Literary agents take on a tiny percentage of the books they’re pitched, so how can you differentiate yourself from the rest of their reading pile?
15 min read
One in 6,000.
Those are the odds of an unpublished author convincing a literary agent to represent your novel, according to Mark Malatesta at Literary-Agents.com.
“The best book agents can get as many as 1,500 queries per month, and they sometimes only offer to represent approximately six new clients per year,” he writes. Of those six new clients, three will most likely have been published elsewhere already. By that math, in a calendar year, a top agent may receive as many as 18,000 queries and represent as few as three unpublished authors from that pile. Others are more optimistic, saying that an unpublished author has a one in 500 chance of finding representation.
Whatever the exact math, two facts remain the same: 1. It’s wildly difficult to earn an agent’s interest, and 2. That interest is almost necessary if you want to follow the traditional publication route.
I should start by explaining that I know first-hand how difficult this process can be. I submitted my first fiction book (a fantasy novel for young adults) to dozens of literary agents, with no success. It took about six years to write the book — I started it in high school with visions of becoming the next Christopher Paolini (who reached No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list with Eragon, a book he started at 15) and finished it while attending New York University’s postgraduate publishing program. I majored in English in college and took workshops in science-fiction writing taught by other published authors. I thought my book was, if a little rough around the edges, as interesting as many of the published works I had read.
But after about six weeks of researching and submitting to literary agencies, I knew it wasn’t going to be published. Only two agencies even showed (very) mild interest in my book, and I failed to convert that into anything more.
The goal was that I would eventually sign a deal with a publisher, yes, but there’s such a mad rush of content that many major publishing houses won’t even look at your manuscript if you try to send it directly to them.
Think of it this way: If the editors at a publishing house are the gatekeepers of literary taste, then the agents are the first line of defense. Or, put in simpler terms, take a look at a website for a major publishing house like Orbit Books, which says, “If you would like us to consider your novel for publication, the first step is to find a literary agent…. We accept (agented) submissions from writers from all backgrounds.”
They’ll consider anyone who has an agent and automatically reject anyone who doesn’t. You could have written the next Game of Thrones, and it likely won’t matter. Chances are, the manuscript will be rejected out of hand before a single word is ever read.
This isn’t out of cruelty — publishers simply have limited staff and unlimited submissions. They have to be as efficient as possible with their time, which is why an agent’s recommendation and representation can make all the difference.
Even with representation, your book may fall through the cracks. And if it does get published with a traditional house, it may still fail to sell as many copies as you’d hope. Nothing is really guaranteed unless you already have a built-in audience (Barack and Michelle Obama inked a $65 million book deal before ever writing a page).
If you’d prefer to skip all of this red tape and self-publish your book, I wouldn’t blame you. But if you do want to try the traditional route, then hopefully my experiences can help you get there.
Related: How to Write a Book (and Actually Finish It) in 5 Steps
Why is it so hard to get a literary agent to represent you?
Let’s start with the struggle before we get to the success (it makes for a better narrative arc).
The first thing you should know is that literary agents will expect a fiction book to be completed before they even read an introductory letter. If they like that letter, they’ll read the first five to 10 pages. If they like that, they might ask for 50 pages, then the entire work. Then they’ll share the book with others in the agency to see if their colleagues share the same opinion.
That means you are responsible for a killer query letter that grabs their attention, individualized for each agent (“I think you might be interested in my story because you represent this author” or “I know you love this genre”). The story needs to start strong — many agents will give up on your book immediately if they see “Prologue” at the top of page one — and, most daunting of all, a finished novel before you ever start this process.
Oh, and after all of this work, if an agent decides they are going to pass on your book, the best you can probably hope for is a form rejection. Many literary agents don’t even reply to all of their submissions but instead post something on their company website like, “If you don’t hear back from me in two months, it means I passed.”
Despite all of these challenges, most online articles, coaches and guidebooks will tell you that if you failed to get an agent, your pitch simply wasn’t good enough, because true quality will eventually find a home. They’ll tell you that you can put yourself ahead of the pack simply by researching which agents will be most interested in your story and writing a killer query letter about yourself and your book. They’ll talk about having a strong hook in the opening pages of the story to draw in an uninvested reader.
My first book failed to contain all of the elements needed to make it through this gauntlet.
All of these tips are important — essential, really. To illustrate, let’s flip the scary numbers we started with: If an agent receives 18,000 submissions per year and takes on six total authors, that means they have to reject 17,994 submissions. That’s 99.97% of submissions. Give them any reason at all — misspelling their name, a typo in the query letter, a formatting issue — and they’ll move on to the next story.
I once submitted my book with “Track Changes” still on. The agent opened the Google Doc and found more red ink and crossings-out than actual story. Easy rejection.
That’s why you should read over your submissions multiple times before submitting. You should also send the pages as a PDF, when possible, which will create a cleaner version of your work and help you avoid my rookie mistake.
But even if you avoid the pitfalls that, optimistically, 90% of authors fall into, you’re still one of 1,800 remaining submissions. If that agent accepts just six authors per year, you’ve only increased your odds of getting accepted from 0.03% to 0.3%. Not exactly encouraging. Even the more optimistic odds (one in 500) move your chances to around 4%, which is lower than Harvard’s acceptance rate.
If you come from a sales background, you might not think that number is discouraging, either — you likely already know about rejection and casting a wide net. Khalid Saleh writes that the average conversion rate on ecommerce sites in the U.S. is less than 3%, and business has been booming of late for those companies. The problem here is that a rejection from one agent represents a rejection from the entire agency. It’s considered bad form to simultaneously pitch multiple agents from the same company, and agents will pass along pitches to one another if they think it’s a better fit for a colleague.
