Finding an agent who will take a chance on your book can be a challenge, and a lengthy one at that. If you’re struggling, here are some words of wisdom from celebrated authors—including Helen Hoang, Robyn Harding, Elyssa Friedland, and more—to motivate you to keep working toward your goal of getting a literary agent.
By Stephanie Elliot
When I set out to find an agent, I did all the required research. I searched out agent names in the back of books I thought were similar to mine; I joined online writer’s groups to connect with other writers; I scoured websites like agentquery.com; I crafted what I hoped was an intriguing query letter; and I created an extensive excel document to track the journey to agent representation.
After I spent all of that time writing a book, I was ready to get to the equally hard work of finding my dream agent.
That journey took me through 140 agent queries, a few close calls, and a lot of devastation. I remember telling my mother that if I didn’t have agent representation by the 100th query, then I would throw in my proverbial writer’s towel. When I shared the news with my mother that I got an agent on the 140th query, she said, “I thought you were quitting after 100?”
“Mom,” I said, “if I gave up then, I wouldn’t have gotten an agent. Right?”
Right. I didn’t give up. But the story didn’t end there, with that first agent, a fat check and a two-book deal. Nope. It took a very long time to publication, including that first book getting turned down in acquisitions meetings, writing three more books, self-publishing, and switching agents a few times. When my dream of becoming a traditionally published author became a reality with my young adult novel, Sad Perfect, I had been querying and writing for close to 12 years.
We writers know we have to write, and to get published, we can’t quit our search for that perfect agent. It’s in your blood, it’s in your bones, and if you’re like me—and could think of nothing but getting published—you will get there with time and persistence. And by not quitting.
If you’re struggling (and what writer doesn’t struggle?), here are some words of wisdom from celebrated authors to motivate you to keep working toward your goal of getting a literary agent. These authors have been through the rejection ringer as well, and they’ve all come out on the other side. The side where you will see your name on the cover of a book that you wrote and worked hard to get published!
Author Stories & Advice About the Path to Getting a Literary Agent
I sent my first book to dozens of agents and got absolutely no traction whatsoever. Just a series of rejections or even worse: no response at all. After about a year, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to my agent Linda Chester through a friend. Linda read my book and said she liked the style of my writing but wanted me to work with a professional editor before shopping the novel to publishers. After a year of rewriting, I sent her the revised manuscript and—much to my disappointment—she decided it still wasn’t a book that would succeed. She asked if I had any other projects up my sleeve. I was crushed until I realized that she believed in me and in my writing and she still wanted to work with me, even if it meant starting over with a brand new project. I sat down and wrote Small Admissions, and she sold it right away.
– Amy Poeppel, author of Limelight and Small Admissions
When I wrote my first novel, The Journal of Mortifying Moments, I submitted the manuscript to every agent and publisher in Canada. I’m Canadian, so this was logical. And I was intimidated to enter the huge US market, thinking I would have more luck closer to home. This was in 2003 when a writer had to submit queries by snail mail, so it took almost a year for my entire country to reject me. Soon after, I went with friends to visit a psychic, and she told me that I should submit to the US and the UK. So, I thought: Why not? A few months later, I got a phone call from an agent in New York and a publisher in the UK on the same day! I’m still with that agent, fifteen years later. The moral of the story: psychics are always right.
– Robyn Harding, internationally bestselling author of Her Pretty Face
The best writing advice I ever got came during the query stage. I’d been sending things out and stacking up rejections. I started talking about quitting because I hated all the rejection. Canadian writer Ivan Coyote told me: “Here’s a news flash. You’re already not published. The worst thing that will happen is that you still won’t be published.” That was my lightbulb moment. If I quit I knew I’d never reach my dream of being a writer. So I kept stacking up those rejections—until I got to that yes.
– Eileen Cook, author of With Malice
I was rejected by over 100 literary agents when I first started querying. Despite keeping a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet of everyone I submitted to and what their response was, my first book didn’t land me a literary agent. However, while I was out on submission with it, I wrote another book to keep my mind off all the rejections I was getting—and there were times I got six rejections in a day. When I submitted my next book, some of the same agents rejected me… again, but some didn’t! I ended up getting two offers of representation—one of which came while I was traveling in Antarctica! If I had given up after the first book and all those rejections, I never would have gotten my book deal for my young adult retelling called A Touch of Gold about the cursed daughter of King Midas. You just have to stick with it, keep writing, and refuse to give up!
