Essays and Notable Articles

“A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents

By posted at 6:00 am on August 15, 2012 100

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 They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency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.


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100 Responses to ““A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents”

  1. Sansa
    at 7:25 am on August 19, 2012

    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!

  2. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 12:22 am on August 20, 2012

    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.

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  7. Shelley
    at 11:10 am on August 28, 2012

    Little hope.

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  9. Mathew
    at 3:25 pm on August 28, 2012

    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.

  10. Jody Rein
    at 5:43 pm on August 29, 2012

    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!

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  14. Todd
    at 3:14 pm on September 7, 2012

    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?

  15. suzanne finnamore
    at 8:45 pm on September 7, 2012

    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.

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  18. Vicki Hopkins
    at 4:11 pm on October 2, 2012

    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.

  19. SK Figler
    at 8:34 pm on October 2, 2012

    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.

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  23. MP McDonald
    at 9:52 am on October 3, 2012

    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.

  24. Lexi Revellian
    at 10:38 am on October 3, 2012

    Michael, there’s a name for what you’re suffering from. Stockholm Syndrome.

  25. J. A.. Huss
    at 11:48 am on October 3, 2012

    Books lined up on shelves? No, that’s not my dream. Top Ten Bestselling at – now THAT’s a dream I’m on board with. :)

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  32. Nonya
    at 12:22 pm on October 8, 2012

    Agents.. How 20th Century.

  33. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 8:49 am on October 9, 2012

    I don’t know, I’ve found mine rather useful for helping me navigate 21st-century publishing.

  34. Allison Williams
    at 10:43 am on October 9, 2012

    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.

  35. Sarah
    at 12:26 pm on October 9, 2012

    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.

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  38. Leanne
    at 5:41 pm on November 23, 2012

    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.

  39. Lynpym
    at 4:52 pm on November 27, 2012

    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.

  40. 123
    at 2:54 am on December 8, 2012

    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.

  41. ElysianSkies
    at 3:26 pm on December 21, 2012

    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.

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  46. TheBurn
    at 3:23 am on June 12, 2013

    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.

  47. sunil kapoor
    at 2:28 am on June 28, 2013

    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.

  48. Theresa Milstein
    at 9:51 pm on August 28, 2013

    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.

  49. How to be a freelance science writer* | The Raptor Lab
    at 9:18 am on October 3, 2014

    […] About Self Publishing [Gayle Laakman] + The Big Leap: From Article to Book [The Open Notebook] + The Right Fit: Navigating the World of Literary Agents [] + 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition […]

  50. Tamara
    at 9:05 pm on November 4, 2014

    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.

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