Finding an Agent – Maybe

For my third novel, EMPTY LUCK, I decided to see if I could find a traditional publisher, rather than self-publish as I did with my first two books. I thought I would have a better chance of getting my work into bookstores, as well as getting an advance and maybe help with marketing. That was the hope.

The experience, so far, has been both unnerving and disappointing. I immediately discovered that nobody simply finds a publisher (unless you want a vanity publisher where the author pays the publication cost. A traditional publisher does not charge the author for publishing his work.) I learned that getting a traditional publisher requires first getting an agent.

And getting an agent is no small task. First it requires writing a query letter. This is a very specific document which is supposed to include certain sections and characteristics. It should be about 300 words long. It should explain why you have written the particular agent, how your work falls within their areas of interest, and why you are the right person to write the book you are offering. In addition, it should include a concise “pitch,” a longer synopsis, and your background mentioning other relevant books you have previously published.

Those are the general guidelines for a query letter. But it turns out that every agent has their own criteria. For example, not everyone wants to read a “pitch.” Some want the first chapter, or the first ten pages, or the first 50 pages. Others want to understand the theme of the book. The requirements are all over the map. So much for the one unchanging query letter.

Back to the process… I developed a list of potential agents. To do so, I Googled phrases like “suspense literary agents,” and “agents seeking new authors.” I found directories of agents through venues like Writer’s Digest and Poets and Writers. I also found a website called “Manuscript Wish List” ( which lists many agents and the kinds of work they are seeking. Eventually, I set up a spreadsheet with 143 agents who indicated they were interested in adult suspense stories.

I picked out a subset from my list and began contacting them. One thing I learned was to save my best prospects for later in the process. Simply put, I got better at presenting myself. I think it took me about 40 queries before I felt my efforts best described myself and my work.

I’m still in the midst of this project. So far, I have sent 56 queries. I doubt I will send many more. Each submission takes at least an hour to compose, some as long as three hours. I’m close to my limit. So far, I have heard back from 14. All said no. At best they wrote “Your concept sounds intriguing, but I’m afraid it is not quite a fit for me.” I’m still waiting to hear from the rest. Some stated on their websites that they would not write back unless they were interested, so I know there are more than 14 rejections already. I get it. This is a numbers game, if it is going to succeed at all, but it can feel pretty discouraging. I think if nothing comes of this round of queries, I will go back to self-publishing.

There is one admittedly sexist comment I want to add. Over 80% of the agents I’ve found are women. I know I’m generalizing but I suspect most women are less interested in a male-dominated story with swearing and physical violence. I know there are exceptions, but at least my later submissions, the last half dozen or so, have all targeted male agents. I have two more to contact and then, that’s it.

After two-to-three months, I’ll post an update. In the meantime, I will start on a short story or perhaps my next book.

1 thought on “Finding an Agent – Maybe”

  1. Hi Paul, you know that I’ve gone through the same plus some. I’m going to complete a significant redrafting of my novel by end of this summer, and start the ‘seeking an agent’ all over again. I also founds some lists of publishers of historical fiction who don’t require an agent, the author can submit to them directly, so I’ll explore this option. But I can’t help but be suspicious if they aren’t some sort of vanity outfit that will publish – for a fee. So I’ll research before submitting to any of them.

    I’ve found that almost all literary agents are not only women, they are white women whose bios suggest that they are often trust fund babies. It sickens me. The response to this lack of diversity is that recently a few young people of color who reflect gender diversity have been added to the rosters, but they are looking for submissions that reflect why they have suddenly been hired – to try to attract younger, more diverse readers. It remains sickening, perpetuating stereotypes. So your comment isn’t sextist, in my opinion. And the industry is far from representing all people well.

    I’ve found that very few agents respond at all, and one gets no feedback. (I’ve gotten very slight feedback from two agents who said something positive despite the rejection, so I established a bit of a rapport for a New York moment.) I thought academic publishing was difficult, and it is as difficult or more difficult than this in many ways. But academic authors are provided with feedback, whether their submission is considered for further revision, rejected, or conditionally accepted.

    This non-academic side of publishing has some very cruel norms. And that includes some severe issues with representation. And of course age is a factor as well. There are only a few successful first-time novelists in late middle age or older,

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