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Finding a Literary Agent: Things Nobody Told Me, Part Three

This is the final installment of three blog posts in which I discuss steps I took in seeking literary representation, above and beyond that oh-so-frequently-bandied advice of “write the best book you can.”

In the first installment, I discussed the process by which I set up validated Author Pages for myself on both Amazon and

In the second, I covered how I went about launching my official author website, I got inspired to finish up this series by Caryn Riswold's recent post, "Coming Out as a Novelist."

Like Caryn, I'm a college professor in a field that's got nothing to do with creative writing (costuming for stage/film/TV), and I've published academically in my discipline as well as in anthologies and literary journals. I began my querying process in May of 2014, using QueryTracker and a spreadsheet and a much-highlighted copy of the 2014 Guide to Literary Agents. With these resources, I assembled a list of my top twenty-five agents before querying at all.

So that's my first bit of advice for a querying strategy: do your homework. For my manuscript, I looked at whether an agent repped fiction, specifically adult literary fiction, and then whether they stated that they were seeking diverse voices, specifically in terms of characters of color (I have a diverse ensemble cast of characters), and also LGBTQ themes, as several of my characters fall all over the map on the gender spectrum and sexuality spectrum. If an agent also mentioned that they represented quirky/edgy books, or novels with dark themes or pop cultural elements, they went on my list. And I also queried agents who represented authors who have published books that in some way resembled mine, or that I just personally loved in the same way that I love my own characters.

Really study who might want to rep you, then think about exactly how to present your book to them in such a way that they can't help but want to read it. And then expect that most of them still won't care, or even respond. Follow expected conventions with your query, like putting your title in ALL CAPS (WHICH IS ESPECIALLY HARD FOR THOSE OF US WHO SOCIALIZE ONLINE AND READ ALL-CAPS AS SCREAMING, AMIRITE?), and following every single submission guideline to the exact letter. If an agent requests only snail-mail queries, print it out and put it in the mail. If they want everything to come through a web form on the agency's website, do it.

And Google-stalk every agent before sending your query, because you might find (as i did, in fact) an interview that says something like, "I really hate when people send a manuscript in Courier New," and you can then be the refreshing person who submits in Times New Roman. I reworked my query to apply specifically to each agent I contacted, and I paid careful attention to anything specific I could include, such as a mention of a novelist they already represent whom I admire. By all means, take the time to tailor your submission to the agent! I put as much effort into each query as I would put into an application for my dream job, because that's pretty much what it is.

How did this all work out for me? I sent out twenty-five queries. Of those, i had two agents respond to tell me they weren't taking on new clients anymore. I received seven flat-out rejections, but seven agents requested a look at the manuscript. Two agents responded after i had my first offer on the table with regrets-but-i-can't-throw-my-hat-in, two asked for a look at the full manuscript, and the rest were total radio silence. Based on research and what other writer friends tell me, that sounds like a really high interest rate, but I chalk it up to everything I have discussed in this series of posts, how carefully I targeted my agent list and how specifically I tailored each query.

Ultimately, I signed with my agent (Jonathan Lyons of Curtis Brown, Ltd.) and my novel's now out on submission. I hope this helps some of you in your own querying process, and please drop a comment if any of it spurs questions or feedback or--hopefully--results in future offers of representation!

* This article was originally published in October 2015. *

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  • Heidi Hornbacher

    Thanks for this. I am right in the middle of this process now and though I did my research with my list, this has made me realize I need to back and do a few more steps like the Author pages. Thank you!

  • Karen K. Hugg

    Thank you for all of these! I thought I had an online presence but didn't think about Amazon or Goodreads. Good luck! And let us know if/when you sell and release your book.

  • Irene Allison

    Good luck, Rachel. It's exciting to read of your progress and I look forward to seeing your book! And thank you for sharing all this information, it's very helpful!

  • Sarah,

    It's definitely nothing personal, the radio silence, and the courtesy email is key!

    Imagine that you have literally 500+ queries in your Inbox. For every ten you read, fifteen more come in. But then one comes in with the subject "OFFER OF REP - Re: Query TITLE OF BOOK." From the agent's perspective, if someone else liked a query enough to make an offer, it's worth the time to read that one, right?

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Thanks for this series, Rachel. Hugely helpful. I look forward to reading your book!

  • Sarah Wolfgang

    I suppose the takeaway is that it's nothing personal and nothing unusual not to hear back for months. I like the idea of the courtesy email to all no-responders. It's a polite and artful way to re-open a line of contact.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for the wealth of wisdom you've poured into this post.  I will follow it once I finish writing my novel.

  • Gosh Sarah, i wish i had a concrete response, but it was literally all over the map. I had one agent who responded in three days, while another waited nearly two months. A pal in my writing group just signed with an agent, and she had the same scattershot experience (we've been comparing notes!).

    I sent out a courtesy email to all no-responders when i had offers on the table, and I even had one of the "radio silence" agents contact me months afterward saying that if i hadn't signed with one of the offering agents, they'd just gotten caught up on queries and would like a look at the MS.

    Best of luck with your search for representation!

  • Sarah Wolfgang

    Hi, Rachel,

    You're so generous with the level of detail in your advice. Thank you! What were the turnaround times like when you sent out your query and when you submitted your full ms. I'm having a difficult time gauging what typical wait periods are like in the world of publishing.

    Thanks again,

    Sarah Wolfgang