Three Things I Think I’ve Learned About Agency Slush Piles


With any luck, your future agent will pick your work out of a pile this this one.

In writing workshops, without fail, students begin asking about the process of getting an agent long before they have anything that resembles a novel or collection, that would warrant representation. Why? Well, from a quixotic and naïve writer’s perspective, the agent search probably sounds like a lot of fun. Granted, there’s an occasional moment in the agent hunting/finding process that can be fun: commiserating with fellow writers about how difficult the process is, sharing the most absurd, frustrating and encouraging things agents have said to you while passing on your work and finally, actually getting to say, “I have an agent.”

The truth of it is, unless you’re one of those rare stories of immediate success, hunting for an agent is, at best, not all that fun and at worst, like some kind of specialized psychic torture devised by Freud himself, to cripple the most sensitive of us into a life of telemarketing.

The world of literary agents can feel like this covert secret society with a litany of rules, the existence of which, nobody acknowledges or agrees upon.  Nonetheless, here is my attempt at jotting a few of them down. I plan to cover this topic more in the coming weeks, and will eventually consult a few experts on subject.  If you have any specific questions on the process of querying and submitting to agents, message me on twitter @jonreiss and for more shiny nuggets from this Freelance Life o’ mine, check out my Tumblr.

The Day of the Week Matters
If you are a freelance writer full time, it can be easy to forget how the work lives of the majority play out.  You perhaps get up at 10 and work 11-7 at the coffice or co-working space of your choice. Maybe if Monday is particularly balmy and you’ve stocked up Real Housewives of New Jersey episodes, Wednesday turns into your Sunday.  Maybe you take Saturdays off Shabbat-style then go to town on your workload on Sundays. Point is, when dealing with literary agents, you must empathize with their work routines.  That is why, day of the week matters when submitting, nudging and querying literary agents. While queries often sit in a pile for some time after they are sent, it’s not uncommon for an agent to respond to a query within an hour of receiving it. This is often a good sign.  In my experience, for submissions, nudges and queries, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are prime.  It’s also wise to avoid noon to 1:30–lunch hours–when emailing agents. I’ve had many agents and editors who only respond to emails sent before noon, but this certainly isn’t’ true with everyone. I had an agent who only corresponded after 4pm.  Lastly, be prepared for rough Fridays.  In my experience, agents do a lot of housekeeping on Fridays, which sometimes means quickly reading manuscripts they’ve been meaning to get to, or sending out passes on pending material.  Don’t let it ruin your weekend.

God Awful Nudging
For a sensitive, somewhat passive aspiring novelist, the idea of nudging can be hard to wrap your mind around.  When an agent has your work, be it a partial or full manuscript, and a fair amount of time has passed without any communication from either party, you’ve gotta nudge.  First of all, if you are submitting to agents sans referral, expect this to happen and be pleased you’ve gotten this far, I’ve been told that something like 5 percent of slush (work without a referral) makes its way to an agent. You must put yourself in the agent’s shoes. Imagine your own desk, or coffee shop table, piled high with 400-page manuscripts when deciding how long to wait before nudging, and how to word your nudge.

In doing this properly, you must walk a line of sorts. You must nudge soon enough to be persistent, confident.  Meanwhile, you must wait long enough not to be annoying.  Nearly every agent I’ve ever spoken to says never to call and always to email when following up on a submission.  However, I’d be remiss not to share that I know writers, successful writers, who swear by calling.

There’s a lot of “walking the walk” that goes on in this process, and it’s easier for some than others.  In my experience, you should wait about a month before nudging on a partial, two months for a full, and always via email.  Email nudges should be quick, personal and clever. By quick, I mean no more than one mid-sized paragraph or two short ones. Also, be clever, but not cute or wordy.  If you can’t think of anything quick and clever, wait a day and try again.  Don’t send what appears to be a “form nudge.

Pick and Personalize
Many writers find it extremely difficult to choose agents to send their work to.  Sure, it can be easy to find out who’s known for representing YA, or literary fiction but finding out who tends to like grating psychological thrillers with elements of noir, or gritty coming of age in the big city novels, isn’t so easy. For instance, Ira Silverberg at Sterling Lord is an agent who developed a reputation as the go-to-guy for edgy fringe fiction that bridges the literary/mainstream gap.  Now that Silverberg has moved on to the NEA, the torch has been passed to agents like Bill Clegg at WME and Alex Glass at Trident.

My advice is to use a combination of AgentQuery and QueryTracker to find the agents who represent the writers you enjoy and the writers whose work is comparable to your own, then query them.  Of all the clichés about what it takes to be a good writer, the one I most subscribe to is the importance of voracious reading. Therefore, if you run out of favorite writers find more.  When you do reach out these agents, why not let them know why you reached out to them?  If you’ve got a quick story about what their client’s work means to you, include it–very briefly.  In the end it’s all about business, but I doubt there’s an agent out there who minds being reminded once in awhile how much a book that they helped bring to fruition means to someone.

The above are simply lessons I’ve taken away from my personal experience. If you disagree with me, feel free to shout it from the mountaintops that are the comments section of this article.  I’ve been told by successful writers throughout this process that it’s all a “taste matching game.” This is true, and reminding yourself of this can quite helpful after a particularly fierce rejection.  Lastly, staring at your Gmail, waiting for, and willing a new agent correspondence to appear absolutely never works.  A watched iPhone never chirps, so always just start working on whatever is next.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)