The Process of Getting an Agent

Several people have asked me lately how the process of getting an agent works. Not from the writer perspective, but from my perspective. It varies from agent to agent, but here’s an approximation of how it looks if you submit to me.

You send a query. It sits in my inbox until I get to it.

Eventually I read it and make a decision as to whether I think it might be right for me to represent. If not, I send a “thanks but no thanks” letter. If I’m interested, I send a request for a proposal and/or a partial.

You send your requested materials, and again it sits in my inbox until it gets to the top of the queue. Sometimes this takes awhile. Finally I read your partial. Again I make a decision.

If I don’t think it’s going to work, I send a pass letter. If it shows potential, I request the entire manuscript (if it’s fiction) and possibly more information about you so I can get a good handle on platform. Since reading a manuscript is a serious investment in time, I only request more if the potential is very strong.

I’ll read and evaluate the manuscript and additional information. Is your writing professional level? I’ll study the marketplace and try to ascertain where your projects fits. I’ll determine if it fills a need, or if the market is already saturated with the topic. I’ll decide if I personally can get behind it; I’ll evaluate whether I think I have the right publishing contacts to get this book sold.

This is the hardest part of the process for me, because if I say “yes” and offer representation, it will be a big commitment on both our parts. It takes time to make this decision; usually much longer than is comfortable for you. You’re getting impatient by now.

Eventually I’ll put you out of your misery (or add more, depending). I’ll either send you a very apologetic pass letter (obviously I liked your project and I’m probably disappointed that it’s not going to be a good fit for me) or I’m going to call you and offer representation.

During that phone call (or email exchange), we’ll discuss the project, the submission process and publishing process, and our ideas for moving forward. You’ll have the opportunity to ask all the questions you want. Then it will be YOUR turn to make a decision.

You’ll hang up the phone and think about it. Pray about it. Talk with your spouse or best friend about it. You want to make an informed and wise decision.

If you’ve sent your project to other agents, at this point you’ll want to let them know you have an offer of representation and ask if they’d like a chance to respond before you make a decision.

After all of this, OF COURSE you’ll call me and accept my offer of representation. (wink) We’ll talk about the Agency Agreement, and exchange contact information.

The next step will be editing and revisions to the proposal and manuscript. I’ll guide you through this process until I believe your materials are ready for submission. Meanwhile, I’ll be putting together the list of editors I plan to submit to, and I’ll be composing a killer pitch letter introducing your project.

When everything is ready, I may make some phone calls to editors, depending on the project. I’ll tell them about you and convey my excitement for the book. The next step is sending your proposal and manuscript to the editors I’ve targeted (via email). That’s the first-round submission process.

With hot projects, I might hear back from editors right away. Others will take longer. (Since the recession, this process has gotten even slower than usual.) How things progress from here varies depending on how much excitement your book is generating. A sale could happen within a few weeks (although this is less likely) or could take a few months or more.

Once we agree to accept an offer from a publisher, the work of negotiating your contract begins. I’ll do that… you can sit back and enjoy your glass of bubbly. For a little while anyway. Life’s going to get busier once you have that contract!


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!


  1. Mulled Vine on November 6, 2009 at 8:20 AM

    >Thanks for the insights. I like the Christian angle too of course. I think for many writers (including me) the prospect of a Christian agent would be a lure.


  2. cttiger on October 30, 2009 at 9:53 AM

    >Thanks for this level handed expose. It's only fair that we writers walk in your shoes, at least for a few minutes. Someone once told me to look at my mystery from the "bad" guy's viewpoint. It's only fair that we look at the agent from the agent's viewpoint, as well (and no, I'm not implying that you're that bad guy).
    Frankly, I think you have the harder job: it can't be easy to 1. read all those queries/MSs and 2. send out rejections all the time.
    Thanks for taking the time!

  3. Louis Edwards on October 29, 2009 at 4:08 PM


    Thank you so much for the insight to the process. I'm new to writing but enjoy it immensely. This gives me something to look forward to. Thanks once again.


