Agents. Qualified literary gatekeepers?


A few years ago, Samuel Moffie submitted The Perfect Martini to 100 literary agents. Actually, he submitted 90% of the first twenty pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions disguised as The Perfect Martini. Any guesses on his success rate? 100 out of 100, right? No. Only one agent responded positively, but that’s because the agent recognized the original author. 99 agents declined. Just to be clear, yes, the critically acclaimed, award-winning, nationally revered Kurt Vonnegut. Rejected.

Agents are concerned with commercial viability, that’s first and foremost. Period. Literary quality is a secondary bonus, if present. Now, if Vonnegut wrote a novel where a dominant vampire becomes master to a naive, submissive, shape-shifting werewolf, I’m sure he would have fared better.

Here’s the point. Why spend months, or even years, writing and submitting queries to agents who are clearly looking the other way? If they passed on Kurt Vonnegut, what chance do you have?

Agent, defined: 1. a person who acts on behalf of another, in particular. Do agents really represent authors (unknown or established) or do they represent their own financial interests and those of Big Publishers? In terms of quality, perhaps the guards are sleeping at the gates. 2. a person or thing that takes an active role or produces a specified effect. Be that person, be your own agent of change. You, not someone else. You, the person that isn’t so concerned with profit. You, the person that cares about the future of literature, not the 15% commission.

During the course of one year, I queried over 300 agents, followed all their silly and varied submission requirements, I know, no attachments, got it, waited to hear back for weeks sometimes, other times, didn’t hear back at all, even with partial or full manuscript requests, read all their canned responses, I’m not taking on new authors at this time, the work doesn’t fit with my list. Blah, blah, blah.

Query tip: don’t send any more. Take your work straight to the reader.

Within one month, I built a platform, designed my cover, formatted my ebook, published, promoted, marketed, and advertised.

Made sales.

Your turn.


371 thoughts on “Agents. Qualified literary gatekeepers?

  1. Pingback: A Little About Agents | Writing Discussions for Fiction Writers

  2. I’m on Curtis Brown Creative’s newsletter email list and it’s promoting a “debut novel from former Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing student … ” “One of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year …”

    It’s published commercially (not by Curtis Brown) and I just read the first six pages or so at Amazon and wasn’t particularly impressed. It just seems to ramble along and is a jumble of different characters and things.

    I see it’s got a 3.5 star average at Amazon for 10 reviews (1 x 5-star, 4 x 4-star, 4 x 3-star and 1 x 2-star). I sent my book to over 100 agents before publishing it myself as an ebook. I’ve got a 4.6 star average at Amazon for 13 reviews (9 x 5-star, 3 x 4-star and 1 x 3-star).

    I see it’s been compared with Jonathan Coe and Armando Iannucci. Mine has been compared to Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos.

    Maybe it’s just the way things are these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. e publishing will open new markets. It will be interesting to see if there is a divide, at least temporarily, between traditional publisher markets and e-publishing markets. Are they the same target audience ? Will they over time blend/over-lap ?

    From a business model, it is easy to see why it is difficult to break through – there are so many wanting to get published. The traditional publishing system could not handle the flow. Not enough people to go through and evaluate all of it. And if they publish beyond a certain threshold they don’t make enough money – can not sell enough. e-publishing changes the dynamic.

    The new readers are more willing to purchase a digital copy than invest in a hard copy. Storing and eventually selling a digital copy has a much lower cost than sitting with a warehouse full of hard copies. How to get the product on the shelf and then keep the product moving off the shelves was the publishers main objective. It was not so long ago when independent vanity press authors were selling there wares from the back of the family station wagon. It is all about finding the target audience. Instead of physically moving the product, digital distribution is more efficient use of time & energy.

    As a retired Media Literacy and Special Education teacher, I am also wondering if there will be new entry ways and barriers for some readers. I am an avid reader and love the new technology, but find it near impossible to read lengthy text pieces – novels, novellas, long narratives – on a screen. I still prefer paper. My wife has no problem and is happily purchasing her digital books. ( We are both retired teachers.)


  4. I absolutely loved this post. I have begun the process of self-publishing my books too. We live in exciting times. We are no longer at the mercy of the powers that be and can pick ourselves.


  5. I used to have an agent. After my first book was published she took me on for my second. The first did brilliantly, the second didn’t, though it was a better book. I’m not sure she even read it; she said it was too dark. She didn’t bother reading the third either, and I got no feedback or support whatsoever, let alone help publicising it. She took a big whack of my advances both times, for not much work that I ever saw, and she took lovely holidays in Africa. Ever feel you’re in the wrong profession?!


  6. Pingback: Agents. Qualified literary gatekeepers? | Cathy Ann Rogers Writes

  7. “Now, if Vonnegut wrote a novel where a dominant vampire becomes master to a naive, submissive, shape-shifting werewolf” … he’d fare no better. Agents have decided vampires are ‘over’. Lol.

    I also submitted my draft to dozens of agents, carefully following all the rules. I got about 50% response rate, all of them negative. One, just one, responded in a way that indicated she had read the chapters, and she actually made some useful suggestions before the “but it’s not for me at this time” phrase. My self-published book now has over 200 reviews on Amazon sites, with a 92% positive (4 or 5 star) rating, sales of over 20,000, and it has been followed by three other books doing as well. The vast majority of agents have no clue about the commercial viability of a draft they read (if they read it), and no real interest in quality.

