Friday, December 4, 2009

Once I land an agent, how long does it take to land a book deal?

"How long does it take for publishers to make a decision on a MS? My agent has had my MS to some publishing houses for almost a year."


It would be convenient to tell you that an agent’s submission takes exactly 10 days, or 3 weeks, or 2 months—but this would be simplistic. To give you a thorough response, one must take into account many variables. No two submissions are the same, and no two agents operate the same exact way.

To begin with, the length of time it will take your agent to get a response from publishers will depend on whether you have written fiction or non-fiction, and on whether your proposal (if non-fiction) is, say, 10 pages or 80 pages, or whether your finished manuscript (if fiction) is, say, 200 or 500 pages. Obviously, the shorter the proposal or manuscript, the greater the likelihood of a swift response.

Also affecting response time is your particular agent’s methodology. Some agents will submit a work to, say, 40 publishers simultaneously, in one massive round, while others will submit to only a few publishers at a time, in rounds, and wait to hear back before submitting another round. If your agent’s methodology is the former, then you may have an answer in a matter of weeks or even days, while if the latter, a submission can drag on for many, many months.

Also affecting response time is how aggressive your agent is in following up with publishers. Some agents send out proposals or manuscripts and don’t prod publishers for months; others will get on the phone the next day and ask if they’ve read it. Another factor is how well-respected your agent is: submissions from some agents will get read right away, while submissions from others might sit on a pile for many weeks. Another factor is your agent’s choice of editors: some editors are known for fast responses, while others are known to take their time. Additionally, if an editor likes a work he will often have to share it with colleagues; thus even if he reads quickly, his colleagues may take longer, and this can affect response time.

In general, if I had to make a blanket estimate, I would say that a good agent should be able to hear back from a proposal submission within 8 weeks, and from a manuscript submission within 12 weeks. If your agent submits in rounds, then you will have to tack on that period of waiting time for each additional round.

There are exceptions, but in general, there is no reason why any particular round of submissions should take much longer than this. And even if your agent works in rounds, there is no reason why any given submission should drag on for more than a year. It sounds, in your case, as if your agent is submitting to too few houses, in rounds which are too small, and is waiting too long to hear back.

When you sign with an agent, always request an out clause, which will give you the option of terminating the relationship after, say, six months or one year, if things aren’t going the way you’d hoped. This way, if your agent is non-responsive, or taking too long to submit, you can always terminate and go elsewhere. If you terminate, make sue you request that he supply you with the submission list of where your work has been.

That said, keep in mind that if a year has passed and your book hasn’t sold, that is not necessarily a reason to fire your agent. It may be that your agent showed your work to 40 publishers within 12 weeks, and did a good job, but your book just didn’t sell. There have been times, for example, when I shopped a book around and it didn’t sell, and a year or two later I happened to have lunch with a new editor at a new house, submitted it, and it suddenly sold. If an agent is willing to keep your work on submission like this indefinitely, that is a good thing—as long as he has first thoroughly exhausted his primary rounds of submission. Thus I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to fire your agent because your book hasn’t sold, but I would advise you to fire him if his methodology is inadequate—if he has never submitted it widely, if he has submitted it to the wrong places, or if he is taking months or years to contact only a few editors.

In any case, at the very least, your agent should not keep you in the dark. He should give you some idea of the strategy, of how many places he’s submitting it to, and of when he roughly expects to hear back. And he should give you periodic updates, even if it’s only once every few months. If he’s unwilling to do this, then find someone else.


  1. I am a scond reader for a small niche publishing company. I am part of your problem. I can only read so fast. If your grammar, style or anything at all make me sigh and put your manuscript aside it could be a few weeks before I remember where I left it. Noah is on the money about the first five pages... they will make or break your chances... and your timetable. Also, if I had a nickel for every manuscript I have returned with the advice, "Read 'The First Five Pages'," I would be as rich as Noah.

  2. Anonymous, that was a good reminder to pay close attention to those first pages. I have reworked mine a few times, but now I'll go back again. Thanks for the tip.
    Very helpful post. It's nice to know who things work when you are new at the process.

  3. Mr. Lukeman:
    My second book was just published in November. Is it too late for me a find an agent to represent my financial interests going forward on this work? If it is not, do agents typically expect a lower percentage of the revenue since the book is already placed and published? I have a third almost completed. Should I look for someone to represent both? What are your thoughts? Thanks. John Bingham

  4. Dear Mr. Lukeman,

    Could I link your blog to the a post on my blog? I read HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER, and feel ready to submit my three paragraph query letter to a carefully selected agent. Thank you for freely sharing your advice.

    Sharon Mayhew

  5. First of all, thank you so much for all of your posts and your free e-book. I have learned a lot and I greatly appreciate it.

    Anyways, I recently read your "How to Write a Great Query Letter" and I had one question. You mention that a writer should not mention his smaller accomplishments, because it makes him seem like an amateur. I was wondering then, if a writer is just starting out, has never had anything published, and doesn't have a lot of notable things to put in a bio section of a query letter, then what should he put? What can a beginning writer add into the section that will both attract the agent and not make him doubt the writing abilities of the writer. Basically I am young and I have written one novel (which I have tossed) and I am half way through my second one (which I hope to publish one day). Unfortunately I don't have a lot of writing experience that would make an agent interested in reading my manuscript. I don't feel this takes away from the quality of my work but I understand that it may be harder to get someone to look at it in the first place. So anything that you could tell me would be great help.

    Thanks again for all of your work. It helps immensely!

  6. Mr Lukeman,
    If I'm in Australia, should I submit to an agent here or just concentrate on submitting to agents in the US or UK?
    Thanks very much.

  7. Hi Lukeman,

    I'm in this process right now. I know this is an old post, but it is timely for me right now. My agent submitted my 65 page book proposal to 13 major publishing houses. It's been hard to wait a week. I can't imagine how hard it will be to wait 8 weeks! Thanks for this post!


  8. Basically I am young and I have written one novel (which I have tossed) and I am half way through my second one (which I hope to publish one day).
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  9. hello, Mr. Lukeman;
    First of all, thank you so much!
    My question is: A few years ago, I self-published a novel that became quite popular here in Nashville. It was shown and "highly recommended" on a local tv talk show.
    Would an agent even consider representing it in hopes of having it re-published by a big house?
    thank you- Ann

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