Some writers have all the luck, but most writers take more than a few tries to unlock the secrets of how to find a literary agent. Martine Fournier Watson shares the story of her journey through 108 rejections over the course of 18 months.
Every time I come across the story of J.K. Rowling being rejected a whopping 12 times, I laugh. It gets even funnier if you happen to know those 12 rejections were from editors considering her manuscript, not agents. When it came to agents, she signed with the second person she queried.
Don’t get me wrong—I think that’s wonderful for Rowling and for any other writer who has the good fortune to find representation so quickly. I just don’t think anyone should be trying to encourage writers in the query trenches by pointing it out: “Hey, don’t lose heart! The creator of Harry Potter was actually rejected a handful of times! You’re not alone!”
The fact is, you’re not alone, but you might not be in the company of J. K. Rowling and her ilk. And that’s perfectly fine.
I know there are countless articles floating around out there by writers who spent, well, a lot longer than J.K. Rowling trying to land an agent and a book deal, but I tend to think there can never be too many of them. When I was querying and feeling blue, I actively searched for these kinds of stories. I wanted to read about authors who wrote five books and queried 500 people before they finally got the call. Stories about authors who just happened to bump into a wildly successful agent on the street, spilled coffee on them and signed with them as soon as they finished mopping the mess with their latest manuscript—not so much.
Here are my statistics: I spent more than 18 months querying my book, and in that time I sent out 109 queries. I was rejected 108 times.
I tried to do everything right. I wrote a first draft, revised, sent it out to beta readers, revised some more and in January 2015 I fired off my first round of queries. I had researched the agents representing clients whose work I admired, but this list was quickly exhausted. I had a few requests for the full, and a few kind rejections to go along with them. So I went out and bought the Writer’s Digest Books Guide to Literary Agents and began working my way through it alphabetically, querying anyone who was interested in literary fiction. It seemed as reasonable an approach as any, and I’m a big believer in leaving no stone unturned.
Looking back, I’m not sure my book was really ready to be queried. But this was a Catch-22 situation, because I didn’t actually know anyone who could tell me it wasn’t ready until I started querying. I owe so much to that first agent who got in touch with me and asked me if I would consider making changes to the book. She pointed out places where the arcs of some of my characters were hurried. She thought I had revealed something early on that would be better saved for the end. Eventually, we parted ways because her vision for the book was too different from mine, but she had helped me make it so much better.
Of course, most of the time, agents are too busy to offer editorial feedback on books they don’t want to sign, and I spent many months opening emails that told me the agent simply “didn’t connect” to my book. This particular phrase wormed its way into my psyche and nested there. What did it mean? If they couldn’t connect to a character, had I failed to paint the character convincingly? If they couldn’t connect to my voice, was there a fatal flaw in my writing style that no one had ever pointed out? In one week, I had an agent reject the book because she “couldn’t connect” to the characters, and another one tell me she fell in love with my characters but found my writing style too literary. What was a writer to do?
I felt as though I came close to an offer several times, but never quite got there. Until I received an email from an agent I had given up on many months before: Bridget Smith from Dunham Literary. In my alphabetical quest, Bridget fell under the D’s because of her agency name, and she was the 39th person I queried. Eight or nine months had passed since my initial query when she emailed to ask me if the manuscript was still available. Slightly humiliated to admit that it was, I sent it along. Another five or six months went by, and she wrote to let me know I was next in her reading queue. I asked if I might substitute the most recent version of the book, since I had continued to work on it and felt the new version was stronger, and Bridget agreed. After she finished reading, she arranged a time to call me and offered me representation. I told her I’d been waiting to find her for a very long time, and she laughed.
At first, I thought it was a shame that so much time had passed. If Bridget had been able to respond to my initial query faster, to read the book faster, I could have been saved an entire year of waiting and wondering. But then I remembered how much the book had changed since that original query. It was still basically the same story, but much improved from the early version I had sent out to so many wonderful agents who turned me down. Without all that intervening time, it’s quite possible that Bridget would have passed on it, too.
I hope you’ll keep this story in mind if you find yourself querying for a year, for two years. Listen to any constructive criticism that resonates with you, and keep working on your book. For me, it made all the difference.
Martine Fournier Watson is originally from Montreal, Canada, where she earned her Master’s degree in art history after a year in Chicago as a Fulbright scholar. She currently lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. The Dream Peddler is her first novel. martinefournierwatson.com