With few exceptions, nearly all authors and would-be authors are better off with an agent. But getting an agent is notoriously hard—in many cases, as hard as getting published.
The problem isn’t the system. And it’s not that writers are lazy.
The problem is that many of us are so tired after writing and revising our novels or memoirs that we don’t want to put in the final months of informed effort required to get the work into the hands of a powerful advocate. We get to mile 20 or 22 of the marathon, and then we slow to a hobble. The agent search goes on a to-do list that includes other beloved projects, like cleaning the garage.
Instead of making time for a real agent hunt, we make time—at best—for an agent glimpse. Have you settled for this half-way approach?
A glimpse includes:
- Sending a query to that one agent that a colleague kindly mentioned to you, without knowing much about the agent except that your contact knows her.
- Flipping through a writing magazine, stumbling upon a column by or about an agent, and deciding to query that person, whether or not he or she is exactly right for you.
- Remembering back to the local conference or class you attended, and deciding to email that guy who was a featured guest, even though he didn’t seem to share your literary tastes, precisely.
- Querying that one agent who keeps showing up in your Twitter feed.
- Querying that one agent who was thanked in the acknowledgments page of a book you admire. The book was published twelve years ago.
The truth is that all of these approaches, backed up with additional research and reinforced with purposeful selectivity and further elaborated with agent-by-agent personalization, are actually good starter-strategies. If you are actively employing them (rather than just daydreaming about someday employing them), you’re ahead of the crowd.
Indeed, some top places to glean agent info include social media, writers’ magazines, conferences, and, one of my favorite tricks, acknowledgments pages (though beware of old books and top authors whose well-established agents may be far beyond reach).
Sometimes, people get lucky with their first query or face-to-face encounter with an agent. (Hint: my own favorite strategy is trying to meet agents in person, whenever possible.) But much more often, they don’t.
The biggest mistake, says agent and author Noah Lukeman, is that people don’t try long and hard enough, using all the tools that are at a writer’s disposal. In other words, they don’t really commit to a hunt.
So, what does a long-term, true agent “hunt”—as versus a timid or ambivalent “glimpse”—look like?
That’s what we’ll be covering in my upcoming online class, This Is Your Year To Get an Agent, from September 22-30. (The class runs over two weekends plus the week in-between and is asynchronous, meaning you join the conversation and complete your assignments when it works for you.)
In the class, we’ll be more than discussing an agent hunt. We will be embarking on it. Among the steps we’ll tackle are creating the first parts of an agent wish-list using multiple research strategies; examining our personal networks; polishing our bios; learning about, writing and critiquing queries; assessing our readiness for submission; and crafting a longer-term action plan that includes alternative strategies for times when conventional approaches fail.
If you plan to join us, great.
But even if not, read on for some more expert tips.
On a true agent hunt you need to make a detailed wish list of agents to approach, including information like genres accepted, rules for submission, deals made, client lists, and other details that will help you hone and personalize your communications.
That’s challenging enough, and most of us don’t dedicate the time required. But let’s say you do. Let’s say you even write an excellent query (only one page) and correctly submit it to the top names on your list.
Lukeman says most people approach five to ten potential agents before giving up.
He recommends that you plan to send fifty, in groups of five, over a process of perhaps six months.
Yes: fifty. Eighty. And some experts even recommend going for one hundred.
You wouldn’t need such a long wish list if rejection weren’t common, but it is. Rejection is hard for even the more seasoned writer, but it can be instructive: yet another tool for the search, if you utilize it correctly.
Personalized rejections with some feedback notes are actually a sign that your query works. A request for a partial or full manuscript should also be a sign that you’re on the right track, especially if that manuscript comes back with yet more feedback (even if it is finally rejected). If the manuscript never gets any further positive comments, it’s a sign that the idea is promising but the writing needs more work. Pause the hunt; revise and work with peers; take a class. If short excerpts tend to impress people but the full manuscript doesn’t, consider hiring a book coach, who may be better at big-picture revision strategies.
If everything you send gets high praise but an agent still doesn’t sign on, take heart. Chances are, you haven’t followed Lukeman’s and Sambuchino’s advice, and are only on agent six, twelve or thirty. Keep going.
The bad news about getting published is that it takes incredible stamina. The good news is the same. Most people would love to write and publish a book, but very few people will work hard enough to realize their dream. Others’ willingness to surrender or endlessly procrastinate narrows the competition. Use that to your advantage. Don’t give up. Don’t even put off the business-of-writing chores—like looking for an agent, writing that query or proposal and so on—that await you.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of over a dozen books, including four novels which have been translated into 11 languages. Her most recent, PLUM RAINS (Soho Press, June 2018), a sci-fi/historical novel set in 2029 Tokyo and 1930s Taiwan, was called “entertaining, provocative and eerily plausible” by Japan Times and “profoundly inquisitive and compelling” by Booklist. She co-founded 49 Writers and now works as a book coach. www.romanolax.com.