– Annie Sullivan, author of A Touch of Gold, coming August, 2018
Before my first book was published, I wrote four novel manuscripts, the second of which actually landed an agent. Not bad! But none of those books worked out, and ultimately neither did that agent. I did hit triple-digit agent rejections in the meantime. Manuscript Five was Real Life & Liars, represented by Kristin Nelson, who is my agent to this day, for all six of my published novels. I queried Kristin Nelson with every available manuscript. The actual number of times is lost to time and history and old hard drives. She wasn't the only one I kept hitting up, either. I customized the target list, but always had a wish list of agents I hoped to work with, and the top tier changed very little. Keep banging on that door, friends! That is, keep banging with a better manuscript every time... that's the trick, isn't it?
– Kristina Riggle, author of Vivian in Red
I’m not going to say finding the right agent is as important as finding the right romantic partner, but a close second? Definitely. If the relationship is a good one, they are your closest ally, friend and sounding board in an industry that can be baffling and nonsensical at times.
I came to my current agent through a close friend who is also a writer. At the time, I was represented by a different agent for whom I still have a great deal of respect. But she lived across the country and wasn’t one for texting and frequent calls. I realized I needed more handholding. The breakup was tough. My agent was extremely gracious about it, but it was still hard to cut ties with the first person that took a chance on me.
Fast forward, my new agent and I are in constant contact. She calms my nerves, pushes me to be better, and patiently answers my often-silly questions. It wasn’t a straight path to get there, but I learned a lot on the journey.
– Elyssa Friedland, author of Love and Miss Communication and The Intermission
There were five years, two manuscripts and hundreds of rejections before we could say those four glorious words: we have an agent. Some perspective agents who passed sent us form letters. Others personalized their responses slightly by combining our names to become Liza. One even called us Mr. Fenton and Mr. Steinke! While still rejecting us, a few kindly gave us feedback, which we devoured. But ultimately, the first two books we wrote didn’t gain representation. We were at a crossroads: write another one or give up. We decided to try one more time. And over a year later, that novel, Your Perfect Life, led us to the agent who had been sitting at the very top of our list all along—Elisabeth Weed at The Book Group.
– Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke, bestselling authors of The Good Widow
When I finished writing The Kiss Quotient, I was convinced it was a game-changer for me. I’d finally found my voice, you see, and I was proud of how I’d grown. Guess what feedback I received from one of my “dream” agents? She didn’t care for the voice—my voice. I admit I cried my eyes out. That’s a very personal criticism, and I had no clue how to solve my bad voice problem. I thought I’d already solved it. I was lost. But I couldn’t give up on this story. I loved it too much, and I loved the voice, too, even if someone I respected didn’t like it. I revised the parts of the book that I could and queried again and again and again. Eventually, I acquired representation and landed a book deal. One aspect of the writing has been praised repeatedly. Guess what it is.
– Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient
I had been sending out batches of queries for months and updating a growing spreadsheet of rejections. Despite a manuscript that had won several awards, I kept receiving similar-sounding rejections: we love your voice, but blah, blah, blah. Eventually, I moved on to querying a second finished manuscript.
In the meantime, a friend emailed me to say that she had a friend who had read an early version of the first manuscript in a Romance Writers of America contest. The friend was represented by an agent, who knew an agent who was in the process of building a list of authors, and wanted to know if I would like her to put in a good word for me with said agent. Would I? A few weeks later, I signed with Amanda Leuck at Spencerhill Associates and never looked back.
Interestingly, Amanda sold the first manuscript—the one I’d given up on—to HarperCollins/Blink. The Thing with Feathers released in 2017 and will be followed up with a second book, Meet the Sky, on September 4, 2018. That second manuscript—the one that helped me land an agent—is still sitting on my flash drive. Publishing is a funny business—equal parts persistence and providence. For me, focusing on the part I could control, the persistence, is what paid off in the long run.
– McCall Hoyle, award-winning author of The Thing with Feathers and Meet the Sky
Stephanie Elliot is the author of the young adult novel, Sad Perfect. She has been a Writer's Digest subscriber for more than two decades and credits the magazine with helping her find her dream agent. Visit www.stephanieelliot.com for more information.