Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why is it so hard to get an agent's attention?

Why is it so hard to get an agent to even read my work?  And what can be done about it?

The other week I passed on three chapters of a novel, not because I didn't like them, but because I simply didn't have the time to read them. They had been sent to me by an author I'd considered in the past and who I remembered as talented. However, after requesting them, I realized I was simply overwhelmed with work--authors under contract who were ramping up their book publication, clients whose novels I had to read and edit etc. (Not to mention I was moving and had a sinus infection--yes, one's personal life does come into play.)  I could and possibly should have waited until I had more time, but in that moment, simply crossing something off the list was a means to my own sanity, and I very honestly told the writer that after looking at my work load, I didn't have the time to give it the attention it deserved.  She wrote me back the following:

"Thank you for your quick response and for your candor.  While I entirely understand how busy you must be and how that affects your decisions, it's a source of constant frustration to many of the good writers I know that so many agents are in your position.  It means there's a real bottleneck when it comes to having work seriously considered, and I think that's a main driving force behind so many people looking to alternative publishing routes.  At some point, I think this may work out for everyone, but at the moment it's chaotic, confusing and, in some instances, flat out discouraging.  Writers can't get work out there unless they're established and sometimes not even then.  The biggest loser in all this is readers who miss the opportunity to find a broader range of significant voices, which basically means the whole society."

She has a point.  What's a writer to do? This question has stayed with me and I think I have, if not the answer, one suggestion. * I am too busy right now, and I while I have pockets where I am not, for the most part, I am not taking on a lot of new clients.  But, not so long ago I did have the time and I would have jumped at the chance to consider this author's work. In 2002, I was working as a junior agent at an established agency, where I was supported by wonderful, seasoned agents, who not only gave me the chance to take on my own clients, but supported me every step of the way, making introductions to the right editors, offering second reads, and generally encouraging my list. So, my answer to writers who are feeling this bottleneck effect is to cast a wider net when submitting to agents.  A lot of the authors I work with now signed with me when I had three sales under my belt, and they are still with me, working on their 3 or 4th book (a special shout out to Lynne Griffin and Allison Winn Scotch who both chose lil old me over more established agents when I was working at Kneerim & Williams.) So, taking into consideration my own experience as an agent just starting out, I would read the Who We Are sections on agency websites and start submitting to younger agents at those shops. When you get a bite, don't be shy if you have reservations about their small list of sales about asking how the agency works. Is it collegial?  Do they have mentors, etc?

Anyone out there have a similar experience?  Or other advice for writers frustrated with this whole process?

* I have to give credit where credit is due. I sat on an agent panel with the lovely Zoe Pagnamenta, who originally offered this suggestion up when a frustrated author asked her a similar question.


  1. I have had this happen with an agent being interested but was simply "too busy" to give it the time it deserved. It was really frustrating because, as stated above, it's hard to get a foot in the door.

    Though I do understand there are only so many hours in the day, wearing many hats, myself, and an agent is only human.

  2. This is such a smart post, and not just because I'm mentioned. :) I think there is a lot of value going for someone young and hungry, as long as he or she is SMART and has a mentor and/or connections. You'll get more attention from the agent, and together, you can work on building your career. Great post, E!

  3. I can relate, though from a freelance writer POV. I have to pass on good stories all the time. I'm only one person - I can't write about everything, for my own sanity.

  4. Excellent post! I've heard the same suggestions from many other agents out there who really do feel bad that they can't fit any more on their plate. There are a lot of "younger" agents out there, looking to build their client list.

    "Cast a wider net when submitting to agents." Very good advice.

