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September 18, 2012

The High Bar of Finding an Agent or Publisher

Image of red carpet going up to a trophy with text "Is the Prize an Agent? Or Our Readers?"

I think this week might secretly be listed on agents’ and publishers’ calendars as National Rejection Week. *smile* Okay, not really. But judging from the online conversations I had with writing friends over the past couple of days, it certainly feels that way to many of us.

In other words, the rejections were flying in response to this person’s query, that person’s full request, this client referral, and that conference pitch request. Virtual chocolate was passed around and the general mood was grim.

The toughest rejections, believe it or not, were those where the agent or publisher loved the story—they just didn’t love it enough. Their feedback was the type we’d be happy to put on a front cover blurb:

“Beautifully descriptive writing…”

“I just fell in love…”

“Your world-building is so fantastic…”

But all that praise wasn’t enough.

When Love Isn’t Enough

We used to hear, “A story can’t just be good. It has to be great.”

Then we were told that an agent or editor had to “fall in love” with the story, characters, or voice.

Now?

Agents and editors won’t take on a story unless it’s at the Oh-my-God-I-love-it-It’s-awesome-I-can’t-live-without-it level of love.

I don’t blame them for that new high bar. The publishing industry is being squeezed. Publishers aren’t printing as many new books, especially from debut authors, and agents aren’t able to sell as many new books or authors.

Just “falling in love” with a project isn’t enough anymore. Agents and editors have to be champions of a story to push it through the publication channels. And signing on as a champion requires a level of dedication beyond mere love of a story.

We know from our own experiences with books that there’s a difference between stories we love and stories we love enough that we grab our friend’s shoulders and demand “You must read this book!” There is a difference there. And that difference is the obstacle we face when we want to find an agent or editor.

Love Is Enough for Readers

But guess what? That extremely high bar for finding agents and editors doesn’t apply for readers. As readers, we’re perfectly happy to find stories we simply enjoy. We don’t need to think we’re going to Oh-Wow-Love a story before we read it. And we certainly don’t need to expect that we’ll become a champion for a story before we buy a book.

So the good news is that our struggles with finding an agent or publisher don’t reflect on our ability to find and attract readers. Sure, we hope at least some of our readers love our story enough to spread the word, but that level of “love” isn’t required for every single sale.

Think about that for a minute:

The bar to acquire an agent and publisher
is higher than the bar to acquire readers.

Jumping Through (Secret) Hoops

Sometimes we’ll hear talk about how agents or publishers make writers jump through hoops to get their attention. Those hoops usually refer to submission guidelines or the like.

But this is a secret hoop that no one talks about. The hoop of needing to be better, luckier, something-er than readers or anyone else requires of us in order to land an agent or editor.

Unlike with the search for readers, just loving our premise and our writing isn’t enough. We have to find the agent and/or the editor who loves our work enough to champion it.

The chances of finding that needle in a haystack are like a horrible math problem: If x percentage like our book (enough to buy it) > y percentage who love our book (but not enough to champion it) > z percentage who want to marry our book and have babies with it, then solve for A. I don’t know about anyone else, but that gives me a headache. *sigh*

What Can We Do?

We’ve talked before about how reading and writing are subjective activities. Between the variety of genres/subgenres and the different publishing options, the saying “writing is subjective” applies more than ever.

A rejection should not be taken as the end-all-be-all. A rejection just means that agent or editor wasn’t “the one.” The rejection doesn’t reflect on the quality of our premise, story, characters, or writing ability.

So we’re faced with a choice. If we wish to pursue traditional publishing, the only way we’re going to find “the one” is to keep looking. We might have to go through a hundred rejections before we find the right match for our story. Or we might decide our goals are more in line with self-publishing and give up the search.

Not Having an Agent Is No Longer an Indication of Quality

The decision to give up used to imply that we were looking for a shortcut and weren’t willing to put in the work to improve our writing. However, with this new bar set higher than any other point in the industry, that distinction between “having an agent”=good quality and “not having an agent”=bad quality is gone.

Many high quality manuscripts—good enough to evoke fantastic feedback from agents and editors—will have a hard time finding a champion for the traditional publishing route. I don’t blame authors for deciding their time is better spent pursuing readers than attempting to find that elusive perfect match among agents and editors.

