How to get a literary agent…or not

I’ve just been reading a blog post about what agents and publishers want to see when they Google your name. You know what’s funny about the answer? They don’t seem to be looking at what you’ve written.

They want to see that you’re active, that you’re blowing your own trumpet on all the social media. They check that you’ve got a this account and a that account. They check that you haven’t been criticising publishers or agents (they really don’t like that). They want to see whether your writing has been well-received by other people who’ve seen it. So much for them using their own judgement.

I have no idea whether agents or publishers have ever Googled me—apart from my former unregretted publisher who probably wanted to check up on what I was saying about them. If they have, they have obviously decided to pass on the other side of the street. Whatever they discovered about my public persona was not liked. I’m assuming they didn’t pay much attention to what I write. Because the BOOK, the quality of the writing doesn’t seem to cut much ice.

Once again I get a faint whiff of something going off. Is it so unreasonable to expect that agents would be acting like old-fashioned talent scouts and looking out for a great BOOK? Doesn’t that happen anymore? Is it only author brands that are picked out of the pile? What’s going off seems to be any kind of literary criticism. What’s of interest is what’s already selling.

I don’t expect agents to be risk-takers. I don’t expect them to bet their shirts on some way-out wacky concept that only about 0.5% of the population would even understand. But I do expect them to be able to judge the literary merits of a book and be able to sell it. The exasperating thing is, the impression I’m getting is that they are just looking for trends, author brands that follow the trend, and authors who are already well on the way to making a name for themselves. They don’t even seem interested in setting trends, because that implies bringing to bear a certain amount of critical literary judgement and not just a talent for accounting.

Am I not looking at this the right way? Is it just sour grapes because I’ve never been able to get a literary agent to give me the time of day? Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about—I only have my own experience to go by and what I see on agents’ wish lists. YooHoo! Passing literary agents! Look at me! I can write. Does that matter any more?

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

32 thoughts on “How to get a literary agent…or not”

    1. It does make sense for an agent to find out as much as they can about a potential client. But the idea that they would pass on a book because they didn’t think the author’s online presence was adequate seems plain cranky to me.

  1. The quality of the writing IS important Jane, but mainstream publishers are looking for trends and authors that will earn them money with minimum effort, hence fall over themselves to get J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, et al in their grasp, because once established, the authors name is enough to sell their books.
    However, bear in mind that most (if not all) of these good people started off papering their walls with rejection letters and only through perseverance finally got their break, got published and became an ‘overnight’ success.

    1. The names you cite made it big years ago. I think it’s becoming more and more difficult to make any impression at all. I don’t mind for me—I’m not looking for an agent. Mainly because I know I’d only ever get one after spending years of effort at it and I’m not prepared to do that. No, I’ll just keep writing. I’d far rather write stories than query letters 🙂

  2. You know, I think this very thing happened to me recently! I had a book under consideration with an agent, and then noticed a couple of hits on blog posts of mine that were critical of how agents treat writers (mildly critical, that is). Within days, the agent passed on my book. Hmmmmm.

    Not sure what a writer is to do if expressing an opinion disqualifies you.

    1. If they say themselves that they have a check list that has nothing whatsoever to do with the book under consideration, it could well be that you simply displeased as a brand. You wonder how much of a triumph it is to get an agent. Does it just mean you are completely unoriginal and terribly hardworking with a huge ego?

  3. That is the sad truth about the publishing world right now and anything that can be affected by media as a matter of fact. How many actors and singers who debuts at number one are really good at what they do? When last have you heard a singer that can remotely compare to Celine Dion win something or be number one on any chart? Why not – because it doesn’t matter how good you can sing if you are not willing to check your morals at the door, and you can’t maintain a size zero no one would give you a second glance. But these things are the way they are because we the consumers allow it.
    I have also had no luck with agents and publishers. I use to think that when someone self-publishes it means that they don’t write good enough. Today you have to have a platform. You are so right about that.
    I know times change, and things aren’t what they use to be, however, there is a reason why book like Tom Sawyer (pub 1876), To Kill a Mockingbird (pub 1960), Carrie (pub 1974) Flowers in the Attic (1979) are always in print. These are/were authors who wrote what they wanted to write, and of course they were also great writers. They carved their spaces in the publishing world; they did not try to fit it. Trends are always their but they always change. So, maybe it’s just about selling as many copies as you can in the next two years and then the book is off the shelves, because after the trend ends so does the interest in that book.
    I believe strongly that when you do things from your hear it will work out one way or the other. Sure I can write about what is popular now, but real ‘book lovers’ know the difference between when you put your time, effort and heart into perfecting your vision and when something is manufacture and is just a carbon copy of some you’ve seen a thousand times before.

