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How to Get a Literary Agent (and Overcome Rejection)

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Pop quiz time! What's one of the hardest things about publishing a book?

a) Finding a publisher

b) Finding a literary agent

c) Choosing a book cover

d) Negotiating your publishing contract

(Psst…the answer is b.)

Getting a literary agent is tough, but it’s also required if you hope to get published traditionally. A literary agent serves as a professional reader. Their approval validates your hard work and confirms that you have a future as a traditionally published author. Your literary agent will become your biggest advocate. They’ll guide you through the publishing industry and give you expert advice on how to shape up your manuscript.

Agents are well-connected and have established relationships with acquisition editors. (An acquisitions editor is responsible for acquiring new manuscripts for a publisher.) Not only will your literary agent get your book in front of the right publishers, but they’ll also negotiate your contract. It behooves them to secure a favorable deal on your behalf because they get paid when you do. You don’t pay the literary agent directly. Typically, they take 15% of your advance (i.e. your signing bonus) as well as 15% of your future royalties (i.e. the revenue your book makes after paying back the advance).

These are the reasons why literary agents are essential, but also why they’re hard to get. Aside from your loved ones, your literary agent is likely the first one to believe in you and they’ll invest their time and resources into helping you make it as a published author. Plus, they’re doing all of this hard work for free until your book gets sold, so it makes sense that agents are very picky about what books and authors they choose to take on.

While it’s difficult to get an agent, it’s not impossible. Let’s discuss what you need to know to get representation.

Here are 4 things that every author should do before querying a literary agent.

DO THESE 4 THINGS BEFORE QUERYING A LITERARY AGENT

Here’s how to set yourself up for success before querying:

1. Research agents - For best results, query agents who represent your genre and books that are similar to your own. This also allows you to personalize your query letter.

2. Prepare for rejection - Rejection will happen (we’ll explain why below). You need to brace yourself ahead of time.

3. Develop a thick skin - Some rejections come with a handwritten note of why they rejected you. This can be valuable if you use it to improve and toughen up.

4. Choose to persevere - Resolve not to give up, even if (when) you get a steady stream of rejection notices.

HOW MANY AGENTS SHOULD YOU QUERY?

All of them.

Okay, just kidding. Query more than one at a time, and even more than 10. Before finding representation, you may even query more than 100 agents. Here’s why:

You will get rejected. Get comfortable with that fact.

The average literary agent gets hundreds of queries from hopeful authors each month. They’ll have to whittle that list of hundreds down to maybe one or two authors. But of course, their author acceptance rate will depend on several factors, including how many other clients the agent may currently represent.

Because you don’t know that information, you’re querying in the blind. But you do know that you’re up against hundreds of other authors. This is why:

Meg Cabbot, author of The Princess Diaries, received a steady stream of daily rejection letters that lasted for two years. Of the process, she said, “I don't know why I didn't quit. Especially when I got such widely divergent rejection letters, everything from the word ‘NO!’ scrawled across my own query letter and mailed back to me in my SASE, to offers from agents who wanted to help rewrite my book… for a mere $500.” Read more about her road to publishing here.

Get a Literary Agent

Image Courtesy of Amazon

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, spent six years in rejection letter hell, but she went through it with a positive attitude. In an interview with Rumpus, she shared, “I was just so committed, and I did have six years of rejection letters. And it really didn’t break my heart. Some of them made me really excited because some of them had little handwritten notes at the bottom. ‘Pretty good, but not our thing.’ And I was like, ‘I got a really great handwritten note from Harper’s!’ And I would hang it on my wall, like, ‘That’s such a great rejection letter!’” Read Gilbert’s interview in full here.


Robert M. Persig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was rejected by 121 publishers, giving it the distinction of being one of the most-often rejected bestsellers of all time. This is one case in which the publisher, and not the agent, directly rejected a manuscript. Can you imagine being the agent representing Mr. Persig? This is why your agent must believe in you. The acquisitions editor who eventually accepted it said this, “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for… The book is brilliant beyond belief… It is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” Learn more about Persig’s story here.

Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was rejected by 60 agents. Here’s how she handled it, “In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me… The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript–or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]–in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.” Read more about Stockett's rejection experience here.

Get a Literary Agent

Image Courtesy of Amazon

Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, was rejected 78 times for his debut novel John Crow’s Devil. Of the rejection process, he said, “I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much… There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read… I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.” James eventually recovered the manuscript from an email outbox of an old computer and it went on to get published. Read more about James’ rejection here.

Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, was rejected over 95 times. Speaking of the wild rejection ride, she shared, “I sent 100 query letters when I finished ‘Still Alice’ to literary agents. I was rejected by all of them but four. I still haven’t heard back from one of them. The others who wanted to read the manuscript all declined it; they all thought it was too scary and depressing, or not enough of a readership for a novel about a woman with Alzheimer’s.” She eventually got an agent and sold it to Simon & Schuster after self-publishing. Learn more about Genova’s story here.

Judy Blume, author of Blubber, Superfudge, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, endured two years of rejections. She shared, “My first rejection, I went into the closet and cried. After that, it was all about determination… Determination is as important as talent. Talent is certainly important, but without the determination, it’s probably never going to happen. So you need to say, ‘Okay, okay. They didn’t want this one but wait till they see the next one!’Read more about Blume's experience here.

Get a Literary Agent

Image Courtesy of Amazon

Stephen King, author It, Misery, and The Shining, was rejected over 30 times for his debut novel Carrie. In his book, On Writing, King recalled the rejection experience. “By the time I was fourteen the nail on my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” Check out King’s memoir, On Writing, here.

Let’s return to the original question: How many agents should you query? Query until you get accepted, whether that’s 10 or 100. As you can see, it’s a numbers game. It’s also about not giving up.

Get Alerted

Are you tired of searching for literary agents only to find that they're not accepting unsolicited queries?

We've created a new product with you in mind. It's called Literary Agent Alert and it gives you the head’s up when an agent is looking for a book in your genre.

Instead of having to stalk agents on Twitter or scour through agent databases only to find dead-ends, sign up for Literary Agent Alert. We’ll notify you as soon as an agent is ready to accept queries. We’ll also provide you with a link to their contact information so that you can reach out to them directly.

Save time and sanity by getting a list of query-ready agents in your inbox.

Check out Literary Agent Alert here.

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