Why agents take on less than 1% of all queries

You’ve heard ‘agents are extremely selective’ and all the other catch-phrases we use to express why we cannot take on you as an author. We mean what we say. But, even if your work is good, great even, we have to pass and here’s why:

  • The industry is competitive so new authors have be able to break out of the pack.
  • The industry is saturated in many markets like YA and women’s fiction so new authors have to be very unique with fresh concepts and fabulous writing that can hook readers.
  • We have a client working on something similar so we can’t take on a new work in that space as it’s not fair to our first priorities: our clients.
  • We like it very much, but we don’t love it. This is a very fine line, admittedly. It’s hard for writers to hear that an agent likes it very much but cannot offer representation. But in the long run you’ll want an agent that is head over heels for it.
  • Your submission requires more work than time we can give. Agents have limited time available to work on major editorial tasks. The time we do have for that goes to our clients first.
  • We aren’t the best agent for it. Some agents are more specialized in nonfiction, YA, or commercial fiction–for three examples–and those agents can be better for you. Don’t get tied to the idea of working with an agent you follow on Twitter or an agent that you think might be the best fit. Find the best representation for your work and whose agency has a track record that can support your books.
  • We get referrals that usually take precedence over work coming in unsolicited. Referrals come in from clients or people we know in the industry so these are part of our job. I always appreciate referrals and put those ahead of unsolicited work because they are part of the relationships we build as agents in our industry and with our clients.
  • We have a full client list so taking something new on has to ‘wow’ us to make room. When we are busy with client work we’re familiar with and reading queries that are just okay, and we come across a query and submission that gets our heart rate up, raises our eyebrows, and we get thinking about who to submit it to–that’s a ‘wow’ factor. Always try to bring the ‘wow’ factor. If you don’t think your query and sample material are ready to wow us, then don’t submit yet.
  • The feedback we’re getting from editors in your genre is not supportive of growing authors in that space. We might have taken on an author in your genre and it didn’t get good feedback from editors because of competitive and saturated markets, which always makes us hesitant of getting back in the ring. We want success for the authors we represent.

Conclusion: be ready to stand out from the pack with your outlook and your work; do your research; always get set to ‘wow’ agents; and finally, good is good, but great is great–so agents and editors alike will know.

A pass is never what you want to hear, but it can be more complex than ‘not right for us at this time.’

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34 thoughts on “Why agents take on less than 1% of all queries

  1. I often read the horror stories from the slush pile and think, I can do better–I have definitely done better! But this is a great list of reasons why one can still be rejected, even if one stands out among the slush. It’s actually reassuring that it’s not the writing that is tragic, but possibly other factors working against you. And yet, still hope-dashing because there are so many reasons to be rejected. It’s bitter-sweet.

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  2. I’m actually shocked agents can take on anything at all. I have Netflix now, and I watch a few minutes of a movie, then move on to the next, simply because there are so many. I think if I had a slush pile of books, I’d just keep churning through until I perhaps got to one that was so blatantly, commercially, instantly salable, that I’d have to compete against other agents for it. I would be a suck agent. :-) I have to give props to agents who find anything at all. Perhaps one should be in charge of my Netflix?

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    • Ha! Good analogy. Netflix to slush pile.

      Yes, the slush pile is a mix bag. You have to keep going through the ‘To Whom This May Concern’ to get to the ‘Dear Ms. Watters’ etc.

      Often that happens too: the instantly saleable ones you have to compete for–BUT, it’s worth it because you know editors will compete too.

      I think your Netflix comparison is reflective of reading in general today. There is SO MUCH out there to read. From Twitter to blogs to books so that in itself is why agents have to be picky about what they represent. We’re are competing for readers’ time.

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      • I guess proper addressing and query format is a bit of a skill-tester, yet the cruel part of me enjoys the idea of actual skill-testing questions. Say a randomly-generated quiz that asks questions such as when to use lie vs lay, or how many dozen adverbs per page are acceptable. (The last question is a trick question!) Writers are lovely people who spend way too much time watching the first seven minutes of every movie on Netflix, and we need to put them to work being productive members of society! :-)

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  3. I think there are incredible writers out there with an intriguing manuscript, but somehow we fail to “wow” agents with our query letter/hook. Sort of like inventing a great product, but you need the professional copywriter to “sell” it for you.

    For me, it’s so difficult putting a 100K word count manuscript into one paragraph to “wow” the agent…and we only get one shot. Once we fail at it, even if we do figure it out eventually, we have burned that bridge because we should not requery that agent.