  5. Great post with good advice. I just wanted to add that I had NO IDEA until I started working with Elisabeth how much agents do and how hard they really, really have to work for the clients they already have. Good agents do extensive editing on projects that are getting ready for submission to publishers; at the same time, they are reading second or third or fourth drafts of manuscripts that are under contract, all while trying to cultivate their client lists and keep a bunch of crazy writers happy and working productively. It's such an impressive balancing act. This is all the more reason for writers seeking publication to put only their very best work out there, because a manuscript that comes to an agent already edited and polished is a lot more likely to get attention than something with a lot of potential that also needs a lot of work. It's also another reason to try not to take rejection personally--it's possible to have a great manuscript but just hit an agent at the wrong time, so keeping your chin up and submitting again and again to other agents is really the only way to go.

    -Meg Mitchell Moore

  6. Lit do they do it? I see overeager writers swarm them at conferences and watch desperate writer friends send them manuscripts that aren't even close to ready for publication. I understand why they have such full schedules.

    As a writer, I'm all for the young and hungry agent. I had one and for a while things moved along swimmingly! My book and I had loads of attention. I felt I had a best friend AND advocate at my side.

    However, my agent lacked connections and strong agency backing. Thus, she floundered as did my book. So yes, writers, go for the young and hungry. Just make sure his or her inexperience is balanced by a solid agency who can keep him or her on target.

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. I think this is spot on. My own agent is a "young" one at an established agency. I was definitely a bit worried when I signed with her about her relatively few sales, but I ultimately chose to go with her because a) she believed in and was REALLY enthusiastic about my project b) she had the backing of a great agency and worked for one of the best in the business, so I knew she would have good connections even if she hadnt had a ton of sales and c) she was really hungry for a sale, so I knew she would work really hard for me and my project. Because she was young, and I am early in my career and hope that it will be a long one, I hoped we could be each other's "ticket" and work together for a good long time. I knew she would be interested in helping me foster a career and not focus solely on this book alone.

    I was, at first, worried about her relative inexperience, and I inquired with an agent friend (one who couldn't represent me) about it. She said: "As a young agent myself I can tell you that to a publisher it matters very little how many sales you've made. As long as the material is of a certain quality and your idea is fresh then editors will bite. As an agent you really can't fake enthusiasm, so if she sounded passionate I'm sure she was and she'll be your best advocate. Also, as a new author, that attention from your agent is vital, and you'd rather be a big fish than a small one…"

    I thought this was great advice, and it's true. I like getting the personal attention of my agent, as a new author, I need it. Being "just another project" on a busier agent's docket might not have worked as well for me.

    Oh, and my young agent did/does a wonderful job. She sold my first book,and things are moving along well!

  8. Great post! Thanks, Elisabeth, for shedding light on this discouraging phenomenon...and for offering a possible solution for unrepresented writers!

  9. Thank you for sharing and offer such great advice.

  10. I know the feeling of being overworked. It always hit at the end of the second semester when I had exams to grade, grades to post, and Christmas to organize.

    I think it would be helpful to us if you would post that you are closed to queries for a while while you get caught up, if you foresee getting caught up in a reasonable time, or simply closed to queries.

    That would save both our time and yours.

  11. Actually, it hit at then end of the first semester. :-)

  12. I am constantly lurking on blogs and someone had shared this link which I'm glad they did. I think it's something special when you get the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with a new agent. Fresh out of the water ready to make a difference in the publishing world. It's nice because I think those agents hold onto those moments and remember those who stuck with them from the beginning.

    That being said everyone also would like to be considered a big fish. We all have our dream agents, those who if we didn't at least send a query we'd always wonder.

    I do thank you for shedding life on the busy daily life of an agent that's very well known and also giving us a little piece of advice - even if it was borrowed from someone else - it helps us to stay grounded.

    Have a fabulous week!

  13. Thank you for this. I'm a writer, but it's terrific to hear such candid words from an agent. It also helped me to put myself in your position. I certainly get overwhelmed with my own life. I also vaguely remember being told "I can't give it the time it deserves." It's vague, I think, because I thought it was just a nice brush off and not the truth. Your post put things into a very different light, even if it still is frustrating. I also appreciate the advice.

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