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How I didn't get a literary agent, but got a publisher instead

Updated: Feb 21

By: Natalie Jacobsen


If you're looking for how to acquire a literary agent, I advise reading elsewhere.


girl standing in a field of yellow flowers, wearing a white dress, in front of skyscrapers

But if you want to hear a story of success or want to learn how not to get an agent, keep reading.


GHOST TRAIN was not my first novel. It wasn't my second or third novel I had written, either. It was my seventh; however, it was the first manuscript I felt could be published and turned into a novel. As a genre-blending, hefty project set in a niche time period and place (1877, Kyoto), I had picked the perfect manuscript to start my journey on the highest difficulty setting. But I'm not one for taking the easy road. Be sure to read more about GHOST TRAIN here!


It was Valentine's Day of 2022. I had finished writing and editing GHOST TRAIN for the past 2 years. A couple of friends who knew about it loved it.


I was a budding, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed author, convinced that my manuscript was the best thing I had ever written. It would be the best thing agents had ever read. The prose was lush, the historical details refined, the characters memorable, the story mesmerizing. People would be clawing for it. I'd be done querying in a matter of weeks. I'd be published the following year and on a best seller list. Maybe I'd even be optioning film rights.


I had also done next to no research on the process.


Blissfully naïve, I boldly and recklessly started my querying journey. I am very sorry to the five agents who so kindly humored my long and frilly query: an appetizer to my whopping 350k-word manuscript for GHOST TRAIN.


Yes...you read that right.


 

This feels like the right time to pause. For the readers who are not familiar with the process it takes to get a book published, this section is for you. For those seasoned writers who don't need to walk down memory lane, go ahead and skip past the next divider to continue.


Process:


You've written the story. Now what? These days, authors have a few options on what path they can choose to take:


  1. Self-Publishing: The author assumes full control of the process, and doesn't need a literary agent or lawyer to represent them. They file their own copyright, design their cover and format, and publish it themselves, usually through a large platform friendly to self-published authors, like KindleUnlimited, Amazon, or even Ingram Spark, a book distributor. The author is also responsible for 100% of the costs to edit, design, and print or sell the book, but they will also get close to 100% of the profit.

  2. Traditional "Trad" Publishing: This term refers to books only published by one of the "Big Five" publishing houses: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, and MacMillan. For all five, an agent or legal representation acquired by the author in advance is required. The agent or rep will query the publisher and pitch the story on behalf of the author; these publishing houses don't allow for "unsolicited submissions" by authors. Upon selection of an author, they generally offer an author an advance, and will manage the marketing, cover, editing, and distribution, but the author will typically see at most 15% of the profit from sales.

  3. Indie Publishing: Sometimes seen as a hybrid of self and trad publishing, this is when an author signs with a publishing house other than the Big Five. Some publishers will be considered medium, and others small or boutique-sized. Some "indie" publishers only release ten books a year. They often compromise on marketing, or have limited budget, and often little-to-no advance offered in a contract with an author. Many of these publishing houses still require an author to have agent representation, but others will be relaxed and allow for an author to directly submit their manuscript without an agent. An "indie author" may need to have a heavier hand in marketing, but they will also have more say in the design, editing and format of the book, and will usually get a higher cut of the sales' profit.


Like many aspiring authors, I hoped to be traditionally published with one of the Big Five or their subsidiary houses. That meant I first needed to pitch GHOST TRAIN to literary agents, by means of writing a: Query Letter, a Synopsis, and polishing the first few chapters to share in my pitch package.


"Querying" is the process of an author seeking literary agent representation by submitting their manuscript to them for review and consideration to be a client.


Before we dive in to the process, here is some helpful vocabulary to know:

  • BookTok - TikTok channels, accounts, and tags dedicated to talking about books.

  • DM - Direct Message sent to someone privately on a social media app.

  • DNQ - "Do Not Query" list that authors share to protect and advise one another.

  • Full - When an agent or Editor requests to see a "full manuscript" after reading the query letter.

  • Genre-Blend - A manuscript or novel that straddles two or more genres.

  • MSWL - ManuScript Wish List; a list an agent or publisher will post on their profile or agency page so authors know if they are appropriate to query for their genre.

  • Partial - When an agent or Editor request to see a "partial manuscript" after reading the query letter (they will stipulate exactly how much to share, usually 1-3 chapters or 30-100 pages).

  • Pitch - A live or virtual event during which an author shares a 1-minute (or 100-word) summary of their manuscript in hopes of piquing interest.

