Are You Addicted to Finding a Literary Agent?

Note: A different/shorter version of this essay appeared as a guest post on the writing blog, Write it Sideways, in April 2010. It’s been extensively expanded and updated!

Have you become an agent-search addict instead of a novelist? If you recognize yourself in the following scenario, then you need help.

You spent two years writing a novel then revised it countless times. Armed with tips from the likes of former agent Nathan Bransford and super agent-bloggers Janet Reid and Kristin Nelson, you crafted such a compelling query letter that a number of agents requested “a look.” Now you’re a writer, you told yourself. Now you’re in the game.

Rejections to your partials and fulls trickled in one-by-one, but you were prepared and realistic. You sent more queries in batches of five, gleefully responding to requests for your manuscript—a version you tweaked with vague comments from the agents who liked your book, but not as much as they liked your brilliant sell. (It was a stellar query letter.)

Your friends told you not to lose hope. Of course not, you said before boring them with query-letter lore: J.K. Rowling, Kathryn Stockett, etc. You gave friends and family your request statistics despite their glassy stares. You found reasons to say the words “Eight agents are reading my novel.”

More rejections came. You wondered if you should revise the book again, but the conflicting opinions of the thirteen agents who read some portion of it, or all of it, confused you. You lost your way and your voice. You wondered if it was time to give up. But Kathryn Stockett, Kathryn Stockett, Kathryn Stockett. (Sixty agents rejected her. SIXTY!)

Now, instead of working with the new characters and plot you’ve imagined—you’re researching agents again. You haven’t written anything new in six months. Rejection is demoralizing, but starting over is terrifying. You’re sending out query letters to every new agent on the scene. You’re out of control.

My friend, you’re addicted to finding a literary agent. You need help.

I know because I’ve been there. Once upon a time (almost two years ago), I realized I’d forgotten to employ the enthusiasm, determination, and sense of perfectionism to my manuscript that I brought to the process of trying to find an agent. But even after I recognized the flaws in my novel, it took some time to step off the agent-search roller coaster. Why? Once I was in the cycle of sending out letters and actually communicating with publishing professionals, the idea of walking away from the potential high of an agent’s offer seemed worth the endless lows I’d have to experience first.

It takes good instincts to know when you’re a Kathryn Stockett and when you’re beating a dead horse. I only sent my query letter to thirty agents. Then despite some agents reading revisions and offering to read yet another revision, I put that novel in the virtual drawer before seeing the process through to what I suspect would’ve been the end. Some would say I gave up too soon considering I’d garnered interest, but ultimately I didn’t feel that particular novel deserved the wide audience I’d deemed it worthy of at first. (That’s also my answer to the inevitable question: Have you considered self-publishing?)

BUT HOW DID I BREAK MY ADDICTION TO FINDING AN AGENT?

First I had to accept that what drew me to the agent-search process other than the dream of publication was not an unfaltering belief in the merit of my novel, but rather the desire to feel less isolated in my work. The idea of a publishing professional reading my words was hard to resist. Eventually (thank goodness) the quality of my work mattered more to me than the mere existence of it (if that makes sense). I also discovered other ways to dip my toe into the publishing world. I found an incredible critique partner for my newest novel-in-progress; I wrote short stories and enjoyed working with editors; I wrote guest posts for some popular blogs; I joined Twitter; then later started this blog (which people seem to read). I also joined Backspace (a writing community), and I attended a weekend writing conference in Boston. I found time for all that only after ending my desperate search for an agent. I’m a better writer because I moved forward.

If you’ve found yourself researching agents at a point when you should be focused on writing, here are the rules you must follow IMMEDIATELY:

  • Write. 
  • We all need a break while we’re writing. Instead of searching the internet for stories of how people found their agents or debates about self-publishing, read about authors’ writing processes on excellent sites like Writer Unboxed and Beyond the Margins.
  • Instead of following so many agents on Twitter, follow experts on storytelling such as Larry Brooks (@storyfix) and James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell). Focus on writing, not on the publishing industry.
  • Write. Revise. Repeat.