    [sigh...]

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      • If it’s been ample time and you’ve made ample changes then a requery is an option. Often if I pass, but write a long editorial letter I usually suggest I’m open to resubmission.

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    • Think of it on the flip side, from an agent’s perspective: we don’t know you or your manuscript so you have to do a great job selling us. It’s a tough thing to get your head around, but if you work for a year on your 100k ms you need to spend A LOT of time perfecting that query letter/pitch to get our attention.

      Keep at it! :)

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  4. We like it very much, but we don’t love it. This is a very fine line, admittedly. It’s hard for writers to hear that an agent likes it very much but cannot offer representation. But in the long run you’ll want an agent that is head over heels for it.

    The above reality is the hardest. Especially when an agent says they loved your writing and voice, but the overall story wasn’t for them. Then again, authors should want a champion, so they can enter into a long and lucrative business partnership. And it is a business, not a fantasy world where money floats down from the sky in buckets. I know many writers who have or are willing to edit for an agent until their eyes bleed to make the 1%. That may have been a bit melodramatic, but this is an excellent and necessary post. Thank you for putting the truth out there. : )

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    • Very true Demetra, writers will work hard for their agents! And I love that about my clients. But that 1% is a true statistic, and even less for many agents will full client rosters. Thanks for your comments!

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  5. Thanks for demystifying the ubiquitous “not right for us” comment. It sucks to hear that, especially after a super promising start, but it is what it is. Do you often get a GREAT query but the actual ms is only so-so?

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    • Yes, it can happen. Usually the case is that authors spend all their time on their ms and forget about their query letter, but sometimes they pitch something fantastic, but the plot or dialogue or MC doesn’t hold up.

      So many things have to come together to make that strong, ‘wanna represent this’, passionate feeling come alive.

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  6. I recently started querying my memoir, and tried my very best to query agents who say they are interested in my genre. Having said that, I was wondering, should I break it down even farther by researching exactly what kind of memoir they like?
    Some memoirs are much more gritty than others, like mine. I was trafficked for over eight years on the streets of New York. Also Carly, I noticed you listed memoir as one of the genres you represent, does it matter to you what kind of memoir it is? Or just that the manuscript is well written, thanks so much.

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    • Memoir, just like fiction is subject to different tastes. Keep querying agents that say they are looking for memoir and have sold projects that feel similar (doesn’t have to be gritty). Everyone is attracted to different projects and sometimes even agents are surprised by their own tastes. I am looking for great writing and an outstanding, never told before story.

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  7. “be ready to stand out from the pack with your outlook and your work; do your research; always get set to ‘wow’ agents; and finally, good is good, but great is great–so agents and editors alike will know.”— another reason for crafting brilliance; and why polishing diamonds is far more important than collecting bricks.

    Thank you for sharing, Carly, would love to learn more! Many blessings and much love to you. :-)

    Subhan Zein

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  8. Great post. Good to know for the ego. What do you do in the case of a series when sending a manuscript for a children’s picture book? One manuscript? Also, if you have more than one book in general, is it appropriate to send them as separate queries. One might catch your eye. One last question, when would it be appropriate to send a proposal for the series, let’s say?
    Thanks for the useful information in this post. :)
    http://www.theflipsidestories.com
    -where another point of view makes a better you!

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  9. I got the ‘like it but don’t love it’ response from the second agent to request my full. It’s frustrating to hear the ‘great writing, great concept, but ultimately not for me’ response even if I know the reasons behind it.

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  10. Hi Carly- does really make you think (whats the point), but agencies are very quick to represent celebs, and anyone with a name or tv appearence- obviously being on telly makes them a talented writer- it is just not right- unless your in the ‘circle’ you havent got a chance- we have a paranormal romance we are sending out, and its just the usual bog standard “form rejections” had a request, but again, rejection…so dishearteneing, how does one stand out- good query… tick, spelling grammer…. tick…. connections…. No, so in the slush pile you go, the industry is so very wrong, tallent will out…. i doubt it, i think celebs should stick to what their good at, and give other pple a chance- so many talented authors out there who just are not being given the time, or a chance- … i dont know anyone famous, any already published authors… so will i get an agent…. i doubt it
    good luck to all the authors out there in the same position, good luck guys, youll need it…

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  11. I know it’s a while since you wrote the original blog but I don’t think this one will age. I got the ‘I like it but don’t love it’ last week, so, a rewrite of my query letter and on to the next agnt I go. I WILL be published, it’s just a matter of application, time and rewriting !!!

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