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Most publishers insist that first-time writers approach via a literary agent. However, all the literary agents I have contacted claim to be too busy to take on new clients, as they receive hundreds or thousands of submissions every year.

I used the Writers & Artists Yearbook to get a list of likely agents, then checked all their websites and eliminated ones that didn't seem suitable. For the rest, I noted their precise submission requirements (lots of variation, but I did exactly what they wanted). I submitted to the agents left on the list, exactly as they specified, and so far of the responses I have (20+) nobody has said they didn't like it, in fact several have said that it sounds fascinating. However, they all claim to be too busy to take on new clients and wish me luck.

The impression I'm getting is that getting an agent is an impossible requirement if agents aren't accepting any new clients due to their existing workload.

If I genuinely believe in my project, and everyone who has heard about it says it'll be great (not just friends and family, but random people too), where can I go from here?

  • Welcome to Writers! This is a Q&A site, and unlike discussion forums, vague questions that will generate extended discussion aren't allowed here. Please read our FAQ for more information on the kinds of questions that work well here. – Neil Fein Apr 12 '12 at 15:47
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    @NeilFein: In my humble opinion this question addresses one of the main problems of getting published (the traditional way). I would love to answer with some snarky remarks (which will be deleted by justkt, but so what) and pointing to Dean Wesley Smith (what I do pretty often here; I really should stop that). I voted to reopen. – John Smithers Apr 13 '12 at 6:01
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    I've edited and reopened; I think the edited version focuses on the immediate problem at hand. – Standback Apr 14 '12 at 21:31
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    @SteveJones: Can you tell us a bit about how you found and chose the agents you queried? Also, just to be clear - their responses were uniformly not rejections of your query, but clarifications that they are not taking on any new clients? – Standback Apr 14 '12 at 21:32
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    Thanks for the extra info! I've edited it into your question. Now to see if we can get an answer... – Standback Apr 16 '12 at 13:25
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Have you considered self publishing? If you are looking for inspiration, read Joe Konrath's blog, available here. Read through his back posts, and you may find some interesting stuff. One of them talks about his book, the list, that was rejected by all the publishers, and is now a bestseller. One of the comments to that post is worth reading:

My favorite line from all the rejections was this from the "New American Library":

"...as its novelty seems to hamper its commercial potential."

Yes, as a reader, I know the LAST thing I want to see is something that deviates even a LITTLE from everything I've seen before.

David Gaughran has written a book on self publishing, that is free at the moment, available from his website here.

And finally, agents. Dean W smith has written a series of posts called the sacred cows of publishing, and one of the myths he bursts is that you need an agent to sell a book. Scroll down to part three, and read all the articles in that section. It certainly opened my eyes.

Be sure to spend some time reading, and then digesting all the info above. Then take a week or two off, to decide if you still want to continue down the traditional path, or go down the self pub path.

Remember, writers now have a lot of options, and don't have to wait years to see their book in print. As JA Konrath says, that time could be better spent writing more books, and marketing the ones we have.

Hope this helps.

6

Agents do get a lot of submissions. Hundreds. But it is a myth that they are too busy to take on new clients or that it's impossible to get an agent if you are an unknown author.

A few years ago, I found myself in exactly your position.

Here are the rejections I received for my first novel from the top ten literary agents in the UK:

"Thank you for sharing this with me. I'm afraid that, while there is much I admire about your work, it doesn't feel the right fit for me. I'd certainly recommend you continue to explore other options, and wish you all the very best with your writing from here."


"Thank you for submitting your work to me. I’m afraid that it’s not quite right for my list, so I’m going to pass this time. Very best of luck in finding a suitable agent for your work."


"I was intrigued by the concept so I’ve been taking a look at this and I’ve enjoyed reading. However, I don’t want to keep you on tenterhooks so I will say straight away that I didn’t absolutely fall in love with the writing and therefore I’m afraid I don’t feel it would be right for us to take this further. Here at XXX, we firmly believe that every author deserves an agent who feels passionately about their work so that they can sell it in to publishers with 100 % conviction and enthusiasm. Without that passion, we would not be the best agency to represent you."


"While I enjoyed reading your submission, which stood out from the many we receive, I'm afraid I didn't feel enthusiastic enough about the material to take it further. I'm sorry to be writing with disappointing news, but thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider your material and I wish you every success with your writing."


"Thank you for sending me your work, which I read with interest. I thought there was much to be admired here, but sadly I didn't quite feel the connection to your work that I think would be needed for me to represent this. I'm a firm believer in the idea that an agent should only represent work they completely love, so on this occasion I'll have to pass. I do of course wish you all the best in your work, and in your search for an agent and publisher."


Plus one request for the full MS, followed by months of resounding silence. And for the remaining, nothing but resounding silence.


Stock Responses

Initially, I was quite pleased with some of the rejections, particularly when they said my MS stood out from the rest. That was until I found that same rejection on another author's blog, word for word. It was hard to accept, but I had to face it:

'We are too busy... it's not quite the right fit...' etc. are stock responses for 'It's just not good enough.' But they won't say that because they don't want to kill your spirit, or worse, get some rude and threatening email in return (yes, that does happen).

What did I do next?

At that point, I could have assumed that it's impossible to get a literary agent. However, I didn't believe that. I knew that agents took on new clients all the time. THEY JUST DIDN'T WANT ME!

I quickly came to terms with the fact that my writing and my concept were not strong enough to make these agents stand up and take notice. So, what else was there to do other than write something that would?

So, I shelved that book and wrote another. I wrote something that I KNEW would make them stand up and take notice.

