Saturday, October 17, 2009

“How many agents should I approach?”

On page 24 of your book
The First Five Pages, which you wrote in the year 2000, you state: "Instead of feeling you have to query twenty or thirty agents, narrow your list to two or three." Lately, however, in your recent blog posts as well as in your newest book, How To Land And Keep A Literary Agent, you seem to advocate a different approach, one of submitting to 50-100 agents simultaneously. Could you share with us the sorts of factors that have inspired you to evolve your thinking in that regard? Thanks in advance.
-Eric Vincent

A good question, and I can see, in retrospect, how this may seem confusing. If there is ever a future edition of The First Five Pages, I will be sure to clarify this. Thanks for pointing it out. Let me clarify here:

In general, I advise that aspiring authors approach at least 50 agents when submitting their query letters. If they can find 100 or even 150 agents who are appropriate for their work (and effective), then so much the better. Publishing is enormously subjective, and sometimes you just need to have a large number of people look at a manuscript in order to find someone who gets it.

The reason I emphasize this point is because I have encountered so many authors who have given up after receiving rejections from merely a handful of agents. It is quite possible that in many of these cases, if these authors had simply queried 50 agents (instead of 10), it would have made their difference in their getting published. As an agent, when I submit a book to publishers, I will often receive dozens of rejections before I sell it. And in many cases, these books go on to become bestsellers. If I had given up after 5 or 10 or 20 rejections, these books may never have been published.

When I wrote that sentence which you quoted from my book, The First Five Pages, it was in the context of urging aspiring authors to take greater care when researching and approaching agents. So many queries I had received were addressed “To Whom it May Concern,” and were about topics that I clearly did not represent. It was obvious to me that these authors had not taken much time to research agents, and were merely sending out as many letters as they possibly could. In the book, I wanted to make the point that it is better to mail off queries to a few, select agents who are well researched than it is to merely shotgun it off to 100 agents whom you have not carefully researched. My intention, though, was not to suggest that one should terminate the submission after only a few queries. On the contrary, as I say throughout the book, one should never give up.


  1. Thanks for hosting this blog. I'm just beginning to look for a literary agent for my first book & I'm finding this information helpful.

    I likewise host several blogs & rarely get any feedback. I just wanted to let you know to keep it up.


  2. This is the count for a YA novel that sold to HarperTeen (rather quickly) this summer.

    15 simul.emails queries:
    5 never replied,
    5 said no,
    5 responded positively (to some degree -- although, one came in two months later)

    2 asked for a full, 1 by snail mail (new ink cartridge for the printer in place).

    1 read it the night she got it, offered representation (phone call) the next morning, after checking first to make sure I was not a flaming a**hole, a plagiarist, or otherwise intolerably insane.

    I had to e-withdraw the Ms from the one who asked for snail mail.

    All 15 agents were ones I wanted to work with. All had career-style success with YA. All knew the market quite well. Had the 5 who never answered (that's a pass) been submitted to in order... Followed by, say, the 5 who said no... Uh... I don't know: suicide?

  3. I'd like to take this opportunity to say I love your blog. In answering questions for us UNPUBS (I'm totally coining that). We get enough of the doom and gloom of the difficulty if being published, its good to see that there are still opportunities.

  4. I like what Jm Diaz said, and I'm totally stealing his word "unpubs." After all, I'm a writer :)

    Seriously though, I like that term, "unpubs."

    I would also like to echo that I love your blog. In all the blogs I visit, I consider yours to be most authoritative. I've learned a lot from your books, and I recently bought "The Plot Thickens," which is very informative.

    I would like to add that I was never confused by the 3/150 agents thing. I knew exactly what you meant and never considered it a dichotomy or contradiction.

    I monitor your blog regularly, and will continue to do so. Again, thanks for taking the time to create it and update it.

  5. Dear Noah,

    Thanks for this post. Very informative.

  6. I absolutely loved THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. There are still times I go back and refer to sections.

  7. Noah Lukeman posted:"If there is ever a future edition of The First Five Pages, I will be sure to clarify this. Thanks for pointing it out."

    Dear Noah,

    Thank you for your response to my question. I'm happy to have contributed to a future edition of The First Five Pages. We will have to negotiate my royalty compensating me for my contribution - I'm kidding, of course. Truth be told, I expected a quite different answer, along the lines of: "Due to the increased competitiveness in the industry, and the increase in the number of agents, the author must revise his targets upward..." or something like that (perhaps that's how you SHOULD have answered the question - KIDDING, again, sorry!).

    If I may be so bold to post a follow-up question...

    How important is writing style in the composition of the synopsis of a fiction novel?

