Why Is It So Difficult To Get A Literary Agent?


Our agency recently had a bad experience with a writer. He posted a vicious blog after we turned down his work. (Apparently 316 other agents had rejected him which you’d think might have made him more philosophical.) Frankly, he was unhinged. Luckily, it’s noteworthy when that kind of drama explodes.

But I’m not unsympathetic to his disappointment; finding an agent isn’t easy. Most of my friends are writers; I’ve spent many hours helping them craft a submission list and compose a query letter. I feel personally involved in their hunt! And I’m always surprised at how long it can take for a debut author to get his work read and then taken on — even while I realize intellectually, that when an agent passes, it’s not a judgment on your work. Here’s why:

*  When an agent is established and has a big list, she might decide that your book is too similar to others on her list. Or her father is dying. Or she’s had a baby. Or four of her clients have just submitted their work.

*  There is no objective reality in publishing. I can send out a manuscript to 28 editors, I’ll get rejects from 27 of them (each of whom will have a completely different response to the book) and it will become a bestseller.

*  Agents spend most of their time tending their clients; they’ve got to keep their lists small, otherwise they won’t get their work done.

*  Book agents and publishers are like venture capitalists. Agents are figuring out whether a project is worth an investment of their time. Publishers, of course, are weighing the possible upside to an investment they know is more likely to disappear.

*  When a literary agent reads your manuscript here is what he is thinking: Who can I send it to? Where will it be placed in Barnes and Noble (or what kind of metadata will be used)? Will this bring in money? Reviews? Can I visualize what needs to be done editorially to get it into shape? Is this in a category that I’ve been hoping to move into? Will this be fun to work on? But most of all, it’s: Do I have enough time to do a good job for this author?

* A Literary Agent always wants to fall in love. There is nothing in Bookland that is more enticing than a debut author: No bad sales figures! Endless potential! The drama of discovery! In other words, we want you to be our Cinderella; we want the slipper to fit; and when it does, we will commit with all our heart.

This is why an author can only spend twenty percent of her time looking for an agent. Getting a literary agent is like searching for a job. You’ve got to do it seriously and methodically, but the rest of your life needs to be spent writing the next book, and well, living your life.