Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

Alternate title: The Crying Game. Ah, but I’m not crying. Not really. I’m just curled up in a fetal position on the floor, rubbing noses with the cat, whimpering a bit. And I have yet to send out a single query letter to a literary agent.


No, I’m in the Agent R&D stage. I spent the past week–a few tedious hours each day that zapped my creative writing energy, blurred my vision, and caused my head to throb–compiling a list of potential agents to query. One of whom I hope will fall in love with my novel, Refuge of Doves.


From a list of 1000+ U.S.-based literary agents, I narrowed my search with a few key words and came up with 364 potentials. I created an Excel spreadsheet, opened up some Chrome windows, and started cross-referencing. I culled the list of 364 to 238. In addition to the standard name, agency, city, and agency website, my spreadsheet has a Submission Preferences column (Snail Mail? Email?). A Notes column. Columns for Date Query Submitted; Response Received; Resubmit? I ranked each agent who made it through my first pass with a Tier 1, 2, or 3 designation.


At this point, my spreadsheet has 144 Tier 1 agents. This is just Step One in a process that will take several more weeks. Again, all before I send out that first hopeful, stomach-looping round of query letters.


Several agents are from the same agency, and OF COURSE I will determine which of these is the best fit for my novel (you know this is protocol, right? Unless the agency’s guidelines indicate otherwise, query only one agent). This will whittle the Tier 1 list down to ≈ 111 names. And I bet, as I dig further into the agents, their agencies, their preferences, discover who is not accepting new clients or non-referrals, my Tier 1 list will come in well under 100 names. That’s about right. To start.


Then, and only then, will I begin sending out query letters. Just a few at a time, to gauge the nature of the rejections. Form letter/canned rejections are a clue that my query needs work. Real feedback will let me know if my story itself is the problem. I can’t even begin to contemplate what I will do about that. Rewriting. Again. But, as is my custom, I’m already fretting over it.


It helps me to focus on the spreadsheets, the research, and the content of my query, see, because they are the things over which I have control. If I stop and think too much about what I’m doing and where all this is heading, I will stumble. I will sink.


Seeking agent representation is like searching for a job and searching for a romantic partner. You want to be recognized for your skill at your chosen craft. You want to show that you can do the job. Your query letter, like your job cover letter, has to be unique and rich with voice, but it must be short, clean, concise, and follow some standards. The query must sell your novel in the first 10 seconds–three short sentences–or it’s into the rubbish bin.


And you, human being that you are, just want to be loved. Well, okay, you want your book to be loved, but who is really so thick-skinned they can separate their work from their soul? Certainly not I, not at this tender stage of my writing life. A rejection of your writing is like watching someone pore over your online dating profile and hearing them snort at your too-big nose and your freckles. Oh, the hurt.


Yet, I believe in approaching this process with respect, humility, and mindfulness. Even though I am but one in the faceless mass to an agent, it’s my integrity on the line if I am anything less than authentic. I don’t know if traditional publishing is the right path for me, but I know I must travel this road to find out. I must face the rejection and learn from the feedback. And I won’t walk alone. Serendipity wrapped her warm and gentle arms around me this week and guided me toward a group of aspiring novelists who are on the same journey.


Each agent receives thousands of query letters a year. Thousands. The odds are so stacked against me, it’s not funny. No, it IS funny. It’s funny that anyone does this. It’s funny that anyone believes this can work. It’s funny that sometimes it does.


Oh, and I haven’t even started working on my small/independent press spreadsheet. That’s next week.


This lovely essay appeared in my blog reader this morning. So a propos of the query process, I had to share:

Don’t Take It Personally, Kathryn Craft, Guest Blogger: Writers in the Storm

Resources which have come in super-handy as I get my brain around this Herculean task:

Association of Authors’ Representatives

Mark Malatesta’s Directory of Literary Agents

Poets & Writers magazine, on-line tools for writers

Predators & Editors

QueryTracker Track your submission in addition to, or instead of, a self-built database

Writer Beware

The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino

2014-05-30 08.33.27

Show Me the Way ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

17 thoughts on “Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

  1. GOOD LUCK!!! I know the odds seem crazily stacked against the writer, especially when you have binders, binders full of agents!, but I found my agent the old-fashioned way, too — sending letters, getting rejected, sending letters, getting rejected, for a whole year. (Hopefully it won’t be that long for you!)

