How not to gain a literary agent

How not to gain a literary agent
background image courtesy of Lissa R and Flickr

Ah, the quest for the elusive literary agent…

For my readers who are not writers, let me explain. You see a literary agent can seem much like a unicorn within the writing world. If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon one, the common belief is that they have the power to carry an inexperienced virgin writer to the doors of a major publishing house with a flick of their mane, and once there, they will have wishes like advances large enough to allow retirement from the day job bestowed upon them.

However, these magical creatures are elusive and prone to shy from abrupt noises or from anyone with less than the purest of hearts. And the quest itself isn’t without peril. Pretenders risk being torn to shreds by the unicorn’s horn and hooves, and that is assuming they find the real thing. There are plenty of other things out there that can destroy the would-be author’s dream, such as trolls hiding under coats of horsehide or fierce gatekeeper dragons.

The source of the unicorn myth likely stems from a misidentified oryx or ancient auroch, and a literary agent’s real powers are about as magical, but writers are dreamers. Over the last several months a few of my writer friends announced, with some trepidation, their intention to seek out potential agents. I understand their fear as I explored this option last year as well. Ultimately, I abandoned my search for reasons related to my goals for that specific project, but that didn’t prevent me from gaining some experience on the subject. So while I may not be in a position to advise on “how to” gain an agent, I thought I would, at least, share what I learned about “how not to.”

For those of you non-writer types reading this, the following tips can apply to job hunting as well. Just insert ‘resume’ for ‘manuscript’ and ‘potential employer’ for ‘agent’.

1. Send blanket queries to everyone in the phone book

Keep in mind that agents are salespeople and best salespeople are those who believe in a product they represent as much as they believe in making a dollar. Therefore, an agent who doesn’t enjoy gory horror isn’t going to appreciate your take on something like Saw. Save yourself some time, aggravation, and potential hope-crushing rejection by only querying those who are a) accepting unsolicited queries and b) into what you are into.

I had the most success looking for potential agents on Twitter. By reading their tweets, I was able to not only see what they were looking for but what kind of person they are as well. As a result, I was not only able to tailor my query letters to individual agents, but was able to rule out entire agencies where I didn’t see a good match.

In short, if you aren’t willing to take the time to get to know them, don’t expect them to take the time to get to know you. [update: If Twitter is not an option for you, alternatives like Mastodon, Discord, and Tumblr also have agents as active users]

2. Ignore the submission requirements

I haven’t stopped following agents on Twitter just because I didn’t sign with one. They have great tips and hint at what trends are selling (and where) which in turn helps me with my marketing. They also let me know about upcoming books to add to my to-be-read pile. However, just as often, they will bemoan about some would-be author who didn’t take the take to read their submission requirements.

Each agency’s requirements are different. Luckily figuring out what each agency needs to make a decision about your work is usually pretty simple. Go to their website and look for their rules. If a “Submission” link isn’t highly visible, it is a good indicator that they aren’t looking for new clients right now and you’d be better off searching elsewhere.

3. Submit an incomplete / unpolished manuscript

This one applies more to fiction than non-fiction.

You might be under the impression that you don’t need to polish your manuscript before submitting it to an interested agent because in addition to your big cash advance will come editorial services when they sell it to a publisher, so why spend the time/money now? This is a mistake. Apparently, no agent worth their commission has time to waste panning for gold with you. They are looking to sell ingots, not mud pies.

However, you can go ahead and start searching (better yet – networking) at any time. That contact you make a cocktail party, book fair, or conference might just remember you enough to spare your work a second glance when you finally are ready to get serious.

4. Protest their response

When my youngest starts to get tired, the rim of his eyes grow red and he tends to flop about on the floor, but the moment you try to pick him up to take him to his bedroom he will cry, kick, and scream about how not sleepy he is and every single time I will tell him that by acting the way he did, he just proved my point.

Agents aren’t going to be any more impressed with tantrums. If anything, you just firmed up their decision not to add you as a client.

5. Give Up

Of course, the best way to not sign with an agent is to simply give up. But Allie, aren’t you being a little hypocritical advising people not to give up when you admitted up top that you abandoned your own search last year?  No. To be clear, I’m not advising one way or another.

Signing with an agent is not for every person or every project. At the end of the day, every writer has to decide what works for them and the project. But regardless of the outcome, I believe querying is something that should be at least tried. Querying helps define your audience, refine pitch, and practice networking and if you are lucky, you may just find a unicorn. Happy hunting.

72 thoughts on “How not to gain a literary agent

  1. Absolutely love the metaphors in this post! I agree–Twitter is an amazing tool for judging personalities etc. I participated in a couple of pitch contests on Twitter as well which were fun. 🙂 I also found that conferences are a great place to scope out agents if you see them on a panel or get a chance to pitch. I’m currently seeking an agent now (fingers crossed) and am very nervous. We shall see how it goes.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get serious about trying to write an entire book. I find just writing posts is a ton of work and I’m not convinced that I have sufficient talent for fiction. Chances are, then, that I probably won’t need an agent. Having said all that, though, I found the post interesting and informative. If I ever do pluck up the courage to start approaching agents, at least I’ll manage to avoid some of the most common errors. 🙂


  3. Oh, the elusive unicorn! I did the submission thing about two years ago, then gave up for similar reasons to you. I’m glad I did though, because I learned a lot about the process – however, in the end I had a creative vision for my books and am pleased I self-published my Ambeth series.
    Now I’m getting ready to go on another unicorn hunt, with a new book, so your Twitter tip is a good one to add to the list – thanks for sharing 🙂


    1. It was a lot less intimidating than scrolling through names in a directory. I just went to the search bar and typed literary agency and Twitter made suggestions for me. Of course, that was when the real work began.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it’s a surprisingly time-consuming process, isn’t it? I have a better handle on it now, but I’ll be doing loads of prep work before I even start submitting again.


