There seem to be a million agents – why are they all so busy?

Getting a manuscript read by an agent is the first tough step to getting published.

Yeah, I know, writing the manuscript’s tough, but that’s what we do, right? Let me sound super-literary and quote Doris Lessing. I can’t recall her exact quote and I’m not going to bother looking it up, but what she said essentially was, “I would write even if all my manuscripts only wound up in the bottom of my dresser drawer.” So, please, writing is the easy part for us.

Marketing, that’s for marketing people. And we start out clueless.

I’ve got my Writer’s Market and some other books. I’ve perused websites. I’ve talked with some friends. I’ve got a few observations, but no wisdom yet. (see below)

— I chuckle at the agents who insist on exclusive reading rights. Who are they kidding? I’m going to turn over my work to someone exclusively for 4-6 weeks with no assurance (there never is) that she’ll even ever respond? That might work out to 8-10 queries a year. Some writers send out that many queries, or more, a week.

You gotta be damn cock-sure confident in your manuscript’s attractiveness to give in to such a demand. Raise your hand if you are.

— I roll my eyes at the agents who recommend (usually in their how-to books): research agents carefully to find out who is right for you. Like there’s some big repository out there detailing all the precise likes and dislikes. Every agent posts what she likes or dislikes, and you can check on their client lists and maybe occasionally find a speech she gave at Smith College or someplace. But generally they tend to keep it broad and vague because they don’t want to limit themselves anymore than we do.

(By the way, I’m going to refer to agents generically in the feminine because it seems about 90 percent are women. Why? Perhaps that’s a topic for a future post.)

Pick a few that almost sound like good fits, and go for it, I say.

— I have no idea how many queries to float at once. If anyone has sage on this, please share it. With The Murder Plague I started out a couple months ago with about a half-dozen. When I got a rejection or one expired (“if we respond we will do so in 4-6 weeks”) I’d send another. Then I chatted with my friend Robin Yocum, author of two terrific novels exploring life in Appalachian Ohio, Favorite Sons and The Essay. Robin said he started out sending about 3 a day.

Suddenly, I felt as if I was woefully underselling my work.

Still, I see problems in sending out too many immediately. My query has evolved with every one I’ve sent. Frankly, the first few agents received pretty crappy queries on my book. No wonder they weren’t interested. If 50 had gotten those queries, then 50 would be gone now. Also, how do you keep track of them all? (Do we need to keep track?)

I’ll be sending out a few more today. Maybe floating 15-20 at once is a happy medium to shoot for.

I guess that’s why all the agents say they are overwhelmed with queries. If we all send to all of them, then, yes, their inboxes will overflow. But we can’t not, right?

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