Fishing Lessons

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
~Ancient Proverb

I frequently receive emails from writers asking me if the process they’re experiencing is “normal.”

Maybe they’re seeking an agent, and they’re in the midst of a convoluted and confusing process of agents requesting partials and taking forever to respond; other agents never responding to queries; perhaps an agent expressing interest but never following up.

Sometimes the writers asking questions already have agents. They’re not necessarily looking to switch, but they’re having trouble communicating with their agent, or they’re confused by the process, and they want some advice. For whatever reason, it seems easier to ask me about it than to talk to their own agent. So they email me, asking, “Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”

I often sense what people are really asking is: Am I crazy or is this a terrible way to do business?

And more importantly: Should I stick with this situation (this agent? this publisher?) or should I move on and find something better?

Here’s the gist of the answer I normally give:

1. You’re probably not crazy – if you sense something isn’t right, that may be the case. You may be working with someone who’s not handling things ethically or responsibly. Beyond that, I think the whole system is crazy-making. The query process is hard on everyone, and even when you’re represented, things don’t always go as you (or your agent) would want. Add to that the fact that everyone has more on their plate than they can realistically handle, and it makes for a crazy system in which it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. So something may not feel right, but it may or may not be a “normal” part of the system.

2. The best answer is always to communicate as clearly as possible, directly with the person with whom you have an issue.

3. I don’t know whether you should stick with your situation or move on. There are countless variables and every situation is different. Unfortunately, I’m not the right person to advise you on the specifics of your situation. This is where you take all you’ve learned in general about agents and publishing, put it in a pot and stir it with your wisdom, try to eliminate your emotional response, and come up with a plan for yourself.

One of the reasons I write this blog is because I want to share general information to help you navigate the system. I hope to give you a sense of the industry so that you can add your own wisdom and make good decisions.

Basically, I’m trying to “teach you to fish” so that you can be confident in the publishing world. I’m not able to give everyone their own “fish” but I hope the fishing lessons on the blog are useful!

Having said all that, I must admit that I do try to respond to every email that lands in my box. But sometimes I can’t help feeling that if the writer would just read more blogs, talk to a couple of writer friends, and get their emotions out of the way, they’d be able to come up with their own answers fairly easily.

If you’re tempted to write an agent with a question about your own process, I recommend you take a few moments to deeply examine all you’ve already learned about the business, and see if you can come up with a workable answer on your own. Are you asking for fish when you’ve already been given the hook, line and sinker?

Got a question you’ve been wanting to ask an agent? Leave it here.

I’ll answer as many as I can in the comments, and others I’ll answer in future blog posts.

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  7. Anonymous on January 27, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    >Thanks for answering my Q! (I'm Anon 10:42) I'd like to query you since you rep what I write but the odds are daunting and I don't go to Christian conferences…are you open to a query for mainstream fiction? Thanks, Rachelle!

  8. Rachelle on January 26, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    (1) No
    (2) I don't know
    (3) Probably not

  9. Shaunna on January 26, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    >I have three related questions. The first one is quick: is it standard to pay extra for the chance to pitch to an agent at a writing conference? The second one is almost as quick: if it is, what is the usual charge? The third one is subjective and not so quick: is it worth it?

    Thanks in advance for your answers.

  10. Rachelle on January 26, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    >Anon 10:42: Keep looking for an agent. Pitch the ones you pitched before, adding a line to your query that says something like, "I previously queried you but since then I have spent a year revising and improving this manuscript, so I'd like to ask you to look at it again."

    Also query new agents. Why be limited to the same ones? There are hundreds of agents.

    Just keep trying. There is no substitute for persistence. Rid yourself of the attitude that there aren't any agents out there for you (as expressed in your second paragraph). Don't be defeatist, just keep working!

  11. Anonymous on January 25, 2011 at 10:42 PM

    >A year ago, I had several agents asking for partials and fulls but no offers. Since then I've improved my ms. 100%.
    Q: Is it OK to e some of those same agents with the same ms. and same title or should I change the title and pretend it's a new ms.? I tried e-querying an agent who'd requested the full but they never answered. Should I keep looking for new agents or try the old ones again?

    Seems the new 20-ish agents are all looking for YA, but the established agents aren't looking for new clients… Not sure what to do next–any ideas?

  12. Polly on January 25, 2011 at 10:11 PM

    >wish you were coming to Blissdom, loved your comment on flowerpatch's blog!

  13. Tamika: on January 25, 2011 at 6:15 PM

    >Rachelle, I remember emailing you almost a year ago asking an industry question, and I got goosebumps that you actually answered me! You are so down to earth and available to writers at all stages.

