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Fishing for an agent?
Use the right bait

Our survey of 60 agents offer writers a wealth of tips

By Brian Hill and Dee Power  All rights reserved worldwide.

Most aspiring authors begin their careers with little or no understanding of how to go about finding an agent to represent their work. They quickly learn that most major publishing houses only accept submissions through literary agents. So, with great anticipation, they begin sending query letters to agents and usually get a cool reception, or even hit an impenetrable brick wall.

To understand how authors can improve their odds of attracting an agent, and to learn the outlook for rookies trying to crack into the brutally competitive publishing industry, we surveyed more than 60 literary agents. Their backgrounds range from large, well-known agencies to smaller "boutique" agencies.

Among the questions we asked were these: Where do agents find clients? What is the most critical mistake writers make when approaching agents? What is the most common reason you decline to represent a writer? And, do you see the publishing industry becoming more or less favorable for new (unpublished) authors?

Perils and Pitfalls:
Whom Can The Beginning Author Trust?

It can be an extremely difficult task to break into the publishing world when you begin with no writing credits and no book publishing contacts—but definitely not impossible. New writers break in every day—and get paid handsomely for their work.

The major pitfall is that in their eagerness to make progress, new writers often fall prey to individuals seeking to separate the author from his or her money. This six page report tells you what to look out for to avoid becoming a scam victim.

Survey results

We think our survey results and agent comments offer some good insights for all types of writers.

Where do agents find clients?

39% Referral from one of their other clients
33% Direct contact by the writer
9% Referral from editors and publishers
8% Referral from other authors not their clients
5% Referrals from other agents
3% Attendance at writers conferences
3% Other 

It is no surprise that referrals from the agents’ current clients were the top method cited. Publishing is a relationship-based industry, and contacts are extremely important. A recommendation from someone whose opinion an agent trusts is always valued and receives prompt attention. Several top-selling authors’ careers were launched when another bestselling author took them under their wing and introduced them to agents or publishers.

What might be surprising is that as many as a third of the agents said direct contact from the writer was the most common way they found new clients. So, most definitely, there’s hope for all the authors sweating blood over the last draft of that perfect query.

What is the most critical mistake writers make when
approaching literary agents for representation?

Most of the answers were clustered in the following four areas:

Poor writing or poorly prepared contact letter

It’s curious that agents report getting so many weak query letters, since a number of books deal with the subject, including Making the Perfect Pitch by agent Katharine Sands, and many writers conferences cover the topic in depth. Once you see some examples of successful queries, it isn’t really that complicated to compose your own—particularly compared to the task of writing a long novel.

Here are some representative comments from the agents:

"Declining to divulge the contents of their manuscripts in their queries—they just don’t get that it’s the writing, not the ideas."

"Writing a clumsy, uninformative, grandiose, marketing-heavy, casual or just poorly composed query letter."

"Not being professional, succinct or specific, and for inexperienced novelists they most often have what I call the ‘first 50-page ho-hum.’ The story really begins somewhere between pages 56 and 100. This is a downfall which crosses my path more often than it should."

"They don’t know the components and priorities for writing a good pitch letter, especially about listing their professional credits up front."

Inappropriate subject or genre for that agent

The second most popular response to our question about critical mistakes indicates many writers don’t do their homework when selecting agents to contact. Sending a wonderful query about your amazing revolutionary cookbook to an editor who specializes in placing mystery fiction is simply a waste of everyone’s time. Reference books such as Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents clearly point out what individual agents are looking for. (Some of the agents’ preferences and prejudices can seem odd. In one guide, for example, an agent warned, "Don’t send me any right-wing Tom Clancy stuff." Did this agent really mean to say he’d turn down the chance to earn 15 percent of the mega-royalties Clancy has earned? This poor fellow should be seeking career advice, not dispensing it.)

Author hype, ego, arrogance

Agents report that creative people often have big egos. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Part of the problem stems from the authors’ awareness of how many other writers they are competing with for the agent’s attention. The temptation to use hyperbole to differentiate oneself can be overwhelming.

A significant number of the agents warned against overselling and arrogance—"Trying to act more like a sales person, and not like a writer," as one agent put it. "Hyping the agent. A straightforward recitation is much more effective."

Yet, others said the worst mistake was "Not writing an engaging query," or "Writing dreary query letters describing the plot of the book." Now we’re starting to get confused. Do the agents want an exciting query or that "straightforward recitation"? Most likely they want both.

Uneducated about the publishing process

The author who is truly talented and dedicated to the craft of writing has a clear advantage right from the start, since the overwhelming response from agents was that the quality of many submissions they receive is poor. But the author who can articulate the market for his or her book is also way ahead. The author needs to think of himself as a small businessperson entering a new industry, not as a "literary artist." Prospective authors must be able to address the question: Who is going to buy my book and why? Writers should not assume that an agent or an editor will automatically recognize the target audience for a book, or how large that audience might be.

