100 Agents

December 7, 2020 § 31 Comments

By Chelsey Drysdale

In the past five years, I’ve queried 89 literary agents. I will query 11 more to reach my goal of 100. Then I may quit. Querying is taxing, and my manuscript garnered the most interest early on when it wasn’t ready. Now that it’s improved, my inbox is empty.

I queried one agent in person and five from referrals. I queried agents who represent similar memoirs and memoirs I love. I queried agents who request “unusual and offbeat,” “idiosyncratic,” and “voice-driven memoirs with morally complicated situations,” and hands-on agents who relish in the collaborative editorial process, hoping the caliber of my work rivals my fervent work ethic.

One agent said my manuscript wasn’t the right fit but asked if I had another one. (I didn’t.) The agent I pitched in person said, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.” Then her father died. One agent requested an entirely new draft. (Our visions didn’t align.) One agent called my project “fabulous” but not for him, and one was downright rude.

Any feedback is delightful. One agent “would have asked for pages 20 years ago.” She was “drawn to my self-deprecation.” She said I needed a “younger agent” who would “find the right home” for my book. It was a rare clue in what often feels like decoding witchcraft. I almost cried from renewed hope.

I scoured online advice and craft texts about query letters and book proposals. I revised both more times than I colored my hair. I learned to embrace the process, as I can’t change the outcome. I published essays, each time thinking, “Maybe this is the one.”

But, like mourning my unborn children when I was 40, I now grasp I may never publish the memoir I spent six years toiling over. I may never approve cover art I still can’t envision. I may never be “in conversation” with another author. I may never be interviewed on a podcast. I may never see my name on the billboard outside Powell’s. I may never be seen the way I want to be seen. It’s heartbreaking.

Once, on a hiatus from researching agents, I queried eight independent presses with no response. On a long enough timeline, I believed publishing my memoir was probable, even if that meant selling it to a tiny indie pub without an agent. I was naive.

The latest iteration of my proposal is the result of an epiphanous workshop. I merged sections, rewriting them as essays to showcase my voice. I chose fresh comp titles. I tweaked the marketing copy. I explained why my memoir is relevant to the culture today. I returned to the thought, “Maybe this is the one.” The problem with having a timely proposal is it’s timely, so if the query crickets chirp for six more months, the proposal needs revising again.  

Querying is grueling in part because every agent has specific requirements, so every submission is specially tailored (as it should be). Agents want queries with three paragraphs; queries with four paragraphs; queries with 2,000 maximum characters; a query that’s no more than two pages; a one-page synopsis; a two-page synopsis; a complete outline; a marketing statement; the first chapter; two sample chapters; three sample chapters; a manuscript sample with 10,000 maximum characters; the first five pages; the first 10 pages; a proposal excerpt (which part?); the first five pages of the proposal; the full proposal written per their guidelines, using their online submission form (never quite the same as the others); the full proposal as an attachment; the full proposal pasted into the body of an email. (My current proposal is 40 pages, not counting sample chapters. That’s a long email.)

Agents are interested in “big social media platforms.” Others believe “Q & As and Skype book club appearances are more important than social media.” Some agents have no discernible requirements at all. Some agencies advise querying only one agent. Others say querying a second agent at the same house is okay after eight weeks.

I queried newbies building their clientele, veterans with 30 years’ experience, and agents with whom I’d been told I’d gel. I followed up after eight weeks. I didn’t follow up at all. I queried agents for so long some of them moved agencies or started their own. I crossed an agent off my list when I found her obituary. I researched houses I already researched. I read agent interviews, bylines, websites, Twitter feeds, and Manuscript Wish Lists. I queried agents with no web presence. I once met an agent I’d already queried, and she called me “Crystal.” All the while, I’ve tried to build some semblance of a platform. With every conference, book fair, reading, and face-to-face chat (back when those existed), I wondered, “Maybe this is the one.”

Thankfully, there are pluses to shelving a memoir: If I never publish it, I’ll never have to speak to my ex-husband again. (Bonus!) I won’t be tempted to read cruel amateur “takes” on Goodreads. I won’t worry if there are no reviews. I won’t have anxiety if strangers judge me. (“They will. Get over it,” one author said.) I won’t fret about earning out an advance. I won’t be sad when my book isn’t on any best-of lists. I won’t anger That One Guy I Dated That One Time because I said something unflattering about him. I won’t expose anyone whose personal stories are inextricably linked to mine. Secrets will remain secrets. Given the choice, though, I’d risk it all to connect with readers.