  4. Louis Edwards on October 29, 2009 at 4:08 PM


    Thank you so much for the insight to the process. I'm new to writing but enjoy it immensely. This gives me something to look forward to. Thanks once again.


  5. Lisa Dez on October 28, 2009 at 1:45 PM

    >This is a great post. Backstory is the biggest stumbling block for most new writers.

    A couple of things to remember as you write. You need to be in your character's heads, but your readers don't. You love your character and you want your readers to too, so there's the tendancy to want to "tell" them why they should through backstory. They don't need all the nuanced details. They'll get it through character driven dialog and situations. How your character reacts is a much more powerful way of getting that info across.

    My goal with my last novel was to write it without a single paragraph of "telling" backstory. My agent had me add some in on revisions, but it's minimal. And the writing is a thousand times stronger.

  6. Rick on October 28, 2009 at 10:42 AM

    >I'll join in the chorus of praise and add my "thank you, Rachelle!"

    I can hardly wait to finish my manuscript, but have such a long way to go.

  7. Caroline Starr Rose on October 28, 2009 at 7:53 AM

    Thank you so much for this. I have an agent phone call scheduled for tomorrow morning. I remember reading your questions to ask post last spring (even printing them out for some future date). I've added a few more to my list these last few months.

    Thank you for your generosity. I always look forward to your posts. Here's to tomorrow's conversation!

  8. Sharon Mayhew on October 27, 2009 at 9:47 PM

    Thanks for the great post. I'm looking forward to the bubbly part. Well and the I've got an agent part.

  9. Tamika: on October 27, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    >Rachelle, I never get tired of hearing about the road to finding an agent.

    It makes my stomach lurch.

    I can't wait for that day. Thanks for posting the process.

  10. Sharla on October 27, 2009 at 1:45 PM

    >Awesome insight into what we all hope to experience one day! LOL! Great post, Rachelle. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out so that we can cross our fingers and toes and wish for it!

  11. Cynthia Schuerr on October 27, 2009 at 1:42 PM

    >Rachelle, thank you for this enlightening post. You have removed much anxiety from the waiting process. I have not been fortunate enough to submit my work, yet, but one day, as I wait for a response, I will be grateful to you.

  12. Victoria Dixon on October 27, 2009 at 1:41 PM

    >Thank you for posting this, Rachelle. I've read your blog for awhile and wish you were a good agent fit for me. I'm positive you take great care of your clients, as you take care for those of us who aren't. 🙂

  13. Terri Tiffany on October 27, 2009 at 12:46 PM

    >Thank you for sharing this! Very helpful. I like too that you decide if you can personally get behind a project. That's important to me when I match with an agent. I would hope they would believe in what I've written.

  14. Need More Words on October 27, 2009 at 12:10 PM

    >Rachelle, this post is so helpful. Thank you for sharing the behind the scenes process. It does remove some of the anxiety.

  15. Rachelle on October 27, 2009 at 11:55 AM

    >Bridget–SOMEDAY I'll start repping YA but not soon. I answered this in yesterday's comments.

    nightwriter–This is the kind of question that varies with each individual's situation. I won't answer with a generality. The only answer that ALWAYS applies is what I've said a hundred times before: WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.

    Sarah–Some agents use proposals for fiction, some don't. Most CBA agents & publishers expect them. Many ABA agents don't. It's not a dealbreaker if you don't have your fiction proposal ready when you query. But if you're querying in CBA you're going to need one so you might as well get it done in advance. It really helps you think through your book, how to pitch it, and how it fits in the marketplace.

  16. Lynnette Bonner on October 27, 2009 at 11:53 AM

    >Thanks for letting us know how you handle the process, Rachelle. It is nice to have it all written out in one spot.

    I too, was reminded of Billy's post while reading this. The thought came to me that we are not even done climbing once the book is published and available for public consumption.

    Publicity might be the steepest hardest part of the climb! (At least for me.)

  17. Sarah Forgrave on October 27, 2009 at 11:48 AM

    >Wow, I can't believe I prompted three tweets! 🙂 I guess my confusion comes into play regarding proposals for fiction work. Are fiction proposals prepared mainly to send directly to a publisher (i.e., without an agent)? Or does an agent ever want to see a proposal for a fiction manuscript?