  • Query Letter - A written pitch in a formal letter, similar to a cover letter for a resume.

  • Query Trenches - The expression used by authors when they begin querying a project, as it is sometimes compared to an emotional battle that is strategic, daunting, and not without setbacks and triumphs.

  • R&R - Revise And Resubmit. This happens when an agent or publisher is interested in the work, but would like to see heavy editing done prior to signing, sometimes as a show of commitment by the author, or because the editorial vision doesn't align.

  • Shelved Manuscript - When an author throws in the towel on querying a manuscript, for any reason, they figuratively "shelve" the project.

  • Schmagent/schamgency - An agent or agency that has shady practices or history.

  • Slush Pile - A stack of manuscripts the agent is holding, but not making a decision on.

  • WIP - Work In Progress; aka a manuscript that is currently being written and not yet ready for querying.


There are several ways to find an agent to query. Most agents are only open for a brief window of the year, whether for a few weeks or a few months, and a few will accept queries on an ongoing basis (they are so brave!). The most popular agents will see upwards of a thousand or more queries in a single week. That means, your query package NEEDS to stand out and have a strong hook, fit their MSWL, and be a clean read. You also need to time your submissions and querying process right, to hit as many agents as possible, with your priority list in mind.


Publisher's Marketplace is the best way to find agents that may be right for your WIP. They list all of the literary agencies, their agents, and their recent deals. That way, you can see who has been most successful, where they sold books to, who their other clients are, and how often they sell. From their personal profiles and websites, you can learn more about their personality, their timelines and general interests. On their Twitter accounts, you can learn more than you ever wanted to know (I do not recommend).


The Query Letter is generally a page long, like a cover letter for your book. The Synopsis will be a detailed summary, spoiling each chapter. These are standards typically requested by agents. They want to see the vision through to fully consider if it's right for them.


Some agents like to be emailed directly, while others prefer to be pitched directly through a platform called QueryManager. This is where you have a whole dashboard dedicated to all of the queries you have sent and can track agents' progression through their query lists live! It's a delight! It's not nerve-wracking at all! At QM there is a way to communicate directly with agents, upload submission requests, and see comments from other authors in the platform. It's addictive, and still gives me nightmares.


Authors will each have their own querying process. Some will send a few queries, maybe up to five, at a time to see how agents react to it. That way, the author doesn't blow through their entire list, without realizing they've made a mistake until it was too late. Some are so confident they query twenty or more at a time, wanting to get it done with. There is no real answer to how to "do it right."


Agents are busy people. They have dozens, if not hundreds, of clients, all of whom are working on projects, editing, submitting to publishing houses, signing contracts, marketing, and going on book tours. Getting new clients is not usually top of an agent's priority list. The pressure for a debut author to get their attention is on.


This also means agents don't always look at your query right away. Some agents are very fast: my fastest rejection was within 30 minutes of sending. My longest rejection was after 9 months. Some authors have shared that they didn't get a rejection until 2 YEARS after querying an agent, when the book was already long-published.


Hence why timing is important: you may be waiting weeks or months to hear back from each agent; if you're querying only 5 at a time, it may be years before you find representation. But, if you go through your list quickly, there is a greater risk for making an error, or missing windows of other agents, pitches, and conferences. Authors will encourage each other to "take it slow and enjoy the process," but we're all just faking it.


We hate the process.


Each time an author gets a response from an agent, they look to see if it's personalized or formulaic. They can usually tell based on the dead giveaways, like a generic response indicating "it just wasn't for me." Sometimes, authors share their rejection letters with one another to compare. A few agents will take the time to explain why they passed on it. This is a rare event because, well, they are busy people. Many will keep a manuscript in a slush pile, and hold it for weeks or months, thinking it over, or watching market trends. Others are cut-and-dry and know what they are looking for: a spark -- an indescribable, je-ne-sais-quoi. That makes a lot of querying a guessing game.



Once an agent is interested, they will let the author know if they'd like to read moreeither requesting a partial or full. This next process can take six or more months, because reading longer manuscripts requires more time than just reading through query letters.


Then, you'll hear either a pass, or a request for a call. Rarely, an agent will say "Hey, I like your concept but it needs some work," thereby asking for a R&R, and giving you a timeline of 6-12 months to resubmit after revising it per their feedback. (Despite the immense work and investment, there are few documented instances of this resulting in a contract offer.)


