How Hard Is It to Get a Literary Agent?

Redhead woman climbing stairs to get literary agent

Discussion is rife in writing communities over how hard it is to get a literary agent. Agents are widely regarded as your way in to the big, scary publishing world: the gatekeepers to your author career. And if you’re serious about going down the traditional publishing route, then yes, you probably need a literary agent. Question is: is it really that hard to sign with one?

How hard is it to sign with a literary agent?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “hard”. Is it hard like securing your dream job? Or finding your soulmate who you want to spend the rest of your life with? Both of these are comparable. Both take hard work, effort, and time. And both rely on beating the odds. The question is: how hard are you prepared to work to get what you want?

What are the odds?

The brutal truth is that when you begin your search for a literary agent, the odds are stacked against you. Literary agents receive hundreds of submissions and query letters on a weekly basis. These queries, or what is unkindly referred to as the “slush pile”, represents their backlog of constant work to read and review. It is a common misconception that literary agents dislike slush. They want to find magic in the slush; after all, it is a literary agent’s job to represent writers. Without you, the profession would not exist. That is why they encourage you to query them with work in genres they represent and love. They are waiting for you to wow them.

However, the sheet volume of content that they receive on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis is overwhelming. There are hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world, desperate to get their work published. And yet, there are only a few thousand literary agents, most of whom are based in North America. Inevitably, this leads to a backlog, which leads to slow response times. Most agents only sign a handful of new clients every year.

It doesn’t exactly sound promising.

Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 28th Edition by Jeff Herman


Excuses, excuses

This is where your armadillo shell comes in. Get used to hearing “no”, and don’t take it personally. There are dozens of reasons why a literary agent might reject your query letter, or even your partial, or full manuscript after requesting it. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Your book is too similar to another one on their list
  • Your book is in a genre they don’t represent
  • They don’t think it will sell
  • They don’t like your writing style
  • They love your writing style, but aren’t taking on any more clients
  • They don’t understand your story
  • They understand your story, but they don’t think it is commercial enough
  • They are too busy submitting for clients that they have already signed
  • It is a Tuesday
  • Their cat just had kittens
  • It is a Thursday

Just keep going!

As hard as it is, just keep going. I used to get through literary agent rejections with the mantra: “You’ll see. Just you wait”. I knew what I had was worth representation, and I knew that finding a literary agent would be incredibly tough, but so, so worth it in the end. So just keep at it, and never, ever give up.

2 thoughts on “How Hard Is It to Get a Literary Agent?”

  1. Hi Natalie.
    It was great reading your article on literary agency.
    My name is Anthony Uzoh, with the pseudonym, Nedum Uzoh for my nobel, The Vain Garden.
    Having done several iterations of editing and publishing of my book digitally on Amazon, I feel it’s time to have an agent to actually get the ball rolling.
    Kindly advise and if possible, help me on this matter. I’d appreciate it.

  2. That’s great that you’ve made the decision to pursue literary agent representation. Read our articles, write a strong query letter with a great hook, and get to querying agents. Good luck.

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