The Top Five Ways Not To Get A Literary Agent

So you’ve finished that brilliant novel—the one that’s been clawing its way out of your head for the past five years. It’s gone through a first draft, a second draft and more polishes than a West Point cadet’s shoes. Your writing group loves it. Your mailman loves it. Heck, even your mother-in-law loves it.

You send out your first batch of query letters to the biggest and best literary agents in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. You arrange for a week off from work so you can sit by the phone and field their adoring phone calls. And then…nothing.

A week goes by. And a month. Then the rejections start showing up in the SASEs you so thoughtfully included with your queries—so many that you start to hate the sight of your own handwriting.

What happened? Why is your brilliant book getting rejected without so much as a request for a partial manuscript? Is it possible that agents can tell that your work isn’t right for them without even reading any of it?

I’ll let you in on a little secret: We usually can. Agents are a fickle bunch. We’ve all got different styles, and we each like different kinds of books. But there’s one thing we agree on: Writers make it easy for us to reject them. In fact, there are five things some writers do that practically guarantee rejection. Once you know what they are, avoid them and you’ll have a better shot at forging a relationship with the agent who’ll get you that first deal. Here then, are the top five ways not to get a literary agent:

(1) Follow the rules. You’ve bought all the books and stuck to the guidelines. Your query letter isn’t just great, it’s perfect. But here’s the thing: If you’re relying on a cold query letter to get an agent, you’re already behind the curve. Trying to get an agent by sending out query letters alone is like trying to get a job by sending out blanket résumés. Does it happen? Sure. You may even know someone it’s happened to. But it’s a terrible way to go about it.

If you can’t wrangle a referral from one of the agent’s current clients, you must do something else to distinguish yourself from the pack. Writing conferences in particular are a great way to meet agents. We’re more likely to take a serious look at your work once we’ve met you in person. And if you can find some sort of personal hook, exploit it. College ties, hometown connections—it doesn’t matter as long as it distinguishes you from the 300 to 500 other people who’ve queried the agent that week.

Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t call on the telephone. If I don’t know you, I’m not here. Ever. (Unless your last name is Grisham. And even then you better be able to tell my receptionist the name of your Albanian publisher.) Which brings us to No. 2:

(2) Break the rules. There are some rules you just can’t break and expect to be taken seriously. Spelling is one of them. If your first e-mail to me has three typos, I can only imagine how much proofreading it would take to make your manuscript ready for prime time if I took you on as a client—which I won’t.

Agents are in the enviable position of having to read something only until we don’t like it. Then we put it down and do a quick rejection. It’s shocking if we actually get to the end of a complete manuscript. To sign a new client, most of us have to be so in love that to not sign the writer would be devastating. I have colleagues at other agencies whose standards for marriage are lower than their standards for taking on new clients. Maybe that’s why their relationships with authors last longer.

(3) Pick the wrong agent. Here’s the deal: Lots of agents would be delighted to talk to you if you’re writing romances, cozy mysteries, hard-core science fiction or anything that would be published as a mass-market paperback, but I’m not one of them. Some agents represent only nonfiction, and your novel—brilliant though it may be—isn’t going to convert them.

Here’s another thing to consider—agents who’ve been around for a while and have a long list of bestselling authors may not necessarily be the best representatives for you. Younger, hungrier agents at their companies, who are building their client lists, can take on more new writers. When it works out, you get the best of both worlds: the benefit of an older agent’s years of experience coupled with the time and attention of an agent with a smaller client base. Plus, you’ll never have to hear comments like: “Oops. Gotta go. John’s Albanian publisher is on the other line.”

(4) Write the wrong book. The market for first novels is so competitive that you need to have some kind of hook to pique an agent’s interest in your book. Writing a novel about a serial killer? Great. The first thing I’m going to ask is what you do for a living. If you’re a plumber, I’m probably not interested. But if you work in behavioral sciences at the FBI, my ears will perk up. (Of course, if you’re writing a novel about serial killers and you actually are a serial killer—please get in touch with me immediately. Oh, wait. No, don’t. Please don’t.)

If you can pitch your novel to a publisher in one sentence or less and the concept alone is different and interesting—the kind of book that a publicist will be able to sell to a reviewer, for instance—you’re going to have a much better shot. If you’re writing about coming of age in the Midwest, it’s going to be difficult to find a publisher. A detective novel about a New York City cop with a heart of gold? Eh. A literary retelling of the Noah’s Ark story? Now we’re talking. Which brings us to No. 5. Never:

(5) Give up. No matter who you are, no matter how hard you try, you’re going to get rejections. It’s up to you to work through those rejections and get stronger because of them. When it comes to rejection, we feel your pain—really, we do. Even though your books are your children, when we represent them they’re like our nieces and nephews. Even the best agents don’t sell 100 percent of the projects they take on. As for the projects we do sell, editors don’t always say yes to them. That’s why it’s critical to find an agent who’s going to believe in you and your book, and keep trying to find it a home.

Of course, with hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of books published each year all over the world, happy endings abound in the publishing business. I recently sold two books for an author whose query letter I’d originally passed on. She tracked me down, did some extensive editing and convinced me to sign her. Thirty-nine rejections later, I found the perfect editor at the perfect house—and the book will be out in September.

So when you get that next rejection, remember the immortal words of Winston Churchill, who was probably talking about finding an agent when he said: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never…give in.”

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