How I got my agent; or, the same way everyone else does, which is to say luck and persistence

Okay so first of all I guess I should say that I’m now represented by Keir Alekseii of Azantian Literary Agency. I should probably actually say something like “I’m thrilled to announce” or “I’m over the moon” or similar, but honestly they all sound so weird and stilted and somehow understated (???) coming out of my mouth, or rather my fingers, since, y’know, typing.

The closest I came to an honest reaction while drafting my announcement thread for Twitter was “I am FUCKING DELIGHTED to announce—” but I scratched that, because, y’know, vague notions of professionalism, as if Keir doesn’t already know how much of a gremlin I am.

Anyway, most of this post will not actually be about that.

I’ve been going back and forth about whether to write one of these things. On one hand, I spent the entire time I was querying wishing I could write my own “how I got my agent” post. I also spent that time being afraid to complain about querying on main, because what if agents saw me complaining and blacklisted me??

The fact that I wouldn’t want to work with such agents is beside the point, obviously.

On the other hand, here’s the thing about “how I got my agent” posts: I’ve never found a single one helpful.*

*Since starting this post, I’ve read my agent sib Aimee Davis’s post, which is hands-down the best “how I got my agent” post I’ve ever seen. I think it would’ve been helpful if we hadn’t gotten agented at the same time and I’d been able to read it while I was still in the trenches. If you only have time for one “how I got my agent” post today, make it hers.

In fact, most of the time, they made me feel bad. If someone had an agent after querying for far less time than I had, it was like “why not ME? what’s wrong with ME and MY story?” But if someone had an agent after querying for far longer than I had, it was like “oh :,) that’s gonna be me, isn’t it :,)”

And they rarely included advice, or if they did, it was stuff I already knew. Do your research. Work on your craft. Don’t give up.

It’s a recipe for despair if you’re like, “Yes, freshly agented author, I’ve been doing all that. I’ve been doing all that for years. Do you perhaps have some Secret New Advice for me that will magically transform me, like you, into an Agented Author?”

But no one does, because there isn’t any. There’s no secret formula. There’s just persistence, and no guarantee no matter how much you persist, because the other major player is luck: the right manuscript has to end up in front of the right person at the right time.

And godfuckingdammit, turns out you can’t do anything about luck, except persist and hope you eventually get lucky.

Recently, it feels like the prominent “how I got my agent” narrative goes something like this.

I never thought this would happen for me! I started writing for the first time during lockdown. I finished my book in six months, and it took another three whole months in the query trenches, but after 23 requests and 8 offers of rep, I finally have an agent!

…okay, so maybe that’s not exactly how it goes. But you know the story I mean. You’ve probably seen it, or rather them, because it feels like there are tons of them.

It’s great for the authors whose stories are like this. Let’s be real: all of us wish we were them. We wish we had those overnight wins and short querying journeys, fifty requests resulting in a dozen agents battling it out for the chance to represent our book.

But as a writer with twenty years of experience under my belt, it was relentlessly disheartening to read post after post of this kind, all ending the same way: Keep going! Work on your craft! It’ll happen for you!

John Mulaney says into a microphone, "First off, no."

Like I said before: there’s no guarantee. That’s not how publishing works. I’d always think, “I mean, yeah, I’ll keep going, but it might never happen for me.”

Then I’d think: “I know you mean well, but I’ve been writing for two decades. Can you please, for the love of god, stop telling me to work on my craft like that hadn’t occurred to me?”

So here I am, writing a “how I got my agent” post—sort of—because I think it’s important for querying writers to see that the this narrative isn’t the only story. It’s not even the most common story. It’s just the story that’s most likely to take off on social media, which means it’s the one you’re most likely to see…which is probably why I’ve seen an uptick in desperate posts from querying authors asking things like, “It’s been three months and I haven’t had any requests. Should I shelve this book??”

Spoiler alert: NO. No.**

**Unless you want to, or you need to because mental health, or you decide trad pub isn’t for you after all & want to explore other options

First, we’re going to look at my stats, so that you can see! that I spent! a bit longer than a couple months querying!