Are you Addicted to Finding a lit agent? by Nina Badzin

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Nina is a contributing writer at Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, Tcjewfolk.com, and at Kveller.com. She's also a freelance writer with articles in several magazines, anthologies, and websites. Her short stories have appeared in over a dozen literary magazines. She was thrilled to participate in the 2013 cast of Listen to Your Mother, and she enjoys co-leading the book review site GreatNewBooks.org. Nina lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children.

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52 Responses to Are You Addicted to Finding a Literary Agent?
  1. Women's Fiction Writer
    July 5, 2011 | 8:38 pm

    I spent years compiling my agent list and learning about publishing as I wrote my novel(s). Anytime I didn’t write — or couldn’t write — I used that time to further the eventual cause of agent hunting! When I was ready I had a long list and lots of information about the process and the industry. I think that being obsessed with having lots of agent info is better than having no info at all. You did it right, Nina. You found the balance. But that’s what it needs to be for someone who wants an agent and traditional publishing…as long as they also actually write and revise and polish a book!

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 4:47 pm

      Hi Amy! I agree with you to a point. The problem is (for me people like me) it’s easy to lose focus on putting the writing FIRST. The information about agents isn’t going anywhere. When a writer is ready, Nathan’s posts, and the posts on the GLA blog will still be there just waiting to be devoured. But you’re right, I do have a good handle on the process works for better or worse. ;)

  2. julie gardner
    July 5, 2011 | 9:17 pm

    Nina,

    Another great post from you, my friend. I can see this “addiction” being all too easy to embrace.

    I loved the Kathryn Stockett reference because it’s a natural instinct to cling to the underdog stories with happy endings, isn’t it? (No matter how rare they are, whether we want to admit it or not.)

    I also couldn’t help smiling at the vision of friends and loved-ones volleying hopeful (and supportive!) questions, then glazing over as the answer comes…sometimes slowly and in painful detail.

    I think the key is to remain hopeful, but also to keep writing.

    We can’t put all our eggs in the basket of one finished manuscript.
    (or something like that.)

    Thanks for the food for thought ~

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 4:50 pm

      Ha! YES, the details . . . I’d explain a partial vs. a full and then how hard it is for the agent to sell to a publisher. My poor friends.

  3. Anne R. Allen
    July 5, 2011 | 9:21 pm

    15 years and 7 books later (3 published by small presses) I’m still at it. Now my rejections say “of course this is beautifully written, and I absolutely love it, but nobody wants mysteries/romantic comedies/suspense/women’s fiction any more. Where are the zombies? Why don’t you write steam punk/zombiepocalypse/high school romances?

    If I ever did, I think I’d get the same rejections, because those fads would be over. I don’t seem to be a fad person.

    So I think I’m about to give up the self-defeating game. It’s time to self-publish. Thanks for reminding me it is a kind of addiction. Agents are not always the answer.

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 4:53 pm

      I know I said the same thing on your blog, but here it is again. If ANYONE is in a good position to self-publish it is YOU. And you’re becoming a valuable teacher for others. Like the Nathan B for authors who want to self-publish. How do you like that?

  4. Anita
    July 5, 2011 | 11:45 pm

    Wow! What an interesting way to look at it. I’d never thought of that. I actually know some addicts. Maybe it’s time for an intervention. For me, the drive to write was always stronger than looking for the agents. Even while I was querying, I was still working on a new WIP. That’s probably the only thing that saved me. Great tips here on how to stay productive! Thanks for the links.

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 4:56 pm

      Anita, you said: “For me, the drive to write was always stronger than looking for the agents. Even while I was querying, I was still working on a new WIP.” And that, my friend, is why you have a great agent and book to be excited about! You had/have your head in the right place.

  5. ramblingsfromtheleft
    July 6, 2011 | 12:27 am

    Excellent post, Nina. I have been told I am a coward and don’t send, send, send out enough queries. A friend of ours sent out over 200 of them, paid someone one thousand to perfect some more and sent out another 100 … I didn’t think there were that many but according to him, there are that many and double the number again.

    Then he did the … I’m too good for them and self-pub’d.

