When agents say no and no and no and…
A year ago I began querying agents to represent my recently completed novel OFELIA AND NORMA. In the book publishing world, an agent is the first tier of gatekeepers, the ones who decide which manuscripts to select to submit to the next tier of gatekeepers, the editors at publishing houses who then decide which to publish.
Without an agent, a book deal with one of the Big Five publishers or their various imprints is impossible. The alternative, aside from self-publishing, is to submit directly to small independent presses and university presses. All three of my previous books were published by small presses. Now I want a shot at the Big Five. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, yes.
There are many, many thousands of us writers seeking an agent. Maybe a million. Maybe a jillion. Or as my three-year-old grandson would say, “a wot.” Querying agents is the equivalent of sitting in the back of a giant classroom filled with multitudes with your hand raised and shouting amid those multitudes, “Ooh, ooh, pick me, pick me.”
QueryTracker, a database of literary agents, lists 1727 agents. I’m searching for agents who represent literary fiction and that list numbers 527, each of whom can only take on a certain number of clients. What are the odds of getting an agent? The Internet says 1 in 100.
I figured I’d aim at sending out 100 queries to find that one agent. I thought I would’ve sent all 100 queries out in a year, but I only made it to 58. It’s a tedious pursuit, scrolling through agency websites to see if any of the agents listed might be interested in a book like mine and then tailoring my query letter just a little bit to each of them by adding a word here, subtracting a word there, because how many different ways are there to say “ooh, ooh, pick me.”
Here are my results:
- 39 agents did not respond because their policy is to only reply if interested.
- 14 agents responded with form rejections. (Seriously, thanks for the response. I’d rather get a form rejection than get nothing for my trouble.)
- 2 agents requested 50 pages to consider, which was a step to them potentially asking for more based on their reaction to the sample.
- 3 agents requested the full manuscript to read to decide whether they were interested in representing it.
The first agent who asked for pages was the seventh agent I queried so I had a bit of hope early in my agent search. Yet I was careful to temper that bit of hope, which, as it turned out, I was right to do since this response came three months later.
Thanks for your patience while I’ve had OFELIA AND NORMA. I’ve had a chance to take a look at these pages and while there is much to admire, I’m just not convinced that I would be the perfect agent for the book. I’ll step aside, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and wish you the best success finding a wonderful home for your book.
“There is much to admire” but apparently not enough. There were no specifics as to what was not admirable and therefore not a book this agent would choose to represent. Something unnamed or unnamable. A gut feeling?
The twenty-third agent I queried was on the referral of a writer friend who is represented by that agent. Based on that referral, my query was probably given more consideration and the full manuscript was requested. The response came four months later.
I found myself greatly invested in Ofelia and Norma’s complex relationship, which was a wonderful testament to the ways in which sisterly bonds can be both beautiful and devastating. I also liked the alternating POV and how you incorporated the dual timeline, giving us a lot of insight into Ofelia and Norma before and during college. However, I felt that there could have been more dialogue between characters, as well as a bit more “showing” their emotions and reactions rather than “telling,” such as in the scene when Norma finally tells Ofelia about her assault. I felt that it would have been more impactful if we’d been made to understand Ofelia’s thoughts on the matter. Ultimately, for these reasons, I would not be the best advocate for the project.
The flaws listed seem easily fixable to me and I would have gladly done a “revise and resubmit,” but such an invitation was not made. I could be wrong, but I suspect there was more to the reasons stated as to why this agent “would not be the best advocate for the project.”
The forty-third agent I queried asked for 50 pages. Three months later the agent wrote back.
While I was very impressed with the writing here, I’m afraid I’m not quite falling in love, and so I do not feel I’d be the best representative for your novel.
Falling in love is essential for an agent. A writer can end up feeling quite unloved during the agent search process.
The fiftieth agent I queried asked for the full manuscript. Two months later, the agent sent this:
I’ve decided not to pursue Ofelia and Norma but thank you again for the opportunity to consider it. The premise and themes drew me in, as did the tension and suspense in the opening pages, but unfortunately, as I continued to read, the conflicts and characters didn’t maintain the level or kind of intensity I was hoping for.
I wish I had more concrete feedback for you, but the fact that I’m struggling to articulate why things didn’t quite click for me suggests that I wouldn’t be the best person to work on this book with you. Still, my subjective reaction is just that; I’m sure others will feel differently. You deserve to work with someone who shares your passion and vision for this project. I’m sorry that it isn’t me, but I wish you the best of luck with everything.
The comment about the ebbing of the tension and conflict was the most helpful reason I had received for a rejection. But there was also something else that didn’t click with this agent. Something inexplicable, something subjective?
The fifty-eighth agent (and last, so far) I queried also asked for the full manuscript. I received this reply three months later in early November.
I’m really sorry to keep you waiting, especially as I’d been enjoying your book immensely.