    Setting it up: I've used The First Five Pages as a quasi-bible for for guiding the re-write of my full manuscript. Then, I utilized your How To Write A Great Query Letter as a quasi-bible in crafting my query letter for said novel. I'm extremely happy with both results, and thus grateful for your expert guidance in both regards. But then, a literary agent also requires a synopsis of my novel. We novelists already have plenty to feel stressed about IRT getting it right with the manuscript, and the query letter, only to fear that we are... BLOWING IT with the synopsis presentation?!

    Mainly, it is the balance of information, and enticement, which concerns me when composing a synopsis. We are encouraged to lay out the facts of the plot, characters, and the conclusion of the story arc without hyperbolic embellishment. That's fine. BUT: Within those parameters, how much do you, as an agent, expect the author to thrill and entertain you with his writing style, not to mention the plot of said novel, within the confines of a synopsis?

    Thanks in advance, Noah, and, of course, and always, mucho props,
    -Eric Vincent
    Studio Curve Dominant

  8. I've heard of at least 2 best selling authors who when they were starting out and seeking an agent submitted to over a 100 agents each before finding someone to rep them. One of those authors was James Lee Burke. It's worth pushing through those rejections and being having your queries not responded to and hang on. Don't stop improving your craft, but don't stop querying, either.

  9. To P.A. Brown: I agree with all that. There's one hypocrisy that rankles me, however - and perhaps Noah might care to comment on this - is the knowledge that in many if not most cases, the agents themselves never actually see these submissions we send in. They are being screened by interns and low-paid assistants. Just last week on one of the lit blogs announcing a young woman being promoted to associate at an agency, the woman bragged about how she spent years as an assistant screening out submissions for the agents. Imagine that: all the people who walk into Barnes & Noble and Borders perusing that pile of books in the front of the store, never suspecting that what they're being offered to spend their hard-earned cash on has only gotten there by virtue of having passed through the filter of the tastes of young interns and assistants.

    So, if there's one thing EVERY literary agent lectures us, it's: "Do your research, and address the submission personally to the agent!" But when we get that "Dear Author" postcard back in our SASE, we have no idea if that agent has even seen our submission, let alone, knows the package even entered their zip code. It's an extremely unfair double-standard we authors are constantly pitted against. If literary agents feel so free to dictate to us the 1001 tiny rules we must follow with our submissions, they should reciprocate, and practice some proper ethics of their own with their responses, and that would include informing the author if the agent was ever given the opportunity to actually see the submission.

    -Eric Vincent
    Studio Curve Dominant

  10. Noah,

    Thank you for your blog. This morning I read "How to write a great query letter" and realize that I have some changes to make.
    I do have one question though - I have published several academic articles within my field and wonder if I should mention this in the author bio? I personally feel that they show indicate that I know the value of succinctness and that I have a knack for writing, but they don't say anything about fiction writing (I have just completed my first fictional work, and have no credits in that).


  11. I have a strange question. Ten years ago my first (and only) novel was represented by an agent at the Wm Morris Agency. The book didn't sell and she invited me to send her future projects. My writing has been on hold since then. She has moved on to a different agency and I plan to send her a query. However, there is another agent at the same agency who might be a better fit, but who I do not know. Can I query both, or is that bad form?

  12. Hello Angela
    Here is an excellent opportunity to reconnect with the agent who asked you to keep her updated on your new projects. Provided she is still seeking the same genre as your writing you can tailor your query letter, reminding her that she asked for updates. Most agencies tell you in their submission guidelines that it is not acceptable to query several agents in the same organization.

  13. I was wondering, in a recent query i sent out, I decided to forgo adding my authors bio as the last sentence of the query as i felt i could utilize that space for a final sentence of my book idea. I did end up adding it later at the end of my 5 page proposal. i know most say to put it in the last sentence of the query... what are your thoughts?

  14. I am a first time author. And the one thing I am having trouble with is when the agents ask for x amount of pages for e-submissions to be put in the body of the email. I copy from word and paste in the email and the email is suddenly like 2 feet wide. All formatting is lost, and my spacing is scattered all over the place, can anyone help me with this? I am afraid I am going to have to hand type my whole manuscript in an email, I have already done this with five chapters....took forever! Can anyone help me? I have tried aol, yahoo and gmail...they are all doing this.
    I have searched and searched online and it appears that I am the only one having this issue, and I am actually pretty computer saavy, so I am at a loss. Can you please help me? Or anyone else that may have experienced this?

    1. Hi Lorena,
      Don't copy straight from Word into an email program. Word contains a lot of hidden formatting codes that are not compatible with anything but Word (as you've seen). If you are using Windows, first copy the text from Word into the Notepad (a program that is included with Windows). Then copy it from Notepad into the email program. Note that copying it into Notepad converts it to a plain text only format, so any italics will be lost.
      Hope that helps.

  15. If an agent doesn't specify that they don't accept simultaneous submission, then can I assume that they do? I have my novel with one agent now, but would prefer to have it with more if possible.


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