It is a truth universally acknowledged that an unpublished writer in possession of a manuscript must be in want of an agent. In desperate want, in most cases. And that want is made all the more desperate when we unpublished writers read countless blog posts that rupture our already thin skin and rub salt in the resulting wounds with this simple, endlessly repeated message:

It’s very hard to get signed with an agent…
and it’s impossible to get published without one.

Our fates are, quite simply, in the hands of literary agents. If we want to be published, and we do, we need to be represented by an agent. Agents are our go-betweens, our priests taking our confessions (i.e., manuscripts) and prescribing acts of penance (i.e., edits) that will get us closer to the very thing they are created to separate us from. The literary agent – whether good or bad, proven or not – is shrouded, cloaked, steeped in this sacred power that makes the unpublished writer wilt and quiver at the very notion of approaching an agent with a query letter. (See the comment from Jamie on this post)

A few direct quotes from literary agencies about what to expect when querying (i.e., rejection):

I am insulted by those who think that everything published is nothing but a load of crap and I don’t want to work with anyone who has an attitude like that. I also can’t figure out why you’d want to be published. Instant reject. – BookEnds, LLC

As it so often is, the message is to keep trying, believe in yourself and your work, and hard as it is, don’t take rejection personally. – The Bent Agency

These are queries that don’t make it to the holding pen; they’re rejected in about 15 seconds, the time it takes to skim a page. – Janet Reid Literary

Those quotes aren’t meant to express how evil agencies are – not at all. (And, yes, they’re removed from context, so please click links to read full posts.) Agencies get a lot of queries, and they’re allowed to – no, it behooves them to – put some guidelines in place.

Those quotes, rather, highlight why we unpublished souls are so terrified of querying agents. Nobody likes rejection. And even if everything around the word “rejection” is meant to sound encouraging (which is rarely the case), that word alone pulls the trigger that shoots the bullet that hits our spine and cripples us.

The Rhetoric That Normalizes Rejection
Good news, we unpublished writers hear, you’re not alone! Even the greatest writers got rejected. Herman Melville only saw Moby Dick sell 11 copies – so all is not lost for us. Perhaps we”ll see 12.

…I don’t know who is supposed to feel good after learning that rejection is common. Because it only takes one rejection letter to put you in a seriously foul mood; and the idea of sitting through 375 rejections, like Venkatesh Kulkarni did for Naked in Deccan (winner of The American Book Award), doesn’t exactly give me warm fuzzies. I don’t feel any better whatsoever after learning that little tidbit.

And I get it: I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to learn, instead, that rejection is normal. This rhetoric is supposed to oil your feathers so rejection letters like this one, my first ever and, admittedly, not mean, roll off you:

Thank you for your recent e-mail.  I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work.

However, opinions vary considerably in this business, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation.

Best wishes,

But rejections don’t roll off; you stow them in that part of your brain with the “you’ll never be _____ enough” comments, within easy reach. You receive another rejection letter. And another. And, often, crushingly, no response whatsoever. Your partner has started sleeping in the car because you’re tossing and turning. Your friends have witnessed you sobbing as you stare into the refrigerator one too many times. Your self-worth is at an all-time low.

So, not too shockingly, when you finally get a bite, you are feeling sufficiently desperate… and you cling to the rope that’s been lowered into your pit of depression; you stare skyward at the agent who has lowered the rope from her helicopter; and what do you do? Do you ask questions while you dangle there?

  • “How strong is this rope?”
  • “How many times have you successfully pulled a writer from her pit of depression to safe – and even balmy – grounds?”
  • “Do you have strong relationships with doctors (i.e., editors) who can help me through this depression?”
  • “If I’m not satisfied with dangling from this rope for the next six months while you sway in every direction and circle islands populated by carnivores, what is my recourse?”
  • “It looks like there’s another helicopter on the way… so why do I need to commit to your rope? In the end, I’m paying for this whole helicopter ride, right? Shouldn’t I have a little more say?”

No. You get lifted into the sky, sighing in relief and looking towards the horizon where the promise of a book deal hovers, or so you think.

What My Friend Wishes She Had Known Before Grabbing the Rope
I have a very dear writer friend we’ll call Laura who was one of the most desperate sorts when she signed with her now-agent. She’d overdosed on the Stephenie Meyer success story and truly believed that she HAD to write her first book fast, get signed fast, and sell for big bucks fast. So when it didn’t go that way (because, and this is a point I’d very much like to drive home, it NEVER goes that way), she was almost immediately diagnosed with Desperate Unpublished Writer Syndrome. I watched her climb into her pit of depression. It was terrible.

And then an agent came along, dangling her rope. Laura, doing a jig on the end of the rope, was soon lifted into the sky. There she hovered for months only to learn, at the end, that the agent had clean forgotten she was dangling from that rope, she’d been so preoccupied with other things; Laura dropped back into the pit – and was soon (thankfully!) pulled out by the agent she now has.

But here – at last – are some secrets she and others have said they wished they’d known, secrets only the best agencies want you to know. I’ll leave you with them in the hopes that you seriously take them to heart. I have no interest here but to help unpublished writers avoid losing their partners and friends before residing for the rest of their natural lives in a pit…

  1. Never settle for a so-so agent or agency. You want Writers House? Revise your manuscript until it’s flawless and perfectly matched to an agent there. Not sure what’s wrong with your MS? We have a free service coming soon for that…
  2. If you’re a great undiscovered writer, there’s no need to get desperate. Eventually an agent will discover your writing; often, the agent will recommend ways to improve the story and, if worse comes to worse, even pitch a new idea they know an editor will love. In the meantime, keep your dayjob and your sanity.
  3. Google the agent relentlessly. What has the agent sold and what editors do they commonly work with? (A Publishers Marketplace subscription helps with this, big time.) What’s their university degree, if they have one? How long have they been selling books? Have they written any books? (If they have, read them before you sign. Imagine if you discovered you didn’t like their writing at all… and now you’re taking writing feedback from them!)
  4. Promise yourself – and force yourself – to ask these hard questions. Honestly, the agent is signing you because she sees an opportunity to make money. You should sign with the agent for the same reason. Publishing is big business; don’t let your fear of sounding like a diva scare you away from asking questions you deserve answers to.
  5. Don’t hide in the shadow of your inexperience. Sure, you’re new to this publishing world… but, if you’re at all serious about it, you’re not new to reading or writing. You’ve done a ton of both. So make sure your agent is well-versed in sales first, book editing second. (Because a big part of the edits your agent suggests should be edits that will have serious ROI; in fact, most of their edits should be supported by how those changes will make your book more marketable.) And hold your ground from day one – no matter how unpublished you are – before you find yourself writing your agent’s book, not your own.
  6. Make sure your agent has read the top books in your genre. An agent who represents horror but hasn’t read The Shining? Seriously… If they haven’t read it, they won’t be able to give you good editorial feedback, and you’ll get frustrated as you continually knock heads.