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Free Money! Why Literary Agents Won't Reply

Updated on March 20, 2011

Even Free Money Offers Won't Keep Your Submission From The Trash

You can always tell the amateur dilettante writer by the number of unsolicited submissions that they send directly to publishers. The vast majority of publishing houses will simply return the submission unread with a sternly worded notice that they did not read the contents. Why?

Let's say you've just sent them a manuscript about a flying whale. Now it just so happens that they are in the process of publishing a book from an established major author and his book is about a dolphin that flies. If they were to read your book, you could later go to court and sue them that they stole your story, changed the whale to a dolphin, and assigned it to Mr. Bigshot Author. Don't think that's crazy. It happens on a regular basis... or happened. It doesn't happen too much anymore since the publishers have simply shut down reading anything that's unsolicited from any writer anywhere.

There really is no choice in the 21st century market but to be represented by a bonafide, recognized literary agent. Publishing is a very unusual industry. If you were to tell unemployed secretaries that it was a prerequisite to applying for a job that they be represented by an employment agency who would skim 15% of her lifetime earnings (plus expenses) right off the top before taxes, there would be rioting in the streets. However, writers simply grin and bear it as that is the way our world is.

Deciding that you need a literary agent and actually getting one are two very separate tasks. If you have time on your hands and some postage to burn you can try this if you like. Pick out a hundred major, legitimate literary agents at random. Mail them a professional, well-written proposal for a highly-marketable book. In the middle of page, say, 7 or so, place this line:

I don't think you're reading this. If you are the first agent to actually get this far, click on www.whatever.com/agentmoney.html, and I'll send you $100 cash.

Sometimes, Literary Agents just rain on your parade!
Sometimes, Literary Agents just rain on your parade!
What are we supposed to do? Stand on a street corner and pitch our manuscripts?
What are we supposed to do? Stand on a street corner and pitch our manuscripts?
The final home of exactly 98.7% of all your proposals.
The final home of exactly 98.7% of all your proposals.

Don't worry. You very likely won't have to pay up. They simply won't read it. They might, however, send you a canned piece of boilerplate stating how their "list" is full and they "regret" not being able to take on new clients. If you like to collect rejection letters, literary agents are not really the place to go. If you send the same hundred major agents the same content but in an email, your rejection letter response rate will average 1.3%. 98.7% will just delete your email unread and unreplied to. I'm not picking these numbers out of my hat. Over the years, I've sent tens of thousands of similar emails and tabulated the results. Or non-results. And that's the percentage I've ended up with!

I can't really blame the agents. Some of the bigger agencies receive hundreds of unsolicited emails asking for representation. It is impossible to take everyone on.

Book publishing is a business where you can become an overnight success, but only after a decade or two of hard slogging. It's not for those with a short attention span. There are a (very) few things you can do to maximize your microscopic chances of actually landing an agent who is interested in taking you on.

1) Very few agents represent everything. Most specialize in say, scifi; medical non-fiction; romance; poetry; screenplays, etc. Find out which agents represent your genre section and only approach those.

2) If you can drop a reference to another similar book that the same agency has successfully handled, it's a major plus. This takes mind-numbing research, however. Few agencies have websites with clients listed.

3) Don't be a moron: Don't reply to rejection letters with "who the #$%& do you think you #$%&ing are to reject my book." Don't send out solicitations riddled with spelling and grammar errors. Don't send out pitches for books that only your mother would read. Don't send out one pitch for multiple manuscripts.

Most importantly, don't take it personally. Writers are historically high on the list of careers that succumb to alcoholism and drug use. It takes a strong backbone to succeed in a business where you'll get ten thousand NOs to every YES (if you're lucky.) Remember: It's nothing personal. It's only business.

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    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Glad you could find something of use in it. Thanks.

    • profile image

      self publishing companies 

      8 years ago

      Information was helpful, there is lots to read here, which is always good when you're learning something from it good job.

    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Yes, it was true over two years ago when I wrote this and it's even more true now. The chances of a new author getting published these days by a legitimate, major publishers are far less than winning the lottery. :(

    • J  Rosewater profile image

      J Rosewater 

      8 years ago from Australia

      Yes, it is that dark. I have had similar percentages, but because I know the industry, I know what to expect, and those are the figures. Getting a break is almost impossible. You would have a better chance betting on a horse.

    • profile image

      Somebody 

      10 years ago

      This article was so damn depressive. I know most of it is true. Yet it's not THAT dark after everything said and done.

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