    I kept that email! But you're right if I had taken a bit more time and visited a few more of your blog posts, I could have baited my own hook:)

    Thanks again!

  14. Robin on January 25, 2011 at 5:43 PM

    >Can't wait for tomorrow's post! I am OBSESSED with platform. My genre is non-fiction humor focused mostly on motherhood and parenting.

    When I signed with my agent (Jenny Bent) I didn't really have a platform. I was super lucky (pinch yourself lucky) that she believed in me. I had a weekly humor column in a local newspaper and a blog that was barely up and running. Since I signed, in the summer of 09 my "job" has been platform building.

    I've self-syndicated my column and it runs in 8 papers in 3 states, I've actively pursued freelance writing in Christian magazines and have a monthly column in a well established regional mag.

    I'm DEFINITELY on higher ground than I was two years ago but I still wonder, "Is it ENOUGH?" I'm not Kate Gosselin (Thank God), and chances are slim I'm ever going to be on Oprah… when is enough, enough for a publisher?? Will I EVER know if I get there?

  15. Larry on January 25, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I had an agent request my manuscript about a year ago. I've dropped an email to this person last summer and they said they were still interested but gave no insight as to when they might get to it. I dropped a note one other time since. What would you do?

  16. Anonymous on January 25, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    Thanks for your blog and the helpful insight. Here's a question I have:

    If an agent has called on the phone and expressed that he expected to be sending a representation contract "soon" (within the next week or ten days, what is a reasonable amount of time to wait before following up if the contract doesn't arrive within the expected time frame?

    I don't want to be too pushy but also want to make sure I'm not forgotten amidst his other responsibilities.


  17. Sue Harrison on January 25, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    >Thank you for another opportunity to ask questions, Rachelle!

    When a novelist is trying to obtain an agent and is continuing to write new novels during this process, should s/he write all the novels in the same genre or would it be wiser to write a couple of novels in one genre and then try another genre for the next book or two?

  18. Anonymous on January 25, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    >This is a general question, because I realize each situation is different, but how does an agent know if and when they have too many clients?

  19. Michelle DeRusha on January 25, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    >Rachelle: Just simply want to say thanks — I've learned an awful lot by popping in here.

    And David, thanks to you, too, for clearing up the mystery of memoir vs. non-fiction. Clearly memoir is non-fiction — it's fact, after all — but it never seemed to me to fit well in the classic non-fiction genre. It's good to know once and for all that it's sort of its own entity.

    As for numbers…I had an agent tell me fairly recently that I needed a blog with 5,000 hits/day, and that I needed to be speaking regularly to audiences of 500+. That really took the wind out of my sails, because I'm not Oprah, you know?!

  20. Jean Ann Williams on January 25, 2011 at 1:17 PM

    >Thanks, again, Rachelle, for helping us along.

  21. Rachelle on January 25, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    >Sean: When confused about genre, start by envisioning where in Barnes & Noble your book will go. Fiction is usually divided into: Mystery, Romance, SF/Fantasy, Young Adult/Teens, Christian, or General Fiction.

    So is it a Christian book or not? If you don't want it in the Christian section, then don't even send it to Christian publishers; seek agents who rep general market books, not just Christian books.

    As for the zombie element, in some circles "zombies" are almost a genre unto themselves, but I think generally zombies are considered paranormal, which is a subset of fantasy.

    Your book is NOT a thriller unless it's some kind of a spy or crime drama.

    If querying for Christian representation, I'd probably call it something like: a faith-based fantasy featuring zombies.

    For general market agents, a fantasy featuring zombies.

    But remember, this is an art, not a science. Once an agent reps you, they'll decide what genre to pitch it as.

  22. Jeanette Levellie on January 25, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    >I'm glad you mentioned shoving your emotions aside. That's where I get in deep doo-doo.

  23. Sean on January 25, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    >Thanks for the Q&A, Rachelle. What genre would you attach to a faith based book with zombies in the setting? I've been told to query as Christian Thriller to Christian agents, and as UF to mainstream agents. Personally, I prefer Christian Paranormal but no one seems to have heard of that and I'm afraid it could be off-putting. And no, it's not a zombie bonnet book. Although, that's not a bad idea. I should go write that down…

    Can't wait for tomorrow's blog on Platform – nice question Aimee. Thanks again!

  24. Timothy Fish on January 25, 2011 at 11:59 AM


    I understand the concern you have, but I think that if you’ll give blogging a try you will discover that there is very little overlap between the stuff you would put on a blog and what you would put in a book. As an example, I wrote a book Book Cover Design Wizardry that will be available soon. If I were writing about book cover design in a blog post, about all I would be able to do is display an image of a book cover and talk about the good and bad of it. In the book, that is just the jumping off point. From there, I can take the reader step by step through the process of recreating that book cover.