And sometimes, you'll hear nothing at all. "Ghosting" is generally frowned upon, and collectively agreed to be a horrible practice whether in dating, job hunting, or querying. Yet countless agents do it anyway, and the author never gets an answer. Authors call this a CNR—"Closed, No Response." Authors choose how long they'll give an agent before marking the query as a CNR in their list. Some write the agent off after 4 weeks. Some leave it "open" for a year. Again, it all depends on the author; some may simply not want to work with an agent who doesn't have time to respond for a year, which is understandable.


"The Call" is when the agent wants to connect with the author and talk through the vision, what they can offer, and get to see if they may be a personality match (believe it or not, it's not just a business: but it's personal, too). After The Call, the agent may send a contract intending to sign for a partnership, and then the author has usually two weeks to alert any other agents with an outstanding query of their offer, to see if they get competing offers for representation.


It's after that, that the author and agent, when signed, will begin their own editing process. This can take a few weeks to a year. Then, the agent will help the author get a "submission" package together, and the agent will start to submit (aka: query) publishing houses. And this process takes even longer than querying agents. Publishers and Editors are even busier than agents, and it will often be crickets, or even months, before an Editor or Publisher responds to a submission. Some agents will have higher reputations and stronger affiliations with some publishing houses, which is why clamoring for a literary agent turns into such a competitive mess in the writing community.


The stakes could not be higher: a writer's career is on the line, and picking the right agent will make or break it for you. An agent with lower sales or who works at a schmagency may have a tougher time selling the manuscript. An agent with a hundred clients might be good at their job, but be busy and unable to offer personalized assistance or hop on a quick call with flexibility. It takes dedication and research to find the right one, just like in dating.


So, why did agents' toes curl when they saw my 350K word count mentioned? The very first Harry Potter book is only 75,000 words. The longest Harry potter book was 198,000 words. 350K words is what the industry calls a "door-stopper," and generally reserved for the Bible, or something similar, like an epic fantasy.


Every year, the standard word counts for genre changes. These are not strict, but often industry-wide. Sometimes they fluctuate based on paper shortages, other times, by measured attention span of readers. As our collective attention span gets limited to 20-second-long TikToks and Instagram Reels, so does our patience to read longer tomes.


And I learned that a 350K word book just won't cut it.


Current (as of January 2024) word count standards, by genre:


  • Literary Fiction: 50,000–150,000

  • Romance: 70,000–90,000

  • Historical Fiction: 90,000–120,000

  • Science Fiction: 70,000–120,000

  • Fantasy: 100,000-150,000

  • Thrillers: 80,000–100,000

  • Crime Fiction: 80,000–150,000

  • Horror: 80,000–100,000

  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000


However, across the board, most debut fiction is around 80,000 words. This is due to debut authors being seen as a risk; the publisher does not know yet how the work will be received, and printing is expensive. It's better to keep their first books shorter to study reception, and then expand their work.


As you can see, 350k is way, way off.


Now, I think we can pick up where we left off, now that I've got you all caught up.


 

Each of the first five literary agents I queried, bless them, were very polite when they quickly declined (I reckon they were even a little scared), each explaining it was simply too long, and gently suggested that perhaps it needed "a second look."


I panicked, and then paused, took a deep breath, and went to Google to begin my search for answers. I found a writing community on Twitter, sub-Reddits, and blogs; unearthing a whole treasure trove of query lists and advice, riddled with bleak stories, depressing statistics, and authors fraught with anxiety, worry, and crushed dreams.


I was beside myself. How had I not prepared for this at all? I had just spent years carefully researching, interviewing subject matter experts, and crafting this masterpiece, and had next-to-no knowledge of how to publish it.

girl with long hair and long dress standing in a field of red flowers

After a few months of breaking up the novel into three more appetizing dishes (thankfully it was already divided into three parts!) and polishing my letter, I returned to querying. GHOST TRAIN (Part One) was still too long at 120k for most agents. (Some agents even say on their MSWL that they will not consider anything above 100k.) The letter still wasn't selling it. The agents I queried were adjacent, but not the right ones, for the genres I was writing in. Many were wary of genre-blends, and needed something more commercial, and something that followed trends.


And GHOST TRAIN doesn't follow trends. It lays its own tracks.


This is when I began to spiral. I became more active online, finding a community for support and insights. I learned of DNQ lists, heard more gossip than I'd ever like to about schmagents, received blunt advice on my query letter and synopsis, and developed deep, lasting friendships with writers in the "query trenches." I participated in my first Twitter Pitch with great success, and found myself more confident.


