At some point, every writer has indulged in a few dreams of success … and some more than others.
The dream usually is a variation of the following: “I’ve written a book, and now I’m looking for an agent. I craft the perfect pitch, the agent sees it, and it immediately grabs their attention. They know my book is a bestseller, and it’s not long before I have a book deal and a big, gloriously fat advance in my hands. Everyone who ever doubted me feels shame, my family is proud, and I have achieved the first step of my Journey Of Success And Happiness.”
Dreams aren’t always realistic, but they do have a tendency to propel us forward.
While some authors have been able to grab the attention of publishers and editors themselves, many writers see the advantage of having an agent. For while agents do take a hefty cut of your earnings (should they land you a publishing deal—remember that agents don’t get paid unless you do!), an agent has a number of enviable skills and abilities. One is that they can bypass the dreaded “slush pile”—the tower of submitted manuscripts that staff editors can only go through when they have the time.
Another is that they have not only the publishing contacts but the ability to match up authors and books with a prospective editor. Agents may also work as an editor, collaborating with you on your manuscripts to improve them and make them more suitable for the market. And should the day come when you in fact are signed, they will broker the deal and can even potentially earn you more money than you may have otherwise been able to broker.
And that’s only a glimpse into what agents can do for authors. Their appeal and power is unmistakable.
But what if you want a literary agent and you can’t get one? Is it because there are so many other authors out there looking too? Or are you doing something wrong?
We’re going to look at some of the reasons you might be struggling to find an agent, and how you might be able to avert or fix the issue.
Competition is very, very high.
So many authors. So few agents. Right now, the publishing market is flooded with writers trying to get their books published. While some are attracted to indie/self-publishing from the outset, many authors begin by approaching editors and agents first. But literary agents have only so much room on their rosters, and only so much time to dedicate to potential authors. They do their best to respond to as many author queries as possible, but realistically, they can’t always respond to everyone the way they’d like to, and they certainly can’t take on every exciting new author who attracts their attention.
Keep in mind that an experienced, well-regarded agent likely already has more than enough clients. Taking on too many authors means they aren’t able to represent everyone as well as they’d like. If you want to catch an agent’s attention, you have to show them that you’re worth the opportunity cost.
Tip: Do your research, and make sure the agent is accepting pitches/manuscripts in your genre. Once you’ve done this, make sure you follow their submission requirements to the letter. Take some time to think about what sets your book apart from others.
There’s an issue with your submission/query.
One of the biggest mistakes writers can make is not following the submission requirements. In their haste to approach as many agents as possible, authors sometimes create the same package with the same files, then send it en masse to many agents.
But every agent is different, and not everyone wants the full manuscript. Sometimes they just want a short summary and perhaps some sample chapters. Others may just want to read your query. And it’s important to personalize not only what you’re sending but the person you address. When your submission is addressed to “Dear Agent” or “Dear Sir,” because you didn’t care enough to find out their name, it makes it pretty clear you didn’t do your market research—and easy for the agent to just hit Delete and move on.
Tips: Ensure you’re sending a personalized query specifically to each agent. That includes addressing them by name, and a quick line about why you think your book is a good match for their interests. Remember that many agents bristle at mass submissions. The best approach is to pick a few select agents at a time.
Follow the instructions carefully. Make sure any attachments are sent as requested. Agents rarely accept Twitter DMs when they’ve specified an email.
Have someone proof your query and submission to make sure everything is well written, as well as free of errors and silly vanity fonts.
Edit for length. A long-winded query is going to lose the agent’s attention, so you want to grab it with snappy, tightly written copy. Aim for 250 to 400 words, max.
Do your research. Agents are familiar with the market, which means they know what’s selling and what isn’t. You’ll need to show why you think your book is marketable beyond “My book will sell because I think it’s good.” This is essentially a sales pitch, so try to see your book as a business decision. Is there a market for the book? What similar titles are out there, and how are they doing? What makes yours different/better? Who will buy it?
Your book isn’t the right fit for them (for now).
Writing a book isn’t exactly a prospecting kind of science. It can take years to write a book. The world changes every day, and with it, what readers are excited to buy. Think of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. No one saw the success coming, and the books—whether you love or loathe them—came at a time when the publishing market didn’t have nearly enough mainstream erotica. It also erupted at the beginning of the e-book revolution. Did E.L. James anticipate this when she sat down to write the book? Unlikely. But for agents and editors, timing is important and often imperative to the success of a book. Sometimes waiting is to your benefit. Sometimes your book is coming in with a wave of others that agents don’t anticipate a market for either now, in the next year, or two years for now.
No one wants to hear that sometimes it’s about luck and timing, but publishing a book is a gamble. For agents, they must try to look ahead and anticipate where the market is going. Narrative nonfiction? Speculative fiction? Romance? No one knows for sure. But agents with considerable experience usually have a good idea of what won’t work. (Of course, everyone can make mistakes.)
Agents will ask the following questions:
- Is there a market for this book?
- Is the book well written and compelling?
- Does it have bestseller or award potential?
- Has this been done recently (and overdone)?
