The Path to get a Literary Agent

This is the fun blog where we look at stats and excel files full of my rejections, in hope that we can learn from them. Because failure is important! Read my previous blog here to understand why I'm eager to share my failures with the world.


If you're wondering: how hard is it get a Literary Agent? Then, this blog should give you a good idea. It's time to tackle the big question:

How to get a Literary Agent?

Your novel is ready. The manuscript has been completed. You have edited your novel, and it is as good as you can make it. Then, it might be time to find an agent, but just how do you find a Literary Agent?


For me, the path to get a Literary Agent was a long one. Much longer than I had anticipated. It wasn't always a dry trail through the desert, but it certainly was not as easy as I had anticipated either.


I went into the adventure of finding a Literary Agent with my eyes open, I thought.


I knew that published writers often talk about how much they struggled to find representation for their novels, I just did not think that I would struggle. At least not to that extent.

For more than a year I sat deep in a pit of rejections and near-misses.


I would sigh as non-writer friends helpfully pulled out the one stat that they all somehow know: "J.K. Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before she found representation — and look at her now! Don't give up yet!"


They say this meaning to help, and meanwhile I'm thinking: "oh how nice it must be to only have been rejected 12 times."


Now, before we get into the excruciating details, let me lay something bare:

Contrary to common belief, it is not the rejections that make the querying process excruciating.... it is the wait for an answer.

Perhaps this is just my own lack of patience, but considering the stories of other writers I know, I don't think it's just me. The wait discourages many of us from continuing to try.


Sometimes, there is no end to the wait for an answer from a literary agent, because a lot of the time, they won't give an answer.


Agents are busy and get hundreds of queries, they can't reasonably be expected to answer them all and also do the required work for their current clients.


But let's roll it back. So you're ready to query but where do you start?


If you're here, I'm going to assume that you're talking about unsolicited queries. Meaning that you don't magically happen to have a friend who is a literary agent or a friend who knows a literary agent and can make the introductions. Because, sorry to say, a lot of people I have known have gotten agents in that way.

There are people who have signed with an agent by attending the right party at the right time and meeting the right person, people who have been introduced to an agent by family or friends or teachers. People who have just had a lot of luck from the get-go.


That was not my case, and yet I did have more luck than most. I had already met a few agents. I had attended university to study Creative Writing and through that I had received some contacts and was even at a party filled with agents, but nothing definitive came from that, for me, just a lot of hopes crushed.


I was already a bit beaten when I googled: literary agents in the UK

(I was based in the UK and I figured it was best to start there)


Yes, google is your friend to find secret agents.

Pretty soon google-ing got overwhelming for me. So, I followed some advice I had received way back in the day before I was ready to query, and I bought myself a copy of Writers' & Artists' Yearbook.


The Writers' & Artists' Yearbook is basically a phonebook (for those of us old enough to remember what those looked like, for the rest, that's a contact list) of agents and publishers. Everyone who appears in the yearbook, which comes in a new and updated version each year (surprise), can be trusted not to scam you.


Armed with this book, my quest began.


I went through the names of Agencies, starting from A and working my way through the alphabet, one agency at a time.


Before doing anything else, I would check that the agency took my type of literature (SFF), as every agency will not take all genres. Next, I would look at their websites and see if they might be a match for me, and if they were, I added them to my query list.


PLEASE check before you send a submission to an agency. If you write Mr. to a Misses, or misspell the agent's name, or don't submit what they're requesting, that's a sure way to be dismissed without being considered.

Ideally, my goal was to send two queries a week.

Ideally, because only two weeks later, I was miserable! My high hopes had been swept aside by crippling self-doubt and worry.


My days were ruined because all I could think about were the queries and I would check my e-mail constantly, waiting for replies that rarely came.

Whenever I looked at an agency, I imagined how good a fit they would be for my novel, and then when they did not respond, or rejected me, I was gutted.

In other words: I was too close. To me, my manuscript was not just a product, it was my dearest work, my blood, sweat and tears, and my very soul!

So, I handed off the querying process to someone I trusted!

More accurately, my supportive mother suggested that I let her query in my stead. She would send off queries (a minimum of 2 a week), and I would handle the rejections and responses.

Taking steps to distance myself from the querying process helped hugely. The process is stressful enough as is, but being so close, made it impossible for me to stay optimistic.

To all writers out there going through the tough process of querying and feeling overwhelmed, I urge you to consider to hand the process off to someone you trust.

