A writer’s search for a literary agent must seem overwhelming and ridiculously complex. When I was asked to explain it once, I couldn’t distill the process into less than twenty-five steps. Apparently getting and staying sober is simpler. (And that’s a bad joke.)
Perhaps it’s no comfort, but an agent’s search for new clients is every bit as complicated as a writer’s search for a literary agent. Over time, we might develop instincts that streamline the process of taking on a client, but what seems like pure intuition probably isn’t. Agents learn to notice all of the signals writers send, in their correspondence and in the samples of their manuscripts. The scales tip as we read. A little online research adds weight, if necessary. Certainly conversations with prospective clients influence our decisions.
On the topic of literary agents’ subjectivity when assessing new writing and writers, so much has been written and debated. Acknowledging the element of subjectivity is an effective consolation, but it also inspires a few novice writers to discount additional reasons their queries and submissions are rejected. Some of those reasons can be quite objective. Half a dozen agents in conversation with each other will find they have more in common than they have to dispute with regard to the selection of clients.
Not long after I started my agency, I happened to discover online Jennifer Holder’s master’s thesis. (Note: the PDF will download automatically if you click on the link.):
Holder examined the work of editors at one house, deconstructed their process, and then designed a theoretical checklist to help test the commercial viability of a manuscript and its author. When I read Holder’s thesis, I recognized many of the factors I, as an agent, weighed without making notes while reading queries and manuscripts and interviewing prospective clients. In my mind, the scales were tipping gradually with each new piece of information—more often tilting to one side than to the other.
So there it is, for any writer in search of representation and/or publication who cares to know. Textbooks have been written on this subject as well. The wisest writers will recognize that complexity is only the same as mystery or chaos if they allow it to be.
In other words, there’s homework to be done.