I still caution any author who chooses to go the self-publishing route to obtain professional editing to ensure their writing is really ready. But there’s nothing wrong with authors who decide they’d rather spend their time writing their next book than stretching to reach a subjective bar that’s higher than necessary for guaranteeing quality.

Some of us will decide the pursuit of readers is more important than the pursuit of an agent or editor. And as long as the author remains dedicated to high quality writing, I don’t think we can fault people for that choice. As for myself, I’m still hedging my bets. *smile*

Do you disagree with my theory about how it’s harder to find an agent or editor than it is to find readers? Do you think a great story is enough? Or do you think even great writing can have a hard time finding an agent? Have you encountered the problem of great writing not being good enough before? How have you dealt with that?

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Tami

You know, it’s funny. If the publishing industry is getting so hurt by self-published books, you’d think they’d stop driving more authors to try it.

It’s absolutely true that the agent/editor/publisher gateways are much higher bars than readers themselves have. I’m not even IN the publishing industry and I have a much higher bar since studying to become a writer than I did when I just read for fun.

The difficult part of self-publishing is the marketing and getting your books in the hands of readers who will advocate you to other readers.

And, unfortunately, there are a lot of authors who were rejected by those aforementioned high bars who needed to be. We’re not talking the “I love this, but I can’t agent it” level of writer, but the “wow, do you know how commas work?” level of writer.

(This is why I love my editor. He’s very patient with my comma abuse.)

As an informed reader, I still have a much higher success rate among traditionally published books, and I still haven’t found a great self-pubbed fiction book.

Tahlia Newland

Check out those listed here http://awesomeindies.wordpress.com

Jessica Schley

I agree with Tami on that one–I question the truth of the idea that trade publishing is being hurt by self-publishing. I think they’re just moving the location of the slush pile. At the same time, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because at the moment I’m revising to resubmit and not querying, but I feel buoyed by the high bar. Because I know whatever book I finally do sell is going to be top-notch and it will be the best I can do, and I’ll have an agent behind me who loves it like crazy. But in the pursuit of readers, I have to put in a plug for the intermediary–the bookseller, i.e., me. Because if when you solve for “A,” the answer is, “Mostly you’ll get people who will enjoy it but not talk about it,” the person you want in your corner is the person who has a lot of ability to talk about it. For instance, I have a lot of books in my proverbial “back pocket” for people who’ve burned out on the popular YA right now. They’re midlist authors, people who have only one or two copies in the store (though I make sure we keep more because I handsell them), but who’ve written fantastic books that *don’t* fall into the same wildly-successful formula that shoots them onto the NYT list but also makes them all-too similar to the other things out there. So when someone comes in and tells me they’ve read everything, I…  — Read More »

Liv Rancourt

I think it can be harder to find an agent than to find readers, and I think good writing’s not always enough. That said, to me there’s value in having an agent because a) there’s someone else with a financial stake in the success of my project and b) I want to do the best possible work, and the feedback process – the ‘close but no cigar’ moments – have so far motivated me to do what I can to improve my writing. I’ve read some good stuff that make out of the Indie movement (Rob Cornell, Rabia Gale, JR Rain) and some crap that came through publishers (and I won’t name them b/c I’m not an idiot 😉 . And visa versa.
Thanks Jami! Hope you’re having fun with #gutgaa…

angelaackerman

“You know, it’s funny. If the publishing industry is getting so hurt by self-published books, you’d think they’d stop driving more authors to try it.”

It isn’t only authors looking to break in, either. More and more established authors are going this route. I am not really understanding why publishers aren’t working harder to make their authors feel valued, and therefore keeping talent they’ve already invested in.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

jami,
I’ll be honest, when I read the first few sentences of this post I cringed. My work is out there right now, in the agent/editor dimension of space where you might get good news, but your better chances are that you’re going to get a polite thank you, but no thank you. So when you said you think this is rejection month, well, I felt tears sting my eyes.
But then, as I ALWAYS do with your blog, I read on, and realized that this is one of the most inspirational posts I’ve read online in ages.
I’m still waiting to hear back from the 10 agents I sent submissions to. I’m crossing fingers, toes, eyes in hopes that one of them gets that “OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO MUCH I WANT TO MARRY IT AND HAVE ITS CHILDREN!!” 🙂
Umm…we’ll see…
But I agree with you on agents VS readers as far as the love goes. I read for enjoyment. I read for an escape and to live vicariously through the characters. An agent reads for her livelihood. She reads to put food on the table and put her children through college.
Agents have alot more riding on loving a book, then readers do.
I don’t envy them their jobs. It’s gotta be stressful, downright tough even.
I LOVED tis post, Jami.
Best wishes to you!!
Tamara

Adriana Ryan

Very insightful post as usual, Jami.