    The trick is to keep writing and reading and learning. I loved your comments and thanks for the links :)

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 4:57 pm

      That’s a CRAZY story!!! Especially the $1000 part. Oy vey!

  6. Terri Giuliano Long
    July 6, 2011 | 12:49 am

    Terrific post, Nina! As always, you offer thoughtful advice. I think we all have a different tolerance level- for some 10 rejections is too many, while others can accept 50 or more. The key, as you point out, lies in what we’re doing – are we spending more time writing or searching for an agent? If the latter – again, as you say – it’s probably time to move on.

    Thank you very much for your insight!

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 5:00 pm

      Terri, that’s a great point re: different tolerance levels. I think for me, I stopped at 30 because I knew what it would take to really overhaul that particular novel and I wasn’t convinced the novel deserved it. Ultimately I’m really glad that book is not out in the world.

  7. Amanda Hoving
    July 6, 2011 | 9:10 am

    I’ve been here, Nina. Those requests can eclipse everything else, and the thrill of the agent search is, well…a thrill! Great advice — always focus on the writing FIRST!

  8. Melissa Crytzer Fry
    July 6, 2011 | 9:38 am

    Hmm… I may be an anomaly, because I found the agent search so downright exhausting that I couldn’t wait to get back to writing … Don’t get me wrong … the emotional highs of agents wanting to read my work was nothing short of spectacular. But, overall, I’d MUCH rather be writing. That’s not to say I don’t do bits of agent research and keep up with who’s repping what/whom. And, like you, Nina, even though I was getting decent query responses, I decided to keep my query courtship very short for the first novel. I think, in my gut, I suspected I could create better work.

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 5:02 pm

      You absolutely have the right attitude about wanting to get back to the writing. I hope I feel that way too the next time I query. In my fantasy of the second time around, I’m working on yet another book and casually waiting to hear back about the one going around rather than connected to my email like a crazed animal with no self-control.

  9. Jael
    July 6, 2011 | 10:35 am

    Great piece, Nina! Here’s what frustrates me sometimes: the thing that gets left out of the OMG KATHRYN STOCKETT 60 REJECTIONS defense is that it’s not like the exact version of The Help that has sold eleventykajillion copies was rejected in that exact form by that many people. As she was seeking representation, she was fixing and rewriting and incorporating feedback; and after the book was bought, no doubt there was editing then too. It wasn’t just sending query after query after query, yet that’s the mistake many writers make in seeking representation, and the behavior they defend by citing her example.

    Never lose sight of the writing. It always, always matters.

    • Miriam Gershow
      July 6, 2011 | 4:09 pm

      Oooh, so smart, Jael.

      And such a great original post, Nina. I got lucky in my agent search. But I know many, many folks who’ve gone down the agent-search rabbit hole. I have all sorts of rabbit holes myself, including the will-I-ever-sell-my-second book rabbit hole and if-I-don’t-what-will-become-of-me rabbit hole and if-I-do-what-will-the-reviews-say rabbit hole. etc. etc. etc. All distract from the writing. And you’re so right — the writing is always the cure, even on the many days it makes me want to tear my hair out.

      • Nina Badzin
        July 6, 2011 | 5:13 pm

        Ha! Love the rabbit hole examples. Meanwhile, speaking of reviews, I’ve seriously stopped reading reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. People are so dang vicious. Even though I’m not the author of the novel, I cringe and wince the entire time. Also, it makes it harder to write because like you said, I can’t help but imagine the terrible reviews!

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 5:05 pm

      Jael, you’re absolutely right about the Stockett example. And she was willing to put that much work into the manuscript because she so strongly believed in the story she HAD to tell. I just didn’t have that drive for my novel, which is how I knew to let it go. Thanks for chiming in!

  10. Sharon Bially
    July 6, 2011 | 11:12 am

    “what drew me to the agent-search process other than the dream of publication was not an unfaltering belief in the merit of my novel, but rather the desire to feel less isolated in my work.”

