Everybody tells you that success requires persistence, lots of trying and failing and trying again. Of course, those people have usually already succeeded.
I started the agent search process last summer. I devoted months to research, making lists and winnowing them down so I wouldn’t invite rejections of my novel by querying agents who only represent political nonfiction or sci-fi thrillers. I’ve been sending out queries for nearly two months, and I have an Excel spreadsheet to track all the queries I’ve sent out (seventeen, so far), with columns for status, follow-up dates, and results.
To say it’s a slow process is an understatement. Even though the majority of my query letter is static, customizing it takes far longer than I’d have expected. I revise each letter to tell that agent why I’m querying her, such as the fact that she represented a particular book or because my novel sounds like the type of project she’s described on her manuscript wish list or her Publishers Marketplace listing. Every agent wants something different: this one wants a query and the first ten pages; that one wants a query, a bio, and the first three chapters; the other one wants a query, a bio, a synopsis, and a sample chapter. Some want all these documents attached as Word documents; others require that all materials be pasted into the body of the email. On top of that, I have to doublecheck the agent’s website and Twitter feed to ensure that she isn’t closed to submissions (as recently happened with one I was about to query). It’s not an exaggeration to say that it takes an hour to prepare and send a single query.
Then, there’s the waiting game. Some agents respond quickly; others never do. Some send personal rejections; others use a form. One agent who deals exclusively by snail mail sent a lovely standard rejection that began by apologizing for the impersonality of the form, but it was so elegant that it felt personal anyway.
For the vast majority of us, finding an agent can be a long slog. My favorite podcast, Shipping and Handling, is a conversation between two literary agents about agenting, publishing, and pretty much anything else you want to know about the industry. In one episode, someone asked them how long to keep querying a single project. The agents said if the person has sent out eighty queries and not found an agent, the person should shelve that book and work on the next one. The advice was sound, but the notion of sending out eighty queries nearly caused me to drive off the road.
In an effort to cheer myself up, I Googled this question: “How long does it take to find a literary agent?” The answers ranged from dreadful to horrifying. One article stated that an author who does not have endorsements or a trusted recommendation is unlikely to find an agent. A Q&A on a forum garnered responses from six months and three rounds of submissions to “[o]ne year and 500 queries for five seperate [sic] novels.” One published author who wished to switch from children’s books to adult books sent out two hundred queries before landing an agent. Kathryn Stockett, author of the best-selling The Help—which was her debut—was rejected by sixty agents over three and one-half years.
At the other end of the spectrum is acclaimed author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett. In “The Getaway Car,” she talks about how she published her first short story in the Paris Review, and soon thereafter, an agent called and asked to take her on as a client. (Did I mention that these events took place when she was twenty years old?)
Since there’s no Tinder to match authors and agents, many of us entertain ourselves with the notion that one day, an agent will pick our work out of the slush pile and say, “Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for!” Like Ralphie’s teacher in A Christmas Story, the agent will leap to her feet in sheer ecstasy as the writing community applauds our brilliance.
I expect that for most of us, reality will be a tad quieter. An agent will request a full manuscript; then, after an agonizing amount of time (anything upwards of twelve hours qualifies), she will email a request to set up a phone conversation. Upon receipt of the email, we’ll dance with joy, call our writer friends and loved ones, open champagne, and then send a calm, professional response scheduling a time for this telephone conference. After hitting send, we’ll plunge into a search for articles about the questions you should ask a potential agent.
If the conversation results in the agent offering representation, we’ll agree with this agent upon a reasonable deadline for responding to the offer, after which we’ll fire off a barrage of emails to every other agent who hasn’t yet rejected us, letting them know that we have an offer. This may well result in more phone chats, more research, and even other offers, a circumstance the Shipping and Handling agents refer to as a “beauty contest” where the author is in the enviable position of choosing from a group of eager agent-suitors.
Securing representation is, of course, far from the end of the road. Beyond the signing of the author-agent agreement is another long slog that includes editing the book before submission, submitting it to publishers, selling it, more edits, and months of production- and publicity-related tasks. Finally, if all goes well and the stars align, there will come a day when we hold The Book in our hands—and then, all everybody has to worry about is convincing people to buy it.
The reality is that most of this process is out of our hands. We can’t make agents represent us. We can’t make publishers buy our books. Even if we choose to self-publish, we can’t make readers magically appear, eager to lay down their hard-earned dollars so they can read our stories. We can market our hearts out, but we can’t control the reviews—or the silence.
There is, in fact, only one aspect we can truly control: our writing.
Nevertheless, we persist. We write the books. We research the agents. We send out the queries. We follow up. We send out more queries. We keep going and keep going and keep going, because let’s face it: the only thing better than finding the perfect agent on the first try is finding one after sixty tries, only to have the book all those agents rejected become a best-seller and a major motion picture.
One path is quick and easy, but the other is a much better story.