Querying Literary Agents

by limebirdkate

So, for those of you who might not know, I am currently querying literary agents for my first novel, Spark of Madness. It is about two siblings who risk their lives for their abused mother, and they start to question whether they’re willing to die for her.

I am opting to go the traditional publishing route because that is how I always envisioned my books—with real covers (maybe even hard covers!), and pages to turn and dogear, with margins to scribble in and passages to highlight. Even a title page that I would autograph if I ever have the privilege to be asked.

I know that self-publishing is the route many writers are taking in this electronic age, and perhaps one day I will be joining their ranks. However, I promised myself something first. I am going to try my hardest to find a literary agent who is thrilled to represent me and my books. Next I will contact small publishing houses that accept unsolicited queries. When I exhaust those routes, then I will move on to the self-publishing option.

To date, I have sent out 48 queries. Picky-Kate is trying very hard not to be picky in this quest. I have been sending them out to any literary agent that accepts commercial fiction.

There are quite a few, surprisingly, that don’t have websites. Furthermore, there are many that don’t accept e-queries and want a paper query snail-mailed to them.

For those agencies that don’t have websites, I admit I’m leery (okay, okay, picky). In this day and age if a company doesn’t have a website then I’m inclined to believe they’re either defunct or in the process of being defunct. I mean, hello, I have a website and I’m a nobody—well, not really. My dog can’t live without me. But I think you know what I mean. So, I haven’t bothered with those site-less agencies at all.

As far as the agencies who want queries mailed to them via the post office, I have to group them in a separate to-do list. It’s just easier to get the e-queries out of the way before I haul out the envelopes, stamps, paper, pen (for a real signature) and do a mass mailing. Here again, why not the most popular mode of communication, email?

Actually my husband might have the answer to this (a first for him, so listen up). He says he can’t stand reading lengthy material like chatty emails, newspaper articles, etc. on a computer screen. So, maybe there is a population of literary agents who would prefer to read queries while they’re tucked tight into bed, or sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of merlot by their elbow?

One aspect all the literary agencies have in common is that they ask for several weeks before responding, and if they aren’t interested at all they won’t respond at all. Silence should be response enough, I read on one such website.

There are a small number of agencies who have an automated system in place that will notify you that they received your query. This means nothing more than it’s landed in the IN box. Who trawls through the IN box, I can only imagine.

Some agencies said they won’t reply with an actual rejection, and they meant it. In the four months I’ve been doing this I haven’t heard BOO from about 35 literary agents. However, there are some who have bothered to reject me personally—although because they all have the same, generic ring to them I am inclined to believe Literary Agents, Incorporated has a universal form letter they send out to writers. Maybe they’re told to mix it up a little bit just to look like they’ve made an effort.

Here are a few examples of what I’ve received:

-Thanks for giving us the opportunity to review your work,
but it doesn’t seem right for our agency at this time.

-Sorry, this isn’t the right fit for our agency. Wishing you success.

-Thank you for considering me as a possible fit to represent your book. I have reviewed your query and, at this time, I do not believe that I am the right agent to represent your work. Please know that we are extremely selective, even with the materials we review. I do appreciate you thinking of us as an agency, however, and I encourage you to continue your search for an agent who is just the right fit for you. I wish you every success in your publishing endeavors. All my best,

-Thank you for your recent query regarding representation. Having considered this, we’ve concluded that *** is not going to be the right fit for your project but of course wish you all the best with it.

-Thank you for your query letter. We’ve had the chance to review it and, unfortunately, this project is not right for us. Best of success to you in all your literary endeavors.

-Thank you for your query. However, this project is not the right fit for us. Wishing you well.

-Not for me-thanks anyway.

-Thanks, but this is not for us.

-Dear Writer: Thank you for your inquiry. We are sorry that we cannot invite you to submit your work or offer to represent you. Moreover, we apologize that we cannot respond in a more personal manner. We wish you the best of luck elsewhere.  Sincerely,

-Thanks for your interest in our agency.  Unfortunately you’ve caught me at a time when the demands of my current clients leave me with very little time to devote to exploring new talent and unfortunately in this case I have to pass on the opportunity to pursue this.  I’m being extremely, and likely unreasonably, picky so please seek many opinions since my decision may have little to do with the saleability of your work. Sincerely,

-This isn’t the right fit for us. Thanks though.

So, there you have it. A brief glimpse into my world of rejection. Yes, I have kept all of these in a little file (I plan to keep it little, mind you) titled REJECTIONS. I think about the legendary writers who received actual rejection letters in the mail and used them to paper walls. I will one day print all of my rejections in my first published novel.

If they’re the right fit, that is.



36 Responses to “Querying Literary Agents”

  1. I’ve been making paper airplanes out of mine and hanging them from the ceiling above my desk. You only need one yes, so hang in there!