Maybe it’s almost time to sideline my first manuscript. In the past year, I’ve written 26,000 words of a novel. Maybe when I finish the novel, it will be the one. Maybe I’ll sell my memoir after the novel. Maybe I’ll get a two-book deal. Maybe I’ll have two manuscripts in a drawer. In any case, I will still write. Maybe, like being an aunt instead of a parent, that’s enough. Maybe it has to be.

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, The HerStories Project, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.


§ 31 Responses to 100 Agents

  • lisa_kusel says:

    This is so funny. So spot-on. So relatable. And yet…so sad as well. Thank you for sharing.

  • So much work and stress. I’m in Canada and have never tried to get an agent. I sent my quirky CNF/memoir, about all the jobs I’ve had, directly to publishers. It was rejected a couple of times and then, surprise, was accepted. Publishing date is end of April. I know I’ve heard you need agents in the US. Too bad you can’t send it directly to publishers.

  • You made me smile. Been there. Done that. Despite some glowing rejections, I think the book says something to me that it fails to say to readers.

  • lindawis says:

    It’s exhausting.My first book, a memoir, took 13 tries to get a small press publisher. For my novel, I queried agents and small publishers at the same time, over two years, and it took 126 tries to get a very small micropress to offer me a contract. Novel coming out soon. I’m 74. Do not give up. You are such a good writer. (I only have one Pushcart nomination. You have TWO.)

  • rachaelhanel says:

    This is spot-on! I’ve spent the last three months querying a narrative nonfiction manuscript. I’ve queried 66 agents/editors and now have 30 flat-out rejections and passes. The partial or full manuscript out with about 5 people right now. Have you looked into hybrid publishers, like She Writes Press? I’ve told myself that this book is getting published in one form or another, even if I have to do it myself. It’s that important to me.

  • Thank you for your honesty. I can relate! I’m glad you’re working on your novel. I find that it’s energizing to work on new projects, while battling the rejection blues. Also, it’s good to get feedback from writing groups or writing partners. After I’ve gotten a lot of rejections, I ask myself what more I can do to make the pitch or work, itself, more marketable. Other writers’ feedback can be way more helpful than cryptic rejection comments from agents.

  • bearcee says:

    Lordy, what a long and arduous journey. Kudos to you for continuing on the path and for starting a novel. You’ve obviously got the talent (2 Pushcart nominations and a long list of writing credits!) You might try Wipf and Stock. They are a hybrid publisher, between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Good luck and keep at it! Thanks for the revelations.

  • barscott says:

    Thank you. The lesson here for me is the one I’ve learned over and over again: that I’m not cut out for the publishing industry as you describe it. Skin’s too thin, but that I have to remember that that doesn’t mean I’m a failure or a lousy writer. It just means my skin’s too thin, so I keep writing and enjoying life as a writer rather than a seller of my writing. My weird internal voice says, maybe someone will read this posthumously!

  • Amy Grier says:

    That must have been tough to write, but also clarifying. I know that authors must shelve books all the time and move on to something new and I’m sure it’s always heartbreaking. I have two unpublished novels! And no more plans to do anything with them.

  • evalangston says:

    Yes. As an unpublished author who has been querying off and on for six years, I feel your pain. Oh, and I got an agent, and we worked on my manuscript for a year, but then he quit agenting right before pitching it to editors, so then I had to start the whole agent-search process over again, (at which time agents told me, “I could have sold this a few years ago.”) I’ve now written six novels, and with each one I think THIS is the one. This is the one that will finally get published. I’m querying with the sixth right now. I think it’s the best one I’ve written so far. Will it be good enough to catch the eye of an agent? WE SHALL SEE. Fingers crossed for you, lady! This is such a hard business.

  • Vicki Lindner says:

    I would suggest that you consider self- publishing , or form a consortium with a few other writers and self publish your own books.Not everybody’s work has commercial value as it is being defined. Also self- publishing doesn’t carry the stigma it once did but be sure you get someone to edit and design the cover. You can advertise on Facebook, targeting potential readers. Besides, although ” getting published” gives you bragging rights, that’s often just about all you get. Good luck. And by the way getting a Pushcart Nomination is not a big deal.

  • I had an agent once…she couldn’t sell my ms. Eventually I found an e-publisher on my own.

  • Look at all these comments! Clearly, you’ve touched us and we, your fellow writers, so hear you! But ONWARD, Crystal (haha), keep writing and dreaming. Have you thought about self-publishing? We can all think of self-published authors who have created amazing books, sharing important stories, reached a significant amount of readers/audience, without all the moral-crushing hoops and formalities of classic or even indie publishing houses…AND thanks again for your honest and excellent Brevity piece.

