Sunday, January 15, 2017


When I correspond with writers, and speak at conferences, one of the most common laments I hear is this:

“I pitched my book to 400 agents, and no one wants it!”

Yes, 400; that seems to be the magic number where many writers give up. They get frustrated, angry, resentful toward those rotten agents who wouldn’t give them a chance. As an author myself, I feel their pain. Yeah I know it sounds trite, but I’ve been there. Now that I’ve worked as an agent for a few years, I can view the situation from a different perspective.

Here's the part you don’t want to hear: You probably set yourself up to fail.

Let me explain.

First, the pool of literary agents in our country is very small. I don’t believe that a comprehensive list exists anywhere (although former agent Mark Malatesta is off to a good start, here). His list contains about a thousand names, but don't get get too excited: The size of this (or any) list is illusory:

First, many of them are no longer in business as agents. Like any mailing list, it's outdated as soon as it's completed. This is a tough profession, and many give up after a year or two.

Every agent handles a finite range of genres. I know a few who handle only romance. Others, only speculative fiction. Or only a narrow range of nonfiction. Some only work in the Christian market. And so on. Hence, no matter what it is that you write, I can assure you that (if you did your research) your realistic list of prospects will probably fall far short of 400.

Many agencies have overlapping specialists. That is, a firm with ten agents might have five that handle your genre. Great! But you'll be wasting your time if you query all five. You’re thinking, If Mom says no, ask Dad; but they're hip to your jive, and it won't work. They trust each others’ judgment, so they’re not interested in reading something that a colleague already declined. As with most publishers, a rejection from one is a rejection from all. (And yes, they keep a master list of all submissions.)

That agent might be closed to submissions, either temporarily or permanently, and it says so on his website. Perhaps he has a tall reading pile, and he declared a hiatus in order to catch up. Or, he already has all the work he can handle for the foreseeable future. He’s not interested in new clients, period. (Except perhaps by referral from someone he knows.)

Every agent has a prescribed process for accepting submissions. Did you follow instructions?

I receive hundreds of submissions each month, and over half of them make it very easy to say no. I don’t handle poetry. There’s no such thing as a thousand-word picture book. They don’t give me the information I need. They send me a manuscript with a program I can’t open (after I’ve told them to use MS Word). I find six typos on the first page. They argue with me when I suggest a next step. On and on.

I suppose that my name probably appears on more than a few of those 400-reject lists. They curse my name, they blame me for their lack of progress. Such is the nature of my business.

At the end of the day, the ultimate tragedy is this: They might have a great book, but I can’t tell. I might love it if I read it, but their query didn’t impress. That novel might have been salvageable, with only a light proofread, but they rushed it to market instead.

1 comment:

  1. I see a lot of writers either publishing or submitting after light edits. I cringe every time!