Bill's Blog

Literary Agents – Your Ten Seconds to Do or Die

Nov 1, 2010

If you’re like most writers trying to break into this business, you know that you need a literary agent. Many publishers won’t even consider a manuscript unless it comes to them through a literary agent, and it’s always good to have an agent’s expertise in negotiating a book publishing contract.

But finding an agent can be a daunting task. I frequently hear from writers who have been banging their heads against the agent wall for months. The conversation usually goes something like this:


Writer: “I’ve written a great book, but I can’t even get a literary agent to read it. How can I get an agent to take a serious look at my book?”

Greenleaf: “Well, you—”

Writer: “It’s so frustrating! I’ve sent out more than fifty queries, and not a single agent has expressed any interest at all in my book.”

Greenleaf: “Yeah, I know it’s—”

Writer: “Frankly, I’m ready to throw in the towel and self-publish. As far as I’m concerned, those agents can kiss my . . . ”

You get the idea. If you’ve ever tried to convince a literary agent to take you on as a client, you know how hard it can be. The problem is, the best agents are already so busy they’re reluctant to consider taking on a new client no matter how good he or she is. What’s more, when you send your query letter to one of those top agents, you’re competing against a boatload of other queries that come in on the same day.

“I get about a hundred queries every day,” a New York agent told me not too long ago. “I can afford to give them about thirty minutes.”

“Thirty minutes for a hundred queries?” I tried to work the math in my head, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

“I spend ten hours a day taking care of my existing clients,” said the agent, “reading their manuscripts, talking to publishers, and negotiating contracts. I can’t devote more than thirty minutes to new queries.”

“You must be a fast reader,” I said.

“Not really. I’m just careful about how I spend my time. Out of those hundred queries, at least ninety only get about ten seconds each before they go in the reject bin. Usually, I don’t get past the first paragraph.”

Most of those ninety rejects, he explained, are from writers who don’t have a clue about how to write a query letter, and obviously haven’t bothered to find out. The writing is rambling or choppy or incoherent and runs on for page after page.

“If a writer can’t even write a decent query letter,” he said, “why should I believe that he or she can write a decent book?”

“Ninety out of a hundred queries are that bad?” I asked.

“Yes, and believe me, I can spot them in ten seconds or less. Takes about fifteen minutes to go through those ninety queries, especially now that so many of them come in via email. Less paper to shuffle through. That leaves fifteen minutes for the ten queries that make it past the ten-second review.”

I had already worked that one out. “Gives you about a minute and a half for each one.”

“Right. But I’ll only spend about thirty seconds each on five of those queries before tossing them into the reject bin. Those are the ones that are pretty well written, but the books they describe aren’t the kinds of books I handle. I only work with novels, but every day I receive queries for autobiographies, self-help books, and even cookbooks. If those writers had spent a few minutes checking my website, they would’ve known better than to waste their time sending me queries for books that are outside my area.”

If he spent thirty seconds for each of those rejected queries, that left, by my calculation, about twelve and a half minutes for the five queries that made it past the second hurdle.

“That’s about right,” he said, nodding. “Those five queries are the ones I really focus on. If the queries are well written, and if the book is something that catches my interest, I may ask to see the first fifty pages of the manuscript. Or I may decide, for whatever reason, that the book doesn’t stir up enough enthusiasm for me to go any further. The point is, out of the hundred queries I get on any particular day, only about five of them warrant any attention at all.”

So now we come back to you, a new writer trying to snag a literary agent. Your task is to make sure your query letter survives the first ten seconds of scrutiny and thus makes it into that much smaller group that has earned the agent’s attention. Here’s how:

  • Limit your query letter to one easy-to-read page. The agent will be much more likely to stay with it to the end if he or she can see that you’ve managed to keep it to one page. And don’t cheat by using a microscopic font. Times New Roman 12-point typeface will work nicely. And it’s okay to single-space the query letter.
  • Impress the agent with your writing ability. Be concise, descriptive, and engaging.
  • Proofread the query letter carefully. Don’t give the agent any reason to think you’re a sloppy writer.
  • Query the right agents. Check their websites and find out what kinds of books they handle. If you’ve written a suspense thriller, don’t waste everybody’s time by querying agents who don’t handle suspense thrillers.


If you can do those things, you’ll end up in the top five percent of queries the agent receives. That means he or she will read your query letter all the way through to the end and may even ask for a chapter outline, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. Or maybe not. Even when you’ve got a great query letter and a very marketable manuscript, there are lots of reasons why an agent will decide not to take you on as a client. Maybe the agent hasn’t been having much luck lately selling the type of book you’ve written. Or maybe the agent already handles too many clients in that genre. Or maybe the agent is feeling particularly weary that day and just doesn’t feel that he or she has the necessary energy to get enthusiastic about taking on a new client.

There are a lot of agents out there, though, and if you do everything right, eventually you’ll convince one of them to ask for your manuscript. Then, of course, your manuscript has to follow through with the promise of the query letter. It has to be compelling, well-written, and commercially marketable. And it has to be as good as you can make it before you send it to any of those agents. Too many writers blow their chances of snagging a good literary agent by sending out their manuscript before it’s ready.

For more info about literary agents, check out my September 23 blog post, Literary Agents: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

You may also want to visit for information about:

  • Why do I need a literary agent?
  • What red flags should I watch for?
  • How can I find the right literary agent for my book and convince the agent to take me on as a client?
  • Why do I need a book proposal?

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

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