    1. I hope you’re right, because otherwise there’s no hope for most of us, no matter what the literary merit of what we write. It’s like fashion. People want novelty, easy entertainment. I like to think there is still a hard core of readers who want to read well-written books with an original story and a real voice, not just, as you say, something exactly the same as the last thing they read.

  4. It’s not just agents. It’s traditional publishers. They’re looking for a book that will easily become the next big movie complete with t-shirts and action figures. While some agents will take a chance on a new author with a phenomenal, but less commercial book, I think most agents are focusing on what they know they can sell. From a business perspective, it totally makes sense. From a literary perspective it sucks because there are a lot of good books out there needing to find an audience.

    1. What I can see as a flaw in the business model though is that when the trend changes, as trends do, after a very short time, the agent with the vampire mermaids or the shape-shifting French revolutionaries on her books is going to have to start looking for a whole new stable of authors every couple of years

      1. “Stable of authors” I think that about gets to the heart off the matter. Eventually, there will be a lot of authors being dumped by agents, unless they are able to hop on the next new trend.

      2. Just because you have an agent doesn’t oblige the agent to do anything for you. If you’re last year’s trend your books will just be ignored while the agent goes after fresh blood. I know of dozens of writers who get the agent, think it’s the start of the dream come true and…nothing. If you poop too late the trend’s fizzling out and suddenly it isn’t such a brilliant idea after all.

  5. No, a literary agent isn’t looking for a good book, she or he is looking for a good client. An agent isn’t going to make much from a single book–15% of what the author makes, which we all know isn’t much. Where agents make money is from long term clients, the kind of writers who provide the next installment in their series every six months or so. Honestly, John Norman would be a more attractive client than Harper Lee, in terms of lifetime earnings.

    An agent, therefore, is looking for someone who is stable, motivated to keep working, unlikely to fire the agent in a fit of pique, and willing to churn out mid-list easily classifiable genre fiction on a regular schedule for life.

    So if you want to attract an agent, start writing blog posts like, “Why I Love Habit And Routine”, “Writing The Same Book Over And Over Again Is Fun”, and “Monotony: The Key To Creativity.”

    1. True. And make sure you pick a genre that’s here to stay. Otherwise what are you going to do with your 57 planned novels about the high school students who turn into a pack of werewolves at night and have glowing chin stubble in the day?

  6. I am certain, over the past 6 or 7 years, that I have picked up over 100 newly published novels at either a bookstore or a library and read a blurb about a jaded/alcoholic/divorced/otherwise cynical cop reopening an old case that was never solved because he just found a random clue in an unexpected place, or he reopened a closed case because he has a nagging feeling something isn’t right and the wrong guy went to prison. They all seem to be called “Danger Point” or “Kill Zone.”

    I’m tempted to write one as a parody and see if anyone can tell.

  7. I don’t have any bad experiences with agents – yet – but then I haven’t started submitting. But I don’t agree that only formula books are getting through. There are different markets for all kinds of books and new authors are being signed all the time. The problem is there are very few places at the table and so many people writing so it’s a buyer’s market. At least self-published authors are freed from being wallflowers but they have the burden of having to work hard on their platform.
    I think online presence is relevant now in every sector. It’s obvious you are going to be googled if you approach a new potential business contact. So we have to cultivate that to some extent as long as social networking activity doesn’t take over and eats up writing time. I like Twitter best – friendly, short and sweet.

    1. I’ve never seen how Twitter helps, to be honest. I know I never read the tweets that include *****. Doesn’t stop me sending out one or two when I have something to anounce though. You’re right of course that ‘different’ books are signed up by agents now and again. How many of them are real finds though? How many of their authors have already proved that people will buy their stuff by self-publishing and spreading the word themselves? When you look at agents’ requirements they are often dead particular. They want XYandZ, they want it in a certain form and they want to know you are going to be able to promote successfully. As you say, it’s a buyers market, and it certainly helps your chances of being picked up if you tick all the right boxes.

  8. And when the agent does pick up the author they have to sell the author to the publishing editor who has to sell the author to the publishing marketing director and the publishing finance director. It makes you wonder how anyone ever gets through at all, unless they’re the niece of the Dean of Winchester who went to the same university as JonathanHarperHodder’s CEO!

    1. So the ‘good’ agents only ever pick up books they know they can offload, which means books that are exactly like what’s already trending. If you’re a celeb, of course, you can produce any kind of crap tidied up by a ghost writer and it will sell by the shovel load.

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