Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 21, 2012

Navigating the World of Literary Agents

, a staff writer at The Millions, wrote a great article last week titled, “A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents.  After just finishing almost 10 years of running the New Jersey SCBWI Chapter and spouting the importance of getting yourself out there and networking, this quote from Michael really caught my attention.

“If it sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right. But that’s the way the machine is built, people.I thought I should bring it to your attention, so you don’t miss it.”

Michael actually spent the day at Folio Literary Management in Manhattan to really see what goes on behind the scenes. Here is a brief excerpt from Michael’s article:

Folio co-founder Scott Hoffman explains that the agency receives roughly 100,000 unsolicited queries a year, or about 200 a week for each of the nine Folio agents who accept unsolicited queries. Hoffman has taken on four new writers in the last year, only one of whom came in through the slush pile, putting the odds of an author without connections getting Hoffman to take on his or her book at roughly 1 in 11,111. When I sat down with another agent, Michelle Brower, as she read her slush pile, I watched her power through 19 query letters in 14 minutes, rejecting 18 of them and putting one aside for more consideration.

Now, it may sound heartless to reject 18 query letters in 14 minutes, and every time Brower hit send on a rejection email, my heart sagged a little at the poor writer seeing yet another rejection from an agent, but you have to see it from the agent’s perspective. Literary agents work on commission – typically, an agent takes 15% of a client’s earnings – and every minute an agent spends working on a manuscript that doesn’t sell is a minute that agent is working for free.

This, I think, helps explain the anger and angst so many writers feel toward agents and other publishing professionals. Most writers when they show their work to someone – a professor, a friend, a spouse – they have a reasonable expectation of getting encouragement or at least some useful feedback. But an agent isn’t a friend. An agent isn’t a teacher, either. An agent’s job is to find an author whose novel is ready for publication, or so close to ready that it makes economic sense for the agent to put the time into helping make it ready, and connect that writer to a publisher. That’s it. The better agents attend writing conferences, visit MFA programs, and scour literary magazines for fresh talent, but all the rest of it, getting your work to a publishable level, building a track record that will be attractive to a publishing house, wangling connections that will get you out of the slush pile – that’s your job.

So much more in this article, besides great content and thoughts, it is very well-written.  Here is the link:

, a staff writer at The Millions, is a poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared in The Orange Coast Review and River City, among other journals. His essays and journalism also appear regularly in Poets & Writers, where he is a a contributing editor, as well as in the Baltimore Sun, The Morning News, and The Los Angeles Book Review. He teaches at Fordham University and lives in Brooklyn. As is required by statute of all residents of Brooklyn, he has recently completed a novel.

Thank you to Donna Taylor making sure I did not miss this one.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. My pleasure, Kathy 🙂 I thought it was good and am glad you thought so, too. I think the gist of the article helps people get a better picture of what an overwhelming job agents have and why things go the way they go.

    The thing I don’t completely agree with, though, is that it’s all about “who you know.” Though the number may be the smaller percentage, I do think people from the slush pile make it, too. I think if you get to know people in the industry more personally, or at least face-to-face at conferences, etc., it helps boost your chances of getting read, but I don’t believe it necessarily boosts your chances of getting represented or published. The fit has to be “right” for both the agent and the author or illustrator.


  2. This is also a comment on the importance of knowing how to write a top-notch query letter. Your story may be great, but — as indicated so clearly above — if you can’t sell it in a query letter, it’s not going to really matter.
    Thanks for the enlightening article.


    • I think what’s of value is that it also stresses the importance of networking. I know I’ve discovered what a difference that makes, in general, as a writer/illustrator, especially face-to-face, with other writers, illustrators and industry professionals. Aside from it being beneficial, it’s a helluva lot of fun 😀


  3. Hello, and thank you for the great post! I am a writer new to blogging. I’d heard that literary agents search through blogs for potential writers they’d like to represent. I don’t know where to find out more about this, but is it true? Also, how can writers who blog transition into published work? Are these writers self-publishing material already on their blog? Sorry for so many questions. I just found your blog and it really inspired me! Thanks:)


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