Then we’re going to talk for a minute. But we’re going to skip the 5,000-word, recipe-blog-style post where I recount in agonizing detail every moment of my time in the querying trenches, even though when I was in the querying trenches, that was exactly the kind of post I thought I’d write.

If for some reason you really are desperate to read yet another agented author’s woeful tale of their time in the querying trenches, I have actually talked about how much it sucks before. Twice.

Otherwise, let’s skip straight to the stats.

overall stats

  • 20 years spent writing
  • 2 (query-ready) books
  • 2 1/2 years in the trenches
  • 137 queries sent
  • 1 R&R
  • 22 fulls
  • 6 partials
  • (20% request rate)

broken down by book

The Remarkable Retirement of Edna Fisher (April 2023, Hansen House Books)

  • 3 1/2 years to completion
  • 2 years in the trenches
  • 74 queries
  • 0 R&Rs
  • 14 fulls
  • 4 partials
  • (24% request rate)
  • 1 offer (none from agents)

Since I never did write a book announcement post, my one offer on this book was from Hansen House Books, a small press with an LGBT focus. Because agents were giving me “loved it but it’s not marketable” rejections, I started looking at small presses, because I figured agents knew what they were talking about and the book would never get in with a bigger publisher. To be clear, I love my publisher! And I think this book works well for small press, because it’s very hooky. But the impostor syndrome that comes from signing with a small press after all agents have stepped aside could be its own blog post.

The Many Buried Things of Peter Shaughnessy

  • 1 1/2 years to completion
  • 6 months in the trenches
  • 63 queries sent
  • 1 R&R
  • 8 fulls
  • 2 partials
  • (15.8 % request rate)
  • 1 offer***

***I withdrew my remaining fulls and any recent queries two days after my call with Keir, so like. it’s possible I only would’ve had one offer even if I nudged, but I just want to note that I did not, in fact, nudge, because I knew I wanted to sign with Keir. This is also why I left off stats about rejections/CNRs.****

****There were tons of CNRs, though.

Before moving on, I want to note that while 2 1/2 years is a lot longer than the timeline for most “how I got my agent” posts that come across my feed…it’s not that long. I know folks who have been querying for 15 or 20 years, who are probably looking at my stats the way I look at the stats of people who get agented in three months, like, “You young whippersnapper! What the hell are you talking about, your journey was long? I’ll TELL YOU about a long journey!”

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli. A woman in white lies slumped across a bed, her head and arms hanging off it, while a shadowy gremlin and even more shadowy horse (a nightmare, get it?) sit atop her. the woman is any author bemoaning the length of their querying journey. she says, "woe is me, for I have spent so very long in the query trenches. fetch my smelling salts." the gremlin is any author who's been querying literally any length of time longer than that. it says, "is she FR WTF." the horse says "LMAO how long has she been in the trenches??"
The (Querying) Nightmare, Henry Fuseli

I also want to note that my stats don’t reflect the long wait times and lack of response I experienced, especially with my first book. I don’t have exact numbers, because my record-keeping was atrociously haphazard until I stumbled across Chelsea Parker’s Notion template for a query tracker.

But a conservative estimate for my first time in the trenches is 40% non-response on queries. And at one point in my first round, I had 5 fulls that got to be at least a year old before they were rejected, if they were rejected. (Non-response got a few fulls, too.) My request rate looks pretty good, but stats alone don’t show you things like this.

now let’s talk about you

yeah, you. the person in the trenches who’s panicking because it’s been three months and you’re not agented yet.

I’m not here to give you advice, because I have yet to find (or come up with) advice that would’ve been helpful to me in the worst of my querying despair. Mostly, I’m hoping to give you some perspective and counter those overnight-success stories and all the advice that goes along with them.

You might not find it helpful if you’ve been querying for more than a year, which I tell you so you can skip it and avoid all the annoyance of “yes, Agented Author, I am aware of those things—don’t you have anything new to tell me?”*****

*****If this is you, I again recommend reading my agent sib Aimee Davis’s post instead.

But if you’re entering the trenches for the first time, or if you’re feeling hopeless after less than a year there, I hope what I have to say will be helpful.

If it’s not…well, at least I’m not telling you to work on your craft.