You should, and will likely have to, query dozens and dozens of potential agents. Writer’s Digest says you should not give up until you’ve tried at least 80, and it’s easy to see why: Even the best ideas and most successful books can fall through the cracks. We’ve all heard the stories about how 12 publishers turned down the Harry Potter series. Stephen King admitted in his work, On Writing, “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips I impaled on it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
Writing 80 queries will take a lot of time and effort — you’ll need to research each agent’s background and interest and personalize your letter for that individual. Given those restraints and the limited number of agencies in the U.S., trying to query something like 3,000 different companies is probably not practical.
So, if you can’t use a brute force approach to getting an agent, how can you improve your odds?
Realize that your competition is not other authors
Literary agents claim they can typically tell within the first page or two of reading whether the author has the writing chops to be considered. That starts, of course, with the query letter, which details your story, your background and why your book fits with this particular agent.
The problem, however, is that the best writer in the world and the worst are still contained by the same medium: size 12 black font, preferably in Times New Roman, on dull white pages. There is no cover on a query to judge a story by, no cinematic shots or booming soundtracks to distinguish between the newest Christopher Nolan blockbuster and the home video. Everyone is equal on the page, which can be both freeing and frustrating.
On the one hand, this medium allows anyone to compete with the titans of the industry, even on a small budget. On the other hand, the limitations of text make it difficult for your story to stand out from other submissions.
Have you ever turned on a Netflix show for background sound — say, Downton Abbey — and then realized some time later that three episodes have passed and you have no clue what happened in any of them? You got distracted on social media, had to answer three work-related emails and made lunch. The aesthetic of the show just blurred into one scene, and you couldn’t pick out any particular moment upon reflection.
Now imagine a literary agent with a slush pile (yes, that’s actually the industry term) of hundreds or thousands of submissions. In their position, how closely would you read every single submission, knowing that the next day is only going to bring more queries. Giving even a decent story the benefit of the doubt will only increase your workload for more reading later. Would you take your time with each one, and give the author the benefit of the doubt when they make a small error? Probably not.
You might instead look through and see whether one of the stories has a title you like and skip the others. You might decide on impulse that you don’t feel like reading a drama and would prefer something lighter to pick up your Tuesday morning.
You would probably make a lot of snap decisions — some of which would have to do with the quality of the submission. This is not at all to say literary agents are lazy. It’s simply to remind you that they’re people. Most people just don’t have the attention span or time to do that with such an overflow of content in 2021.
Here, then, is your biggest competition in getting an agent: Not any of the submissions in the slush pile, but the actual slush pile itself. Not the writers, but simply the time it takes to sift through all of them.
Related: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Writing a Book
Give literary agents a reason to look forward to your work
We all know there’s a vast gulf between having to do something and wanting to do it. We also know that many subjective and artistic judgments are tinted by our emotional state — a sad song hits harder after a breakup, a rom-com might be better for a fun night out with friends.
Literary agents have to read through every one of their submissions, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy all of them. You can’t determine when said agent will be finding your work or how they’ll be feeling at the moment.
What you can do, however, is give them a reason to care about you and your query. Make them judge your submission not as one in 6,000, but rather, on its own merits.
My first novel query, the one that failed to find an agent, received only two responses seeking more of the story. One of them — the one to whom I eventually sent the “Track Changes” version — attended my alma mater, which I mentioned in the brief email I sent to her.
My second novel query was similarly rejected out of hand by almost everyone. Out of all the places I sent the letter, only one was willing to read the actual book, cover to cover.
My friend worked at the agency, in the sports department, and had only gotten his start a year or two before. He had no power to push the book through, and merely asked a friend of his in the literary department if she would take a look. If she didn’t like it, no harm done. It was a tenuous connection — my friend’s work colleague — but it gave her a reason to read my story. In seven years of writing and pitching, she is still the only agent who read either of my two stories in their entirety.
She fell in love with the story, or at least its potential, and you’d think that would be the happy ending.
In some ways, it was actually the beginning. See, she said the book I thought I’d perfected was way too long and the ending was just a little off. She told me that if I could flesh out the last few chapters while keeping all of the important bits in the beginning and middle and cutting 150 pages, we might be onto something special.
At first, I had no idea whether that was even possible — whether I had the ability to tell the same or better story with 25% fewer words. Part of me didn’t even want to attempt the rewrite, because how could the book be better than it already was? Hadn’t I already passed the gauntlet?
It took some humility to try. A willingness to rework things and kill my literary darlings. Most of all, rewriting the book took patience and time. I first sent her the story in September of 2019. Two years and three drafts later, we’re preparing one final series of line edits before submitting to publishers this fall.
The best part is that she was right. I like this draft, with the edits I initially hated, better than the version I started with.
There are still no guarantees a publisher buys my book, or if one does, that the story will find its audience. I don’t expect to be the next Christopher Paolini anymore.
But new authors, myself included, often just want an honest chance in a crowded marketplace. They want someone to actually read the book and decide its worth — not on the first page, or the query letter, but from the actual story that we’ve worked on for years.
Giving agents a reason to read your story, to care about you, before they ever lay eyes on your query can give you a leg up.
There’s research behind the value of a warm introduction, too: A Frontiers in Neuroscience study concluded that listeners preferred songs they were familiar with. If you can provide that sort of familiarity — an alma mater, a meeting at a conference, a friend of a friend — it really can provide a window of opportunity for first-time authors. Try to do it organically and well ahead of time. This sort of connection will feel more like spam if you’re simply DMing them a day before your submission.
Show the literary agents a genuine interest in their work and their hobbies. Give them a reason to treat you more like a friend, or at least an acquaintance, and less like another unwanted email in their inbox. Then, back up their initial interest with a great query letter and, better, a book that keeps them riveted. And once you think your book is the best it can possibly be, remain open to the important criticism that can make it even better.
Easy enough, right?