Empathizing With Literary Agents

by | Oct 2, 2012 | Literary Agents | 19 comments

Michael Bourne, tired of having his novel rejected without knowing why, interviewed literary agents to find out what their job is like and arrived at a newfound empathy for them:

They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency at this time. In that moment you tore open that thin self-addressed envelope or read the two-line return email, you probably hated them. Not just that one agent, but all literary agents, as a class. How could they not see the brilliance in your manuscript? How could they possibly guess at the quality of your manuscript based on a one-page letter and a synopsis? And what the hell does “not a right fit” mean, anyway? Is that even grammatical English? 

This is a perfectly natural and human response. It hurts to be rejected, and it hurts even more when you walk into a real bookstore, one with chirpy sales clerks and splashy book covers, and see truly godawful books by authors represented by some of these very same agents. But as natural as that rage might be, as satisfying as it is to rant to your friends or online about the idiocy of the people in mainstream publishing, this anger is misplaced. There are good literary agents and bad ones – the gap between the two is huge – but literary agents are only middlemen navigating the rough seas between the swarms of unpublished writers and an ever-diminishing readership for literary fiction.

Check out the whole thing. I don’t agree quite as strongly with the necessity of being totally plugged into publishing culture, but I do embrace the idea that ultimately writers should seize as much responsibility for their own destiny as they can.

Art: Portrait of Alexander Benua by Lev Bakst


  1. Mr. D

    Writers, most certainly are in control of their destiny. I believe no one will work harder for you, than you.

  2. CMM

    "I don't agree quite as strongly with the necessity of being totally plugged into publishing culture…"

    Every time I see buzz about a new literary novel, I research the author. In 99.99% of those cases, the author has connections–they were an agent, an editor, worked peripherally in publishing. They knew somebody.

    My question is, that being the case, why do agents bother with unsolicited queries at all? Why waste their time?

  3. Mirka Breen

    It's high time we just say it: it's a bad idea to hate anyone. Especially agents, who are essentially sales people. What does hate have to do with it?
    I think you are still reeling from that crazy attack on the agent you and others wrote about. That was the act of a mentally ill person. It was not about agents or agenting or even how we must cope with rejection. Mad acts by disgruntled folks happen all the time and agents are rarely the target. Maybe we should be concerned about going to our local post office because we’ve heard about those who have ‘gone postal?’
    Almost every professional I have ever had an interaction with in publishing has been proper and some have been downright generous. I've queried mostly editors, so maybe I don't have the whole picture. To date I’ve had only one response I would call unnecessarily rude, and after a tear or three I chucked it to the hazard of putting oneself out there.
    And controlling our destiny? I hate to be persnickety- but that is an oxymoron. By definition ‘destiny’ is not what you control. Taking charge of your life and owning your actions? Yes, a hundred times, yes.

  4. Nathan Bransford


    I put this post together and forgot about it before Pam was attacked. But yeah – I do think people could use more empathy for agents. It's a bad decision that's made out of frustration.

  5. Nancy Thompson

    I just spent the whole day yesterday reading dozens of queries & first pages as judge for a contest. After this one day, I had a whole new respect for literary agents. No way could or would I ever do their job. Even with all the info at their fingertips, very few of those writers understood or implemented what goes into a decent query or the first 150 words of their manuscript. I was banging my head on my desk after the first hour. I totally get where they're coming from now & have a whole new level of respect for them.

  6. Susie

    Interesting post! I hope the writer finds an agent!

  7. Susie

    Interesting post! I hope the writer finds an agent!

  8. wendy

    For a short while I was responsible for being the first reader, or gatekeepe, of an online publisher. All the ms's seemed about the same quality to me: technically quite well-written, but so similiar in philosophy and attitudes in that many of the themes within the novels seemed rather superficial and even low-life. There was nothing elevated or inspiration in them. But that's just IMHO. There were a few which contained abysmal writing and made me wonder why they even bothered if they were only making such little effort. I did grow to dislike the whole process, though.

    It was an eye-opener to the other side of the fence – not greener at all.

  9. Mira

    Well, I think an exercise in empathy is always a good idea.

    But, honestly, maybe I'm out of the loop, but I don't see all that much anger at agents about rejections anymore from those who are trying to query.

    Since there is another outlet to publish, agents aren't the only way to get your book out there, and there's less of a pressure cooker. I see people being disappointed, but not angry. (The guy who attacked Pam aside.)

    But now, publishers are soliciting unagented manuscripts, and, of course, people can indie publish. So, there are other options.

    It's possible that there is more frustration for those who write literary fiction. Perhaps Bourne thinks that literary fiction will fare better with a Print Publisher, but I've heard lit fiction is a very hard sell to agents/publishers right now. I could be wrong, but if I were him, I'd still look into indie publishing. Get the book out there, and move on to the next one. By the time he writes the next one, things may have shifted. And there's just the benefit of having multiple works available, which gives you more potential readership.

  10. Mira

    Oh wait, I'm sorry. I hadn't read the whole article. So, this guy writes commercial.

    And he acknowledges the way to get published is to become part of the 'club' because being published is a matter of who you know? And you should play the game, because, hey, that's how the game is played?

    Ugh. I'm sorry, but I find the idea of spending an incredible amount of time trying to break into the N.Y. social scene just so you can eventually become well liked enough for an agent to look at you to be a complete waste of time for a writer. Writers should be writing.