    Awesome. And what a great post. While the mantra always seems to be, “keep going” (in that agent search — just like “keep writing”), I do believe it’s smart to know when and why to stop. Some people do land an agent after 2 years of nearly full-time searching, but most simply don’t. And in this day and age, where blogging, self-publishing and online communities make it easier than ever for every writer’s voice to be heard in some way, it’s a perfect time to find — and leverage — “other ways to dip [your] toe into the publishing world.”

  11. Brad
    July 6, 2011 | 11:38 am

    Nina,

    This is me! I thought I was the only one with this particular addiction, but my friend alerted me to this post and I read it with a growing elan to stop looking for an agent and go back to writing. Like an addict, my palms sweated and my heart raced as I redrafted my query letter for the umpteenth time and tweaked my magic first 50 pages for the gazillionth time and sent off the latest query. No more! Yes, I will still query, but not at the expense of writing. Thanks for the help breaking the cycle.
    Brad

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 5:07 pm

      Oh the magic fifty pages. Yes, good times. If only I could nail the next 225, too. ;)

  12. Yuvi Zalkow
    July 6, 2011 | 12:24 pm

    Wow! I hadn’t heard it stated quite like this, but you have such a good way to put it. It is so easy to get lost in this agent-finding world… at the expense of the writing. At least that’s what happened to me for a while… Thank you for this post.

    • Nina Badzin
      July 6, 2011 | 5:08 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Yuvi. And glad you found me on Twitter.

  13. Nina Badzin
    July 6, 2011 | 5:06 pm

    Sharon, you’re such a great model for trying other paths. I can’t wait to see what happens now that Veronica’s Nap is out in paperback! (Of course I bought an early copy at Muse!)

  14. Anne R. Allen
    July 6, 2011 | 5:20 pm

    Wow. The Nathan B. of self-publishers. If I go that way, that sure would be something to aspire to. Thanks for the encouragement, Nina. I’m still waiting on a few small presses, but if I don’t hear soon, I’ll take the plunge.

    Florence–about paying people to send out those queries: It’s 100% scam. Every agent knows what those spam queries look like and they’d never take on a client who used them. Your friend threw away her money. I usually stop querying at 100 queries on each book. Although I’ve sent 200 on some. Not mass mailing, but researching each agent and tweaking the query to their tastes. Doesn’t help. They ask for pages or even fulls, but in the end they say nobody wants anything that could possibly be called “humorous,” unless you’re writing for children.

  15. Linda K. Wertheimer
    July 7, 2011 | 3:37 pm

    Nina,
    Loved this post, and shared it on my Facebook writing group. I could probably write the opposite post because I’m definitely not addicted to agent querying.

    I move very, very slowly. The rejections, even when accompanied by glowing words about my writing, definitely sting. At the Muse 2011 in Boston, I asked some established authors their views about whether I should stop querying agents and simply try small presses directly.

    The answer was universal: No, keep querying. I haven’t even hit the dozen mark, to give you a sense of how slow I’ve moved at this.

    My game plan, such as it is, is to keep crafting excerpts from my memoir and finding homes for them, to keep blogging,and most importantly, to keep writing for publication. I, too, am a strong believer in connecting with other writers. It keeps me motivated. It keeps me talking, too, about the most important thing. Writing.

    Linda

    • Nina Badzin
      July 8, 2011 | 9:38 am

      Linda,

      I think your game plan sounds really sensible. While it’s true there are many great agents out there, if you blanket the agents with a few big query pushes at once, then you’re sort of finished before you’ve started. I’ll bet your work ends up in the right hands, and you’ll be that much more out in the world with your work and a platform in the meantime. Thanks so much for sharing your experience here and for putting my post on Facebook!

      Nina :)

  16. Julia
    July 8, 2011 | 7:31 am

    Thank goodness this is one affliction/addiction I do not have — there are so many others. I once or twice vaguely looked at agent descriptions before deciding, as you say, to focus on my writing! (However, I will definitely bookmark this for the next time I consider going there!)

  17. Duke Pasquini
    July 10, 2011 | 11:30 am

    I tried for a long time to get an agent and got a lot of rejections. Even had a couple agents say they were interested in my story concept, but for some reason didn’t like what I sent the first 50 pages. I did a lot of rewriting after that, but never sent it off to an agent again, which may have been a mistake.