  • Love how you lay on the variety of data to prove your point. If your goal was to make other agent-seekers feel better, you have succeeded with me.

  • Margaret says:

    This is a great article, although a bit depressing. It’s hard to fathom why such a good writer (such as yourself) can find it so difficult to find an agent when so many badly written books seem to get published. It’s very mysterious.

  • Robert Nagle says:

    I run a small indie press and I think the importance of having an agent has declined over time. Self-publishing opens a lot of doors — although you have to spend more of your own money. Memoirs is a tough genre — Memoirs by unknowns are especially hard sell b/c you’re still competing against Holocaust, crime victims & celebs w/ drug problems.

  • Beth Kaplan says:

    Try a hybrid publisher! Why, after all the work you’ve put into your memoir, would you let it languish? Forget agents, just do it. I’ve published three books with hybrid publishers; everything about the process is wonderful except … marketing. Yes, marketing, getting the word out, is gruelling and difficult, but it is even if a big press brings out your book, you’re still expected to do a lot of the sales work yourself. Don’t accept their judgement; adjust your expectations, do it yourself, get it out there. People want to read it.

  • lauralanni says:

    “I’d risk it all to connect with readers.” That’s the essence of truth. Agents, editors, and other writers can make us think we want to be famous or write a best seller, but so many writers primarily seek an audience of readers to share our hearts, while we hole up in our quiet caves to create.
    My querying journey was similarly disheartening. Hundreds of queries and nibbles and hope and revisions and disappointment while my novels sat unread. Dozens of close calls in contests and conferences. I signed with an agent, revised with her, and we broke up. I signed with a small press and they went under. Then I found an amazing independent editor. Now I publish my own work and that freedom gives me time to write AND readers.
    Keep writing. Don’t give up. There is a path for you!

  • Sandra says:

    Your heartbreak is palpable, and all I can say is: don’t give up. I worked on my memoir for three years and quickly landed a top NYC agent. Four years later when she still hadn’t sold it–and never seemed that interested in it, honestly–we parted ways and I sold it to a small press the next day. No agent necessary. There are so many beautiful small presses out there, and one (or several) may love your book.

  • So nice to know I’m not alone. Thanks for writing my story. 🙂

  • Somehow you’ve made me feel better with your arc from futile to the maybes! Lovely writing.

  • Lainy Carslaw says:

    This is so relatable and so beautiful. You made me cry. I truly hope you publish your book!!

  • chelseydrysdale says:

    Wow! I am touched by all of your comments. Thank you! I marvel at all your hard work, passion, and your success stories. I feel less alone, and today I received an email from an independent press requesting my proposal because of this piece, so I’m very excited that there are still possibilities. You never know what might happen. Thanks again!

  • lgrizzo says:

    I applaud your persistence! I hope it will pay off. I love your comments about the upside of not publishing a memoir. I will keep that to heart when it’s time for me to query agents!

  • […] my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv […]

  • Polly Hansen says:

    Chelsey, please let us know what happens. I want to buy your book! Well, seriously, my heart just goes out to you. With publishing credentials like the ones you list, and your undaunted effort, I consider myself incredibly naive to think I have a chance in hell of finding an agent for my own memoir. Your bravery and courageousness feel familiar. All of the people who have left comments here want to connect with other people. Ferociously. I wish you the best of luck.

    • chelseydrysdale says:

      Thank you! Update on the indie press that asked for my proposal: She said she enjoyed my submission, but it wasn’t a fit. She then suggested a different publishing company she thought would be a better fit. (Sweet!) The bad news: The publisher she suggested is on hiatus for now during COVID. It was an encouraging rejection though, so I am not giving up. 2021 coming right up.

  • Lynette Benton says:

    Don’t give up (said by one who hasn’t been very interested in publishing her two memoir manuscripts so hasn’t experienced all the hopes, trials, and disappointments you have)! Your writing is so fine, so funny, so thoughtful and spot on about the labyrinthine publishing industries requirements that I have full faith in the value of your memoir. Not to mention that learning about the ex-husband and the That One Guy I Dated That One Time only adds to my desire to read your memoir.

    • I agree with those who have said don’t give up, and especially with those who have recommended self-publishing. Not being able to get an agent should NOT keep a writer from being able to publish a book. And it doesn’t have to anymore. I’ve had very good self-publishing experiences with Book Baby. Also: working on getting your book ready for self-publishing is WAY more fun, and satisfying, and empowering, than writing to agents. You can do this!

  • […] in new ways. But the ones that feed my soul remind me not to give up, like Chelsey Drysdale’s 100 agents and Shiv Dutta’s Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life. I soak in each writer’s successes, […]

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