The Top Four Reasons Literary Agents Don’t Respond to Your Query

May 11, 2015



When we first became literary agents through Transatlantic Agency after years on the publishing side of the business, we diligently responded to every query we received from writers. Most of those queries came through writers we knew, or through other contacts who had a good sense of what books excite us. They were targeted. Many of them did excite us enough to pursue them further. And if they didn’t, we declined them as courteously as we could, because most of those queries were thoughtful and professional and warranted a like response.

More recently, though, as the volume of queries we receive has increased, we’ve stopped responding to every query. The submission guidelines for Page Two principals Jesse Finkelstein and Trena White now say: “Due to the volume of submissions received, replies will be sent only for submissions being actively considered.” That’s not entirely accurate, though: we do still write polite notes to some authors we don’t feel we can represent.

When might an agent not respond?

Here are the top four reasons a literary agent might not respond to your query:

  1. They prioritize the clients they are currently representing.

Agents are always scouting for new talent, but our first priority must be representing our current clients. We are busy reading proposals and giving our clients feedback, building submission lists, writing pitch emails, negotiating deals, and reviewing contracts. Not to mention supporting our authors as their books go through the publishing process and discussing all kinds of writing and publishing issues with them. Sometimes we just don’t have the time to respond to queries that are not right for us. (But no matter how busy we are, we do always respond to those careful, targeted queries.) 

  1. Your book does not fit that agent’s list.

Many of the queries we receive don’t fit the subjects that interest us. For instance, we specialize in non-fiction, and only in rare cases do we represent fiction (usually when we have a talented client who writes both non-fiction and fiction equally well). Our submission guidelines state clearly that we specialize in non-fiction. Yet lately we’ve received many queries for novels of every genre: sci-fi, literary, YA, fantasy – you name it. The fact that these writers are querying us suggests that they have not done any research on our mandates. They may be pitching every agent they can find listed online. In any case, we usually just delete those queries.

  1. Your query is incomplete.

We recently received a query that said simply: “I think I have what you’re looking for after reading your interests through a google search of new literary agents.” Below that brief note the author included a couple of links to some books that he had self-published. That was it. No synopsis, no author bio, no information on the market need for this book, or why he was looking for an agent after self-publishing them.

 There are two problems with this approach:

  1. It forces the agent to do further research into you and your books before deciding whether they’re right for them. Most simply won’t.
  2. It looks unprofessional. Agents are looking for writers who take their work (and the agent’s!) seriously, and an incomplete query letter is a sign that you’re not doing so.

There are a lot of online resources that tell authors how to write a professional query letter. We like this post about non-fiction queries from GalleyCat and this one about fiction queries from Writers Digest.

  1. Your approach is off-putting.

There are many ways that a query letter can be off-putting and make an agent disengage. These are a few of the most common:

  • Errors: For obvious reasons, query letters with a lot of typos or grammatical errors don’t go far.
  • Generic: A lot of agents won’t read queries addressed “dear agent” rather than with their personal names. That phrase suggests the writer hasn’t done any homework and is not sending a targeted pitch.
  • Gimmicky: Queries that contain a gimmick to attract the agent’s attention are distracting. The best query letters focus on the content and make a strong case for the book’s market potential and the author’s credibility. At a publishing house we used to work for, a woman once hand-delivered her query letter and proposal along with a life-sized cardboard cutout of a sea captain to attract our attention. If you’re writing humour, that kind of gimmick may work, but generally don’t do that!
  • Aggression or resentment: It may seem obvious that you don’t want to be rude to the person you’re querying. But we do occasionally receive queries that seem to blame the publishing industry for not being interested in their projects. We just received one that included the line: “I can’t stand emailing proposals and waiting for replies.” That’s not an appealing tone to take in your approach, even if you’ve been rejected many times and are getting frustrated.

If agents are ignoring your queries completely, consider whether any of these factors might be the reason. Agents love thoughtful, carefully crafted pitches that are targeted just for them.

If you are writing those and still getting rejections, take heart. We’ve all heard of writers who’ve been rejected roundly by dozens of publishers before getting impressive book deals. For inspiration, check out these bestsellers that were initially rejected. 

Coming soon: how to write a killer non-fiction query letter

In the next month or two, we will write a blog post about how to write a strong non-fiction query letter that will get you noticed by agents and editors.