I’ve been evaluating my needs for an agent along the same lines. I don’t feel like I need someone in my corner to get a book published anymore. I can do that myself. Now, I’m looking at an agent as a colleague rather than a God/Goddess who holds that mystical key to seeing my words in print. I want an agent who can help me with issues such as foreign rights and/or TV rights. I want an agent who can look at the contract and negotiate a great deal for me. I’d love to traditionally publish someday, but not because I feel that’s a validation of me as a writer. I simply view it as one more channel through which to reach readers and grow my reader base.

That whole “Oh my God, you’re an agent!” feeling of panic and star-struckness is fast becoming a thing of the past, thanks to readers gaining more power.

Rabia

Now, I’m looking at an agent as a colleague rather than a God/Goddess who holds that mystical key to seeing my words in print.

*nod* I think this is why I was never into the whole Agent Search thing in the first place. I didn’t like the idea that agents were these angelic beings come to elevate mere mortals into Real Authors (and this notion had more to do with the way unpublished writers acted around them than anything the agents said or did).

Now, editors on the other hand… 😉

In all seriousness, though, I’m glad that writers have more options now, so that we can stop being too emotionally invested in the agent-author relationship.

Sharon
Sharon

Hmm. Let’s say the average literary agent sees 20 manuscripts a week on unicorn gargoyles for a solid 6 months (purely an arbitrary topic, folks). They are sick to death of unicorn gargoyles, now, and start twitching and gagging whenever they see a query with the word “unicorn” or “gargoyle” in it. They feel they have seen it all, sold as many as they market can bear, and now automatically reject them. But the reading public knows nothing of the gargoyle infestation going on in the agent’s office. They still want gargoyles, but the agents are sick of them, the editors are sick of them, and are only looking for something radically new, something they, personally, aren’t sick of and can be happily “in love” with. But the general reading public isn’t so enamored. I often wonder if the business of professional selling gets in the way of what the public truly would prefer to read. And from what I’m seeing, that’s where indie-publishing comes in.

Cindy Dwyer
Cindy Dwyer

This post really rang home for me. I had an agent request my full ms. She read it all the way through. Twice. And she shared it with others in her office. But in the end, she deemed it “too quiet” for this “tough market”.

Her putting in all that effort made me realize that she wanted to love my work almost as much as I wanted her to love my work.

Sometimes love just ain’t enough…

I had decided from the beginning I would try the traditional route first and then look into self-publishing. Some beta readers from my writers’ group loved my story. I’m realistic enough to know the unlikelihood of me making a living as a writer, I just want people to read and enjoy my books.

For some of us, love really is enough. 🙂

Tahlia Newland

I had a similar response from a publisher to my agent – I really liked it but feel that it’s too light a treatment for today’s market.

I’m sick of the heavy stuff that’s out there at the moment, and I doubt I’m the only one. There seems to be little choice. Thing is, I can afford to offer the choice and take the risk, but they can’t.

Stina Lindenblatt

This is so true, unfortunately. But then I think about how many times an agent may have to read the ms before she decides it’s ready for submission, I’m not surprised agents have to absolutely love it (and know there’s a market for the book). There are a lot of books I really really enjoyed, but not enough to read again. And many of them I knew I wouldn’t love when I bought them, but that didn’t stop me from buying them. That’s why self publishing makes sense, for the right people.