Don't hand it off to just anyone, but someone you trust both to have your best interests in mind, and who will uphold your professional standards. Who around you is responsible and invested in your writing career? It can be a family member, a sibling, or even a friend.

Maybe you can swap queries with a writing friend to help each other out.

Alone, it can be difficult to represent your manuscript accurately as a product (I had several people read my query letters, and I still think I could have done better). Also, distancing yourself a little from the process, can give you the breathing space you need to keep trying.


Having someone close by to cheer you on, someone who will keep trying their best on your behalf is also hugely encouraging. It certainly saved my writing career.

With my mother sending off e-mails, my querying continued —much more successfully.

So, how long did it take me to get an agent?

How many agents did I query?

It's time to look at the stats...


Each week a sent a minimum of two submissions out. By the time I got an agent, I had sent out 61 queries.


Of those 61 queries, 31 responded with rejections.


I received 9 personalised rejections,

2 of which included feedback, and

22 standard rejections.


3 of those rejections, I received AFTER I had signed a contract with an agent and had informed everyone else that I was no longer looking for representation. The last response I received came half a year after I signed with my agent.


25 NEVER replied.


Let's remember that most agents receive hundreds of unsolicited queries a week. It takes a tremendous amount of time to get through this pile and then they also have to act as an agent for their current clients and meet with publishers, and solve issues. They're swamped.


So, I do NOT share these stats to shame agents! On the contrary, I share these stats to help querying writers get a feeling of what might be standard. At least of what someone else has been through and what they might reasonably expect.


This is how long it took me to find representation but for another writer it might take less time or longer, however, as you query, or watch a friend of yours query literary agents, keep in mind that there are thousands of literary agents out there. Don't give up after 10 submissions - that's just the start.


The door to the future is ajar, but you have to dare to push it open, and keep doing it.

I could easily have been discouraged after the first ten submissions, but then I would not have an agent now and a trilogy in the publishing mill.


Getting rejections obviously made my heart sink, but it was not all bad either. The standard rejections were good to receive because then I could at least stop wondering. The personalised ones often made me smile and the two rejections that included feedback were like a miracle, given to me right when I was about to give up.

The feedback I received there, gave me the strength to keep going.


If there are any agents out there, wondering why they even bother giving any feedback to querying writers. THIS IS WHY. To the right writer, even one line of feedback can provide the necessary strength to make us believe in this journey and keep trying.


Thank you to any agent who sometimes does this. Speaking as a writer who still vividly remembers being in the pit of submissions: it can mean the world to the writer on the other side.


The challenges my novel presented are also very relevant to keep in mind here. My novel was a whooping 233 000 words long at the time...! Basically, twice the length of a normal fantasy novel.

(yes, as a debut novelist... What was I thinking?)

How long did it take me to get an agent?

When I've previously looked back and thought about it, I have said that it took me 2 years. I never thought to question this, because that is what it felt like, so surely that was what it was. But when I decided to write this blog, I looked at my stats again, and, in reality, it only took me 6 months to sign a contract from the time I began to query.


The first few agents I contacted were agents I had been recommended or had met briefly in person. I especially had a bit of contact back and forth with one of them who saw several attempts at an opening chapter to my novel (gods bless his patience). In the end, he wasn't quite keen on this novel, but encouraged me to send future ones his way.


So when my hopeful contact with that agent fell through, I began to query people with whom I had no prior contact.


My agent today was the 11th agent I contacted without any prior contact, but as stated before, by the time we signed a contract, I had submitted my story to a total of 60 other agents.


I sent my submission to my current agent on the 20th of September and decided to sign with him on the 11th of December.


This means that 82 days passed between the day I sent my submission to the day I signed a contract with my literary agent.


So, what happened during those 82 days?

(uh, this feels like the opening to a post-apocalyptic novel)

The day after I submitted, the agent who is now my awesome secret agent, responded to my query telling me that he was intrigued and asked to see the full manuscript and a synopsis.


I sent it over straight away. My manuscript was HUGE, and this might have been a determining factor for a lot of agents, so having someone ask to see the full thing was a big step.


After I sent off the manuscript, I contacted all of the agencies I had queried but not yet heard back from to tell them about the development, and say that another agent had requested to see it in full. This was done as a curtsey to help them in their process of deciding who to represent.


I continued querying, because reading my long-long—loooong manuscript could take months, and despite my usual impatience, I knew that... Chances were that he might give up on it or just not be that interested, so I had to keep trying to reach out.