    Believe in yourselves. Make a commitment. Hire an editor. Fund a cover. Get that baby out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Brian, I too came to the same conclusion (but after approaching publishers direct – what’s with the ‘submit, but we insist that you approach no other publisher in the time frame it takes us to consider your submission… oh, and that will take 3 months!). Not only did I get my book out there and make sales, but learnt so much along the way, had heaps of fun and finally felt I was taking control of my future. PS. Thanks for popping by my blog 🙂


  9. Pingback: Tastemakers: A Dachshundist Perspective | Poppy, The Philosopher Dachshund

  10. For me, the thrill would lie in seeing my work in both book form and digital print AND more importantly, seeing others read it. The money is secondary to that. Sure, it is important, but most authors or artists gain pure satisfaction in seeing others appreciate their work/talent.
    Thanks for following me Brian. I will, likewise be following you. Interesting to see you’ve migrated to NY as my family lived in NY for nearly 3 years and loved it.


  11. I think there is a similar story about how Margaret Atwood re-submitted The Handmaids Tale to another agent using an alias? I don’t know maybe I’m bungling it. But, yeah, it’s crazy. I still want to get an agent though. I figure after a couple more books do well with my indie publisher I’ll be fighting them off. 😉


  12. I beginning to think literary agents don’t know what they’re talking about. They keep insisting everything has to have a ‘hook’, something that pulls them out of their lethargy and excites them. Writers need to have a hook on the first page of our book and a hook on the first line of our query. Are these agents fish?
    Do any authors actually pass the test and get published?
    I believe the agents are jaded. They are so focused on the idea that the first page has to be incredible, that half the classic novels on my bookshelf would never be published at the present time. Those authors spent some time on ‘place’ and ‘character development’, instead of diving headfirst into a complicated plot in the first three paragraphs. I think the situation has produced “frantic fiction,” books with a great deal of action, but little thought and wisdom.
    P.S. Thank you for following itsmindbloggleing.


  13. Hey Brian,

    Congratulations and I’m delighted to have you as my first ever follower.

    I particularly like your cartoon of the agent and the Vonnegut anecdote. It’s what I’ve always suspected about literary agents!


  14. The electronic book is here to stay. It’s also here to take over, and face it—who needs the middleman/woman/thing? Let the market decide—up until it becomes ‘regulated’. (Make the most of it while you can, it’s Dodge City out there right now.) And thanks to the magic of Kindle I carry a 250+ book library around in my jacket pocket.

    I’m now publishing for free via iBooks. Not as easy or straightforward as it’s made out to be, but for anyone with a gift for modern geek-speak (or pure luck) persistence will surely win in the end. And the only limit is the appeal of what you produce and try to sell on a free market; the gatekeepers are down.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I am not a writer. My thing is painting, drawing, gardening, but I do read every day. I love having my used Kindle to find new authors. I am not stuck on the “In” writer, but try new authors and love some, not so much others. This availability for authors to self publish is great! I wish you much luck. I have a closet full of paintings partly because of having my retirement to live basically on and now do what I want regardless. It is a new world for me, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I Think Every Writer Should Read This Post. Simply awesome.Hi Brian, this is a great great post. thx for sharing. so inspirational. Thanks for the follow.


  17. Thanks for following Loving Me, Too. As someone working on her first book, I appreciate your perspective. The more I read and hear about traditional publishing, the more I question it’s value. I might still send out a few queries, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time waiting around. Looking forward to learning more, as always.


  18. I happened to see the title of this post when I was checking the notification email about you following my blog (big thanks for the follow, by the way ^_^) and I couldn’t help but read it. I went straight to self-publishing because of all the hoop-jumping and uncertainty that comes along with traditional publishing, and I was recently further turned off when I read in one book that not only is getting your book picked up by an agent no guarantee, but neither is a publisher showing interest because a lot of the big guys have “review boards” that can still reject you anyway!

    But, before I start rambling, I would like to say that I found this post very insightful indeed. It’s true that the corporate gatekeepers in publishing (like those in film, television, music, etc.) are more concerned with hooking a certain demographic than telling a good story these days. However, I was shocked at your experiment’s insanely high rejection rate! Even though my books do happen to concern a werewolf protagonist, I’m not writing a horror or romantic urban fantasy series, so I have my doubts about whether or not anyone would actually want to publish it without requesting massive edits to the story and characters.

    Keep up the great work…I’ll be watching! 😉


  19. I skipped the agent/publisher route and self-published. I had help–at the time I lived in the SF Bay Area and I joined BAIPA–where generous members assist each other in learning the ropes of self-publishing. I have time limitations and have not followed through as I should have on marketing. So I’m published and out there, but not a screaming success. I hope to use the 2015 launch of the third book to reinvigorate the process. (No vampires, no werewolves, just solid, quiet story.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had the same problem – by the time I’d be done the writing, the rewriting, the formatting for self-publishing, I was too burnt and owed too much time to other things to spend it on marketing the books. I did this with four or five books, I’d work on them for a couple years, publish, then forget them. I say I was burnt and out of time and that’s true, but I realize now I was also reluctant to promote the works because part of me felt they weren’t legitimized since they were self-pubbed. That, and I only knew the tip of the iceberg about promotion. So I redoubled efforts to publish with a new book, aiming for a smaller press. I got three offers pretty quick and went with the one I got the best feeling about. My publisher studied at Oxford. When he works on the edits and the promo I let him take the lead. It’s a good feeling. But that’s just my story. Obviously other people have had different experiences. Hugh Howey self-published Wool to great success. I do think these are the exceptions though. The self-publishing windfall is kind of the myth of landing in Hollywood and becoming Brad Pitt – droves of people do it, a sliver of a percentage succeed. From my own experience, small presses are a safer bet if you want to bang out some books and try to make a living. You can keep after that breakout book, but in the meantime you have someone doing that extra work on the book you never had time for or (as in my case) that you had a hard time justifying.


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