    • Hi Fiercely,

      I love that you make paper airplanes out of your letters. What a fantastic idea! Are you currently submitting? What’s your project?

      Yes, thank you, I will “hang” in there, so to speak!!

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Bless you — what a stack! Of course, the tragic thing is that many of these responders didn’t give your novel the time or attention it deserved, before declining. In fact, maybe declined is a better word than rejected — that way you aren’t allowing their opinions to impact you in any way. Best of luck — somebody will be the right fit, or they’ll lose or gain mental weight until they are.

    • Hi Judith,

      It is quite the stack. I definitely can’t spend too much time staring at how many have turned me down, because that can certainly overthrow what little confidence I have.

      True, decline is a better word. I shall use that from now on.

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  3. I don’t know that my skin is thick enough to suffer through 35 rejection letters, I haven’t been doing this very long. You are amazing, and a wonderful example to people like me who are too chicken to give it a try.

    How did you find all of the agents if they aren’t online? Is there a listing somewhere? You have *really* put a lot of work into this, I do hope that someone soon will pick it up and contact you with good news. Have you done the beta reader thing?

    • Hi Neeks,

      I couldn’t do it either at one point. About a couple of years ago, I started querying and lost my nerve. Took me another two years to try it again. So, here I am. Querying and getting rejected, er, declined. There is that part of me that likes to whisper, “I told you so.”

      I have a 2010 copy of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market which has a section on Literary Agents. They are listed alphabetically and certain information is included such as email address, contact agent, website, genres they represent, recent sales, tips, etc. Those agencies whose websites aren’t in action are listed in this book with website info. So, at one time these agencies did have sites.

      I have swapped work with beta readers as well as had my query looked at by several people who are supposedly “in the know.” I also belong to a writer’s group.

      Ah well, we shall see. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Rejection sucks, but I think you’ll be way happier when you find that agent who is so excited about your work. You’ll get to see the rejection letters and think “Didn’t want you anyway, suckers!” In any case, it’s also awesome that you share your experiences here; I think all writers can relate, and it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in the rejection game.

    • Hi Annie,

      Haha, yes, that’s one of the mantras that keeps me going. I just have to believe I can do this.

      I feel very fortunate that I can share my experiences here on Limebird. Maybe there’s something in my journey that can help someone else.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Hi Kate,
    I was just referred to the Limebirds blog through a poet friend who read this post on finding a literary agent. She and I had decided that the number of mojitos we drink at our next meet up would directly correspond to the number of publishing acceptances we received. We have since revised that to the number of rejections.

    It is much easier for her to submit a few poems to literary presses than for a novelist to have enough material to shop around, so she is always looking for avenues into the publishing world for me. I’ve had a few experiences with being rejected by literary agents–most end the same as yours, “…not right for us,” but the best was being asked to submit another project even though they were passing on the first.

    Good luck to you and keep up the search.

    • Hi C.L.,

      Well, welcome to Limebirds! And send a hearty thanks to your poet friend for the referral!

      I had to chuckle at your mojito plan. I like that plan a lot. It’s especially nice that you’re positive and that you have a friend to help you out.

      Very true about the fact novelists don’t have as much material to shop around. But sounds like you had a couple of things waiting in the wings that interested an agent. Congratulations!

      Thanks for your encouragement.

  6. I just posted on my experiences with querying too soon on my first novel. I prefer the term “pass” to reject. If an agent hasn’t seen the entire manuscript, how can they “reject” it?

    Keep at it! Maybe give your query another go over to be sure it’s doing all it has to, but don’t give up. Like you, I’m aiming for the traditional print route, but I’ll e-publish if I need to. There are lots of agents out there, and you only need one yes.

    For American writers, one reference is Writer’s Digest “Guide to Literary Agents.” The 2012 edition is available now. Your library may have an older copy in the reference section. Even with the newest edition, check the agent’s website before you query for the most up to date submission information.

    Best wishes on the query process!

  7. Hi JM,

    I agree. “Pass” or “decline,” as Judith mentioned, are better choices than “reject.”

    I will say that writing a query letter is nothing at all like writing a novel, and that gave me quite a bit of trouble for a while. I would be interested in reading what you wrote about your querying experiences. I presume it is on your blog?

    I am familiar with “Guide to Literary Agents,” although I haven’t touched it yet. “Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market” is what I’m currently working with. I do plan to look through the GLA for my second round of queries to see if there are new listings.

    Thanks for your comment!

  8. Kate, the very best of luck in your endeavours. Paul

  9. Good luck! I’ve queried two novels and I noticed that when it’s all form rejections my query needs to be reworked. Even though I think it’s fabulous. 🙂 For me, 1 request for every ten queries seems like a good query. If I hit the 30-50 mark without any requests, I hit the pause button and regroup.