The next time I submitted to the top ten agencies, six of them offered me representation. I have no publishing background, I haven't even self-published a book. I am completely unknown.

Agents aren't too busy. They are desperately seeking the next big thing. After all, that is how they make their money. You need to give them the next big thing. But that means writing for the market, and not everybody wants to do that. I am a commercial fiction writer, so I enjoy writing for the market.

What should you do next?

You have choices.

Agents are human beings. You could write back to them and ask, if you drastically improved the work, would they be willing to reconsider it?

You could write another book. Writing is a craft honed by writing and it's inevitable that your second book (or third) will be much better than the one previous -- mine certainly was!!

Or, if you really believe in your work, you could self-publish (as has been suggested) and I would HIGHLY recommend this. David Gaughran, as suggested above, is brilliant, but also look at Mark Dawson.

Don't get too hung up on the kudos of a traditional deal. Traditional deals do not pay fair royalties and it's something the SOA are fighting for. Read this:

https://www.societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/James-Mayhew/November-2016/James-Mayhew-Fair-Trade-for-Authors

If you self-publish, the kudos comes from your readers. What better kudos is there? But indie is a steep learning curve. You need to know how to make your book indistinguishable from a traditionally published work if you are going to succeed. You need to write a lot of books, write them well, and know how to market them.

I'll be honest, if I knew, 3 years ago, what I know now about trad versus indie, I wouldn't have wasted all that time seeking a traditional deal.

Many agents and publishers now trawl the indie market looking for books that are selling well and many authors become hybrid (part indie, part trad). When you come to a publisher with a proven sales record, you are in a MUCH stronger position to secure a fair deal on advances and royalties. And if you want to be paid fairly for your work, as an unknown author, that is the position to come from.

I wish you all the luck in the world.

You have finished a novel (many writers don't make it that far) and been through the submissions process. You are much further along the road than many of your contemporaries. Take the experience you have had, learn from it, and get better!

DON'T GIVE UP!

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I've never been published. I've never contacted an agent.

But I'll tell you this: I can't even count on sixteen hands the number of times I've read something JUST like this--

"Twilight was initially rejected by 14 agents, however, eight publishers competed for the rights to publish Twilight in the 2003 auction." [From Wikipedia]

And obviously we all know how that story turned out. Don't ever give up. I understand you're saying they're too busy to even look at your work, but the same principle applies. Just keep going. Sooner or later you'll break through the wall. Guaranteed.

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    Persistence is key, but writers don't get the benefit of guarantees. :P – Standback Apr 15 '12 at 4:20
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    The annoying thing is there is probably a series called "Clodhopper" that would be as big as Twilight, but has been rejected by 25 agents, and the author has given up. It is a tough market - I say as someone who is looking for an agent currently. – Schroedingers Cat Apr 16 '12 at 15:20
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    Folks, the best way to get published is to make sure your name is Snooki. :) – Shantnu Tiwari Apr 17 '12 at 12:27
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I wrote my first book and, after some advices, I decided to look for an agent. Most of them never replied. Some of them said they didn't work with unpublished writers. One of them, replied in a few days and sent me a contract. Of course I asked him how he could send me a contract if he didn't have the time to read the manuscript and know if it was good. Then he said he would read and never came back.

I only had lucky when I start to try publishers directly and, even so, I can't say how many copies of my manuscript and I sent without receiving a single answer. I know it only passed a month since I started to contact agents and publishers but, the wait drivers you nuts. The good thing is that I received a positive answer and a negative one, and that means -- at least to me -- that it's perfectly possible to publish without an agent.

I'm still waiting for some replies, and I know they will come. A month is a very short time for answers from a publisher. Like you, I believe in my project so I decided to wait a little longer.

The truth is that agents are somewhat like publishers. They are more prone to invest on a famous person then to bet in a new writer. You may say this is absurd but, sometimes it's better to be safe then sorry. There are a lot of writers around and -- at least in Portuguese context -- more manuscripts than publishing opportunities.

Agents will need to invest time in their writers. An agent will help the writer in a lot of things, not only delivering the manuscript to publishers. If they represent countless writers, they won't be able to do it right with none of them... Or, at least, with some of them. They need to pick the ones they think are most promising.

Remember this is business. You may love your manuscript like your own son, but this is all business.

But, then again, comes the problem: there are a lot of writers around and more manuscripts than publishing opportunities. Sometimes agents and publishers just won't pay enough attention to see potential; or sometimes they see a wonderful book but not something they can easily sell; if that happens, they will refuse you, even if you are good. If you believe in your project, you should keep trying. Not only with agents, but with publishers directly. I don't like self publishing so, I won't say that's the way.

Also, try to find and learn what are the best ways to approach publishers and agents. Sometimes they refuse works because the writer doesn't know how to contact them. For example, sending fantasy books to a crime fiction publisher; or demanding too much on a first approach; etc...

Also start a blog and make yourself known. Go to literary events and talk to people. I remember some girl who shared a book in a free site and, after I don't know how many downloads (it was a lot) a publisher contact her to print the book. I also remember a lot of guys who were bloggers and published only because they had a captive public (their blog followers).

Well, there's no magical trick. I'm in the same boat as you are and I'm doing almost the same thing as you are so, I'm telling you what I learned during the process. In a few months I will be able to say if the results came but, until there, maybe somebody else here can provide better tips than the ones I gave to approach agents and publishers.

  • "They are more prone to invest on a famous person then to bet in a new writer" ... and more prone to invest in a young writer than an old one. They want to reap the benefits of a long future writing career. – David Aldridge Jul 25 '13 at 20:17

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