    I self published my book, A Warrior’s Son (jakesgold.com) and have only managed to sell about 100 copies, which is normal for a self-published book, at least that’s what Barnes and Noble told me.

    I’ve written five novels in five years and feel I need an agent to market them. I do make more money selling my own books, but if only friends and relatives reads them, what difference does it make?

    • Nina Badzin
      July 10, 2011 | 11:41 am

      Yes, I agree that a wider distribution would be much better. I plan to try an agent again and the traditional publishing route when I have a worthy novel. My post is definitely not meant to bash agents…it’s to remind writers not to put the cart before the horse. ;)

  18. Duke Pasquini
    July 10, 2011 | 11:32 am

    I tried for a long time to get an agent and got a lot of rejections. Even had a couple agents say they were interested in my story concept, but for some reason didn’t like the first 50 pages. I did a lot of rewriting after that, but never sent it off to an agent again, which may have been a mistake.

    I self published my book, A Warrior’s Son (jakesgold.com) and have only managed to sell about 100 copies, which is normal for a self-published book, at least that’s what Barnes and Noble told me.

    I’ve written five novels in five years and feel I need an agent to market them. I do make more money selling my own books, but if only friends and relatives reads them, what difference does it make?

  19. Racquel Henry
    July 12, 2011 | 12:17 pm

    Excellent post. I’ve been researching different publishing options lately. Like you said, there are other ways to tap into the publishing world.

  20. Natalia Sylvester
    July 12, 2011 | 1:18 pm

    Oh wow, so much to think about here!

    When I finished the very first draft of my book (about four years ago), I set it aside and took that time to learn about how to find an agent. There was so much information out there, and that’s how I started reading blogs, joining Twitter, etc. I think at that point I became addicted to the agent search (even if I hadn’t queried yet). My one-month hiatus from my draft turned into a six-month break. It took me six months to realize that, as great as it was that I had all this information, I couldn’t do anything with it until I had my book polished. So I went back and rewrote and revised. Querying was something I was constantly dreaming about, as if it would be a rite of passage for me as a writer.

    The funny thing is, after I started querying and eventually signed with my agent, I realized what an addiction I’d had. I went through a bit of a withdrawal. No more constantly checking emails, with those small surges of hope. No more clicking on every single agent-related link. It was the strangest mix of emotions. I was of course ecstatic to have signed with my agent, but also surprised by how quiet things were. It was like stepping off a roller coaster and having to readjust to the earth being still.

    What I’ve learned since then is that it’s all a roller coaster. It hasn’t really stopped; it’s just changed. The only thing we can do is accept that this journey will have its ups and downs regardless of what stage we’re in, and that we’ll have to find our own peace within the chaos.

    • Nina Badzin
      July 19, 2011 | 9:59 pm

      I get that missing it feeling. (It’s weird, but real.) I feel it now that I’m not submitting stories the way I did over the past year. Focusing more on the WIP!

  21. Stephanie Alexander
    July 12, 2011 | 1:37 pm

    Great post, Nina! I was definitely there a while back. Thankfully, I did end up landing an awesome agent– but now I realize that if I’d been sending out the MS/query I sent to her six months beforehand I probably wouldn’t have sent it out so many times. The agent search is really draining, and I agree that it can take away from writing time.

    I’d also advise people against doing too much social networking or even reading up on the craft. The absolute best preparation, in my mind, is actually sitting down and attempting to write something worthwhile.

  22. Camille Noe Pagán
    July 12, 2011 | 1:42 pm

    Nina, good post – both funny and true. And your advice – write! – really is the best solution to most literary conundrums. At least IMO. :)

  23. [...] continuing to write your next book. In a recent article on writer Nina Badzin’s blog entitled, “Are You Addicted to Finding a Literary Agent?” Nina writes, “…instead of working with the new characters and plot you’ve [...]