    • Hi Kourtney,

      Oho! That’s an interesting idea. I have reworked my query several times throughout this process, although not since I first sent out this aforementioned round of queries. I’d first queried this novel about two years ago, got no bites, and blamed my query letter. I spent way too much time trying to master the art of query letter writing until I wondered if I’m focusing my attention on the wrong material. Maybe it’s my novel that needs improvement.

      I think what makes it difficult is not knowing whether it’s the query or the novel (sample pages). In many cases agents request sample pages. Assuming they’re reading everything through, is it logical to think that even with a poor query that the novel should sell itself? Or, do they bother to read past a so-so query? I am always open to the very real possibility that my novel could need revamping, and no matter how great a query is, if the novel isn’t ready that will be very apparent.

      Thanks for a great comment!

      • Good Point Kate. Many agents I’ve queried only allow a query letter, so it’s easier to identify where the problem was for me. It’s very tough to figure out where the issue is when they reject and you sent the query, synopsis, and sample pages. However, when I started getting partial and full requests, but no offers, I realized it was definitely the manuscript that needed work. 🙂

        Sadly, I think the answer is it depends. Sometimes agents overlook bad queries for great opening pages. Sometimes, the overlook so-so pages with a killer query. We just have to keep pushing ourselves to be the best writers. Eventually all that hard work has to pay off. 🙂

  10. I like the terminology ‘pass.’ You are certainly in good company, Kate. Have just finished reading Stephen King, “On writing,” and he is only one example of a hugely successful author who had to cope with many ‘passes.’

    I thought you might appreciate this: “How to answer a rejection letter” http://www.epublishabook.com/2011/12/18/humor-answer-to-a-rejection-letter/

    Wishing you the very best of luck in obtaining that acceptance letter soon. Success in the publishing world seems to be based on talent AND determination.

    • Hi Snaggle,

      Haha. I just took a gander at the link. Very funny! Sometimes making light of this situation is the best way to go.

      You’re absolutely right: in order to get published we must be determined to climb over every obstacle. I think what keeps me going is my childhood vision of holding one of my (many) hardcover books in my hands. I have seen too many people let go of their dreams for various reasons and it is disheartening. I don’t want to be one of those people.

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  11. Ohh Kate, I’m so excited for the day when your book gets the ‘pass’ and I’m looking forward to my first signed copy of your first freshly published book. I can see how frustrating it must be to have responses that are so generic, you wonder if they even read your book.

    Good and luck and keep us updated!

    PS – When can I read it? 😀

    • Hey there, Beth,

      You hear a lot of that kind of question: does your agent of choice actually read what you send, or is it an intern? But I guess that’s part of the biz, and I just have to believe that someone will want to represent me and my book.

      Thanks for your good wishes!

  12. I will be to that point, shortly. Started my line edit last night. I have the same reason for going this route as opposed to self-publishing. I blame it on the fact I am a librarian’s daughter! LOL Good luck. 🙂

    • Hi Kathils,

      Ah, the line editing stage! That’s very exciting, congratulations! Haha, being a librarian’s daughter would definitely impact your decision to go the traditional route.

      Good luck to you, too!

  13. I have a rejection file too, filled with letter that sound a lot like yours. I wonder if these agents all attend a mandatory class called: ‘How to Reject a Writer, 101’.

    Best of luck with your search, hope you find an amazing agent to rep you.

    • Hi Nancy,

      Haha, I definitely think they must be all educated in the art of rejection. Maybe we can collaborate down the road with all of our rejection letters that led to the big “YES!”

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  14. I think the idea of you publishing the rejection letters seems… vindictive? But I have a very… whats the word? I have a very scared personality of hurting feelings. Even when I’m pretty sure that no feelings would really be hurt. I think I’d be more likely to say how many I received, rather than exactly what they were. But, I also see how GOOD that would feel to put the best ones at the beginning or end of the book, especially if you received quite a few and then you get an amazing deal.

    You’re going to make it. <3<3<3

    • Hi Ottabelle,

      Yes, there might be a little bit of resentment going on here. Don’t get me wrong. If I was truly vindictive, then I think I would have given up long before this, self-published, then gone on the horn across the world talking about how evil traditional publishing is and why we should all be self-published. (And there are plenty of self-pubbed authors doing that.)

      The reason I keep sending out these queries is because I believe in traditional publishing, no matter how difficult it is to break into. For the most part, literary agents have been in this business a heck of a lot longer than I have and I would be willing to say that they know what they’re doing more than I do.

      I think what is most unhelpful in this process is the not knowing what about my work isn’t the right fit. It is quite difficult to make something right when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.

      Thanks for chiming in!

