great manuscripts get turned down every day due to changing market trends or other industry issues.
  • DO everything it takes to make your writing polished and professional. The appeal of a story concept, idea, premise, or theme is subjective, but agents and other publishing professionals know skilled writing when they see it. Even if your manuscript isn't to their taste, they'll respect it and you. And they may even ask to see your next manuscript.
  • DO invest in your future by attending agent panels and other publishing events. Listening to agents speak on panels is the best way to learn about them and get information about market trends. Plus, most agents at panels will invite the writers present to submit to them. They'll even ask you to flag your submission with a phrase on the mailing label or e-mail subject line so they can give you special consideration.
  • DO seek out personal connections to agents in addition to cold submissions. Do you know anyone who might know some agents? Would that friend, acquaintance, or relative be willing to put in a word for you? (But first make sure that your work is ready.)
  • DO take an agent's comments seriously if you receive a personal note after you submit. And if you receive similar comments from several agents, this means your manuscript has issues that you need to resolve.
  • DO keep in mind that your book needs to be right rather than fast. If an agent asks you to resubmit after you rewrite your manuscript or have it edited, don't send it back until you're sure it's as good as it can be. Agents won't get mad or impatient and reject you if you don't turn your book around in two weeks. If they were interested in the first place, they will stay interested. But if your second submission isn't right, they still won't have anything to sell.
  • DO spend some serious time and attention thinking about the market for your book. What kinds of readers will buy it, and how will they find out about it? Although the concept and writing of your book are crucial, so is marketing and promotion, because this is where your book starts to be looked at as a potential moneymaker or a risky business proposition. Consider including at least a little initial information about marketing and promotion when you submit. And if agents specifically request this, be sure to comply.
  • DON'T trust everything you read online about agents, editors, or the publishing business in general. The Internet is notorious for its lack of accountability. Anyone can post anything they like online, and some content about publishing is naïve, inaccurate, or both. You're more likely to get reliable information and guidance by attending publishing-related events and through the personal contacts you make.
  • Finally, DON'T take rejections personally. It really is only business.


Monica Faulkner
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