  25. Crystal Jigsaw on January 25, 2011 at 10:32 AM

    >I know it sounds somewhat corny, but I love your blog; every time I come here it seems to be because I have been driven here by an unseen force! You always seem to have the answers to questions I am currently asking myself.

    Last week, I sent out by email and post, 11 queries, some of which involved one chapter, two or three, some just a synopsis, some just a query letter. But I have now reached the process after finishing my current ms, where I am scrolling through agents and publishers in order to find one suitable for my work. I realise it will take weeks, in some cases, months, but I'm prepared for the wait.

    CJ xx

  26. Rachelle on January 25, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    >Fiction Chick: You didn't say whether or not your Canadian contract actually restricts you from publishing for a period of time. Either it does or it doesn't, so find out. It may not prohibit you from pubbing in a totally different genre.

    Regardless, querying agents is the same for you as for everyone else. Just add a line at the end of the query about the fact that your first book is being published by [x publisher] in Canada. If and when an agent expresses interest in your new manuscript, go ahead and explain the situation.

    Fatchristian: I'm not sure if you're being facetious or not. I'm going to assume you are, because it's a question that makes the point of my blog post. You don't need me to answer it. Look around at the thousands of bloggers who also have books. There are plenty of examples to learn from!

  27. Daniel Eness on January 25, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    >Just to be clear, when I mentioned followers for non-fiction, I wasn't talking about memoir, at all, but expert/teaching non-fiction: i.e. a subject that you should have such expertise on in an area with enough popularity that _at least_ 3,000 people are interested enough in learning the subject to follow you.

    The number is by no means hard and fast, or based on anything other than what I see most non-fiction "gurus" of any merit having. Let me put it this way: say that I'm an expert in something of general interest – say fitness. I give talks and post insights on this subject and am working on a book. I probably wait until I have about 3,000 "followers" (as measured by the total of my twitter, facebook, email newsletter list subscribers, and commenters) until I approach a publisher with a proposal.

    Once the book becomes available, I would expect that number to go up, and would be in a strong position
    This is not an impossible number to reach for a relevant non-fiction subject.

    If say, my area of expertise is in something like laser technology, these numbers would be much, much lower.

    Now, if you are talking about memoir, all bets are off. There's no tipping point for followers if your memoir isn't uniquely positioned, and there are plenty of well-written memoirs from people who had little or no platform (but, obviously, the bigger the platform, the better).

    In other words, platform (unless it is massive – Dr. Phil massive, or, at the very, very lowest, Rick Springfield massive) for memoir has no "magic number." The only time I'd wait for followers to reach "critical mass" is when I'm working on a non-fiction work of semi-timeless information. If it is a time-sensitive instructional book, get it out now!

  28. fatchristian on January 25, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    >If you are trying to build a platform using a blog what material will be left for the book?

  29. Fiction Chick on January 25, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    >Rachelle, thank you for the opportunity to ask a question. Here's mine:

    I am getting my first book published by a Canadian press. I do not have an agent. I have a manuscript in a different genre, and I would like to start querying. Is this appropriate even if there are time limits to when I can publish again in my contract? How do I go about introducing myself to an agent under these circumstances?

    Thank you so much for your help!

  30. sarahanneloudinthomas on January 25, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    >I'll have my fish lightly sauteed in butter with capers and a splash of white wine. And thanks to you and others like you Rachelle, I can have some fish most any time I like with just a little effort. I SO much appreciate your willingness to share what you know about the industry. And as I was reading your "general" answer, I was thinking that it could apply to most things–in-law troubles? work issues? Money problems? Always communicate clearly and be as well educated in general as you possibly can. Use your wisdom (spirit/discernment) and try not to be emotional about it. Thanks for some universal truths this morning.

  31. Ricky Bush on January 25, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    >I'd say that there ain't no 'normal' in the publishing biz.

  32. Joy Nicholas on January 25, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. Looking forward to the blog post.

    I think the "teaching to fish" metaphor is particularly appropriate for your blog: we're learning how to bait the hook, where to cast the line, and then how to wait (patiently?)… 🙂

  33. Rachelle on January 25, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    >Regarding WAIT TIMES (Anon 8:43 am): The "typical" wait time is: Longer than you want to wait. Other than that, there's no "typical" time since each agent is different, but most agents have a full roster of clients, meaning they're getting a constant influx of new manuscripts from clients, so whenever you send yours, you'll go into the queue and your agent will get to it as soon as they can.