      • Oh, I didn’t mean you were a vindictive person in general. Just meant you were so annoyed and wanted to show those people what they missed out on.

        I think both sides have merit. I have some ideas I think would be better as self-published pieces and some I would rather go the traditional route with.

        I want you to keep querying! I want you to not give up! I was just making a comment that I guess came out rather harsh.

        Bad foot, bad mouth, stay away from each other!

        If you want, I’ll take a look at it and see what I think; even though I don’t know much. 🙂

  15. Ottabelle, you’re so sweet. How could I ever take anything you say as sounding harsh? I didn’t take offense at all to anything you said. 🙂 Actually you had me smiling when I read your post because I admit there is a little bit of irritation going on. Not that I’m being rejected, but that I don’t have a clearer understanding of what’s not enticing enough about my query or, perhaps, my novel. I am happy to go back to the drawing board–but to fix what, exactly? My prose, my plot, my characters, my dialogue, my query, my synopsis? I just dunno.

    And I have heard a hundred times over that lit. agents don’t have time to give each querying writer a detailed explanation about why they’re being turned down. Heck, I’m a mom who is holding down three jobs plus writing and blogging, etc.–I know all about not having enough time to do stuff. I’m sincerely cool with it.

    In truth, I have made peace with the rejection process. I fully expected to get rejections, and I expect more rejections are in the works. Maybe one day I will understand what it is about my query or novel that is tripping me up, I’ll fix it, and then I’ll land in an agent’s lap — in the most professional manner, of course. 😉

    I’m glad you said what you said because it helps me to explore my motivations. It’s easy to say I will query long and hard before I venture into self-publishing, but who knows how I’ll feel after my next rejection, or in two weeks, or after a really lousy day.

    For now and for the forseeable future, I will keep querying. I will not give up. That’s part of the reason I posted this–publicizing my intentions makes it more difficult to slip into the shadows and quietly fade away. You and many other Limebird followers will hold me accountable–and that’s important to me.

    Thanks again! You’re the bomb, Otta! 🙂

  16. Kate,

    First off, I love the article. Secondly, I think you’ve got some great readers here – the discussion and comments are top notch!

    I had been wondering where one goes to FIND an agent and how one makes sure said agent isn’t a scam (I did find some info on that at Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s of America page (www.sfwa.org) – they keep a list, but it’s not all-inclusive). So, I was thrilled to see that raised before I even got here.

    By way of encouragement, I heard that JK Rowling was rejected a ton of times for the first Harry Potter book (and if that’s true, no need for vindication because those people have been kicking themselves very hard for years!).

    That said, it’s refreshing to see that you understand they are probably inundated and can’t reply personally. However, don’t you think they could come up with a simple check-box form where they could mark the real issues:

    I’m sorry, this isn’t a good fit for me because:

    __ I’m not taking new clients
    __ query is weak
    __ sample isn’t strong
    __ I specialize in a different genre
    __ I’m retiring
    __ I got so much stuff this month and something I read before yours was so awesome I didn’t read anything after it
    __ Needs proofreading
    __ Characters are problematic
    __ My sister has your first name & I’m angry at her so I won’t read your stuff

    Sure it wouldn’t be terribly detailed, but it would be something and it would take a whole 15 seconds longer than what they’re doing now. (& please note that I was trying to be humorous with my example)

    • Hi Shannon,

      Thank you for your valuable insight. And what a compliment you have paid to our Limebird readers! 🙂

      Your question about finding an agent is a really good one, and it is probably going to be a different kind of search for one writer vs another writer depending on what they write, among other examples. If you are a SF / Fantasy writer, then you’ve got a great start with the handbook you mentioned. You could also check out Guide to Literary Agents and Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market.

      Yes, I heard the same about JK Rowling. In fact, many fabulous authors had been rejected multiple times before finally securing an agent. So, not all hope is lost!

      haha, I love your little “rejection” list. I agree. I honestly don’t think it would be too much trouble to at least direct writers towards the problem areas. It would at least be the kind of effort that would endear writers to them (or, at least, most writers would appreciate knowing the problem area and would be eager to fix it for the next time they go querying.)

      Thanks for a wonderful comment!

  17. I thought somebody who read your post might find this to be encouraging (something said above made me think of it). It’s not from my blog, so I’m not just shamelessly self-promoting here. It’s from a multiply published author (Jim Butcher).


    • What a fantastic link you shared, Shannon. I just hopped over to JB’s site and started reading it. Throughout the whole thing I was either nodding my head. chuckling, or saying “it’s true” out loud. He brings up excellent points that I am quite familiar with. I really appreciate knowing that what I’m going through is what I’m supposed to be going through. It’s part of the process, and I am better for it already.

      Thanks again for sharing!


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