Searching for an agent

part one of two

Happy New Year! This month, I’m going to write two newsletters on my experiences searching for a literary agent.

Back in 2012, when I defended my master’s thesis, a rewrite of a short novel, Tree Line, my thesis committee—all three published authors—said they thought my thesis manuscript was ready to be a published book. This thrilled me, of course. I was twenty-eight, and I remember telling my former college roommate that I thought the novel would be out in the world by the time I was thirty. There were two routes I saw to publication: find an agent who would represent my novel to a Big Five publishing company (Big Four as of two months ago: they keep merging) or publish it through a small press that accepted unagented submissions.

I sent queries to fifty or so agents. A few agents asked for the first fifty pages or the full manuscript, then rejected it. The closest I came to landing an agent for Tree Line was in summer 2015, when an agent said she’d take me on if I doubled the length of the novel. Although I was down for revisions, her specific suggestions seemed as though they’d change the story too much, so I turned her down, which I’ve regretted in my more desperate moments. I also sent the short novel to a couple dozen small presses. I’ve gotten closer to publication a few times through that route: for example, the board at House of Anansi reviewed then rejected it; it was a finalist in an open reading period at Los Galesburg; and an editor at the University of Massachusetts Working Titles Series said he loved the concept but would want it rewritten from different points of views before he’d consider publishing it.

Before querying Tree Line, I’d sent out a few queries on a middle-grade novel, but this was my first sustained period of querying and/or submitting a book, off and on, for years. Needless to say, it takes a different kind of energy to query than to write. Writing can be frustrating, but every day I write, I feel the satisfaction in creating. Sending out a query feels like posting a profile on a dating website.

Let me step back and say that I think it disrespectful to writers and a power play for agents to demand so much in queries, then to not respond. I research every agent I query, and often read a book they represent, because that’s what the guides and the agents recommend: that writers have a better chance to land an agent if they personalize queries—and yet, well over 50 percent of agents never respond. Additionally, people have advised me not to send queries to agents during the summer months or from Thanksgiving through New Year’s since often agents take some or all of this time off. Some writers are teachers who only have summers off, and other writers who work multiple jobs fit in their agent-querying on their couple holiday days off, so these unstated/word-of-mouth restrictions seem limiting and short-sighted, if not solipsistic. I appreciate when agents state on their websites when they are or are not open for queries, and I appreciate the gracious responses I’ve received from several agents, but I’ve also encountered agents who view themselves as gods—for example, at a live-querying event a couple years ago, one of the agents acted as though she had the power to anoint which novel would be the next big thing.  

I know landing an agent is more difficult than it used to be. In an interview on the Poets & Writers website, a high-profile agent suggests that though back in the late sixties Cormac McCarthy landed an agent for his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, and also sold his subsequent two novels through agents in the seventies, nowadays an agent wouldn’t have picked him up till he wrote his fourth novel, the commercial All the Pretty Horses, in the 1980s. To me, insights like these—and I’ve read and heard many similar ones—beg the questions: Are good novelists supposed to write three or four good unpublished novels over fifteen or twenty years, until they write one agents/the publishing industry thinks would make a good movie? How many good novelists have given up after good novel two or three that would have sold to a larger press thirty or forty years ago but won’t now? If a genius like McCarthy wouldn’t have been picked up by an agent until he wrote his fourth novel, what hope is there for us good writer/non-geniuses?

I think the solution lies partly with smaller presses, who more often gamble on good novels they want to publish, instead of the Big Four publishing model, where nowadays agents and editors often have to convince executives that the novels they want to publish are similar to recently successful novels. A smaller, non-media-conglomerate-owned press Europa Editions published the very successful Elena Ferrante books; my favorite novel I read in 2020, The Ancient Hours by Michael Bible, was published through the smaller press Melville House; and an unagented writer whose work I love, Wendy J. Fox, has published all four of her fiction books through small presses. The Multnomah County Library here in Portland has books from smaller publishers on their shelves and some bookstores are good at promoting small-press novels too; however, the Big Four publishers pay bookstores to place their books in prominent places as well as pay Amazon and Goodreads months and months (if not years) ahead of pub dates to advertise their books online, and with such cash-flush competition, it can be difficult for smaller presses to get the word out. For example, my favorite novel I read in 2019, Milkman by Anna Burns, was also published by a smaller press, but even I, who keep fairly close tabs on small-press novels, wouldn’t have heard of it if it hadn’t won an award. So many good novels are not published, and other good novels that are published don’t receive the audience they deserve.

As for Tree Line, I still occasionally send it to small presses that accept unagented submissions, but I’ve mentally moved on to other projects.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’re well. Here’s to a speedier vaccination process.