I’m guessing you’ve already found representation, but I just wanted to get back to you properly to say how much I loved the premise and the protagonist — there’s an exquisite mix of joy and hurt in these pages. But I felt unevenly compelled by the voice, which I realize sounds vague (and is certainly very subjective); I think what I mean is that as much as I wanted all the humor, I also wanted a little more interiority.
Well, first this agent guessed wrong since I have not already found representation, but I kind of like the assumption that someone would’ve snapped me up by now. Like agent twenty-three’s reason for rejection, this agent’s concern is one that could easily be addressed. Interiority? I can totally do that! I can fix it. But this agent also did not invite me to revise and resubmit. That other thing—subjectiveness—reared its vague head.
But this last agent got this right about my book: There is “an exquisite mix of joy and hurt in these pages.” It’s about sisterhood, and mother-daughter discord, and how to love yourself when the world only sees you as a joke or cliché or stereotype.
I haven’t sent a query since August. I got busy with other things—like life. Also, I felt emptied out from this frustrating, soul-killing process. Luckily, my writer friend Catalina Cantú is always looking out for me and sent me information about the Black Lawrence Press manuscript consultations provided by their authors at reasonable rates. I submitted OFELIA AND NORMA to writer/editor Adam Prince in October. The other day, I received his extensive and thorough notes. Of course, I loved the beautiful things he said about my novel, but more, I loved the immensely helpful insights he had about structure and character. I know I’m capable of making revisions based on his comments. I have a feeling that by doing so, I will address those vague, subjective, difficult-to-articulate reasons the above agents gave for rejecting my manuscript.
In the meantime, this November is the first time I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a writing challenge to produce 50,000 words in thirty days. I did it in solidarity with multi-talented Alma Garcia who is working on a new novel. Watch for her debut novel ALL THAT RISES in October 2023 from University of Arizona Press.
I hit my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words yesterday, which I added to the nearly 20,000 words I had dribbled out over the last eleven months. So now I have a chaotic assemblage of almost 70,000 words from which to fashion another novel that I can beat against the gates of publishing.
Thanks for sharing your experience. It is so very similar to mine.
Thanks for reading about mine. I’m afraid it’s the same story for so many of us. Best of luck to you.
Have sent out “only” 30 queries. On Monday, got the “while there is much to admire” rejection on a full request…the only one thus far. For now, like you, turning to other writing projects b/c this process blows. Thanks for sharing!
Send out 30 more when you’re ready and then 30 more after that. I’ll be doing the same after I revise. Let’s keep at it, Dana!
Thank you, Donna! Slow and steady wins the race. Wishing you the best, and it helps to feel part of a team.
In solidarity. Onward!
Hang in there Donna. I’m rooting for you and looking forward to adding another one of your books to my limited shelf space out here in the boonies.
Thanks, Dave! I really appreciate it!
If memory serves, my Query Calvary involved 4 years, 8 manuscript overhauls and over a hundred agent rejections. Until 2 offered representation last May. All you need is one. I know it will happen!
Thanks, Marivi. Yes, persistence and patience are key. I need to remember that.
I can relate, overly much I’m afraid.
Well, I am in good company, Priscilla!
I hear you, and feel the smoldering disappointment your words only hint at. I too have been there, actually still there. When you put your heart and time into a story only to be told it’s not good enough, is heart breaking. I’m a library-bookstore addict. I read anything that looks remotely interesting. I once got a few of my reading-writing friends together at our local bookstore. I plied them with wine and quiche after we returned home. I asked then to pick three books at random and together we met at the cafe upstairs. We spent the next two hours reading each other’s books until we exhausted our supply. I asked them to put the books they would buy and read in the center of the table. Fifteen books in all. Not one was placed at the center of the table. So, my question is, what agent or publisher thought any were worth publishing?
I’m in the process of having my latest work edited. Here is my real contribution to your narrative. Everything in its time. My reaction to the inevitable rejections is simply to set it aside and keep writing. At some point my children will inherent my work and then it becomes their problem. I can envision the scene many years in the future. I’m sitting in my wheelchair at the local nursing home eating my oatmeal when one of my kids walks in. My daughter tells me an agent in Peru wants to represent one of my novels for publishing. Like my mother always told us, “keep your head down and work to the end of the row.” Inevitably, I would find her doubling back to help me with my row. Is there a metaphor there some where? Thank you for your contribution to the library of unread manuscripts.
Ramon, I love your mother’s advice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Also, your website is terrific.
Three fulls! You know the query is good. That’s something. Keep on keeping on! Hopefully, I’ll be joining you in the quest soon.
Thanks, Allison. And, yes, join the querying fun and games. I wish everyone in the querying trenches success, preferably sooner rather than later.
Hi Donna! Thanks for sharing about your life in the querying trenches. I sympathize since I’ve been through the same experience — soul-kiling is the right word for it. I waited an entire year for one agent to respond after requesting a full manuscript — only to be rejected without any feedback. In another case, the agent gave me glowing feedback — and then rejected me, even though, as you say, I would have happily done some revisions. But don’t give up — you only need one yes!
Ruth, yes, so many of us are in this situation. If only it didn’t take so long to get that one yes!