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
"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
"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.
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:
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!