On the 8th of November, so 49 days after I initially submitted to my current agent, another agent asked to see the full manuscript. Since everyone else I had queried already knew that someone had asked to see the full manuscript, I did not write to them again (the goal is NOT to bombard agents with e-mails, they get enough of them, it is merely to keep them informed).


There was only one agent who needed to know about this, and that was my current agent who had been the first to ask for the full manuscript. I wrote to inform him that someone else had now requested to see the manuscript.


Time passed, and then on the 24th of November, a third agent asked to see the manuscript.

So I wrote to the two agents who had my full manuscript in their possession that someone else had now also requested to see it. Again, this is NOT to overwhelm them with e-mails, but to keep them in the loop. So that they will know that there are other agents currently looking at the same pages.


My current-day agent wrote back immediately and said that he was half-way through (remember this is a novel twice the length of a normal fantasy novel). He requested that I please don't do anything without talking to him first.

Let's be completely honest, those were very encouraging words to hear.


Two days later, on the 26th of November, one of the other two agents wrote to me that he was interested and would love to talk to me about the novel. He suggested either meeting in person or if that was difficult, to talk about it over the phone.

This resulted in some happy jumping around, thinking that I had finally made it!


After my sofas had been disgracefully used as trampolines, I wrote back that I would love to meet and would like to do so in person.


Whenever it's possible, I personally think it's important to sit face to face with a future business partner. I learn a lot about someone from their body-language and it's easier to work together when you have sat face too face and know a little about what the other person is like. So, this was important to me.


Before writing back, I had figured out when I could make the trip and gave the agent some options for when to meet. We quickly decided on a final date.


THEN, I contacted the two other agents who still had my full manuscript. I told them that one of the others wanted to meet me, that I would be in London on these specific dates, and that if they were still interested, I would like to meet them as well.


One of them declined, but said she was interested in any future projects if I needed representation, and wished me luck. The other, who is now my agent, said that he would get back to me as soon as possible.


In my mind, I had already signed a contract with this first agent.

I was floating on a cloud. I was done. I was out of the pit. This was it. Tada! This was success.


The day before I left for London, my current day agent wrote to me and said that he had finished reading my novel and absolutely did want to meet. He said he had all of these ideas and sounded really excited.

So, while I was travelling there, we set up a meeting too.


I met both agents on the same day, and when I met my current agent, I was not in doubt. After about 10 min, he had his notes out and we were going through the novel, character by character, and throwing ideas around. It was the coolest thing.


I felt like he got where I was in my process and that he almost loved the story as much as me. Basically, he was my absolute dream of an agent.


Still, I tried not to get overly excited because I knew that as with all business partnerships there were going to be ups and downs in the future, and when I was in a less... "cloud nine kind of floaty place", I would need to know with a certainty down into my very core, that I had chosen the right person to represent my novel and me.


I'm a big fan of statistics, facts and lists.


So, on my way home, I wrote down all the cons and pros of the two agents, so I could look at it objectively. I toyed with the list for another day and then I made my decision and e-mailed them both.


Once my decision had been made, I also e-mailed any agents who had not yet responded to my query.

I wrote to tell them that I had found representation elsewhere and therefore withdrew my request to be considered for representation.


I received some congratulations from these agents, and from their responses, it is my impression that they appreciated being kept in the loop.


Therefore, I would like to urge any writers in this position to have the curtesy to e-mail the people still considering their manuscript.

This way we can help agents to not waste time on submissions that are no longer available.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the path that led me to get an outstanding literary agent, who not only helped me get a publishing contract for my entire trilogy, but helped me time after time editing and improving my novel.


Hopefully this has been an educational and encouraging read. Hang in there, keep trying. There are thousands of agents and even if you haven't found one now, that does not mean that you won't. Make sure your product is as good as you can make it and right for the agents you query, and then, in time, you too will find your 007.


Happy querying!



Read More :

You can read here about why I wanted to share the whole truth and not just shout "I got an agent and I got published"


Continuing on from here is my path to get published


Here you can read about upcoming book


More blogs about writing to come soon.

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Thilde Kold Holdt

I am a novelist by profession, currently working an epic fantasy series about 7th century Korea. My epic fantasy trilogy about Vikings, the Hanged God, is currently being published. I have lived

enough different places that the most difficult question to answer is: "where are you from?" I am, quite simply, from the planet Earth, for I have yet to set foot on Mars. Someday, though...

© Thilde Kold Holdt