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How Long is Too Long?

(I was asked to weigh in on the agent hunt last week over at the FAB site Chick Lit Is Not Dead and wanted to share my answer here too, in case some of you missed it. Be sure to click over to CLIND for other great book-related posts too.)

The Agent Hunt: How Long Is Too Long?

How long should it take to get an agent? Is there a certain point when an author should move on to writing another ms?

This is such a personal question and one that doesn’t have an exact answer to it, but I’ll give it my best shot. I’d say that on average, most authors who land agents end up querying between, say, 35-70. Which obviously is a huge, huge range. Some get lucky (and by lucky, I don’t mean actual luck involved – they’ve done their homework and also have a good manuscript), and land one much sooner. Some will query up to 100. Some won’t stop until they’ve queried every last agent they can possibly dream of. But in general (again, with no hard figures to back this up), I’d say that up to about 70 is average. For my initial query hunt, I probably went through about 40. When that agent and I parted ways, I was much better-informed about the process and also had a much stronger manuscript, so I think I only went out to about 15.

So how do you know when to throw in the towel? Again, I’m not ever going to tell someone specifically to throw in the towel, but I do think you reach a point when you have to accept that it may not happen for this manuscript. It’s not a failure, it’s a learning process, and I can almost promise you that your next manuscript will be stronger. So just when do you hit that wall? I’d say when you’ve gotten little positive feedback about the manuscript, when you really haven’t gotten many viable bites or interest, when you’ve exhausted nearly all of the agents to whom you’d be well-matched (remember, a bad agent is worse than no agent at all)…well, if all of these things have happened, and you’re still unrepresented, I’d say move on.

I think it’s really easy to keep going for the sake of it, but that’s not what’s going to be best for your career and your book. It’s a very, very emotional thing – accepting that this book might never be published, but again, try to look at it as a learning process rather than a failure. That’s what I did when my first manuscript (with that first agent) never sold. I realized that I had a wonderful opportunity to go out there and write something better. So I did. Eventually, with a new agent, that manuscript sold at a 4-way auction, and to this day, I’m grateful that I wrote the initial ms that never sold: it taught me how to be a better writer, and the agent query process taught me a lot about what I’m looking for in an agent.

Last words of advice: please be sure to do A LOT of research so you’re actually querying the right people. Look in the acknowledgment section of books that are similar to yours. Sign up for Publishers Marketplace. Check out Agent Query. The more you know, the smoother your agent hunt will go. Also, please, please, please be sure that your manuscript is ready to actually be read by the pros. This means that your first draft IS NOT the one to query with. Your fifth might be. Finally, hone your query letter to best represent your voice and spark some interest. There are some good ones floating around on the web to serve as examples.

With all of these things, I’m hopeful that you won’t hit 70-100 queries and still come up short. Good luck!

Reader Comments (3)

Just wanted to say thanks for answering this question honestly, as usual. It's so helpful to have other people's experiences to draw on, even if we know it might go differently for us. :)

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristan

I couldn't agree more! I queried two different novels (one mystery, one womens' fiction) before I landed my agent on a YA novel. The more you write and the more you research agents and query, the more prepared you'll be to connect with the "right" agent. Great post, Allison - I'm going to tweet it. ;-)

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Schubert

The first novel I queried (not the first one I wrote) was women's fiction. I probably sent 20-25 queries and got 7 requests for fulls, but no takers in the end. After that I tried my hand at different genres and wrote a middle grade novel. After 5 queries I got an agent. I think it's practice and patience for sure, but I also think it's finding the right voice. Experiment!

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Greenwood Brown

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