Query far and wide
I’m going to say something controversial: I think that number should be high. The pool of literary agents available to you will depend on which genre you write in, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of literary agents out there (many of them based in North America). Once you’ve narrowed it down and chosen your shortlist, you will still likely be left with a couple of hundred agents. Perhaps you query 50 agents over six months. Perhaps you refresh your manuscript, refine your query letter, then try again a year later and query 100 literary agents. One says yes. This means you will have queried 150 literary agents over an 18-month period. That’s high, right?
Well, that depends. I liken querying to a job search. Sometimes I’ve found jobs very quickly, without even trying. That’s because I had a high commodity product (my skills and experience), and someone wanted to employ me at exactly the right time, because I was exactly right for their company. Other times, it’s taken months, sometimes even years to find the “perfect” job. I applied for hundreds, and nothing seemed to stick. Yet now I’m at director-level in my day job. I persevered. Those companies who rejected me lost out. I’m not saying that with arrogance, but with confidence. It all comes down to you knowing the value in what you have to offer, what you want, and how long you are prepared to wait. Then there are those fickle variables of luck, timing, and taste that come up again and again in the publishing industry. This is why perseverance is everything.
Querying is competitive
There is a finite number of literary agents, and many, many more aspiring authors. Do not expect a “yes” on your first go. You are one of many, and your work will land in the aptly named slush pile. You are treated as slush until you aren’t, so get used to the competitive nature of querying. A single agent might only sign one new author a year, but they might receive over 100 queries in a single week. The odds are stacked against you, so don’t be too hard on yourself as the rejections start to trickle in. Here is the key: agents want to sign talented authors. Give them every reason not to reject you, and you could be the one.
It’s a numbers game
Probability dictates that the more literary agents you query, the higher your chances are of getting a response. However, I know of many writers who’ve been querying for years without success, and others who barely started querying before literary agents rushed to offer them representation. Of course, you need a quality product, and you need to do your research to ensure you are querying the right agents at each agency, since you can generally only query one agent per agency.
I’ll say it again: do not get put off by rejections. I know a writer who queried her first ten agents, received two rejections, then gave up. Even if she had sent 100 queries, and received twenty rejections, she should still have not given up. Why? Because you only need one yes, and you are still waiting to hear back from 80% of those you sent it out to. Once you have one offer (say after a request for a partial or a full) you have leverage. You can then go out to the others interested and garner multiple offers. This is why it is in your interest to have multiple players in the game.
Query in batches
You should only send out between six and eight queries at a time. Why? Because researching literary agents takes time and effort. I’ll be very surprised if you can do any more than that at a time! I recall that the most I ever queried in one week was 10, and that was with devoting all my time and energy to querying, which isn’t always humanly possible. Treat each query batch or round of six as a test – send to “test” agents in the very first round (you don’t want to blow your shot on your favorites). Invariably, your query letter and first pages will become more refined as you go. Response times will wildly vary – some literary agents can come back to you within an hour, while others can take weeks, months, and sometimes even years. This is where your strategy comes in – spread your net wide, but tailor your approach.
Should you query multiple agents at the same time?
Yes, absolutely. Avoid any agents who say that they do not accept simultaneous submissions. That is spectacularly unfair. Are they really expecting you to wait around for them to respond and not query other agents? It’s exactly like applying for a job – you wouldn’t just apply for one and not others. Not only would that drastically lengthen your timeline, it weakens your leverage (remember, multiple agent interest is to your advantage).
Keep a record
When I was querying, I created a super-duper multi-colored spreadsheet, along with a table measuring stats for requests, active queries, rejections, pending, defunct, total sent, and % success rate. This was a logical, practical way for me to process the numbers. It helps you to strategize your queries rather than adopting a scattergun approach. Never underestimate the power of excellent admin.
What if you’re not hearing back?
Most agents will send out a standard form rejection if they’re not interested, but others simply won’t bother getting back to you. Do not chase them, and certainly do not follow up on your original query email (this approach could even inadvertently push your query to the bottom of their inbox). Do not take it personally. Write them off, and move on. If and when you do hear back from them, it will come as a pleasant surprise.
How many literary agents should you query before you stop?
Okay, okay, I hear you shout. But you’re not actually answering the question: how many literary agents should you query? Or how many literary agents should you query before you quit?
My answer is: around the 150 mark (assuming you write in a genre with multiple agents available), with a rejection rate higher than 50%. In other words, if more than 75 of those agents have sent form rejections, or even detailed feedback on why your project is not for them, then it’s probably safe to assume that this is not “the one” to win you a literary agent. Does that mean you should throw in the towel on your writing career forever? Hell no. It just means this particular project was not strong enough to land you an agent. Agents also get rejected all the time from editors. Sometimes, it just isn’t your time. Write something else, and try again.
I warned you that you needed a strong stomach for this game! But believe me, finding a literary agent is absolutely worth your time and effort.