Writing Your Book – Part 4 – Where is the Elusive Agent?

I can’t even attract a book agent from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, never mind New York. What am I doing wrong?

For any beginning author, navigating the treacherous shoals of publishing in today’s over-crowded market is akin to surfing the Great Barrier Reef. Great fun, but you might drown, or have an integral body part eaten by a shark.

About 2 percent of published books sell more than 5,000 copies. The average book sells less than 500 copies—most way less. Even the high number will barely cover your expenses.

The above is sobering news to those of us who have a burning desire to join the ranks of published authors. But you’re not a quitter, and you are convinced you can write words that resonate, chapters that leave readers eagerly clicking the “Buy” button, and yet . . . the rejections slips continue to pile up in a repulsive mound on your desk, creating a confidence sapping vortex of doubt in your soul. You were sure that first book would launch your career, maybe not as the hottest new author on the market, but certainly as a new and unique voice. But no agents have called, never mind any late night talk show hosts. Why, and what to do now?

Let’s drill down to the hard stuff, and no, I don’t mean Jim Beam Bourbon. You need to take another grinding read on that manuscript. I can hear your tortured scream. You’re beyond sick of looking at it. You’ve written, re-written, edited, spell-checked, re-edited, cried over, and slept with it. It’s now like a high-school romance gone bad. You only want it to leave.

Brace yourself for what I’m about to say. I hope this doesn’t apply to your story, but piles of manuscripts end up in the garbage because the agent gagged after the first three paragraphs. But, beyond the fact that a story may be poorly written, there can be a multitude of reasons your manuscript has not garnered any interest. We’ll presume you spent the coin to have it professionally edited, that you put in the hours to make every sentence a bell-ringer. The lack of positive feedback may have nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Many rejection slips just have to, like trophies, be added to the pile. Let’s thumb through a few of the long list of reasons for manuscript rejections.

  • The market is down for your genre this quarter.

  • Too small a market base for what you are writing.

  • We’d be interested, but we just signed a writer whose work is too similar to yours. (That one especially hurts.)

  • We do not take submissions in your genre. (Do your homework. Make sure you’re submitting to the right agents.)

  • Not interested at this time. That might mean the language or tone of the book may be wrong, at least for that particular agent. Move on.

There are a host of other reasons, but I would suggest those are the most common ones. Agents are people with domestic and business problems, delusions and dreams. The only thing different about them is they have a bigger waste basket, and they’re not afraid to fill it. In-demand agents filter through dozens of proposals every office day on the calendar. They have little patience for inappropriate, rude, or poorly written cover letters or proposals. That said, their lives and income are built around finding that undiscovered gem, the next best seller. Agents are the gatekeepers. They sort the great from the also-rans in the industry. Oh . . . just a note of caution. Unless it’s your favorite brother or your sister-in-law, don’t even think about sending your manuscript to a publisher. Today, no publisher has either the desire or time to read unsolicited manuscripts. They work with agents, so do whatever it takes to get one of those on your team.

“I’ve spent a year writing cover letters, synopsis, and chapter outlines. I’ve sent them to every agent on the continent,” you say. “And all I’ve garnered is either silence or cryptic rejection letters. What should I do now?”

You’ve reached the impasse of 98% of writers in today’s market. Because you didn’t attract an agent does not mean your story isn’t good, or saleable, and contrary to popular opinion, those terms are not synonymous. Your proposal may have been rejected for a multitude of reasons. Wrong day. Wrong market. Wrong agent. Or just an agent with a Monday morning hangover who walked into her office to face a stack of freshly-delivered proposals. Forty in the pile. She needs one, and today, everything that doesn’t smell like Tylenol or coffee goes in the scrap pile.

For you, it’s devastating. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this story, then did everything the experts said was necessary to attract an agent, yet though you know your book will find appreciative readers, you still failed.

I asked an editor I have great respect for, how many books one has to publish before they (presuming they’re good) start to get traction and sell.

Her response? “Eight.”

“That many? You gotta’ be kidding!” Foolishly, I’d thought the gargantuan task of writing one or two books would launch my rocket. Apparently not.

I still don’t know why eight books might be what it takes to create sales momentum, but if that’s really the number, you will get there, because now you’re a writer. Your author hours are filled with honing your craft, writing new titles, and most important—enjoying every word.

‘Till next time,

David Griffith

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