Querying Literary Agents: The Numbers

A few of my writing friends have asked about the whole querying-agents-to-get published thing, since I’ve recently become intimately acquainted with this process. As most aspiring novelists are aware, one does not simply approach a major publishing house with one’s own manuscript these days, just as one does not simply walk into Mordor. True, some publishing houses (especially smaller ones) have open submissions for manuscripts — generally referred to as a “slush pile” — but the vast majority of book publishing deals are handled by literary agents. This is is true for both new authors and established ones.

Finding Literary Agents

Thus, authors who have completed a novel and hope to see it published must first find an agent. Fair warning: there are orders of magnitude more published and active writers than there are literary agents to take them on. If you don’t handle rejection well, or have trouble being patient, or give up easily, this path is not for you. There are many others, easier paths to happiness. Like pottery. That being said, there are numerous agents and agencies out there. I recommend two places to begin your search:

  1. The Association of Authors Representatives (AAR). This is a professional organization of over 400 literary agents who adhere to a code of ethics.
  2. QueryTracker. This online database of literary agents is crowdsourced by aspiring authors. You can search for agents by genre and agency name, find all relevant contact information, and pull up statistics on submissions made to those agents (as reported by members of QueryTracker).

A word of caution here: there are scammers in this industry posing as agents. They charge a “reading fee” or else refer you to providers of costly editing services in exchange for a kickback. You should never pay anything while searching for an agent or trying to get published. See the Preditors and Editors site if you have any concerns.

Querying Literary Agents

I’m not going to tell you how to write a query. On that topic, I refer you to the delightful Anne Mini who has made it her personal mission to educate aspiring writers on this and other topics, such as writing synopses. Instead, I’d like to help set some expectations for would-be queriers so that they know what they’re up against. I pulled data from QueryTracker for 14 well-known literary agents who met several criteria:

  • They work at reputable literary agencies and represent science fiction and/or fantasy
  • They accept electronic (e-mail or form) queries
  • They’re actively seeking clients, or at least responding to queries
  • At least 50 queries had been recorded (lifetime) for each of them in QueryTracker

These agents had received 9,569 queries (about 683 each), and that’s just the ones reported to QueryTracker. Note that I excluded agents that seem to be slow-responders or non-responders based on QT reports, so the numbers, if anything, are skewed toward faster response times. Also, people using QT likely have done a bit of homework in choosing their agents to query, so this might skew success rates a bit higher as well. Even so, you should brace yourself for a dose of reality.

Most Queries Are Rejected

Agent query success rate

Query Success Rate for 14 Agents

“Success” as measured by QueryTracker is a request for more pages (a partial or full). In my dataset, the average rejection rate was about 87% for electronic queries, and the range was 70-98% across all agents. Worse, much of that rejection comes in the form of a terse impersonal e-mail (“Dear Author”) or even more disturbingly, no response whatsoever. Agents are simply inundated with queries constantly, and many don’t have time to even reply unless they’re interested.

The Query Process Is Slow

In my dataset, the average response time for electronic queries was 3 weeks, but response times of 2-3 months are not uncommon. For some agents, the “response” was an author closing the query as a non-response after a designated period of time, say 6-8 weeks. And if you should receive that glorious partial or full request, you may need to wait even longer. Sometimes there’s a much faster turnaround; you do hear about them occasionally, but more often it’s a long process measured in months, not weeks.

Persistence Matters

Very few published authors (even the successful ones) were signed by the first agent they approached. And few to none of them had to face a market like the one we’re facing today. Anyone with a computer and internet access can write a novel and start querying it. These queries swamp agents and agencies alike. Literary agents, meanwhile, tend to put the needs of their existing clients first. They might take on one or two new clients per year; that’s about it. At the same time, the publishing industry as a whole is shrinking. It’s a tight economy for printed books.

That said, as I’ve watched the author-agent communications channels, there have been recent successes. I know of at least three agents who signed a new client in the last two months. Success can be found, but it lies at the end of a long, slow road pock-marked with frequent rejections. If you can handle that, you’ll be just fine.

This is a rite of passage for getting published.


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