Ah, the eternal querying question: when will literary agents respond? How long does it all take? How long is a piece of string?
In all seriousness, though, there are so many parts of the literary agent querying process – and traditional publishing in general – that can seem shrouded in mystery. Lots of authors struggle with knowing when they can expect literary agents to respond, and when to nudge to remind them of their submission.
If you want to publish traditionally, these are all hurdles you’ll have to go through. There are ways of getting published without a literary agent, but if you’re hoping for one of the bigger more mainstream publishers (such as one of the Big 5), and not a small press, getting a literary agent is the first step (after writing the book, of course).
Remember: publishing is slow
Golden rule number one to be aware of when you’re querying is this: the publishing industry is slow, so don’t expect quick replies. You might have heard stories about people signing with an agent overnight, or within a couple of whirlwind weeks, but these are really the exception rather than the rule. Buzzy, fast agent signings or book deals get more attention because they’re unusual and exciting in an industry that tends to move at a snail’s pace.
Why exactly is publishing so slow? Well, everyone is very busy. Agents have lots of books crossing their desks – projects from their existing clients and submissions they need to consider (with more submissions coming in all the time). Reading manuscripts is only a portion of the job for an agent: they have meetings to deal with, events to attend, negotiations to deal with, contracts, foreign rights, and all sorts of other things. It takes time to read a book in its entirety, and extra time to really consider whether something needs revisions, whether it’s saleable or marketable in its current form, and so on. While the process can feel slow and frustrating for the author, the agent at the other end of the submission is just very busy and has lots of manuscripts to get through as well.
Agency guidelines can help!
Many literary agencies will have guidelines on their websites about response times. For example, they might say that you can expect to hear within eight weeks – and if you don’t get a response within that time frame, it’s unfortunately a no. (Agents are so busy and inundated with submissions that a lot of them have a no-response-means-no policy. Not all of them do, but it’s worth checking to see if this applies when you submit.)
What about nudging if they don’t reply?
If an agency has a no-response-means-no policy, avoid nudging them. (I know this is irritating from an author’s point of view, but nudging and going against guidelines can convey that you’re a difficult author to work with. In such a small publishing world, that probably isn’t a good idea, since you want to build yourself a good reputation.)
If an agency doesn’t specify their response times generally on their website, a good rule of thumb is three months. After three months, send a polite – brief! – nudge asking if they’ve had time to consider your submission. Use the same email chain (reply to the original submission) to save the agent time and effort digging around for your submission.
For an initial query (i.e. the first query you’ve sent the agent without any reply), I’d only nudge once, and if you don’t hear back, cut your losses.
If you’ve sent any requested material (either a partial or a full manuscript that the agent has asked to see), I’d probably go by the same three-month benchmark. Politely check in after three months, and see if they’ve had time to consider the submission. If you don’t hear back, leave it another couple of months and check in again.
The literary agent didn’t respond!
If you only sent an initial query, and didn’t receive any communication back from the agent or any requests for material even after a polite nudge, I would write that agency off as a rejection. Sadly, because of the nature of the industry and how busy and swamped everyone is, this is becoming more and more common.
If you’ve received a request for your full manuscript, or revision requests, and the agent doesn’t respond even after some polite nudges, this can be difficult – and hurtful for you as the author. It’s worth thinking about whether that agent was a good fit for you anyway.
This happened to me during my own querying journey. An agent had requested my full manuscript, read it, and suggested some revisions, with a note that she would read it again if I implemented her changes. This is called a revise and resubmit or R&R (sadly it does not stand for rest and relaxation!). I found her suggestions helpful, and revision requests are generally a good sign. So I spent a long while working on these revisions, sent them back to the agent… and never heard from her again. I sent three very polite nudges (over a period of six months), and they were also ignored.
Luckily, I signed with a wonderful agent who is responsive and brilliant to work with. You want a literary agent who is in your corner – someone you feel you can work with well. Getting off to a bad start isn’t a good sign. Remember this process is about figuring out who is a good fit for you and your career.
I hope this post helped on your querying journey. Remember: don’t expect literary agents to respond quickly (yes, I know it’s hard to avoid refreshing your emails!). The best thing you can do while querying is write the next book and keep yourself distracted from your emails.
Other posts about querying you might find useful
- Do you need a literary agent to get published?
- Querying agents: The revise and resubmit (R&R)
- The waiting game: How to survive querying or submission
- Submitting to literary agents: 10 tips
- How to format your manuscript (with free template)
- Should I hire a freelance editor before submitting to agents or publishers?
You can find more tips and resources on writing and publishing in my resources library for writers.