A few posts back, I answered the question of “Should I hire a professional editor before I self-publish my novel?” (TL;DR answer: probably not). In that post, I mentioned I was on the cusp of recommending writers not bother querying literary agents at all.
After years of personal experience in the self-publishing and traditional publishing worlds, and after hearing about other authors’ experiences, I’ve now officially reached that conclusion—don’t query literary agents. It’ll almost certainly be a negative return on your investment.
Let me first provide a point of clarity—this is NOT a rant against literary agents themselves. I have no doubt the vast majority are great people who want to represent great books and truly wish the best for all aspiring authors.
It’s the system they work within that’s the problem.
Specifically, here is why querying agents is not worth your time:
- Most agents won’t respond.
Maybe ten years ago, it used to be that agents responded to all queries, even if it was a form rejection letter. Nowadays, with e-mail turning agents’ slush piles into mountains, the new standard is silence. Often agents will have a note on their submission instructions telling querying authors they’ll respond in 6-12 weeks, but as I said in my previous post, if it takes that long then the answer is no, so they might as well have a “no response means no” policy. The simple truth is agents just don’t have time for all these queries, so authors shouldn’t waste their own time polishing up a query letter, a synopsis, and the first fifty pages or whatever (outside of normal editing) just to throw it into a black hole of silence.
2. The agents who do respond will give you a useless form rejection.
It’s not an agent’s job to give you personal feedback, and to our credit most authors don’t expect it…or even particularly want it—we don’t need a detailed account of all the ways our story sucks, thanks. But these robo-rejections emphasize what a waste of time the whole querying process is–expect no feedback besides the word “no.”
3. More querying won’t increase your odds of getting a positive response.
Many robo-rejections include verbiage that says something like, “This isn’t for me, but agents are very subjective so don’t give up hope!” This isn’t true on a few levels. Yes, whether or not an agent wants to represent your work is based on that person’s individual tastes, that is true. HOWEVER, the industry as a whole clearly has a preference, and that preference is for whatever makes money—and whatever makes money is fairly homogenized and dependent on the demographics of the people who make up the book acquisition industry…which is also fairly homogenized. It’s no coincidence that despite the recent call for diversity and #ownvoices, the vast majority of books published today still predominately feature cis white protagonists…while the vast majority of the publishing world is cis white.
This means what an agent is looking for at any particular moment is extremely limited and based on whatever’s hot at the moment. For instance, an agent might say in her bio that she’s looking for “diverse young adult” stories, but what she’s actually looking for is the next The Hate U Give, maybe with an Asian protagonist this time for a veneer of freshness. If that’s not you, then “thanks but no thanks” even if your young adult story features a minority protagonist. New trends branch off old trends, and a literary agent’s priority is to make money, cuz they’ve got bills to pay just like you. The easiest way for them to do that is to acquire the next hot thing that’s just like the last hot thing. Therefore, one querying wave of no’s probably means the entire industry is a no.
4. The slow and steady onslaught of rejection will maul your self-esteem to shreds.
Finally, and most importantly, no matter how strong you are the constant barrage of rejection hurts, whether it’s in the form of silence or something else. It’s not like you have nothing to lose; you do, in fact, pay a psychic price that wears down your self-esteem. And what do you actually get in return? Almost certainly nothing, that’s what, which is why it’s an overall negative investment of your time, energy, and soul.
But if you think your extremely slim chances of getting that “yes” from an agent will make it all worth it, think again—which brings me to my last point…
5. Even if you land an agent and get a book deal, it’ll probably be a crappy deal.
The cold hard truth is very few traditionally published authors make significant money off their work—or any money at all, really. I don’t know if this has always been the case or is a recent phenomenon with e-books, but publishers now do this thing where they acquire books with little to no advance payments (promising royalties instead), then toss the book into the market with minimal publicity to see what sticks. If a book makes a profit, great. If not, they’ve minimized their losses and can move on to the next potentially hot thing. These are called “boilerplate contracts,” they’re everywhere and they suck for authors AND literary agents, because agents are then forced to take on dozens of clients in the hopes that one of them will turn a profit so they can earn their commission. And when it turns out you’re not that special book that somehow makes money despite no support from the publisher, expect your agent to dump you like a box of rocks—and then you’ll have to start this whole goddamn process over again.
So. Now that I’ve crushed your hopes and dreams of a lucrative traditional publishing deal made possible by cold-querying literary agents, I’m happy to tell you there are alternative options with much higher chances of success that ALSO won’t make you cry yourself to sleep!
Here’s what you should do instead of querying agents:
- Self-publish a LOT of books; wait for an agent to approach you.
Your best chance for success in the literary world, hands-down, is to publish a lot of books in any format. Eventually you’ll find an audience if you publish consistently. If you start making real money, an agent might approach you. It’s unlikely they’ll represent anything you’ve already published, but they may want to represent your future works, international or film rights, etc.
2. Make connections and network within the publishing industry; get a deal by knowing someone.
The publishing industry wants you to believe they only publish the best books, as if literary agents only represent stories that are so good they shriek in ecstasy while reading them and then smoke a cigarette afterwards cuz it was THAT GOOD. However, this supposed high standard of quality is demonstrably not true. A casual stroll through your local book store will reveal a plethora of mediocre to terrible books that somehow made it onto the shelves. One common thread you’ll find is that most traditionally published authors have degrees in English or literature in general, and/or have worked in the publishing industry. Does this make them better writers than other self-taught authors? I would say no, given the amount of shit on the shelves.
What they have are CONNECTIONS—friends, acquaintances, and coworkers who can do them favors and cut them breaks people outside the industry don’t get. But this is how a lot of industries work, so no surprise there.
What you need to do is get your foot in this door. If you don’t work in the industry already (which I assume is true, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this article), hit the convention circuit and schmooze up to industry pros. Pitch directly to agents so they have to look you in the eyes and connect a story to a person, imagine what it might be like to work with you, and hopefully feel something positive stir inside their soul.
3. MAYBE query for hot genres, ex. romance, mysteries, or the “flavor of the month,” currently (as of early 2019) domestic and crime thrillers.
If you just can’t let go of that dream of a (shitty) traditional publishing deal, aim for the low-hanging fruit of whatever’s hot at the moment or the stuff that never gets old, like sexy vampires or cozy seaside mysteries. General wisdom says not to chase the trends, but trends are what sells; the key is to jump on that bandwagon before things start to cool. You can tell when a trend is on the downturn when the TV/movie adaptions start to bomb; see the rise and fall of YA sci-fi/fantasy as exhibit A (the cool reception to the second and third Divergent movies was the notice to shelve your YA dystopian work-in-progress). I suspect the recent hot trend of domestic psychological thrillers are headed in the same direction…seriously, how many times is the most seemingly innocent character revealed as a psycho killer going to be the big twist before readers get tired of it? I’m guessing that day is coming soon (and not soon enough…for real, try harder, writers of domestic thrillers).
If you’re gonna query because you just can’t stop yourself, I suggest throttling your efforts way back and giving yourself some boundaries; for instance, query only once a month, to no more than five agents at a time. Maybe set aside one book you’ve got your heart on trad-publishing, and self-publish the rest.
Whether it’s fair or not, the traditional process for acquiring and publishing books is not set up to work in your favor. The only way to ensure success is to take control of the process yourself.