    Besides, nowadays, that's just silly. Self-publish and move on. If your book is a success, and you really want an agent, they will certainly look at you then.

    And if it's not a success, it probably wouldn't have been successful with a Publisher, and you'd be looking possibly having your contract dropped anyway, after all that trouble.

  11. Wry Wryter

    Nathan, I find the whole 1 in 11,111 very depressing. I've worked so hard and so long and to think my chances in traditional publishing are akin to winning the lottery…I'm beginning to believe the effort is futile.

    Do I have contacts, no, do I schmooze, can't, can I afford conferences, I can barely pay my mortgage, can I write, you betcha', so what am I supposed to do?
    I've read that self-publishing kills your traditional chances later on, so again I ask, what am I supposed to do?

    I think I'll take up ballroom dancing. I've got a better chance being on Dancing with the Stars than getting my two books read. Oh, I've got bad knees and I'm not a star, well nix that.

  12. Anonymous

    I'm not sure the gap between good literary agents and bad agents is that wide.

    I do think most literary agents are good, but they all work differently and have their own individual styles. And I don't think that's the difference between good and bad.

    This doesn't get across well on the Internet. And many potential authors who are only familiar with what they read online don't understand this fact. The best literary agents don't have huge online presence. They have web sites with guidelines and they are always looking for new talent. But they are not in your face, so to speak. In fact, it's just the opposite.

    Some online blogging agents with web presence are good, too. I think you were one, Nathan. But nothing bothers me more than aggressive blogging agents who don't let authors know all the facts. They only let them know what they want them to know. They don't hand out wrong information; just not all the information. And authors need to be aware of this…that there is a world to publishing that's not what you see online.

  13. Anonymous

    @Wry Wrywriter…

    I read your comment and you sound like you need to take control of your own career and look into e-publishing and gaining more of an online presence. Join yahoo groups, get involved in goodreads, and get into as many social media oriented writer forums as you can. There are authors out there working very hard who have taken control of their careers in ways they haven't been able to do before. They are helping each other, too.

    This is all free. You don't have to spend a dime to do it.

    And you can still query agents and try to do the traditional publishing route while you're managing your own career. And any agent who tells you she doesn't want to work with an author who self-published something in this day and age is not an agent you'd want to work with anyway. The fact is that many excellent agents now offer e-publishing services to their own clients. They are not going to hold this against you.

  14. Blayze Kohime

    I think the fact that I understand what literary agents are going through makes them more intimidating to me.

  15. Anonymous

    Nathan, reading the last line of your post above…first I wondered if you meant that a person is responsible for their future in that self-publishing is a stronger than ever option…but now I'm wondering if you mean instead just that you can't expect any certainties? You can't just expect for some agent to pick you up?

    Anyway, I think the article is mainly talking about the genre of literature/poetry, right? How maybe agents don't seem so interested in that particular niche? Although obviously this is huge for any genre, since rejections loom everywhere.

    It's kinda true what he said about how diet books, etc seem to loom everywhere, but things like literature and poetry maybe get the back seat.
    My gosh, I see SO many celebrities coming out with books literally every.single.day. Jenny McCarthy on some show promoting something. Some actor from the 80's movies on a show promoting something. I swear there's a new one from a celebrity (on celebrity or babies or life or etc) every hour.

  16. Anonymous

    This was in the comments section in Michael Bourne's article. The post was from NABNYC.

    "This writing stuff is not for sissies."

    Truer words were never typed.


  17. Matthew MacNish

    Is he really only referring to literary novels, or does he mean literature in general? I suppose I'll have to read the article. Thanks, Nathan.

  18. Peter Dudley

    I understand the position agents are in. I've done similar work in a different field. I get it.

    But this article depresses and frustrates me. Not because of the odds he cites but because after doing all this extra work, he still hasn't gotten invited to the party. He's only gotten almost invited. The whole thing reads like a nouveau riche oaf trying to get accepted into an old-money country club. The more he sucks up and tries to fit in, the more "progress" he thinks he's making. But they never accept him. They just elevate him from "nobody" to "that tolerable chap."

    Then he concludes that he just isn't good enough to be among them yet.

    I know a few writers whose work is absolutely good enough. They've done everything in the article and more, but they're not getting results. And their books are good. They deserve better.

    I am not saying agents are willfully cruel to them. I am saying that "you are not yet good enough" is a fallacious conclusion. It is possible that bad luck, bad timing, or something else equally unjust has stood in the way.

    (This points out, of course, that "Fallacious Conclusions" would be an excellent name for an ironic intellectual all-girl punk band.)

  19. Lily Malone

    Good article and thanks for the link. I intend to spend today (Saturday) playing Literary Agent. Like about 700 other hopefuls, I've entered Harlequin's So You Think You Can Write competition. Just in my category alone, Harlequin Superromance, there are about 50-odd entries (and some really are odd). Even if you're not interested in romance or romance writing, you can get a good sense of what any agent accepting romance queries might get in a day and you can see why the delete or reject finger starts to run on auto. http://www.soyouthinkyoucanwrite.com/manuscripts/
    And hey – if there's one you decide you like – you can vote for it while you're there. Consider your vote your offer of representation! You only get one a day so it's precious! Enjoy playing Literary Agent God while you can I say 🙂


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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