Looking back on my quest to secure an agent and asking myself what my experience has taught me, I find I have very little to pass on to fellow writers. What I discovered is that there are no tricks or short cuts or secret recipes. It’s simply a case of doing what everyone says you must do: write the best book you can, put together a strong submission, keep smiling in the face of rejection and keep sending it out there until someone says yes. It’s as simple as that.
There is one common cause of failure I have noted, which is that people tend to give up too soon. It can take many submissions before you find the right agent for your book, which means steering a course through a number of rejections. One author I heard about set herself a positive target of receiving at least one hundred rejections. This was, I thought, a rather clever way to inure herself against conceding defeat.
So, here are three common reasons I can think of why people give up prematurely.
1. Submission fatigue. Agents can take a long time to respond and sometimes it feels like you’re sending your manuscript into a black hole. As time goes by, it’s easy for the momentum to slip. Before you know it, you haven’t sent your book out for weeks. It may feel as though you’ve sent your book to every corner of the planet, when in fact, you’ve probably only scratched the surface.
Given the above, it’s tempting to send out submissions en masse, to cut down on waiting time. However, if you do this, you deny yourself the possibility of benefitting from feedback. Early feedback was extremely helpful to me in improving, not just the opening chapters of my novel, but the book as a whole. I considered myself lucky to receive it. In fact, anything other than the standard rejection should be seen as something very positive.
There is a balance to be struck between patience and stagnation. To keep the momentum going, I made it a policy to greet each rejection I received by immediately sending off my submission to another agent. That way, I kept the hope alive and counter-acted a negative result with positive action
2. Fear of running out of agents. Sometimes writers hold back on their submissions for fear of exhausting all possibilities and hitting the end of the road. What will they do then? The thing to remember here is that nobody is going to take you on if they haven’t seen your work, so you actually have no choice but to take that risk.
It’s good practice to research agents first, to check that they accept your genre of work, but it can be a mistake to be too specialised in your submissions. I’ve been on websites and read an agent’s blurb about the kind of book they’re looking for and thought they’ve described my book to a T, only to send it in and get nowhere. Other times, when it doesn’t sound like my novel is particularly suited to an agent’s personal taste, I’ve received a request for the full. So, I would say that, unless an agent specifically excludes your genre, it’s worth including them on your list.
3. Cynicism. I’ve read on several writing forums that agents aren’t interested in the slush pile any more. Agents have set up their own expensive creative writing schools from which they cherry pick the best students. Or they draw new authors exclusively from events at which writers pitch their novels, face to face. Or that most offers come from personal introductions and you have to be good at networking to get anywhere. Or that most agents simply don’t want to take on new authors.
I attended a couple of pitching events early on in the submissions process and I found them very useful. A live pitch gives you the chance to test how your novel sounds when reduced to the bare bones. It can also elicit some useful feedback. Pitching earned me more than one request for a submission, which the agent then looked out for and responded to quickly and personally.
However, in the end, my offers of representation came from agents who picked my novel from the anonymous slush pile. It really can, and mostly does, happen that way.
Agents, apart from those whose lists really are full, are always looking for new authors. This is their bread and butter. One agent told me that, contrary to common assumption, he tries very hard to warm to each submission because he so wants it to be the next exciting project.
If you’re in the submissions doldrums, remember that it only takes one email to ping into your inbox to put you on cloud nine. There is no telling when that might happen. But it won’t happen if you give up. Finding an agent takes professionalism, patience and, above all, persistence. Hopefully you’ll succeed long before you hit the one hundred rejections jackpot.
Claudia Cruttwell has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working on her second psychological suspense novel. She blogs about her journey to publication on her website and can also be found on Twitter @cscruttwell.