Sunday, December 9, 2012

Literary Agents: Call Me, Maybe?

In your path is a solid cement wall, eight feet high and two feet across. If you can get over it, you are faced with an iron fence whose top is festooned with barbed wire. Beyond that is a swamp with quicksand and alligators. If you make it through the swamp you will face a mine field. [I thought about adding dragons but it might take you out of the reading moment.] Then, if you manage to get over, around, or through these obstacles, you come upon a huge and impressive portal. You ring the doorbell, but unbeknownst to you, the bell is not working. 

Sound like a video game? Actually, it is a pretty accurate analogy of how easy it is to get a contract from a traditional book publisher for your first novel.

In the publishing field the "traditional publishers" are known as The Big Six. They consist of Penguin Group, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster. Each of these may have smaller presses called imprints. For example, Penguin has fifty imprints, including Riverhead Books, Dutton, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and 47 others. 

The "over the transom," sensational, writer's first manuscript--a publisher's dream found on the floor the next morning  is--a myth. Before a writer can even talk to a publisher she has to have a literary agent. Three exceptions to this rule exist: (1) no matter your ability to write standard English, if you are a celebrity with 3.2 million Twitter followers or (2) if you have a friend who owns a publishing company or (3) if you know an author who is published and will recommend you to her agent. 

Back to the cement wall.

A similar analogy about how easy it is to get published might be the biblical verse about how easy it is for the rich man to enter heaven. Camel? Eye of a needle? Sound familiar?

Here are some statistics gathered by Dan Poynter, a publisher, author and book consultant. 132 million manuscripts are submitted yearly. Of those, 1% will get published. For manuscripts that manage to get through the initial publisher's slush pile, 90% will be rejected after the first page is read. 98% will be rejected after the first chapter is read. 30-50 will get through the reading to become manuscripts that are seriously considered for publishing. 3,000 manuscripts are published daily by various means. Of those published, only 2% will sell more than 5,000 copies. 

A more concrete example would be the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. More magazine published an article about her rejections. You can read the amazing story here. She wrote the novel over five years, was rejected 60 times over the next 3.5 years, and finally found a literary agent willing to go to bat for her. The rest, as they say, is history. Doesn't it make you wonder how many wonderful books go unpublished?

Just like those political ads prior to the elections, doesn't it seem like we might find a better way to do this, both in elections and publishing decisions?

If a writer wants a traditional publisher, she must first find an agent who will make pitches about her book to the traditional publishers. How does she get an agent? She does lots and lots of research. Most literary agencies have online websites and their websites make clear the various genres their agents are seeking. They also explain what the writer should submit if her book matches their interests. Each agent wants different emailed pieces of writing and some want only snail mail. The writer will send a query letter that is written in a specific format explaining her title, number of words, genre, VERY basic plot, publishing experience, and contact information. All of this should take up one page.

In addition, some agents want a one-page synopsis of the plot. Others want a 500-word synopsis. Still others want 3-5 pages, double-spaced. Some want attachments and others want copy and paste into the email. One chapter, three chapters, 30 pages, or 50 pages--each wants something a little different.

Most of their websites state very clearly that no matter how wonderful your manuscript may be, and no matter how many hours, months, or years of your life have gone into your baby, if you do not follow their instructions to the letter your baby will be deleted on sight. Some agents give you a window when you might expect a reply--anywhere from two weeks to six months--and others say you will only hear from them if they are interested. Do not call them. They might call you. Call me, maybe? [refer to statistics above for the answer to that one.]

People know that I've finished my first novel, had it edited, rewritten parts of it, re-edited, and it's ready to go. They have asked when they will be able to read it. I hope this post explains the answer to that question. Currently, I'm sending queries to agents. GPS would probably put me a few feet up the cement wall.


  1. Good luck, Susan. I finished writing my third manuscript, and I'm now revising it. My first ms. I knew was a trial-run. But the second, I queried to agents. I got a few requests for chapters, but ultimately, no one asked to represent me. So, until I have a ms to market, I write short stories, which I've been successful at having published.

    Your description of the process is accurate. You know more than I did after completing that first ms. Friends won't understand this business, but if they read your blog they'll know. Good luck!

  2. Consider this, Susan. When you do land one of the big six, you will have many obstacles, not the least of which is selling your book with very little support from them. Many of my friends have snagged a biggie and then been dumped for not enough sales. That's why so many authors have gone with smaller publishers and self-pubbed. I can recommend a number of great small publishers.

  3. Most - including me - read the statistics and said, "But my MS is different."
    Most - including me - have/had no idea about what they were getting into.
    Some - including me - believe the traditional route is still the shining city on the hill but decided to take a different road, small pub.

    I still want it, an agent who loves my work as much as I do. But for now, small publishers are the way to go. At least for me.

  4. I appreciate all of your comments and, frankly, I knew this was an uphill battle so it doesn't surprise me. But I have not ruled out small presses. I just figured I'd start with an agent query first and then move on to small presses if I don't have luck with agents. Thank you so much for your viewpoints!