Just last year, I bid farewell to corporate America, resigning to become a full-time mom to my daughter. I was not planning to rejoin the workforce until she began school several years from now. And yet, here I am, looking for a job again. Well, not really. I'm hoping to get a book published. And to succeed, I need an agent. Going through the process of finding one makes me feel like I am looking for a job again.
There are a lot of similarities between seeking representation from a literary agent and looking for a job in the business world. And some very key differences. In the latter you provide a cover letter and resume. With the former, you send a query letter and a writing sample (depending on the submission requirements for that agent/agency). In either case, your goal is to wow them with one page so they want to learn more.
Once you have sent your information off, the waiting game begins. It can be long. The standard response time for literary agents is eight weeks. If they respond at all. Some simply do not if they aren't interested. The same is true of many companies.
When you are looking for a job, you normally respond to a specific posting. You discover an opening for an actual position and apply for it. When querying literary agents, your letter is almost always unsolicited. There is an old term in the industry for it - Slush. Your letter and writing samples are placed in what is called the Slush Pile.
Most literary agencies take unsolicited queries very seriously. They understand that there are some really good, even great, undiscovered writers out there. And there are agents who go above and beyond to make sure they read every query they receive. I have watched HR professionals sort through their piles; it would make you cry.
When you apply for a job, you are one of hundreds or thousands hoping to land that one position. When you are seeking representation from a literary agent, you are one of hundreds or thousands of unsolicited emails in his or her inbox. Placed in a pile s/he might spend 30 minutes a day reviewing.
You weren't asked to "apply." There is no specific opening to fill. If you manage to grab someone's attention and your project hits the right nerve with the right person, you've got a potential match. (And all that means is that you might be asked to provide further writing samples. In which case you still have a long way to go.)
Let's say you make it through this process and sign with an agent. Congratulations! You have only just begun. From this point forward it typically takes a year for fiction to be published, and as long as two years for nonfiction. Your work will be torn apart (even though you thought it was polished). The name could be changed. The publisher may come up with a cover design you hate. You've heard of signing your life away — when you enter in to a book deal you sign your work away.
When you are hired for a job in business, you agree on compensation in advance and can rely on receiving a paycheck at specific times. When you are a writer signing a book deal, you may - or may not - receive an advance against royalties. Any further payments are dependent upon your book actually selling.
Your agent will have to negotiate for every 100th of a percent of those royalties, and there is no guarantee you will make anything at all on your book. Plus, it is very likely you will have to spend your own money and a lot of time and effort to market your book to ensure it does sell; publishers are doing less and less marketing.
So if the process is such a hassle and there are no guaranteed rewards, why do so many people want to be writers? Is it the potential for fame? To see their name on the page and on the shelf? In most cases I doubt it. (Although I can say from experience that seeing your name on a bookstore shelf is very cool!) Writers are writers because they have to be. It is not what they do, it is who they are. Writing is in their blood. They can't help but write, and they would do it even if there was no chance their work would ever be published.
Of course, I can only speak for this writer's motivation. For me, it is the chance to share a story and make a difference in someone's life. That is what drives me. It keeps me up late at night in front of the computer screen, when my body is screaming at me to go to bed. Because nighttime, after my daughter has gone to sleep, is the only opportunity I have to write. My current full time "job" keeps me very busy...