Literary representation: by the numbers
In a recent Book Broker interview, literary agent Harvey Klinger told us that he receives hundreds of queries annually. "I lost count years ago," he said. Of those, he requests a full manuscript from 10-15% percent. If "hundreds" can be taken to mean at least 200, that's around 30 full requests per year, but likely more. Of those full requests, he will go on to offer representation to 10-12.
These acceptance rates aren't unusual. In fact, they are more forgiving than most agents we've asked about this. But take this to mean that in order to catch an agent's attention, your manuscript must at least be better than 85% of what's in circulation. And in order to land representation, you need to be in the top 6%. In fact, with most agents, your manuscript must stand out in the top 1%.
We've recently included this question in our literary agent interviews:
Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?
Here are some of the responses we've received:
As an agency, we receive about 200-400 submissions a month. Of those, we only take on a few a year. This is the same for most agencies but we have a dedicated reader who looks at every single submission we receive and recommends them to agents. —Carrie Plitt
At an average of 300 per month, that's about 3,000 annually, and with only a few taken on per year (let's assume four), that's an acceptance rate of less than 1%.
On average, I receive about three to five queries a day so… out of the approximately 1500, I probably request 1-2%. And of those… maybe a handful. —Karly Caserza
Again, this is an acceptance rate of less than 1%.
Our agency receives hundreds of query letters a year. I ask to read about 50% of them and of that percentage I might reach out to three or four people to ask them to come with us. —Jane Dystel
This works out to about the same number of queries as Harvey Klinger said he receives annually. However, Jane Dystel requests more widely, yet offers representation to fewer than half as many.
It's interesting to see how some agencies receive a lot more queries and so they can afford to be pickier, but most seem to take on only a "handful" or so new clients each year.
As an agency we receive several thousand submissions per year. I already work with a fair number of authors, so I have occasional periods when I am closed to queries. I probably request about 20-40 manuscripts per year and take on about two or three new clients annually. —Sarah Davies
I’m rounding the numbers here, but I get about 5,000 queries a year. I might respond to fifty or so with a request for a full, and of those, I may offer on ten. —Carlisle K. Webber
In conclusion, though it's doubtful many querying writers are under the impression that this is an easy road, the point is still worth underlining: it's not easy. Many authors who finally succeed in landing an agent have a number of "practice manuscripts" under their belt, either left by the roadside or returned to the back-burner.
It's critical to keep honing your craft, keep reading, and keep writing. There is no way around it: success as a novelist comes only after a tremendous amount of dedication and hard work.