  18. nightwriter on October 27, 2009 at 11:47 AM

    >Thanks–I'm at exactly this point in the process but wonder how much the economy has to do with the agent's decision? I hate to think that I came so close only to be turned down cuz of bad timing. What do you suggest we do if we're rejected–wait until next year to submit? Are agents also waiting for things to pick up? Please advise–thanks!

  19. Donna Gambale on October 27, 2009 at 11:46 AM

    >Great to know! When I one day get that offer of representation (crossing fingers, crossing fingers), it's going to be SO hard to be reasonable and not just say I ACCEPT! Thanks for the solid advice.

  20. Elizabeth on October 27, 2009 at 11:46 AM

    >Thank you so much for this WONDERFULLY informative inside look. It truly helped me better understand, appreciate and respect the process.

    Thank you!
    Elizabeth Esther

  21. Bridget Chumbley on October 27, 2009 at 11:30 AM

    >Thanks for another extremely informative and helpful post, Rachelle.

    Do you have plans to open up your queries to include YA in the near future?

  22. T. Anne on October 27, 2009 at 10:57 AM

    >I enjoyed this post more than the cappuccino I had while reading it. Most of the time an agent is the perceived 'end game' for aspiring authors. Billy Coffey so eloquently pointed out in a guest post last week it was merely a marker in the journey. Your post takes it the rest of the way and enables us to envision the remainder of the course to publication. What a wild ride, but oh so worth it. Thank you for all your efforts!

  23. CaitieCatherwood1314 on October 27, 2009 at 10:49 AM

    >Ok, thanks! That's really helpful!

    ~ Caitie

  24. Rachelle on October 27, 2009 at 10:47 AM

    >Lisa Jordan–As an agent, no. I did that when I was an acquiring editor, though.

    Deb–I think the query is more like your personal ad or profile on eHarmony. 🙂 Not the blind date quite yet.

    Sarah Forgrave–Your question inspired me to write, not one, not two but THREE tweets. You should never query without being ready to send requested materials that very same day. With fiction that means a completed manuscript, and hopefully a synopsis. With nonfiction that means a full proposal and three sample chapters.

    Caitie–You don't need to mention your age until you're further down the road with an agent and they appear to be seriously interested in your work. I disagree that agents would find it "impressive." The work always has to speak for itself, whether you're 9 or 90. There is no "grading on a curve." We won't say, "This is really good for a 15-year-old." It has to be really good, period. So send your query with confidence and know you'll be treated the same as any other writer.

  25. Anonymous on October 27, 2009 at 10:41 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks so much for posting this. It helps a lot to know what's going on while we're waiting to hear back. At least we can pass the time by working on other things.

    Deb Piccurelli

  26. Steph Damore on October 27, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    >I love it every time I can get some behind the scenes publishing info. Like Kelly said, it helps me feel even more part of this industry.

    I also loved all the links. You've given me plenty to read today!

  27. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on October 27, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    >Good morning Rachelle,

    From this post, I see that you ride the emotional roller coaster with us: the anticipation of finding just the right manuscript, the tension of waiting to hear from a publisher, and the excitement of getting THE CALL. Undoubtably it is a business, but your passion shows in the way you write about it.

    Thanks for letting us see inside.

    Be blessed,


  28. CaitieCatherwood1314 on October 27, 2009 at 9:53 AM

    >Thanks for posting this! I always love seeing things from the agents' perspective, and reading this makes me want to work even harder on editing my novel!

    This does remind me of a question though. You see, I'm only fifteen and I've heard some people say that I should put my age in the query letter because it will impress agents, but I'm skeptical. When do you think would be an appropriate time to mention my age?

    Thanks for taking the time to read this, I know how busy you are.

    ~ Caitie

  29. Cindy on October 27, 2009 at 9:44 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks for posting this process. I really appreciate how much passion you show for your clients (or potential clients) and their work.