  24. Ida
    July 13, 2011 | 7:02 pm

    I realize now that many writers have tried much harder than I did to find an agent/get published. I’m probably impatient and also no longer young. I queried about 10 or 11 agents/publishers for my middle grade novel over a period of a year and a half or so. I followed their guidelines and so sent queries one at a time with a long pause in between for their review process. This was usually about 3 months. I think towards the end I cheated and only waited 6 weeks before moving on to the next, otherwise I wouldn’t have managed even 10 queries in 18 months.

    After this discouraging interval in my life, I decided to go through what I believe is called supported self-publishing (iUniverse). I chose a package (Premier Pro it is called) at a discount. I’ve been happy with their service. For what I paid, they have done a lot and everything they said they would. Of course, I’ve been responsible for the line and content editing. I like the cover they designed incorporating one of the photographs I sent and the Editorial Evaluation was good and persuaded me to make some changes. They probably would have been happier if I had purchased some add ons but I had decided from the start what I would spend.

    The book comes out this month. I know the marketing will be up to me.

    Altogether it has been an exciting process and I’m glad I went this route. The endless rejection of the present system is too disheartening I think but from reading various blogs I think I understand it better.

  25. [...] Finding an agent is the first step toward the Holy Grail. YA author Laura Ellen shares her story of persevering through multiple disappointments to find the right agent for her. But even though most of us will need/want an agent, can you look TOO much? Can you be addicted to finding a literary agent? [...]

  26. [...] doing this video, I read a post by Nina Badzin about being addicted to finding a literary agent and I realized that my trailer was more than just [...]

  27. [...] Here is the link to Nina’s great post that I kept referencing in the video: Are You Addicted to Finding a Literary Agent? [...]

  28. [...] Nina Badzin reposted an essay about her addiction to finding literary agents. How to break the addiction? Much the same way I break my anxiety over editing people — I worry about working on my own shit. [...]

  29. [...] } Do You Hold The Well-Being Of Your Beloved Close To Your Heart?Flower Beetles close to your heartAre You Addicted to Finding a Literary Agent? .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 [...]

  30. Twitted by jsinsheim
    September 8, 2011 | 11:49 am

    [...] This post was Twitted by jsinsheim [...]

  31. [...] For ingredients to a recipe for a delicious writer-reality-check soup, start here: http://ninabadzin.com/2011/07/05/are-you-addicted-to-finding-a-literary-agent/ [...]

  32. aviatrixkim
    June 10, 2012 | 12:19 pm

    This is so completely right-on that I’m feeling a bit bashful: Are you watching me? Did you install some sort of keystroke-monitoring device in my computer? Great diagnosis, great suggestions for treating the disease. Thanks!

    • Nina Badzin
      June 10, 2012 | 6:10 pm

      I know–when you’ve been there it’s painful to relate.

  33. [...] It’s not that each step has come easily. It hasn’t. Just ask Bryan what I was like during the year I was trying to get a literary agent with one of the books. But each positive step has felt like a natural outcome of the efforts and passion I have put [...]

  34. Bob Conklin
    May 1, 2014 | 8:47 am

    Well, three years later … Yes, yes, yes, I’ve been addicted to the agent-hunting process, armed with four novels and a variety of query letters that produced “Dear Bob”s and requests for partials and even whole manuscripts. Alas, I’ve only been piling up rejections. My desperation for acknowledgment, recognition — all right, I’ll admit it, fame — has driven me close to a nervous breakdown. It’s true, one agent will say your opening is too “talky,” so you’ll cut out the dialogue, and then the next agent says your opening is too descriptive, so you re-add the dialogue! The worst rejections are the form letters that say: “not right for our agency” or “not enthusiastic enough to represent you.” In any case, thanks for the post! I’m gradually toning down my agent hunt and working on something new meant to please myself rather than agents based on what I think they want.

    • Nina Badzin
      May 1, 2014 | 11:35 am

      Well, I am happy and sorry (for both us) that you can relate! ;) Thanks for reading this and taking the time to comment.

  35. […] Nina Badzin reposted an essay about her addiction to finding literary agents.How to break the addiction? Much the same way I break my anxiety over editing people — I worry about working on my own shit. […]

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