  4. I’ve never looked for the elusive unicorn agent, but I have pursued the potential employer. I think your advice here is spot on. But I will tell you that when I got out college, the job search wisdom at the time was to do the exact opposite of your #1. We were encouraged to send hundreds of resumes everywhere, to everyone, just. in. case. Such a waste of time and resources, but that was How The Job Search Was Done. Period.


    1. Yeah, they gave us the same advice and I wound up going about 10 months without employment after graduation. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position to hire people since then and you can tell at a glance who is sending blanket queries and who is actually interested in the advertised job.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I tried for the better part of 10 years to find a literary agent. Had a few nibbles here and there – a couple of them even asked for the entire manuscript – but in the end, going the self-publishing route was much more rewarding for me. Would I like to find a literary agent someday? Of course. Their marketing expertise alone would be worth it. But do I need to find one? Absolutely not.

    Great advice. Or anti-advice, as it were.


  6. My attempts to write requesting anything have been a disaster ever since I applied to join law firms out of university. I was seeking a position as a solicitor, the English quaintly old-fashioned word for lawyer and spelt it solictor. 75 hand written applications later a friend noticed my typo. ‘Be careful, Geoff, if they see that mistake they’ll bin your letter.’ I didn’t have the heart left to tell him it wasn’t a one off. Thanks for the advice Allie but I think I’ll have to stick to self publishing.


  7. Overall, excellent advice, Allie. However, your final suggestion should be taken with a grain of salt. Inevitably, at some point, we will reach a crossroad in our pursuit of an agent. That’s when giving up becomes not just an OPTION, but the CORRECT choice to make. That’s when choosing “the path less traveled by” (self-publication) represents the only direction left to follow. More often than not, this occurs with writers who are getting a little “long in the tooth.” I did “all the right things,” and came very close on two occasions to securing an agent. But at the age of 60, I finally took matters into my own hands – with no regrets – and self-published. In the end, we writers need to believe in ourselves, and that involves trusting our instincts and moving forward – even without an agent – hopefully to success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I fully agree. I was merely advising that it is a good experience, but I agree it is absolutely not a requirement for success. I didn’t sign with an agent and that was what worked for me. As a result, I was able to publish my book, which has gotten good reviews, before the technology contained in it was considered out of date.

      No regrets here either.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post. Since I have no intention of writing a book I will apply your advice (as you suggested) to job hunting instead. I enjoyed the comments just as much as the post.


    1. Thanks! I was somewhat conflicted writing it knowing that not everyone who reads my posts is into writing professionally, but it saved me at least a half dozen emails.


    1. I don’t know that I like the comparison to the Titanic. I’ll pretend, for my own sake, you are comparing me with the Britannic instead.

      But, I am glad you enjoyed my tips and thank you for the reblog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 🙂 I was in a joking mood the other day, so when I saw your reference and attempted to raise it by going to the source of the whole ‘unsinkable.’

        But, joking aside, I do thank you very much for the compliment.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s an interesting point of viewe and agree totally with it. Although I have managed to keep of drinking for some time, not by concious effort, just how things are.
        I love the immortalision it could give though.


      2. I don’t think many people are… it’s a shame, becasue the blood sweat and tears that go into these books. It’s criminal really.
        You didn’t look like w ehiskey drinker to me 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  9. One thing for an author with a completed manuscript to consider is how high they’d like to aim. There are not many publishers who take unagented manuscripts, but there are some that do— they tend to be the smaller houses trying to build a catalogue and make a name for themselves. They are still judicious, so should you find a small publisher that accepts unagented manuscripts, be sure to follow their submission guidelines and give them your very best. Right now, the YA publishers seem to be open to unagented submissions, and it is not that hard to find publishers of romance that accept the same. And one more thing about how high you’d like to aim: look closely at an agent’s ( as well as the agency’s) track record; see where they have placed manuscripts before you approach them. I’ve noticed a handful of authors sign 15 % away to an agent that placed their work, when they could have gone to the same house unagented!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. These are excellent points and I hope you have a similar piece on the subject. If so, please feel free to add a link. When I was querying, I did rule out a few agencies (and even some small publishers) based on their portfolio. It is so very important that authors do their research before signing away their hard work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, because it is an incredibly opportunistic time for authors in this day and age of publishing, as the entire dynamic continues to evolve. One has to think of their writing career in terms of the bigger picture, and that a writer’s career is a growth process.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Have you saved all those wonderful “We feel your work is not the proper fit for our agency at this time …” letters? I have a stack about two feet tall. Very cool! It rivals my stack of publisher rejections … It just goes to show you, the five publishers who were dumb enough to publish my works need better acquisition people.


    1. I did save them. I just wish I had saved a copy of my research where I had rejected them before I hit the send button. I’m fairly confident it would have been a taller pile. I love your humor though about the process.


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