On Getting an Agent

BookEnds Literary Agency recently did a fascinating series of posts about why an agent might turn down work they think is good and/or saleable. It started when agent Jessica Faust shared a story from the trenches: She requested a partial from an author, and before she had the chance to get to it, he’d received another author of representation. He contacted her to tell her about the other offer and gave her a chance to read the full manuscript and make her own offer. She read the manuscript and passed.

This story set off a bit of a storm in the comments section of the post.

Some writers wondered what was keeping authors from just lying and saying they had offers in order to rush an agent’s response and encourage the response to be yes. I suppose I should not be surprised that this thought enters into people minds. One Harlequin editor told me that they have spreadsheets where they track what they actually request because so many things come in with “requested” on them that aren’t.

My thought is that writers might be overestimating the propensity of agents to pile on. Just because there is another offer, doesn’t mean they’re going to want the book too. Other commenters in the thread brought up the problem that happens when the agent catches you in your lie. If they do. And agent Kim Lionetti drops in to point out something even more likely:

“If an author tells me they have an offer and I like the book, but feel it needs quite a bit of work, I’ll oftentimes just pass, figuring that there isn’t time to see revisions. If the author weren’t waiting with an offer on the table, then I may be inclined to offer very specific feedback and hope to see it resubmitted.”

Then, a clearly frustrated aspiring author says that he hates this response, that if an agent likes it, he or she should take it. This writer has apparenlty gotten a few “great, but not for me” rejections, which he likens to being told “you’ve won the lotto, but I think someone else should be the one to give you millions of dollars.”

Another responder gives what, to me, is a far more accurate metaphor: “you’re nice, but I’m just not that into you.” And then Kim comes back with an entire post on the subject.

“Why would an agent ever want to go into a new partnership with an author feeling at a disadvantage? The publishing industry is tough enough as it is. When I take on a new project, I want to feel supremely confident in my ability to sell it. Time spent worrying over a project I’m not sure I was the right advocate for could be used finding another perfect fit. And there’s a ton of perfect fit manuscripts out there for me, just as there are a lot of agents out there that could be your perfect fit — if not with this project, then your next.”

Both posts and the threads that follow are worth a peek.

I’ve said it before, but I also believe that this is something that is really tough for a writer facing heaps of rejection letters and no agent offers to swallow:

When you have the right book, finding an agent is a relatively straightforward process.

A few days of research on what agents would be best for your type of book, an afternoon spent crafting a really bang-up query letter, and, oh, yeah. However many months or years it takes to write an incredible, can’t-say-no novel. That’s what it takes.

I know that’s hard to believe. But it’s true. There are no tricks. Finding an agent is not hard. It’s writing the great book that’s hard. So what’s actually hard about finding an agent is finding an agent with the wrong book. That’s nigh unto impossible. Here’s another take on the same story (complete with the author being scammed a bit first by signing with a bad agent for the wrong book — or the right book in the wrong version) by Jeaniene Frost.

I wrote four books and found an agent with the fifth. The fourth book, I sent out 21 submission packages and received 18 rejections and three full requests (one of which turned into a rejection). I had not yet received the other two answers when I began querying my fifth book. With my fifth book, I sent out four submission packages, got four requests, and three offers before I even sent the fourth agent (the only one who was looking for hardcopy) her requested pages. The difference is that the fourth book was problematic. The fifth book sold in a two book deal, at auction, a week and a half after it went out.

Yes, there are the occasional miracle stories about how no one saw the fabulous book’s glories for what they were. They are nice stories. They are also far more rare than agents who see potential in a book that doesn’t actually sell. Both are far less common than books that don’t get agents because they don’t have potential.

I’ve assembled a Venn diagram, for which the values of “good” and “bad” pertain only to their potential on the marketplace, and not on any actual assessment of literary merit:


Clearly this is not to scale. If it were, the red part would be WAY WAY bigger, since it encompasses books that span the entire Slushkiller spectrum, from functionally illiterate to “meh” to “just not for us right now”. But think of it like those not–to-scale diagrams of the solar system. Good books would be an invisible Pluto planetoid next to the Jupiter of bad books.

So yes, some good books are not visible to agents. And some bad books (remember, “bad” in this scenario means “will not sell” — and sometimes THAT only means “in this marketplace”) find representation. (In fact, the “bad books that find representation” part of the diagram might even be a bit bigger than shown.) But if you do have a good book, chances are overwhelmingly good that you’ll find an agent. If you don’t, chances are overwhelmingly bad.

Might I have found an agent for MS #4? Possibly. (Actually, probably. I received a phone call a few weeks after my sale from one of the agents who had the full of MS #4. I figured, since she’d told me she’d called me by X date and this was more than a month later, that she’d passed, so I hadn’t bothered to contact her to tell her I’d signed elsewhere. I do not know if she was calling to offer representation or revision suggestions.) But I think that, if I had, the book would likely have languished in that top part of the purple circle.

Still, that would be okay. I have plenty of friends who signed with an agent for a book that didn’t sell, but then wrote the agent a book that the agent could and did sell.

However, looking at this diagram, you can see why it’s ALWAYS a better choice to write a new book than it is to keep pounding your head against the submissions wall with a book that’s just not happening. The next book you write could be THE book, the one that isn’t a fight to get representation for at all.

Posted in writing advice, writing industry, writing life

7 Responses to On Getting an Agent

  1. I’m constantly asked, “Seriously, tell me. What’s the trick to getting an agent?” And you’re absolutely right–there’s no trick! I almost hesitate to tell people, though, how I got my agent because I *always* get the, “Ohhhh. You got lucky then!” response. Yes, I did. I admit it. But I also worked hard on my book.

    Good post, D. I’m emailing it to a few people.

  2. Marwa Ayad says:

    A very good post, Diana. Having published my debut novel (which should be released soon) I hope my current novel-in-progress lands me an agent. 🙂

  3. Megg says:

    Good advise! Why I am not looking for an agent, I have friend who is and will pass this along. The venn diagram is a nice touch.

    Off topic: Did you ever send out the books you where giving away around Christmas? I never ended up getting mine,and I am just curious about what happened.

  4. LOVE that Venn diagram.
    But it’s so hard for writers who’ve been able to find an agent to believe it’s true…

  5. Great post, Diana. I esp. like the part where you distinguish that bad books = books the agent can’t place, in this marketplace. So true! Not necessarily bad books in themselves

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