  30. Roxane B. Salonen on October 27, 2009 at 9:02 AM

    >Rachelle, I'm a person who tends to be calmed by information (I suppose most of us are), especially when a certain process seems mysterious to me. Somehow, just reading this brought me some peace today; helped me trust a little more in that process of book-writing and selling, as well as in God's perfect will and timing. Thanks. 🙂

  31. Sarah Forgrave on October 27, 2009 at 8:53 AM

    >Thanks for giving us a look at the process from your end. I've heard multiple recommendations to have the story written before you query, but what about the proposal? You mentioned you sometimes request a proposal if you're interested. Is it a good idea to have that finished along with the manuscript before querying?

  32. Billy Coffey on October 27, 2009 at 8:43 AM

    >Loved this post, Rachelle. Very, very accurate (and I can't imagine a more perfect picture). The last line is so very true, too. The end is just another beginning.

  33. --Deb on October 27, 2009 at 8:16 AM

    >Love this (and LOVE the illustration). It's so easy to forget how many queries cross your desk every day. I agree with Anne, too, that it's good to hear/read how the process merges into a partnership. Both agent and writer start off on their own, and then start building a relationship. (Does that make the query letter the equivalent of a blind date?)

  34. Sharon A. Lavy on October 27, 2009 at 8:03 AM

    >Thank you for this post. As an agent you want to find that gem that speaks to you as a reader.

  35. Marla Taviano on October 27, 2009 at 7:58 AM

    >The first 12 paragraphs made me smile. The last 4 made my insides all jumbly. Sooooo exciting!

  36. Kelly Combs on October 27, 2009 at 7:22 AM

    >I love reading these "insider" details from you. It really helps me feel like I understand the publishing industry.

    Hope you have a great day!

  37. Krista Phillips on October 27, 2009 at 6:56 AM

    >Thanks for the sneak peak into your process! It helps those who are twiddling their thumbs… er I mean, vicariously writing on a new WIP while they wait. *grin*

  38. Lisa Jordan on October 27, 2009 at 6:13 AM

    >Thanks for showing us the process you go through for submissions. Have you really liked a project in the past, but passed on it because of the market, and then gone back to with a re-offer to the writer?

  39. Katie Ganshert on October 27, 2009 at 6:12 AM

    >Thanks for this post! Relieves some of the anxiety that inevitably builds with waiting. It's good to know, as my manuscripts sits in a few inboxes (or Kindles), what's going on behind the scenes. I know you agents are so busy!

  40. Heather Sunseri on October 27, 2009 at 5:58 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for that great description into your process for evaluating queries and manuscripts. I got excited just reading about it. Someday…

  41. Jessica on October 27, 2009 at 5:29 AM

    >This is so interesting to me! Thank you for posting it.

  42. wendy on October 27, 2009 at 2:20 AM

    >Unfortunately, you and I won't be travelling down this road as my recent submission was rejected. However you responded in a few days for which I'm grateful. And your response was so kind that I felt let down gently. Whoever signs with you I'm sure will be well looked after.

  43. Camille Cannon Eide on October 27, 2009 at 1:34 AM

    >Cute photo. I've seen that "teamwork" episode. So…what are you trying to say? 😉

  44. writer jim on October 27, 2009 at 1:21 AM


    When I finished reading, I thought: Rachelle must really have to work hard at her job.

    Then I became curious: I wonder what was the most fun she has had at her new agent job? I don't ever remember you telling about that, but maybe you have. And maybe you are working too hard to answer questions like this. I bet it was fun when you sold your biggest deal, especially if it went smoothly.

  45. Aimee LS on October 27, 2009 at 1:14 AM

    >Thanks for laying that out in such detail. I find it easier to be patient when I know what to expect / what is happening behind the scenes!

  46. Anne L.B. on October 27, 2009 at 1:11 AM

    > I'll decide if I personally can get behind it.

    While I appreciate that the process begins as a very one-sided effort, you've made obvious that it progresses until it becomes a partnership. I'd like to thank you publicly for making that kind of commitment to those writers whom God blesses with your representation. From our end, it does seem like a lonely, endless waiting game. I know it is not once you decide to get behind us.