Melinda Collins

Ooooo gosh…this reminds me of the spill I’ve been giving since my trip last month. Whenever someone’s asked me something like, “So when’s your book being published?” or “What’s the next step?”, my response is always, “Well, I’ve gotta get an agent first. My writing’s there. I know it’s there. But unfortunately, it’s gotta be a one-two-punch combo of both writing and story. If I don’t break-in with this story, then maybe it’ll be the next one. Or the one after that.” <– This is exactly what this post is about. Agents may love the story, but if it's not undying-everyone-must-buy-this-book love, then there's going to be a rejection letter flying my way. And I understand. I don't necessarily like it – along with every other author looking to break into the market – but I understand it. I have to agree with what Tami said though – if self-publishing's hurting publishers (and in turn, agents), then why aren't the standards being lowered juuuuust a little? Maybe we'll never know….but until then, I'll start and keep querying, and if it's not this story, then I'll query the next ones after that until I nail it. I also agree there's a difference between loving a book, and loving a book so much that you grabbed a friend and shove it in their face. I did that with "The Fault in Our Stars" — as soon as I finished it, I bought 2 additional copies online (signed copies too 🙂 ). One…  — Read More »

Tahlia Newland

Totally true. I managed to get an agent, which was in itself pretty awesome, but she didn’t find me a publisher despite the kind of rejections you cited above. She told me that 5 years ago my YA fantasy would have been snapped up. I have a couple of other books out via my own Indie company and I’ve just told my agent that I’m planning to do the same with the book she represented. I see no point waiting any longer, especially since I’d be doing exactly the same publicity as I’m doing now regardless of who publishes my books. I don’t sell a lot of books yet, but I’m only just starting out. However, I have fabulous reviews from readers and from other authors (whose input I value greatly) and I have a growing number of people who absolutely love what I write. By going Indie, I can find my readers; if I stick with the traditional system, it appears that I won’t find any. Making it so difficult for good writers to have their books published does send more to the alternative routes, & sites like the Awesome Indies that list only quality Indies make it easy for readers to find the good ones. This growing profile of Indie books as good removes a major reason that authors don’t go that route. Mind you, setting up your own Indie publishing company is not for the faint hearted , and even if you just use the self publishing…  — Read More »

Teresa Robeson

Jami, even though the topic should make me freak out like it did Tamara, I felt comforted by reading your post…you have that effect on me! 🙂 While, like you, I’m still all for going the traditional route, I do keep in mind always that getting published or discovered is a complete crap shoot with huge odds against me. I’m okay with that since I know that there are far more hopeful writers than there are publishers/agents and I also know that they have lots of money invested in each project so they’re not going to just go with the “I love it” versus the “I can’t live without it” books. What does discourage me is that I have seen books out there (as everyone has) that make me go “what the heck were they thinking when they bought this book and published it???” I know that’s all subject too because, and I have one book in mind in particular, that while I may think a book is awful (this book used all the Tom Swifty-isms and said-isms that every single book and class I’ve ever read/taken tells us not to do), other people I know who aren’t even the editor/agent of the book tell me how much they like it. So, I guess my long rambling comment here is just to say that I think the publishing world is as random as the rest of the universe and I have to not take it personally (as you so wisely…  — Read More »

Bluestocking

I’m dealing with this right now. I have (beta) readers who love my current WIP, but I know that this particular subgenre isn’t selling right now. What to do? Publishing is changing, but it’s scary to give up the traditional route and the perhaps evolving clout it conveys…

Melissa
Melissa

So glad I hit send on my first round of submissions to agents literally one minute right before I read this post.

I’m not too horrible concerned about being rejected because if I do, then I can eventually my work and self-publish. Granted, I would hire an editor since I want my final draft to be “publishing-house-shinny.”

Yet if I get rejected I will take any notes they offer and not worry about it too much because it’s only one person’s review of my work and it isn’t the best fit with them.

Roni Loren

I think this is why it’s such a good time for writers right now. There are choices. As you know, I went the traditional route with the agent and publisher and am still doing that. (So it can be done! 🙂 I queried like anyone else and it happened for me.) And I’m happy with my decision. My publisher has been a great partner and unlike some others’ experiences, my publisher has continued to offer me a better package with each book deal as I get more and more established. I haven’t had to fight tooth and nail for that, they want to offer me value to stay with them. Yes, we absolutely can self-pub and find readers on our own. And I think there are some types of books that self-pubbing is actually the wiser way to go because the story might not fit into the “agent/publisher wants to have its babies AND they think they can sell it” category. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a segment of readers for it. The publisher just may not have a clear idea of how they would market such a book on a broad scale. However, the drawback is all the additional work that goes along with doing it all on your own. I like that I get to focus most on writing my books. My agent handles things like selling film rights and foreign rights without me having to worry about it. She fights for something if I need a tough…  — Read More »

