How to Find an Agent: Querying by the Numbers
In September 2022, I set out to query as many agents as I sanely could about a book I had published independently but that had since made a splash on social media. I thought perhaps I would be lucky enough to be one of those indie-published writers who crossed over to traditional publishing. In the end, I was right.
I'm not new to querying, though it has been a minute since I did it last. I used Query Tracker and made a spreadsheet to help keep me organized. I recorded every "no" and every "maybe" and noted when I received either reply. I carefully scrutinized the submission requirements and cross-checked agents and their activities from Query Tracker to agency websites. Naturally, I was careful not to query agents who were closed to queries.
After celebrating getting a wonderful agent, I reviewed my spreadsheet and did some math. The results were surprising. Or maybe not.
83% of the agents I queried didn't reply at all. It's been nine months since my queries were sent.
That means that only 17% replied. Of those, 66% said no. Four agents asked for a sample of my manuscript; one said yes, let's schedule a meeting. That was the only yes I needed; I signed a contract shortly thereafter.
Those agents quickest in replying responded, in some cases, the same day I sent the query (the agent I signed with was one of those people), and a few others responded in about a week. For the 83% of those who never replied, it's been nine months since I queried them.
One person's experience can hardly qualify as a sample big enough to draw conclusions from, but still, I found it interesting that so few agents replied at all.
They say that rejection is hard to handle, but the rejection of silence is particularly disheartening. After all, our manuscripts are what make the wheels go round. No writers, no books. Yes, competition is very stiff; agents receive thousands of queries yearly. I don't envy the process of going through them. I imagine that some agents have a backlog. And yes, news of the death knell of publishing has been recurring for some years now. But still - as writers, we see new books being reviewed and marketed - someone is writing those books, and agents are representing them - why shouldn't that be us?
Google has a surfeit of excellent tips for querying from many a blogger. I know of at least two groups for writers in the querying process on Facebook. Should your query be personalized? Does your platform matter? How much of your plot do you reveal? How much detail should you include? The advice varies.
When a writer does manage to gain representation, the focus can shift to the inspiring story of that writer. We talk about the years that writer tried and failed. How they bravely persevered, how special their manuscript was. Then we look at their query and say aha, this is it, this is what works!
In 2019, before the pandemic, I tried an experiment. Five writers I worked with closely who had, in my opinion, and experience, excellent manuscripts in several genres set out to query as many agents as possible in three months' time. Each writer had a carefully crafted query and excellent sample pages. These were experienced writers and in some cases, they had short stories published in the past. While it's true that none of the five had a "platform" to speak of, each did have a great "comp title" list of books in the same genre that had been successful in the recent past. Each writer queried approximately 75 agents. So that's about 375 queries sent out. Of course, there was some overlap of agencies queried. Each agency and query was researched and cross-checked for new updates or developments. (Sometimes, an agent is "closed to queries" a day after you sent yours....) By the numbers, these writers got more responses than I did and several requests for the full manuscript. But none got an offer of representation.
It saddens me to say that each of these writers gave up at that point. I don't think they should have, and yet I understand. Querying is a yo-yo experience of high hopes and confidence and utter despair and frustration. One would think of 75 agents, someone would show serious interest. But maybe that number of queries should have gone on to stage two, with another 75 queried and another several months gone by.
How do you find an agent? I was - and I choose this word carefully - lucky. My book, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is about the life of a Holocaust survivor. When I queried the book in 2018, I got discouraged very quickly. I only queried about 50 agents. The few agents who gave me actual feedback said that the Holocaust is too depressing for readers or that there were too many books on the topic. Being that Gidon was 83 years old at the time, I decided to publish independently so that Gidon would have the book in his hands. But fast forward four years, and suddenly the life of a Holocaust survivor is incredibly relevant, with antisemitism, transphobia, and extremism on the rise. I hate that these conditions made Gidon's story more pressing.
If I hadn't gotten an agent, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog post, so dismal were the numbers. There was nothing magical that I did better than you are doing. I'm not a better writer than you. I didn't persevere for years. I don't have a dramatic story about how I was about to give up and get a job I hate. Having an agent has not, so far, changed my life.
William Goldman once said of the film industry that "nobody knows anything." I think he's right.
If I want you to have one takeaway from this, it's that you aren't crazy - writing is hard and querying can be an exercise in frustration and rejection. I repeat: You are not crazy. Or lazy. Or a bad writer.
None of this is easy, and nobody has THE tip that will ensure your "success." In fact, if someone tells you they have some advice, tip, editing, or feedback that WILL get you an agent? You should think that over long and hard. The only thing we writers can do is to write for the love of it and when we try to get the manuscript out there, not to take it personally. I realize how hard this is - trust me, I do. But it's not you - it's a fickle public with changing interests and a high-stakes business. It's busy agents and barriers and very often, a silence that feels like a condemnation of your creative spirit - how dare you have the audacity to hope that readers will love your book?!
Writers - hang on to that audacity. And perhaps even more importantly, embrace the process of being a writer. Your self-expression matters. And you might even get lucky, like me.