Authors who can show they’ll be helpful and energetic in selling the book once it is published are particularly sought after in today’s market.

Some representative comments from the agents:

"They fail to think about who the audience is for their book, and how best to reach that audience in real (as opposed to airy-fairy) ways. Lack of original thinking . . . lack of professionalism in that they have no real clue how the industry works or what an editor or agent does for a living."

"Less a mistake in approach, more a mistake in knowing what makes a publishable book. Most writers really don’t know."

What is the most common reason you decline to represent a writer?

60% Poor writing
17% Book was outside agent’s genre
10% Agent’s client base was full
8% Writer’s work and agent don’t click
5% Other

The good news is that the top two reasons given are factors under the writer’s control. Most authors develop and improve their craft over a number of years. An aspiring author certainly doesn’t have to remain in that "poor writing" category forever.

But what exactly is "poor writing"? In the decline letters they send to authors, agents often say they turned the author down because they aren’t enthusiastic enough about the material. A favorite phrase they use is, "I simply didn’t fall in love with the writing." This is probably the source of more author frustration than any other aspect of getting published. Success or failure hinges on extremely subjective judgments. Think about your own reading experience. How often do you pick up a novel, read 10 pages and decide you aren’t interested in it? Does that mean the writing was "poor"? Not at all. It simply means you didn’t connect with the story. Every individual’s literary taste is different.

One frequently received type of rejection isn’t really "rejection" at all: The agent has all the clients she can handle at the present time, so she really has no choice but to send a decline letter to unsolicited submissions. The agent in this case was doing the author a favor; it would have been far worse to accept a new client who would receive inadequate attention. Too often, though, authors interpret such a decline letter as meaning "my book must not be any good." Actually, the agent may not have even had time to read the submission package.

An encouraging note is that the agents’ answers here indicated that the fact a writer was unpublished was not a significant reason for rejection.

The outlook for the next generation of authors

Agents can be considered a bellwether for the publishing industry. The manuscripts they’re now accepting for representation are the books that have the potential to become published a year or two down the road. Overall, the agents were mildly negative about the prospects for new authors in the next 12 to 24 months. Some representative comments follow:

Publishing-industry consolidation

"Publishers don’t know how to sell books. They’ve continued to lose money. Now they think the only way to be sure to sell books is by buying names that are known. This is not the correct way to think, however. And perhaps within the next five years they will get it."

 "Editors no longer rely on their instincts and passions as selection criteria; instead they go by such formulas as Bad Numbers, Author Has No Platform, etc."

Changes in book retailing

"Because of the pressure of the chain buyers, publishers are increasingly locked into publishing only the new authors with no record and bestselling authors."

" . . . As long as the retail market continues to consolidate in the hands of fewer and fewer retailers, the entire industry becomes dependent on the taste of a small handful of ‘buyers’ who choose which books get shelf space."

Publishers are becoming more risk-averse  

"What does keep projects from being bought is the fact that lists are shrinking, and in a marketplace in which it’s terribly hard to win anyone’s attention—from buyers all the way to customers—everyone up the editorial chain is anxious about making the wrong bet ... more often than not, ‘no’ is a safe answer." 

Some agents, though, are optimists

" [The publishing industry is] for unpublished writers who have a brilliant first novel to offer or a nonfiction platform. It is against unpublished writers who are bad writers (or, in the case of nonfiction, are not credentialed in their field, [or don’t] have a new original, high-concept idea, etc.)."

"The industry is not a monolithic thing. Some genres (nonfiction especially, which more and more requires the author to have a major platform for promotion and media attention) will continue to become more difficult, [while] some genres (upmarket fiction) exalt first-time writers. The ‘first novel’ for literary fiction represents a unique marketing opportunity for a publisher; it’s the second and third novels that tend to be far more difficult to publish well if the first doesn’t take off."

Improve your chances of gaining literary representation

First of all, study the elements of a good query letter. Make yours succinct and positive, but not obnoxious. Stress that you understand the market for your book and how to reach it. Include your credentials and writing credits. Learn what agents are looking for and query the agents that match up best with your topic or genre. Polish, polish, polish your pitch. Use every chance to meet people in the publishing industry. Don’t take negative responses personally. Don’t give up. Perseverance is the critical, but often unheralded, element of publishing success.

the Making of a Bestseller The Publishing Primer Dee Power and Brian Hill are the authors of
The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them ,

The Publishing Primer: A Blueprint for an Author's Success

and the novel, Over Time, Love, Money, and Football: All the Important Things in Life.

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