    My only real bit of advice is to seek out the newest agents at an agency — they have the most room in their lists, they’re “hungry” because they’re just starting out, and they often have a lot of enthusiasm and energy and so forth. They are more willing, I think, to take the time with a writer who hasn’t published traditionally before.

    Again, GOOD LUCK. You are obviously very talented!! Excited to follow this stage of your journey.


    • Andria, that is such an excellent piece of advice. I had that niggling in the back of my mind and wondered … so the confirmation is perfect.

      Thank you. And you — I cannot wait to watch your momentum build and your success grow.


  2. I’ve recently decided it’s possible to read too much (yes, that’s what I said) about this whole process. Everyone says how hard it is and it makes me not really try. I’m not reading about that anymore! It’s too discouraging. I have a friend whose agent saw her essay in a lit mag and contacted HER! So there. It happens. Her book came out in January to great reviews. People actually do have their books published. Nobody on earth will approach this task more systematically or effectively than you. It will move forward for you. It may not be what you thought – is it ever? But it will be wild.


    • This has been on my mind for weeks now — I’ve been trying to conceive a sensical blog post to convey just what you’ve remarked on. I’m UP TO HERE with advice, articles, blog posts (hah), opinions … on writing, on the publishing process, on the doom and gloom of independent publishing, on how only fools who want to part with their money and soul pursue the trad. publishing path. I fall in love with these books that don’t follow the 5-part story structure and I think WTF? It’s just an endless cacophony of voices and all I want to do is write. But I also want to publish and maybe, just maybe, eke out a living doing this. AAIIGGHH.

      And, I am so blessed to be able to have this angst. #firstworldproblems So, I shall finish my short story, my flash fiction piece, and get them out into the world. Because I can.


  3. This is so hard. But if you’re lucky, you won’t have to do it again for years, so all that effort is worth it (can you tell I’m talking to myself here too?). Anyway, best of luck with your search. I see you’ve mentioned Query Tracker, which I love so much I bought the premier membership. It really makes everything easier.


    • Chris, that is so great to know. I really plan on working from Query Tracker once I’ve whittled my list down and begin sending out queries, so the thumbs-up is heartening.
      I’m so glad you stopped in and commented – we’re so used to toiling alone, right? Just knowing that the anxiety and weariness are shared makes them a bit easier to bear. I wish you so much success.



  4. Hello, fellow binder! This post is so timely – it just so happens that I spent all weekend creating my own spreadsheet of literary agents. It’s not as long as yours, but thanks to the resources you linked (no, seriously – thank you!) it will soon be longer.

    Best of luck with your spreadsheet, submissions, and success! I’m rooting for you + your book. 🙂


  5. Hello, fellow binder! This post is so helpful and so perfectly timed – I’m at the exact same stage as you as far as novel writing goes, having spent the weekend drinking too much coffee and agonizing over my own literary agent spreadsheet. I’m not as far along as you, but I will be soon thanks to the great resources you’ve linked.

    At any rate, I’m very glad I found your blog. Good luck with submissions – I’m rooting for you + your book!


    • Hi Chrissy! Deep breath. Here we go. Stay in touch, let me know how you are and how it’s all progressing. I won’t be elaborating on the process much at all once I get rolling- I’ll just need some privacy, to move on, and continue with other projects as I wait through (the likely) months and months of querying. But quiet commiseration will be so welcome. I’m cheering you on, too!


    • I’ve kicked around queryshark, but thank you for the reminder, Charlotte! I’m not sure if I’m up to exposing my query to the anonymous masses, but reading through some of the examples is so helpful. I’ve sought feedback from a small group of pros and feel pretty okay,I guess, sort of (snort) about what I have at this point. Such a crapshoot…


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