    Agents don't typically read manuscript during office hours, meaning they read nights and evenings. Since it takes about 4 to 8 hours to read a single manuscript (and they have other things to do besides read manuscripts) it can take a long time to work through that queue.

    But if there is some special urgency on reading it (e.g. a publisher waiting for it) then it will get moved to the top of the stack.

    If it's been a couple of months and you haven't heard anything, you should definitely email your agent and ask if there's a problem or if they can give you an estimated time when they'll get to it.

  34. Brian Miller on January 25, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    >nice…thanks for this one…it is settling to know…smiles.

  35. Rachelle on January 25, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    >Regarding PLATFORM questions (Aimee & Joy): Honestly, it's not all about numbers, and that's why books and blog posts don't give numbers. It's about a bigger picture. I'll address this on the blog tomorrow. (Thanks, David, for your input.)

  36. Rachelle on January 25, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    >Regarding endorsements: Alan Rinzler recently addressed this thoroughly on his blog, so rather than repeat it all, I'll just send you there: How an endorsement can help land your book deal.

  37. Anonymous on January 25, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    >I was wondering, what's a typical wait time once you've submitted a partial to an agent (whom you have already signed with)? I don't want to be one of those annoying writers who bug their agents for feedback without giving them enough time. Thanks for the help, Rachelle. Love your blog!

  38. Wendy Paine Miller on January 25, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    >Currently stirring, throwing in wisdom and doing my best to drain emotion. Thanks for being willing to teach us how to fish. I often learn by doing so this one really speaks to me.

    ~ Wendy

  39. Anonymous on January 25, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    >Thanks for the opp to ask! I've seen you address endorsements from whether an author should endorse, but how about from the perspective of the project getting the endorsement:

    If I'm submitting a fiction manuscript to an agent, how helpful would it be, really, to include a quote from a multi-published, bestselling queen/king/first lady/high priest of the genre? Assuming the writing is solid but you're on the fence about, say, content and marketability, would having a cover quote in hand for a non-contracted novel sway you in any way? Can a blurb sell a book to the industry pros?

    And if that bestselling author has had a policy of not providing blurbs for awhile but is making an exception, should that bit of information be included in the query or would it come across sounding too hard-sell and desperate?

  40. Joy Nicholas on January 25, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    >Love this quote!!
    Interestingly, Aimee asked basically the same question I was wondering, except that my question regards that nebulous genre, the memoir. It's non-fiction, so I have to have a book proposal (which I have a rough copy of already, in addition to the completed ms, though I'm stuck with the "platform" part) but it reads like fiction… so how important is the platform? Do I really need 10,000 followers?!?! (Ack!! *Panicking*) Book proposal books just don't make this very clear for memoirists, and I sure could use some help. Thanks so much for all you do, Rachelle!

  41. Katie Ganshert on January 25, 2011 at 5:59 AM

    >I'm with Bonnie! I love that quote. I tell it to my students every year and we talk about it. How I'm supposed to teach them to fish, not give them fish.

    You do a great job with that Rachelle!

  42. Bonnie R. Paulson on January 25, 2011 at 5:18 AM

    >That is one of my favorite quotes, EVER! I believe in education and self-reliance but I also believe in helping others find their way. You're awesome at all of the above!

    Thanks, Rachelle!

  43. Daniel Eness on January 25, 2011 at 2:46 AM

    >Someone will surely correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that social media platform is measured more in one's willingness to build and to attempt to build, in a healthy way, an author following.

    I'll put it another way. A would-be author _could_ purchase, trick, or wheedle himself into 1000 twitter followers, but that isn't as impressive as an unpublished writer who has 50 legitimate purchasers of her next book lined up.

    Obviously, an author with a measly 50 "die hards" isn't going to go very far, but, for a debut author, it is more about making the effort than inspiring the masses. Look at Mike Duran over at DeCompose – he always had a loyal following, but now that he has something to actually sell to his readers, his platform has broadened considerably (going by volume of comments).

    In short, pre-publication, I'd worry more about making content available than in having a jillion facebook friends. [I'm not talking about networking for network's sake, but networking for platform. There's a difference. Network can help you make beneficial connections, platform amplifies your voice.]

    Now, if you are talking about non-fiction, ignore everything above. Hit 3,000 followers for starters, and you can talk about "building" a platform. Hit 10,000, and you have a platform to work from.

  44. Aimee L Salter on January 25, 2011 at 1:16 AM

    >As a novelist, what constitutes a 'good' platform in social media? 1000 twitter followers and 3000 blog hits a month? Or ten times that?

    There's a lot of emphasis in agent blogs placed on building a platform, but I've found zero numbers to indicate a baseline.

    What kind of numbers would you draw a publishers attention to, and what kind of numbers would be too low?