Three months is nothing.

Like I said earlier: if you want to stop querying because it’s hurting you, that’s okay. You don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to. You can take a break. You can quit. You can pursue another form of publication, or a new creative venture, or you can fuck off into the woods and become the village witch. It’s your decision!

But don’t feel like you need to stop simply because you haven’t had much response after a few months. Three months is nothing. Six months is nothing. A year is nothing. I know it doesn’t feel like nothing—it feels like absolutely forever, and it’s misery. But it can literally take agents six months just to get to your query.

Conventional wisdom says that a lack of requests after 10 or so queries means your package needs revising, but…

Pre-pandemic querying advice doesn’t count anymore.

Maybe that’s a strong way to word it, but I stand by it. With agents leaving the industry in droves, agent and author and editor burnout, long response times, an increasing amount of nonresponse, and a decreasing amount of personalized rejections, old metrics for querying “success”—and old querying methods—don’t work anymore.

Some advice you might hear that worked once upon a time but isn’t great for today’s querying authors:

  • Query in batches.

Do not. You’ll be waiting absolutely forever to send more queries, and it’s unlikely you’ll get feedback indicating your package is in need of revision anyway.

  • If you’re getting a lot of rejections or no response early on, revise your query package and/or pages.

Again: do not. I’ve seen an increasing number of agents say they’re seeing a higher quality of writing in their inboxes than ever before, but they’re simply not able to make as many requests as they used to.

Odds are, you’re not getting enough feedback to know whether the book really needs it. And this industry is so painfully subjective that one agent’s feedback is unlikely to give you a revision that gets you more interest from other agents (and R&Rs often end in rejection even by the agent who requested the R&R).

If you’re getting the same feedback from multiple agents, or if an agent’s feedback has you like [italized OH], if you really vibe with it, go forth and revise! But don’t feel like you have to revise just because you’re not getting requests.

  • A good request rate is [insert totally arbitrary percentage here].

Pre-pandemic, I read an interview with an editor who said 20% is a good request rate.

During the pandemic, I saw a tweet from an agent who said 60% is a good request rate and that you should revise your query and pages if you get less than that.

John Mulaney says into a microphone, "First off, no." That's not a typo. I used the same gif again.
I know I already used this gif, but.

As with feedback or a lack of response, you truly cannot gauge how well you’re doing based on request rate. You just can’t. I’m not convinced you ever could, but in today’s querying world, you definitely can’t. See above re: multiple agents saying the quality of writing in their inboxes is the highest it’s ever been.

It’s okay to set limits

It can be tempting not to set any sort of limits on your querying. What if you decide not to query a particular agent because of a limit you put in place, and it turns out that agent would’ve been the one to make you an offer if only you hadn’t set that limit?? What if you miss a request for a full because it came in on a Tuesday and you’re only letting yourself check your query inbox on Saturday, and the agent decides in the three days between that they’re not actually interested in the full??

It’s a real fear, even though, again, yeah, in the latter case? You probably don’t want to work with that agent. Unfortunately, knowing that on a logical level does nothing to help the deep anxiety you feel that you’re shooting yourself in the foot by setting limits for yourself.

But guess what? You can always unset limits once you’ve decided on them. They’re your limits! You can change them literally any time!

I say this because I am exactly the kind of person who is afraid to create boundaries, because the anxiety brain goes into overdrive imagining all the terrible repercussions of said limits. I set no such limits my first time in the query trenches.

I also didn’t get an agent my first time in the query trenches. That happened the second time. With limits in place. The world didn’t end, I wound up with an agent I really believe in, who really gets my manuscript, and I stressed out about querying so much fucking less.******

******This is definitely also because I have a book coming out, which is an excellent distraction from the trenches but, unfortunately, again depends on luck and persistence, unless you want to self-pub a book simply to distract yourself.

What kind of limits? That’s up to you, but here are some examples.

