Friday, August 17, 2012

Literary Agents: It's Not Who You Know

I’m listening to Life’s What You Make It by Talk Talk on my Internet radio while I write this. It’s a random track, but somehow timely to what I want to say about the business of getting published. Specifically, getting an agent.

These days there are a lot of people out there with their dreams saved on a hard drive; digital hopes floating around in .doc files containing the latest draft of a novel, a work-in-progress memoir, or some other passion project that so far has only culminated in a long list of missed social events, late nights, early mornings, and acid reflux from more coffee than is safe for any human to consume.

The summit these dreamers seek to reach is the same for nearly all – to walk into a bookstore and see their book on a shelf. That’s a big mountain to climb, especially in today’s publishing market. I won’t lie; the odds are stacked against you.

But here’s the thing – if I can do this, anyone can. After all, I’m nobody.

This week, an article titled “The Right Fit”:Navigating the World of Literary Agents appeared on the online magazine, The Millions.  Written by Michael Bourne, the essay seeks to give the reader an insight into how futile the endeavor of seeking traditional publication can be, given the incestuous nature of the New York publishing industry. Basically, unless you’re an insider, you’ve hardly got a chance. 

Like any good journalist, Mr. Bourne spent some time with his boots on the ground at Folio Literary Management, a bustling agency in New York City, where he shadowed a few agents. While there, co-founder Scott Hoffman explained to Mr. Bourne that the agency receives roughly 100,000 unsolicited queries a year, or about 200 a week for each of the nine Folio agents who accept unsolicited queries. Hoffman has taken on four new writers in the last year, only one of whom came in through the slush pile, putting the odds of an author without connections getting Hoffman to take on his or her book at roughly 1 in 11,111.”

One Hundred Thousand queries a year seems about right for a substantial agency like Folio. An agent taking on four new clients for a year is fairly reasonable, too. That's some stiff competition for an agent's interest. At this point in the article, what he learned with the limited time he spent with these agents is applied to the industry as a whole. What I have a problem with is Bourne’s suggestion that unless you are connected, your odds of finding representation are miniscule. In what turns into something of a mild-mannered rant, Mr. Bourne expresses his frustration (suggesting occasional anger) at the constant rejection he’s seen in his unsuccessful attempt to find representation. There are some valid points made on the benefit of interacting and socializing with others in the industry, but they're overshadowed by his assumption that his limited time with these agents is how it is all the time, in all the agencies. 

Let me say this before it seems I’m piling on the author – a writer like Michael Bourne will get an agent. He’s good. But his problem, like a lot of us, is simply finding the right story. At the end of the essay, Mr. Bourne finally stumbles onto this simple truth that we all face when trying to break in. “I haven’t written a book an agent can sell yet,” he writes.

That’s all it takes. That’s the whole recipe to getting your book onto that store’s shelf. I’ve been represented by two agents. My first was with William Morris Endeavor, one of the biggest entertainment agencies in the world. My second, the brilliant John Rudolph, is with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, one of the most successful literary agencies in the world. I got hitched to both of them the same way – an unsolicited query. A shot in the dark.  Every author I know has been born from the slush pile, including me. To get an agent’s attention – a good agent – you don’t have to know a soul in the industry, you just need a good query letter and a manuscript that keeps the promises the query makes.

Everyone gets rejected. In this industry, you’ll see an epic amount of No Thank You, but there doesn't exist some inner circle that's conspiring to keep you out of the club.

The odds are still long, but even if you’re a thirty something-year-old nobody in Alabama who’s never even sat foot in New York City, take heart that it’s not who you know, it’s what you know. So long as what you know is how to tell a damn good story.


  1. Thank God. If it came down to knowing someone in the publishing world, I'd never get an agent. Awesome post, Stephen!

  2. I have to completely agree, Stephen. I know several authors, and even a few agents, and it hasn't helped me one bit. LOL.

  3. Keep at it Matthew. Sometimes it's just the right story at the wrong time. There's a strong luck factor involved that somehow the inspiration that struck you with the story did so when the subject matter is "hot." Whatever that means.

    Good luck!

  4. It was such a relief to read this because I had actually read an article a few days ago saying the exact opposite, that you need to know an author/writer/agent who could recommend you etc. That was so depressing, I felt hopeless and I wanted to just delete my whole story.