I’ve been privy to some recent conversations regarding agents and the querying process and thought it would be a good time to put together a post that addresses some misperceptions I see fairly frequently.
Having spent time reading and editing submissions for a literary agent (two-and-a-half years and 1,200+ submissions) as well as being a writer myself, I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what happens on both sides of this equation. One of the reasons I became a submissions (or slush pile) reader in the first place was so I could gain a better perspective on what agents actually see from querying writers as well as have insight on my competition for an agent’s attention.
So here are eight hard truths about agents, querying, and what really goes on after you hit send.
1. The slush pile is an agent’s LOWEST priority.
This is a basic truth I consistently see writers ignore or of which they are completely unaware. An agent’s highest priority—and the thing that takes up most of their time—is representing the work of their existing clients, and their to do list reflects that. Prepping manuscripts to go out on submission, networking with editors, conferring with clients on existing contracts and the issues that arise during the publishing process, reading and editing manuscripts, managing the submission process and client commitments…the list is endless, but all of it is what pays the bills for an agent.
The slush pile, on the other hand, represents the greatest amount of work with the least amount of return. It’s time consuming and never ending. Agents are not kidding when they talk about their inboxes – they’re jam packed with queries. That’s especially true right now because so many people have had a LOT of extra time to write. Most agents have seen a significant spike in the number of queries they receive.
Which leads me to the next hard truth…
This is a hard truth for both agents and writers. In the two-and-a-half years I read submissions for the literary agent, I probably recommended she read about 5% of the 1,200 queries (the agency’s guidelines requested a query letter, synopsis, and the first fifty manuscript pages). That’s roughly 60 queries. Out of that number, she requested full manuscripts from maybe a dozen, and out of that, she only offered representation to ONE author.
Before you think I was cutting some worthy contenders out of the running, let me add, as a writer, my bias was ALWAYS to give the manuscript the benefit of the doubt. I usually read more pages than most agents would and gave the agent recommendations about what was working and what wasn’t if the first fifty pages seemed promising. She used my edit notes a number of times to give feedback to writers on requested manuscripts or queries that showed promise but weren’t quite right for her. So a 5% read recommendation rate is actually generous, and leads me to the next truth about the slush pile.
I know. Believe me, I really do know. After working on a manuscript for years, especially as you get close to the end and feel as if you will rip your eyes out if you have to read it one more time, you want to believe it’s finished and ready to go. But the very, very hard truth of the slush pile is that at least 80% of what I read was simply not ready to be queried. Most of this number was made up of manuscripts that were exceptionally raw and unpolished. As harsh as this sounds, writing is one of those activities that people often think they can do without practice or study. No one thinks they can play pro sports the first time they try to play the game, and yet they apply a different metric to writing without recognizing that publication by a traditional publishing house is very much like playing in the major leagues.
Which brings me to hard truth number four.
Yes, agents provide feedback or work with clients to edit and refine their manuscript prior to sending it out on submission, but it’s not their job to provide that kind of feedback for your query letter or pages. Sometimes, they simply can’t give you a solid reason for passing other than the manuscript isn’t right for them, and the sheer volume of queries (remember, the slush pile is the lowest priority and has the least amount of return for the time it takes to complete the task) means that they often don’t have the time to spend thinking about it too hard. I can honestly say, I sometimes spent more time coming up with reasons I was recommending the agent pass than I did reading the manuscript because, while it was obvious within a page it wasn’t what the agent could sell, it took time to articulate why.
This is probably one of the most disheartening, frustrating hard truths about agents. They really can assess your query and pages that quickly, and no, they’re not being lazy.
Which also doesn't mean there's something wrong with your book. Agents do miss out on terrific manuscripts because of the sheer volume of work they're trying to get through, or because the writer revised after they queried a certain number of agents, or because the agent simply doesn't know the right editor to show the work to. There are lots of reasons agents pass on work that went on to have incredible critical and financial success. Every agent has a story about the bestseller that got away because they didn’t recognize the potential or they were too slow responding or they didn't have the right editorial contacts to make the sale.
But the truth is, agents do not use AI to scan for keywords like companies do with resumes; they do not throw darts at queries to decide which ones they’ll read; they do not do any of the hundred things I’ve heard writers complain must be happening to their queries. What they do do is read until they know they can’t sell the project, reject it, and move on to the next query.
6. This is true even if an agent has requested a full or partial manuscript.
I’m setting this hard truth on it’s own because I often hear writers complain about how quickly a requested full or partial garnered a rejection. “There’s no way they read the entire book!” You’re right. They might not have read the entire thing because they are only reading until the point they know they can’t sell it. And, yes, it’s frustrating when they give you feedback that makes it clear they didn’t read the whole thing, but what that feedback tells you (if you hear it a couple of times) is something is missing from the beginning of your book.
I’m probably going to get push back on this one, but…No matter what an agent or other writers tell you, your query letter does not get an agent to sign you. The only thing that gets an agent to offer representation is having a project they believe they can sell, and that means having a solid manuscript, with a dynamic premise, that hits the publishing marketplace at the right time (I often tell my clients, if Jane Austen were a debut writer in 2021 and submitted Pride and Prejudice as it was written in 1813, she’d most likely garner a slew of rejections for the simple reason that the contemporary marketplace has different demands for a 21st century manuscript).
A query letter has two jobs:
- · Succinctly present your book’s premise and its central conflict/problem in a dynamic way that catches the agent’s attention.
- · NOT give the agent reasons to reject before they read your pages.
Q Query letters often act as a red flag to agents for the problems they’re going to encounter in the manuscript. Long query/long manuscript usually means the book needs extensive editing or the premise isn’t fully developed. Vague summary of the book can mean that the writer hasn’t figured out what the story is really about yet. A query heavy on the set up probably means the story doesn’t really get going until after fifty to a hundred pages.
The query letter often acts as a mirror for the manuscript (which is why it is a valuable exercise to write a good query letter). After reading those 1,200+ queries, I can tell you I NEVER saw a fantastic query letter paired with a mediocre manuscript. I saw lots of so-so queries and so-so pages. I also saw so-so letters with really good pages.
In 1,200+ query letters, almost every single one of them was an indication of what I would find in the pages. What this means is that I read the pages with the idea that I was looking for reasons to recommend the agent pass. If the query was good and solid, the book generally was too.
I might do an entire blog post on this topic, but for right now, I’ll say the reason I think the query letter has become so dominant in conversations (both from writers and agents) is that it is something agents can give feedback on quickly and easily. “Query letters that worked” is a really popular topic in interviews and workshop sessions with agents. Invariably, though, what I see in the query letters most often chosen by agents to discuss as "effective" wasn’t so much the letter that made the agent request the manuscript. Often it was the referral from an existing client or someone in the publishing industry, the writer’s extensive platform or special expertise, or a prestigious award or fellowship the writer had received that would have tipped the balance even if the query were written in crayon on a napkin.
Last hard truth…
I frequently see writers act as if an agent owes them something because the writer has queried or received a full request, and I do understand the temptation. Writers invest a lot of time and energy into developing a list of agents to query. We research them, stalk them a little bit on social media, read their clients’ work, and develop specific and realistic reasons for querying a particular agent. We become invested in thinking that a particular agent is THE ONE, and it sometimes feels as if we know them. When the agent doesn’t reciprocate, writers sometimes feel frustrated even though the agent is just doing their job. Even a revise and resubmit doesn’t mean you have a relationship, it just means you’ve got plans to go on a second date.
The point at which you have a relationship with an agent is when they sign you. Up until that point, don’t take anything personally. And, yes, I know exactly how difficult that is.
And now the two suggestions about how to increase your slush pile odds: