Claire King


Literary Agent Responses – How long is normal?

Posted on: June 29th, 2011 by Claire - 42 Comments

This week I had a response from a literary agent to a submission I sent out 8 months ago (and withdrew 8 months minus one week ago). It was a slightly surreal reminder of the submissions process (and for information, it was a rejection)…

Rainbow in a meadow


When I was submitting I kept an excel spreadsheet of my submission dates, to whom I submitted, the initial response time etc and I thought it might be time to share. This was my process for finding an agent:

1) Look in the Writers and Artists Yearbook for agents that handle literary fiction, accept unsolicited submissions and were currently open to submissions from new authors.

2) Consider which authors my writing is similar to, and find out who represents them.

3) Draw up a long list of agencies, then check out their websites, google them and see where they have turned up on the web, what novels they have sold, articles they have written, etc etc.

4) Draw up a shortlist of 20, take a deep breath, start sending out queries in batches of four or five.

5) Wait

I don’t know if that’s a good process or not, but it felt right to me.

In the end I submitted to eleven agents before signing with an agent in early November. Of those agents, six hadn’t yet responded, so I wrote to them, and e-mailed, to withdraw my manuscript.

Of those six, three replied by email the same day, to say thank you for letting them know, congratulations and good luck. The three that replied had variously had my submission for 3 months, 6 weeks and 1 week.

Of the remaining three, one never replied. One responded to my original submission in January this year and one replied to my original submission this week, after having had the submission for 8 months!

Is 8 months normal for a response?

For those of you who have work out on submission at the moment, how long do you consider is reasonable for a response? What does an eight-month high slush pile even look like?

In other stats – for the five agents who responded to my initial submission:
One replied after a month to say their slushpile was too big and they had stopped accepting submissions.
Two rejected – One after two weeks, one after three weeks.
Two requested full – both requests arrived 6 days after I posted the query + 3 chapters (from France to the UK). And then pretty fast turnarounds for the fulls – two weeks for one agent and four days for the other…resulting in The Call.

Getting a rejection from an agent saying this: “With such a full list of clients, it is rare that we are able to take on new authors – and then only with material we are extremely confident of placing with a publisher.  Regretfully, we do not feel that your work fits into that category.” several months after my novel sold to Bloomsbury doesn’t have the sting to that it would if I were still looking for an agent. But it’s a sharp reminder that this industry is so incredibly risk averse and subjective.

Wishing all of you slush-pile warriors courage and the best of luck.


42 Responses

  1. Rebecca Emin says:

    Oh that is funny! 8 months and then a really standard message. They will regret that decision next year :o)

  2. Jet says:

    I’m nowhere near query ready yet but this is an interesting insight into the submission process. It seems the average wait time is a couple of months but some agencies vary so much.

    I dread to think what an 8 month slush pile looks like.

  3. Sometimes it seems such a random process, doesn’t it? I’ve had replies ranging from two days (!) to nearly a year after. Crazy. I swear the two days one went straight back in the post box as they received it.

    Glad you’ve got a good agent now x

  4. Cathy says:

    My replies have ranged from an hour, replying to an email submission, to eight months. The latter I actually chased very politely, because it was so far outside the agency’s stated response time, and I was asked to resubmit. It appears that one probably had got lost in the email system, even though I had submitted exactly according to the website instructions. Once I had resubmitted I got the rejection within days.

  5. DD's Diary says:

    Wow, huge congratulations on your deal with Bloomsbury, that must have really taken the sting out of the (very late) rejection! Even with my agent sending my MS round it sometimes took ages to get a response from publishers …. nerve-wracking times 🙂

  6. Eight months seems a tad exaggerated and a bit rude, actually.

    Your strategy is exactly the one I plan to follow. I have my spreadsheet ready, synopsis done, letter drafted and am in the last throes of tidying up the ms.

    *Takes deep breath and approaches diving board*

  7. janetyjanet says:

    Hah – they will forever know chagrin and be quoted as salutary examples like the agent who turned down the Beatles or JKRowling – hah indeed!

  8. Might pretend I haven’t read that post! 😀

  9. Talli Roland says:

    That’s hilarious – especially after your MS had already been sold!

    I once got a rejection to an email query (US agent) a full year and a half after sending the three paragraphs. I mean, really! 🙂

    • claire says:

      After that time really, why bother (although it’s still oddly depressing to get a rejection, even when the book is sold!)

  10. D.J.Kirkby says:

    Oh this is one of the hardest things an authors has to go through, isn’t it? I have had rejections which took a week to arrive and some which have never arrived (I am presuming no response is a ‘no thank you’). I am dleighted to say the search for my agent was worth the effort and angst and urge everyone currently searching for one to have faith in your writing and keep searching. Your agent is out there waiting for your writing….

  11. My novel was accepted rather quickly (I went directly to an Indie publisher after liking the interview I read with him) but this year I had a short story accepted after a year and a half! I had enquired a couple of times during this time and received very kind replies begging patience, but it is a very good magazine with a very daunting board of editors and I still can’t believe it’s gone through! Eventually I’d I like to find the right agent which might mean being less of a secretary and having connections higher up the food chain?

    • claire says:

      I have to say, I think a good agent earns every penny of their commission. As you say they have the contacts, they do so much of the leg work and best of all – they love and champion your work. Good luck.

      • Good luck to you too! I’m enjoying the site and look forward to reading The Night Rainbow. Sorry to hear of your friend’s accident on the mountain. I am also a mountain lover – so very beautiful and treacherous

  12. Tara Bradford says:

    Fantastic news about your acceptance at Bloomsbury! Well done, you! Interesting experiences you’ve had with potential agents and their response times. Who knew they were so busy that it would take months to respond to a simple query??!! As for those who never respond, that’s just rude and unprofessional, in my view.

    • claire says:

      Some say on their websites that if you haven’t heard after 3 months you can consider it a no…
      Another thing that bugged me in the search was out of date websites.
      One submission was to an agent whose site asked for submissions via the actual website, or by email. I phoned them to ask if they accepted attachments by email and was told that they only accept paper submissions. OK then, but UPDATE YOUR WEBSITE!

  13. I had a similar experience after being signed by Luigi Bonomi at LBA. I’d approached 10 agencies, two per week for five weeks. I had 7 rejections, 2 requests for full mss and one didn’t reply at all.

    After being signed by Luigi, I contacted the other agency with the full mss to let them know, and the lady who answered the phone wished me the best of luck and said she’d let the agent in question know.

    2 months after signing with Simon & Schuster for a three book contract, the agency with the full mss offered by letter to “work with me” on the mss – obviously my message never got through. Fully 5 months after the signing, the last remaining agency sent me a letter saying they felt that the work “wasn’t commercial enough”. It’s going on sale across the globe as a lead title in UK, USA and Australia, and film companies are interested in the rights.

    My advice? Just stick with it, never quit, and if you’ve got ability eventually something will turn up.

    Dean Crawford

  14. eliza green says:

    As yes, the dreaded submission process. I think the worst wait I had was 6 months, and another that said no but tried to sell me their own book to make me a better writer I guess!!

  15. Nola says:

    I wrote a book. Next, I bought the Writer’s Handbook, read up on agents, looked them up online and then rung them. Sent in 6 email sample chapters, 3 asked for more. Had a choice between 2 agents. Chose one – a very good one.

    This was 5 years ago and the book was never published!

    So it can be stupidly easy to get an agent. And incredibly difficult to get a book published…..

    • claire says:

      Thank you for your comment – yes it can seem very easy to get an agent (I know of quite a few people in your position) if you have a good book. From the high of jumping that first hurdle (still a seemingly insurmountable one to many writers) I imagine that the months and years of looking for a publisher are a huge frustration.
      I don’t think at the moment the situation is improving much (although there IS always good news and I think myself lucky every day that I got the break I did.
      Did you continue writing and submitting further work? Best of luck to you.

  16. Hannah Kaner says:

    That’s unbelievable! Rejections always feel really personal.

    I wrote a book. An editor helped me develop it. We discussed agents and she suggested a few. We ranked them as first batch, second batch and third batch according to relevance and likelihood of picking up a YA book. Then researched agents on internet and called them [CALLING AGENTS IS TERRIFYING] to see if they’d accept a submission.

    All my submissions bar one were sent between the 19th – 21st August. So far, one emailed back within a couple of days. They were extremely complementary and offered a reference, but didn’t pick it up. I still love them anyway for that email and reference, it should help in future. Second email was a standard no. A week ago I got a standard from the third.

    The fourth however is somewhere, out in the literary wilderness, with the first three chapters of my book… there hasn’t yet been a reply for three months. I’m not sure whether to follow it up with a querulous email, but I don’t want to considering how busy agents are!

    Perhaps should wait 8 months and then call?

    Or maybe I should move on and contact more?

    Aaah decisions decisions. Perhaps I should find the office and turn up with a violin playing in the background and big puppy-dog eyes. Unprofessional?

    • claire says:

      I’d say send out more queries, definitely. Why waste months waiting just for one response? Agents these days usually expect you to be sending out multiples. Who knows, in 8 months time when they respond you could have already signed that publishing contract!

      • Hannah Kaner says:

        Haha good point. Wouldn’t that be delightful?

        Must settle down eagerly with my next list of agents. Website prowling, here I go!


      • Rosemary Baxter says:

        I always thought it was wrong to send out a piece of work to several agents at once? It makes sense to do so, though, because if you have to wait months before an agent replies and you are ‘set free’ to send it to another one, you could be waiting years for a positive response.

        • Claire says:

          It used to be that way, certainly 20 years ago, but the volume of submissions and the length of time it can take for agents to respond I think has made it untenable. Now it is perfectly normal to send out batches, otherwise as you say you could take years and only have approached a handful of agents. It is polite to let agents you’ve submitted to know when you are under offer though.

  17. Catdownunder says:

    I have started agent hunting too. I set about it in much the same way as you.
    I could not find an Australian agent willing to take an unsolicited ms. I tried a direct submission to a well established publisher which was taking submissions. It was turned down with the suggestion I try elsewhere and I was later told the story was not sufficiently “Australian” for them.
    At least that was a little more positive.
    Since then I have been trying to find agents who work in my area and are willing to accept a submission from Australia. Not everyone is.
    One wonderful person from a small publishing house actually offered to read the first three chapters and made some very encouraging remarks and suggestions. I am very grateful to her, especially as I did not think it was her area of interest.
    But, agent hunting is frustrating and infuriating. I know they are busy people and they get a lot on their desks but failing to reply leaves me wondering “just how good are they?” Perhaps agents need agents?

    • claire says:

      It’s said tongue in cheek, but there’s also a grain of truth. Many agents are so inundated by unsolicited queries that they employ readers to sift through the slushpile. It makes the reply time faster, but that is yet another layer of filtering, and usually a less experienced person or intern…so are queries even getting to most agents? Perhaps closing to queries for a certain time (as did one of the agents I submitted to) when the slushpile is too high is the answer?
      Good luck with your search, Cat and don’t give up! xx

  18. Lizzie Owen Thomas says:

    I’m glad you got an agent and hope your ms has been sold.

    A couple of years ago I met an agent at an RNA party and she asked me to send her the first three chapters. I waited and waited and waited. The next year’s RNA party came around and she was there again, full of apologies and asked me to send her the chapters again. Guess what? I never heard from her!

    I’d rather an agent just sad they weren’t taking on any new writers. At least we’d all know where we were then.

  19. claire says:

    Thanks Lizzie, my MS sold quite quickly after I signed with my agent, the book is coming out on Feb 4th from Bloomsbury 🙂
    In the before time, with a previous MS, I stuck to the ‘approach one agent at a time’ etiquette. It took me a year to get through 4 submissions. Completely impractical. I’m glad multiple submissions are now deemed OK.

  20. […] Probably not a very interesting story. But The Writers and Artists Handbook. It didn’t take long at all (but please note that this was not the first novel I ever submitted and the first time round was long and frustrating and also fruitless)! A fuller explaination can be found here: […]

  21. […] you want to see my post on how long the agent thing took, you can click the link. And yes, it took over two years from signing my contract to my […]

  22. Rick Lawrence says:

    Hello Ms King,
    Last week I emailed a query letter to an agent. This agent was in fact the first to be sent this particular query. I heard back in about 30 minutes. He asked for the book. I was more than happy to send it in.
    Rick Lawrence

  23. Devon Young says:

    I recently received an inquiry in the comments field of my blog from a literary agent that was interested in “chatting’ with me about my body of work and potential for a book. I responded within a few hours about my education, experience, publications that I had written for, and my interest in writing a book. A little online research seems to indicate that this agent is legitimate, or at least that she doesn’t have any “red flags” associate with her name and the “recent projects” that she list on her website I recognize. It has been a few days since I followed up to her inquiry. As this is uncharted water for me, I have no idea what the etiquette is, especially seeing as that I don’t even have a manuscript at this point. Should I be aggressive in making contact, sit back and wait, pause for a little… I have at least 2-3 strong book ideas on currently trending, but still largely under represented areas of food/health/lifestyle. Do you have any advice for a writer in my position?

    • Claire says:

      Hi Devon, Sorry to say that my initial reaction is to be very sceptical about this. It is very unusual that (good) literary agents go looking for people to represent. They are swamped with submissions as it is. Some will actively hunt out unrepresented authors who have self-published, but it’s the first I’ve heard of an agent suggesting you write a book (assuming you are not a celebrity). My usual advice would be to complete your book, then seek representation. It is highly unusual for a debut author to get representation based on an idea, although I am not writing in the same field as you so my experiences will be slightly different. And I would not chase this agent up. Wishing you the best of luck. Claire x

  24. One agent asked for my full manuscript. She also asked me whether I had a W8 on file or not. I sent an email asking whether I should attach the full manuscript to the email or not? In the same email, I asked her what a W8 was and the fact that I did not have it on file. I told her I wanted to discuss the formatting. I received no reply to that email. Then after 4.5 hrs I sent her the full manuscript attached to an email. There was no confirmation of receipt.No offer has come in 1 month. Help.

    • Claire says:

      It sounds as though you are approaching agents in the USA. Sorry I don’t have any knowledge about than and can’t offer any guidance. Seems a strange thing to be asking though and makes me wonder if that is a reputable agent. Good luck.

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