Finding an agent: keeping your chin up

You’ve finished your manuscript.
You’ve edited, re-edited, edited until you know every line by heart.
It’s fine, it’s ready.
You send it out.
And then comes the first rejection slip.

I saw a Tweet today from a writer who had received his first rejection. I know very much how that feels!

Here are two of my agency rejections when I was submitting The Howling of the Sky, which ultimately went on to become Blackwing.

Agency rejections

This wasn’t my first time around the block. I’d previously tried to sell two previous novels without success, and had received similar rejections before. Which is totally fine! Not everything is for every agent, and there are so many reasons that an agent might not be able to take your work on that isn’t “my book is no good”:

  • The agent’s list may be full
  • They may have similar works that they are currently trying to sell
  • They may not like bananas. By which I mean, it just might not be for them.

Some writers like to print out their rejection slips, and if that’s what works for you then I say do it! But below I’m going to detail what I did the last time around in order to turn the submission process into something that was mundane, workaday and didn’t require any emotional investment. Maybe this might work for you?

  1. When you come to submit you work, firstly make sure you know exactly what you’re doing. There are loads of resources about this, but the big tip is: follow the submission guidelines exactly.
  2. Make a list of ALL the agents that you think might enjoy your novel. You can do this through something like the Writers and Artists Yearbook, or you can look up the agents of authors that you feel play in your sandpit too. Don’t just choose agents at random; if you do you’ll waste their time and yours. Look for agents who have represented works that could sit next to yours on a shelf. Rank them in order of who you think would be best able to sell your novel.
  3. Draw up a spreadsheet. List the agents, the date that you submit to them, and the date on which you will discount them if they don’t come back to you. For me, the last was 3 months.
  4. Send your submissions out to 10 agents (or open-sub publishers if you prefer). Spend a boring weekend doing this and send them all out in one go. Note that if an agent says that they won’t consider works that are being submitted to other agents, you should respect their wishes.
  5. When 3 months have passed, or you get a rejection confirmation, colour that agent in brown on your spreadsheet. Don’t do red: red is for bad things. Brown is neutral. You’ll feel better the next time you open it.
  6. As soon as you get your first rejection, replace the submission in the pool with the next one on your list. Do it the same day, if you can. Always have ten submissions out. You might even want to draw up your next submission in advance so that it’s waiting to go when you need it, because you will get rejections. It’s hugely unlikely you’ll get super lucky and your book will get picked up without a single one.
  7. If an agent nibbles (e.g. full manuscript request), put a line on the spreadsheet to indicate that you got a nibble, and put the submissions on hold. Once an agent gives you their time, give them your full attention.
  8. If Nibbler doesn’t bite, then replace any further rejections so that you’re back up to ten. (Blackwing got a pretty big nibble, and I was down to 4 in the pool when the agent decided that it wasn’t for them)
  9. OPTIONAL: Advice may vary on this, but you might want to choose a final number of agents/publishers that you’re going to try before deciding that maybe this manuscript isn’t going to cut it. This number may change significantly based on feedback that you receive. I set mine at 100 rejections.
  10. As soon as those first 10 are out, get working on something new. Not the sequel. Something new, so that if you hit your limit, or you finish the new project without having found an agent or publisher, you have something new all ready to move onto. This helps with the “All my eggs are in this incredibly slow moving basket” feeling.
  11. If you finish your new project before finding representation, if you think that the new work is better (and it should be, because you’ll have learned so much writing the previous) you might want to consider putting the old manuscript into storage. That doesn’t mean it can’t come out again one day, but a fresh start can help.

This was just the process that I used to prevent myself from being emotionally invested into the submission process, and other writer’s approaches may vary (as with all writing advice, there is no ‘one-rule’ for everyone). This worked for me, however, especially on the darkest day when I’d become confident that I might have found an agent but it fell through. Although I admit I may have drowned my sorrows that night, the next day I was ready to get the next batch out, and that really helped me to keep a positive mindset.

Oh, and how long was it between sending my submission out to the agent who took it on, and hearing from him? Seven months! He’d been brown’d on the spreadsheet long ago. Agents are super busy people, and they have to give their focus to existing clients a lot of the time.

I wish you the best of fortune in finding the agent or publisher who is right for you, and remember, like everything in publishing, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Ravencry covers

Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark series of novels. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at

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