If you’re thinking about doing any kind of querying to literary agents, or if you’re in the middle of that process, then you’ll quickly find that the most efficient way to go about it is to send off emails in batches. The rationale is that, as responses come in, you can take the feedback, tweak your query/book, and try again, rather than having everybody reject your initial poor first try.
But at what point is it enough? Where is the line where you stop and either self-publish or shelve the work?
Generally speaking, if you read blogs from real-life, active agents, the recommendations range from 50 to 100 queries. The gist here is that, if that many agents are saying no, then there’s probably a reason. This might have much less to do with your talent than the current perceived marketability of your concept.
But is that true? Is 50 to 100 some kind of magic?
There are plenty of stories of famous writers who had to go well beyond 50 to 100 queries. Jack Canfield, for example, who’s responsible for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, hit 144 big fat nos. So there’s evidence that a lot of agents can be wrong in thinking a book won’t sell, and that a little tenacity can pay off big. If you stop before you reach the agent that believes in you, it’s like giving up on digging a tunnel out when you’re just inches from breaking through.
But let’s look at the number of agents, too. There are at least 1,000 agencies within the United States. So if you’re stopping at 50 agents, then you’re only inquiring at a whopping 5 percent of American houses. Now consider that many of those agencies will allow you to submit the same project to other agents within the house, so long as you allow a specific amount of time to pass and/or clarify that another agent has seen the book already. Many agencies overseas still work with American authors, too.
Are you really going to tell yourself that a 5 percent effort is good enough? At what other job would that ever be considered acceptable? And can you even argue that you’ve seen all the different opinions about your book agents might have if you’ve only tapped 5 percent of those professionals? That’s hardly majority rule.
In full disclosure, I’m around 170 rejections on my current book. And for the reasons above, I’m not going to give up any time soon. My personal opinion is that you should stop querying your work only when you run out of options, you’re mentally or physically exhausted, or both.
Now, if you get to that point and you genuinely just can’t stomach the thought of one more email, it’s OK! Independent publishing is a totally different animal than it used to be and has more sway than it ever has. It can be incredibly profitable. Just because you don’t query anymore doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means that you walked one path, figured out that that one wouldn’t work for you, and set yourself on a different road to the same goal.
I recognize, too, that there can be a race against the clock financially. If writing is your only job, then you can’t go forever without a paycheck. So self-publishing might become a necessity, even if you haven’t queried as much as you’d like. There’s no shame in setting yourself a customized cutoff point in this case. I am assuming, however, that like many other writers, you have other work that pays your bills, and that the querying can take the time it takes.
Agents can have a great sense of the market. But sometimes they do get it wrong, just like Steve Jobs initially thinking that people wouldn’t want a device without a keyboard (hello, there, iPad). So don’t necessarily assume that people won’t read your book, just because the rejections start piling up. Sometimes you really do just have to wade through the agents who are wrong to get to the one who is right. Query until you can’t anymore and be aware of just how many emails you actually have the opportunity to send off. And even if you get to the point where you’re out of agent options, you still can get your work out into the world.
So prepare yourself. You’ll be published. It’s just a matter of time.