  • not querying agents who don’t explicitly list your genre (i.e., they list “general fiction” or “all genres of commercial fiction” rather than naming specific genres)
  • not personalizing or minimally personalizing queries
  • turning off push notifications for the query email
  • only querying on certain days
  • only checking your inbox on certain days
  • not reading “how I got my agent” posts*******

*******Yes I understand the irony

Before diving into the trenches for the second time, I even considered giving a trusted friend power over my querying email so that I could not check my inbox. That sounds extreme, but querying put me in such a bad place mentally the first time around that I wasn’t sure I could do it again without a buffer, someone who could let me know about any requests while shielding me from any rejections.

I didn’t end up taking that route, but if there’s a friend or family member you trust with your email, know that it is an option if you’re not ready to take a break from querying but can’t face your inbox anymore.

It’s not you, it’s me publishing

Okay, well, admittedly, I don’t know you. Like, if you’re the person lamenting that white men just can’t get published these days (lmao)…it’s you.

Seriously. You may be seeing a lot of calls for diversity, but publishing is still mostly white.

But let’s assume you’re not that person. Let’s assume you’re a good writer. You’ve worked on your craft. You’ve rewritten and revised and polished. You’ve researched agents, querying, and the industry.

Then you start querying. And even though your query is great and your pages better, you get no requests. You get rejection after rejection. Maybe you get no response at all. Maybe some of your responses overflow with praise…but they’re still rejections, not offers. The book isn’t marketable, the protagonist is a hard sell, the agent loved the manuscript but isn’t the right person to ✨champion✨ it.

The industry sucks. Let’s just say it. We love publishing, we’re here to break into publishing, but the publishing industry sucks. People are overworked and underpaid and exploited. There are power imbalances and double standards. Politicians who back book bans are paid seven-figure advances while editors and marketing teams are denied a living wage.

I don’t say any of this to make you despair (although it probably does make you despair, sorry). I say this to let you know that there are many, many reasons your querying isn’t going anywhere, if it isn’t going anywhere, and almost none of them have anything to do with you or your manuscript.

Which brings us back around to our main point:

It’s luck and persistence

I’m not here to tell you to work on your craft. I know you’ve been doing that. I know you’ve been working hard and doing your best and you feel like you’re getting jack-shit for it, and I know that hurts.

I’m not even here to tell you not to give up. It’s very easy, once you’ve gotten where you want to be, to say “don’t give up.” It’s a lot harder, when you’re in the thick of it, to actually keep going. Yet it’s almost equally hard to take a break, no matter how much you feel like you need one, without feeling guilty, or like a failure, or like you’re the only person who’s ever quit, whether temporarily or on a single book or permanently on everything forever.

But. It’s luck and persistence. That’s all it is. It’s your book ending up in front of the right person at the right time—sometimes helped along by connections you’ve built over the years (also a matter of luck)—and you persevering despite the setbacks.

Like I said: you can’t do fuck-all about luck.

But you can persist, if you have the support systems in place to make sure it won’t kill you. There’s no guarantee your persistence will get you there—only the guarantee that not persisting won’t get you anywhere.

That’s the only thought that kept me going when I spiraled my way through the first time in the trenches: knowing I love writing, knowing that writing is the thing into which I put my time and effort, and knowing luck wasn’t going to magically drop an agent in my lap if I didn’t do the persisting part.

Even so, there was a point where I looked ahead and wondered whether I could keep persisting if I had to do so for five years, or ten, or twenty. I don’t know that I could’ve. I didn’t quit, but I didn’t quit because I got lucky. Because I got agented while I was still in a place where I was ready to grit my teeth and keep going.

You may not have control over luck, but you have control over persistence. More importantly, you have control over protecting yourself. You make the decisions about what limits to place on your querying and when and if to stop—not me, not other agented authors, not anyone in the publishing industry. It’s all you. If you’ve heard all the conventional wisdom about querying and it hasn’t worked for you and you feel like shit, do what you need to do to protect your mental health.

I’m going to end by repeating my recommendation to read Aimee Davis’s “how I got my agent” post. If you need to quit—temporarily or permanently—but feel guilty for even considering it, Aimee will give you permission. If you’re hungry for more narratives that counter the overnight success story, Aimee will give it to you. If you want another post that will talk about the suckage of querying without telling you to work on your craft or never give up: seriously, read Aimee’s post.

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