Why is it so hard for first-time writers to get a literary agent?

Most beginning writers send their first completed manuscripts to agents, who reply with form-letter rejections.

Some of the work that’s rejected is bad. But good books – or at least successful books – are rejected, too. Gone With The Wind was rejected 38 times before finally being published and selling 30-million copies. Auntie Mame was rejected 15 times before spending 112 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Sixty agents passed up the opportunity to represent The Help before it became a #1 best seller and a movie that was nominated for four Oscars.

Why do agents reject so much good work?

For the same reason they reject so much bad work. They’re inundated with many, many more submissions than they can handle.

My first real job after college was as a first reader at a literary agency, reading unsolicited submissions from new authors. There were four of us, each with a couple dozen manuscripts on to read every morning. We were told to read no more than ten pages of a manuscript before either rejecting the work or passing it up to the agent. On a typical day only one manuscript got to the agent from among all four of us. Most of those were rejected before the boss finished reading fifty pages.

Other than the brief time it took to skim those fifty pages, the agent was busy with the nuts and bolts work or representing the authors in the agency’s stable and launching the few new authors who were selected. Submitting to publishers, negotiating paperback rights, trying to sell film or TV rights, selling foreign rights, trying to attract reviewers’ interest, checking royalty revenues, meeting with the authors and all the rest – plus managing the office – was a full time job.

One new author every month or so was all that the agent had time for.

The math worked like this:

  • Together, the four first readers screened about 100 submissions every day. That’s about20,000 ayear.
  • The agent reviewed 20 or so each month, or about 240 out of the 20,000 submissions each year. That’s 1.2%.
  • Of the 240 reviewed by the agent, only 10 might be accepted. That’s just 0.05% the original 20,000.
  • Of the 10 that the agent accepted, only half – five – would eventually sell to a publisher. That’s 0.025% of the original 20,000.

The decisions, up the chain from the first readers to the agent to the publishers, were made on one criterion: salability. Beautifully-written books without commercial appeal didn’t make it past the first readers’ ten-page limit.

Were there literary masterpieces buried in the reject pile? Almost certainly. Were commercial blockbusters rejected? Probably. But the system actually gave writers a better shot than they have today. Back then writers got ten pages to make their case with the first readers. Today, most reputable agencies don’t have first readers. They found that they seldom got enough commissions out of the few books that were accepted from the slush pile to justify the first readers’ salaries. So now agencies won’t even look at an unsolicited manuscript. The five out of 20,000 chance a new writer had of getting an agent to accept a book and sell it to a publisher a few decades ago has shrunk to virtually zero today.

Luckily, aspiring authors can publish with printing on demand and e-books.

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