While attending the Writer's Digest Conference in New York, I live-pitched six agents, all of whom requested fulls. Jackpot! Surely one of these was my dream agent. One of them immediately responded with a R&R, and advice on how to proceed. Others rejected me, but one held on to it. Maybe they had all been too polite to reject me in person.


But nevertheless, I persisted. The conference had offered invaluable marketing, editing, and general writing techniques and lessons. Building a community became my focus. I learned to breathe and "enjoy the process," rather than live day-to-day like a feral beast, frothing at the mouth for an agent. I started to soften my stance, as I kept the rising number of rejections in the back of my mind.


By Fall 2022, I was pivoting to indie and smaller publishers that didn't require an agent. As more friends began acquiring agents, self doubt and imposter syndrome took hold of me. Maybe my masterpiece was really just a scribble of ideas or a lofty dream. Maybe I was never meant for this. I hired two editors, one to focus on developmental edits and the other for general clean-up and line edits. They worked to turn it around in a few weeks while I took a querying break, before I considered the worst-case-scenario: shelving it. My husband, suggested it was likely just the wrong time. Another friend suggested that maybe this wasn't meant to be my debut. My heart was breaking.


I was shy online, and retreated from some of the pitches and forums. I wasn't active on Discord, and I didn't have the guts to DM agents like some did. I wasn't on BookTok. I felt I was in over my head, and like a fool. I had done this process all wrong.


girl with long hair sitting in a field of wildflowers

My editors came back to me with wonderful feedback, edits, and ways to shorten it further. We were down to 95k, closer to the sweet spot for debut historical fantasies. I had renewed hope.


Over Winter, as I reached the end of my agent list, I saw a surge of fulls in response to my polished manuscript. This was it. It was happening. Right before Christmas, someone recommended a smaller publisher in addition to the ones that had requested my material through online pitch events; I sent them an email with my first chapter and synopsis and forgot about it.


After a couple of weeks and into the New Year, I started seeing the rejections come back in at a trickle. But I didn't lose hope—not yet. I had many fulls out still, and was getting a few more full requests now that many agents were returning to their desks after the holidays.


This is when we inched closer to Valentine's Day, 2023. Almost one year since I had begun my querying journey. I was almost numb to the process, and felt I had run out of options. I was at the end of my list and in limbo, waiting for the final answers to come through. The rejections no longer stung as badly as they once did. My skin had hardened. Seeing a rejection in an inbox every week, or every day (sometimes multiple back-to-back in the same hour), will do that to a person.


But then, the calls (yes, multiple!) with a publisher happened. (Read about Ghost Train's long track to publishing in an upcoming blog: sign up for my newsletter to be notified when it's posted!). That's when I nudged the several agents and other publishers who had my full or an outstanding query to let them know I had an offer, and was weeks away from making a decision.


The responses came in quickly. I thought perhaps I'd have an offer from an agent come through at the last minute, but the universe cleared the path for me to sign with SelectBooks, in the form of a dozen final rejections all politely congratulating me on the looming offer. In June 2023, I signed directly with my publisher.


I sighed in relief.


Was I dismayed to not get an offer from an agent? Sure. But I had a publisher. And that had been my dream. This naïve writer had not come in to this process prepared, and had learned through trial and error the tough truths of being a modern author. But most importantly, I had emerged the other side, triumphant. I hadn't given up or shelved my manuscript. Ghost Train would be a published novel.


Here are my stats: (Yes, I do realize you were waiting on these, or maybe just scrolled right to them.)


Queries: 125

Re-Queries (one year later): 20

Fulls: 27

Partials: 6

R&Rs: 2

Rejections: 89 (including the re-queries)

CNRs: 56

Personalized invitations to query another project: 9

Offers: 1 - a Publisher

Signed: 1 - a Book Deal

girl with long hair in a red top standing in a field of sunflowers in front of a mountain

What you hear most as a querying author is the mantra, "all you need is one 'yes'." It's true. I got my "yes," and that's what matters most. I may not have gotten my literary agent, but this is how I did get my publisher.


Will I query literary agents the same way again? Hell no! I now know the process, and my cold, hardened heart is ready to be broken againwhen my next WIP wraps.


For lessons learned and advice I'm imparting on the next generation of authors-to-be, subscribe to my newsletter to catch my upcoming post on how to query with full confidence, not blind confidence.

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