Sunday, June 21, 2009

How to Find a Literary Agent: Use the Write Bait

Most aspiring authors begin their careers with little or no understanding of how to go about finding an agent to represent their work. They quickly learn that most major publishing houses only accept submissions through literary agents. So, they begin sending query letters to agents and, usually, meet with a cool reception, or even hit a high, solid, impenetrable brick wall. We surveyed over 60 literary agents, from both large well-known agencies as well as smaller “boutique” agencies, to get a perspective on how authors can improve their chances of attracting an agent, and to find out the outlook for new authors trying to crack into the publishing industry.

We asked the agents:

In attempting to find an agent, how much competition does a new author really face?

What is the most common reason you decline to represent a writer?

What is the most critical mistake writers make when approaching agents?

Where do agents find clients?

In the next 12 to 24 months do you see the publishing industry becoming more or less favorable for new (unpublished) authors?

In order to obtain the most candid comments possible, we told the agents their responses to our questions would not be attributed to them (and as a result they were even more candid than we expected).

How Much Competition Does A New Author Really Face?

Unfortunately, the response was: a tremendous amount. The agents reported that they receive, on average, 90 unsolicited submissions per week. Out of these more than 4,500 submissions that come in each year, the agents, on average, took on 11 new clients. This means that the typical agent agreed to represent a little more than 2 out of 1000 of the authors that contacted them with unsolicited submissions. Regarding the 998 authors who did not receive a contract, we asked the agents:

What Is The Most Common Reason You Decline To Represent A Writer?

Poor writing 60%
Book was outside the agent’s genre 17%
Agent’s client base was full 10%
Writer’s work and agent don’t click 8%
Other 5%

The good news is that the top two reasons given are factors that are under the writer’s control. Most authors develop and improve their craft over a number of years, and even bestselling authors say when they were first starting out their initial literary efforts left something to be desired. A dedicated writer certainly doesn’t have to remain in that “poor writing” category.

But what exactly is “poor writing”? In the decline letters they send to authors, agents often say they turned the author down because they aren’t enthusiastic enough about the material. A favorite phrase used by agents in turndown letters is, “I simply didn’t fall in love with the writing.” This is probably the source of more author frustration than any other aspect of trying to get published. Success or failure hinges on extremely subjective judgments, and once the judgment is rendered, it is final. Talking an agent out of an opinion is pretty much impossible. Think about your own reading experience. How often do you pick up a novel, read 10 pages, decide you aren’t interested in it, and put it down? Does that mean the writing was “poor”? Not at all. It simply means you didn’t connect with the story, for reasons you may not even be able to articulate. Every individual’s literary taste is different.

One frequently received type of rejection isn’t really ‘rejection’ at all: The agent has all the clients they can handle at the present time, so they really have no choice but to send a decline letter to unsolicited submissions. The agent in this case was doing the author a favor; far worse it would have been to accept a new client that would not get the necessary attention from the agent. Too often, though, authors interpret receiving a decline letter such as this as, “my book must not be any good.” Actually, the agent may not even had time to read your submission package.

Notice that the fact a writer was unpublished was not a significant reason for being rejected as a client.

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