Ask yourself these same questions. Answering them will be the crux of selling your book. Sometimes it’s not about if your book is good—it’s whether the time is right for it.
Tip: Make sure that you’re not writing a book to follow a trend, but your own creativity. If your book comes from an honest place, and you love writing it because it’s purely the book YOU want to read, you can’t go wrong. Maybe you won’t be a bestseller, or even get the agent of your dreams, but your book will be true to you. There’s nothing you can do about luck or timing. All you can do is write the best book possible and hope that everything else clicks into place. But remember this: if not this book, maybe the market will be better for your next one.
You don’t have enough writing experience.
A well-written query letter is an introduction not only to your book but to you. It should compel agents and editors to want to read at least a few sample chapters or a partial manuscript, if not the whole thing. Agents are looking for great books written by great writers. If you have professional writing and/or publishing experience, agents want to know about it. An incredible query letter might induce them to want to read the book regardless, but having writing experience doesn’t hurt. Remember that journalists and other professional writers may also be writing books, and their considerable experience means have a leg up on those authors who don’t write for a living, especially if they studied something else at school.
If you’ve been making an effort to work on your craft and get published in some form, that can tell an agent a lot about where you are in your writing career. That said, what you lack in writing experience, you may have in experience with your subject matter. If your personal or professional background ties into your book’s subject, make sure you position yourself as an expert on the subject in your query letter.
Tip: Most book authors have collections of short stories, poems, essays, blogs, and more hiding in a folder in their desk or on their computer. Think about finding a place to publish them, either for a magazine, website, or even as a guest blogger. Not only is this great experience for you and sounds great in your query, it can increase your reader following, which can be a significant factor for some agents. Which leads to …
You don’t use social media.
Let me start out by saying that this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Having a large social media following is not absolutely imperative to landing an agent or getting your book published. But it helps. If an agent has your query and maybe even your manuscript in hand and is on the fence about taking you on, being active on social media with a decent-size following can be a very attractive selling point. Why? Because those people following you prove that you already have a dedicated platform with a potential reader base. In the eyes of agents and editors, that means sales. And sales are what agents and publishers are looking for.
This is not to say that avoiding social media means no one will want your book. It’s just reassures the agent (and your future publisher) that you’ve got the platform to promote your book as hard as, if not harder than, they will.
Tip: I know, I know. If you don’t like social media, you don’t want to do this. And that’s absolutely your decision. But if you decide to start using it (and we recommend it), be authentic and engage with people not as an author trying to get an audience, but as an author connecting with potential readers. It’s about connection, not numbers. So rather than being aggressively single-minded in your determination to get more followers, look at it like an exercise in chatting with your fans about different things. Engage with people because they are readers and human beings, not because they can do something for you. A big mistake authors make is trying to get as many followers as possible but not creating any content or engagement that provides value to the audience.
You might be kind of a jerk.
This one sadly happens more than people think. If you have a tendency to shoot your mouth off when you’re upset, and maybe publicly—like on Twitter, or some other public platform—then the publishing industry will notice. Badmouthing your industry is bad news, especially if you react badly to constructive criticism. I can’t tell you how many angry folks take to Twitter after a rejection, decrying agents and editors. Or write awful emails. Or (I’m sorry to say this happens) make wildly inappropriate and unprofessional comments and jokes in theirquery, and even flirt (seriously, ew).
Tip: Be kind. Be patient. (It takes agents time to get through so many queries and manuscripts.) Be professional. Agents are just doing their job as best as they can. Remember that their decision to not represent you is a business decision, not a personal one. (Unless you are actually kind of a jerk, in which case you should probably have a muffin and reconsider some of your life choices.)
Not every agent is the right agent.
For those who are new to publishing and seeking an agent, landing an agent is kind of the dream. But the truth is—like with many other professional fields—it’s about a relationship. Not every agent is the right agent for you. You can find an agent who’s interested and likes your book. They think you’re a great writer, and they might even suggest you have breakout bestselling potential that could land you a very lucrative publishing deal. You think that your dreams are on the cusp of coming true, like the fantasy I mentioned earlier. (And yes, this happened to me.) You might love talking and working with them, but the truth is, not every agent/author relationship ends with a book deal. It’s not always a perfect process, and it’s also not always the answer to your prayers. And under the worst circumstances, the wrong agent—even one you get along with—can turn you inside out and fill you with doubt, even crippling your career and your confidence, and send you fleeing from that same dream you were so closed to having. (Also me.) In the process, you can lose years writing and revising with no end in sight, and end up walking away exhausted and disillusioned.
So I am not going to end this with a wise, pithy little tip, but with some real wisdom, hard-earned and painfully learned:
Having an agent does not necessarily indicate your worth, your skill, or your talent.
Agents are merely people whose professional experience can lead you through the large and largely bewildering world of publishing. They have expertise and a vast network, not to mention skills that can get you where you want to be a lot faster and with a few extra bucks in your pocket.
But at the end of the day, it’s not up to an agent to make you a success.
Whatever happens next is entirely up to you.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.