15 Lessons I Learned When I Was Looking For A Lit Agent


In 2015 I did what I had been trying to do since I was in the fourth grade—getting a novel published. I finally had a manuscript I was happy with, I had done my homework, I was excited to see what happens.

And, since I’m sitting here, still unpublished, you might guess what the outcome of that was. But don’t worry. My experience did not go to waste. (Hopefully.) Here are some things that I learned from that journey.

1. It really isn’t personal.

I mean, maybe it is, but you won’t hear it. In fact, you won’t hear from anybody unless they think they’ve got decent feedback for you, which a few people did. But all in all, rejection isn’t personal, it’s just that this agent really can’t take you on.

2. Relationships are good but you still need a strong book.

Or a strong collection of poems. Or record. Fill in the blanks. Look, I was under the impression that publishing was all about who you know, which is why I put in the legwork to network. But after I had a sit-down with an agent and seemed to receive enthusiastic feedback, I still didn’t get that deal. Why? Because my book wasn’t ready. Or the market wasn’t. From where I was sitting, it was the same thing.

3. Don’t leave revisions for when you have a publisher/agent.

You think asking a half-baked premise works? Guys, I tried it. It went over like a lead balloon.

4. Your query isn’t just a dance step, it’s who you are.

When you reach out to an agent, you’ve got two choices: do a query that shows you are a professional or send one that tells them “I don’t give a flip what you think and who you are.” You may not, but if you want that person to be on your team, show them the same respect you would to a colleague or a supervisor. In a way, it is who they are.

5. Don’t skimp on having good beta readers.

I had some bad experiences with beta readers over the years—people getting my manuscript and then just clocking out, people promising to get back to me and then not doing so for months, people who gave me feedback, but it was unprofessional and unhelpful… I KNOW, guys. It’s hard. Keep looking though, because a good beta reader is worth their weight in gold. And they stop you from making mistakes in your query.

6. Disappointment is normal.

We talk a big game about avoiding negativity in our lives, but we can’t go through our days without experiencing some measure of it every now and again. Anger, disappointment, hurt feelings. They are all normal to experience and we all have to sit with them.

7. You still have to be professional, though.

Sitting with the disappointment and dealing with it in your own way doesn’t mean bringing it to other people’s doors, though. Meaning don’t lash out at agents/editors/beta readers/reviewers (if you are published or self-published) because your feelings were hurt. Even if they were wrong, don’t tell them that.

8. Save your energy to prove them wrong.

Bouncing back after disappointment or failure is one of the most crucial things we can learn as artists. This means we have to be able to work on the same levels when we are down in the dumps as we would be when we are soaring.

9. You have to know when to listen.

Are your beta readers giving you feedback that you have to listen? Is there something in your book that you have to address? Pay attention as dispassionately as possible, especially when it comes to feedback on diversity. You can’t avoid writing about characters and cultures that are not your own, it will happen one way or another. You need to be aware that you can make mistakes, and listen to feedback to help you catch them.

10. Sometimes it’s a numbers game.

In 2016, I set out to get 100 rejections, in the vein of this post by Kim Liao, and I did. It was a fascinating experience. The next year, I made a spreadsheet to track my queries, complete with a rough estimate of when an agency was likely to get back to me, and when I should move on. Dorky, perhaps, but it made me very happy. You have to get your kicks somehow.

11. Sometimes it’s a market game.

I cannot reiterate this enough: it’s not personal. Sometimes, agents just don’t feel like they can sell your book to a publishing house. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or there isn’t an audience for it. But a traditional publishing route may not be in the cards.

12. Self-publishing can be an emotional topic.

It was for me. I went through a full circle of grief trying to figure out what to do with myself after I was rejected (no worries, I’ll write about it soon) but I did come out on the other end with a resolution. You will, too.

13. Whatever you do, DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

Agency has a pet hate? Do they list it on the website? Then you should probably not include it in your query letter. Do they have something they call a ‘MUST’? Put it there even if you think it makes no difference, they do. You want to show you have done your homework, and you want to show you can follow directions. You don’t send letters without a stamp, right? Don’t send query emails that say NOTHING of what the agents want to hear.

14. Don’t disconnect.

As you queries get rejected, you might find it difficult to connect with other, more successful writers. At one point, I stopped reading altogether, because I was so frustrated with everything. That was my loss because other authors and books were where I got my motivation. I feel like I would have got unstuck a lot faster if I hadn’t disconnected with everything I held dear.

15. If it’s more than just a job, you’ll know.

Some people view writing (and other artistic pursuits) as just another job. Others view it as a vocation. The only way you can tell what it means to you is to try and keep trying. When my novel didn’t land me an agent, I decided to give it up and focus on something else. But it kept coming back to me, over and over again, not leaving me be until I decided to give self-publishing a shot.

Maybe it will go out in flames, but part of me is relieved that I’m doing this again. Maybe you won’t be. But in my experience the way to tell what matters, the ONLY way, is to give it everything you’ve got; if not today, then six months from now, or a year. Either way, vocations come back to haunt us until we give them what they want.