Vanessa
Vanessa

Wonderful article Jami. I wanted to comment on a few things. I think this might sound horrible for me to say but I think those Big Publishers are tanking. They are so picky along with the editors. Smaller presses give us high royalties and self publishing. One reason people self publish is the patience. They don’t want to wait 2-3 years to see their book in the bookstores, they want their work out there now. If you think of the model. It can take you 6 months to 1 year or longer to find an agent. Then if the agent is editorial the two of you will do some edits. Then depending on how good the agent is, I’ve heard of them selling manuscripts within a week, or even months for the agent to sell the book. Then edits, cover, and marketing and then it’s about 2 years until it hits the store. Why spend 2 years when with kindle direct your book is out there now. I submitted to one agent I really wanted to work with. Form rejection. When I studied the agent closer, turns out that agent everything she’s represented was a franchise, books turned into films. I should have known not to waste time emailing her. Now because of the genres I write and the market, even though there are people who are thirsty for the paranormal romance, it’s the publishers. New York publishing is like New York fashion, what’s in one year is out the…  — Read More »

Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson

I think Vanessa up there ^^ is spot on.

That said, I still would like to try to find an agent.

You know, once I get a computer again and I rewrite my book and all.

You are still in the queue as a beta reader.

It would nice to feel like an agent wants me. Like when (was it?) Susan Sarandon screamed, “You like me! You really like me!” after she’d won an award in the film industry. Scoring an agent would feel like that. Maybe.

What do I know? I’m back to square one. *headdesk*

Great post!

Perry Block

I agree that it’s very difficult to find an agent, especially when one is writing something as subjective as humor. What one person finds funny another person finds funereal, and often one’s comedic vision simply isn’t shared by a lot of other people.

I’ve made attempts to get an agent that have proven fruitless but I do plan to continue trying. Self-publishing seems a very difficult route for an unknown humor writer; it’s tough enough to get people to read your stuff for free in your blog, let alone get them to pay you for it when there are so many other sources of humor around.

I relate to all the points brought out in this piece. Thanks for writing it, Jami!

Janet Tait

At my RWA chapter meeting last week, four members announced that they’d signed with agents. The really interesting part is that every one got an agent AFTER they made a sale, not before. Either they got an agent on the strength of a first sale, or they got one due to having had one or more successful e-books. It seems that agents are becoming even more risk-averse than they have been, and what causes them to take on new clients now isn’t loving the book, but rather a sales record. Interesting. Of course my theory is based on a pretty small sample size 😉

But it does cause me to question my strategy of submitting to agents and having them submit to editors. Maybe this is no longer a viable strategy, given the current market? I don’t know, but I do know I’m going to be much more assertive about submitting to editors now.

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Taurean Watkins

Jami, my blog posts on average a similar length to this one, so don’t be too hard on yourself, I’m sure my post today (Sept 22nd as I started write this) was even longer, and not as well thought out, but like your post above, I said what I did from a honest place. I get your intentions with this post, and I don’t think you were being disrespectful of agents or editors, at all. Just being honest about what you and those who replied before me have experienced and seen play out. But it was hard to read in parts without wanting to scream and down a dozen pizzas (If I had them). Not what you said, just how I wish parts of it weren’t true, for the sake of my morale I and (I hope) others desperately need. I really feel it’s the “Not knowing what’s enough” that causes much of the heartbreak. Not just for getting published, but improving one’s craft as a writer, and that supposed to be in our “control.” Well, for me lately, my level of writing feels anything but “Controlled. After my last project didn’t even get the (fabled in my experience so far) non-form rejections, I’ve tried to shift gears from my niche genre, to writing something less stigmatized that I still love writing, and so far that alone is just as hard as trying to publish my last book was. I’m not often neutral in my opinions or emotions, I try…  — Read More »

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Taurean Watkins

Sorry, but I’m just telling you the truth, and what sounds like “I want a magic cure” to you is just my reality. So, if you’ve no advice, just back off!

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[…] an agent or publisher is not easy, as Claire’s story illustrates. Jami Gold has a bit to say on the subject in a post that will help anyone who’s still wants to break into the world of traditional […]

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