How I Didn't Get My Agent
If you’re like me, you’ve seen hundreds of “How I Got My Agent” stories. I’ve read amazing, inspiring, informative posts from agented friends, but those posts only tell one side of the querying tale.
I'm here to speak about the darker side of querying. To reassure you that if you haven't found your champion yet, you're not alone. I promise that for every “How I Got My Agent” story you see, there are a thousand untold ones like mine. Stories of people whose books perished on the publishing battlefield while navigating the treacherous query trenches.
I want to let you know that sometimes, it's not your fault. In the words of Captain Picard, it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That's not a happy thought, but if you're wading through rejections and searching for answers, understanding might bring you peace. In this article, we'll look at all the things I did wrong on my journey. We'll also look at the things I did right. Perhaps we'll gain a deeper understanding of the publishing industry while laughing at my spectacular querying faceplants.
To start, a little history:
I wrote my first novel, Dragon Speaker, when I was fourteen. The moment I finished “editing” (and I use that term loosely), I immediately started querying it. Though I was older by then, I admit I approached the process with a fourteen-year-old’s energy. That is to say, I did no research, I wrote a letter that adhered to precisely zero industry rules, and I sent it out scattershot to every agent I could stalk down on the interwebs.
Unsurprisingly, I received no offers of representation. We won’t go into specific stats; just assume the following:
Project: Dragon Speaker
Total queries sent: A million
Total requests: Zero
Despite this, in 2016 I linked up with a UK-based small press that published Dragon Speaker. Sadly, the difficulties of navigating an overseas business relationship proved too great. We parted ways in 2018, and I then proceeded down the long, anfractuous road of self-publishing—but that’s a story for another time.
In 2019, I decided to try querying again.
During National Novel Writing Month, I wrote what I described as a “totally marketable” book: Dragon Ascendant.
I did some rudimentary research this time, looking up good query practices and formatting my letter correctly. Some of my work paid off, because the stats for this book were slightly less dismal:
Project: Dragon Ascendant
Total queries sent: 98
Total rejections: 97 (lol)
Full requests: 4
Partial requests: 12
Personalized feedback: 4
It was not, in fact, a totally marketable book.
Not too shabby, right? Certainly we can see improvement from my first attempt. I even got an offer, which—at the time—tasted like victory. I’d planned my “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscars acceptance speech before the publisher in question even sent their contract.
But the contract was sketchy, the company gave me bad vibes, and I declined to sign with them. Shortly thereafter, they were exposed as one of those semi-scam publishers, and they’ve since vanished without a trace. (The lesson here is to trust your gut. If something feels wrong, it usually is. The only thing worse than not signing with someone is signing with the wrong someone.)
The biggest takeaway from Season Two of My Querying Misadventures™ was personalized feedback that pointed out weaknesses in my work. Although I was salty about it at the time, it made me a quantifiably better writer. I mark 2019 as the end of my “sucky writing” era, and the difference in my style and ability now is remarkable.
Guess I missed the memo that we're cancelling verbs now.
You know what comes next. We don’t need a recap of the pandemic, but during that first year I was also slammed with several unrelated personal tragedies. By October 2020, I’d spiraled into one of my most dangerous bouts of depression. It seemed my life’s work had been undone, that nothing I had ever done or would ever do mattered, and that there was little point in continuing with writing, publishing, or life in general.
Yet some creative spark within me prevailed. Though all my projects thus far had flopped, I still loved the world I’d created—and that realization gave me the courage to continue my quest. For NaNoWriMo 2020 I began a new project, because despite being burnt out and miserable, I decided I had a story to tell.
Thus, Kill Your Darlings was born.
It began as little more than glorified fanfiction of my novel series, but soon took on a life of its own. It blossomed into something unique, beautiful, and heartbreaking. Without question, it’s the most important thing I’ve ever written.
I loved it — and that’s saying something, since I’m allergic to everything I create. Because I’d written something good, I was confident this would be the project that landed me my agent. (Spoiler alert: that’s not really how it works.)
Fixated on my goal, consumed with the belief that this book could be The One, I dove down a rabbit hole of research.
My project page for NaNoWriMo 2020 (lol)
I joined the writing community, participating in pitch events and speaking to others who were at a similar stage in their publishing journey. I took their advice, sending queries out in small (okay, not THAT small, because I have negative-three patience) batches. I revised my materials each time a rejection rolled in.
And oh, did the rejections roll in.
Of the first ten queries I sent in June 2021, all were rejected. So I researched some more. I read all the articles on The Query Shark. I tweaked my letter, tightened my synopsis, and fought on.
I revised my query letter a LOT.
No luck in the next ten queries, either. But no matter—before I was an author, I was a filmmaker, and before I was a filmmaker, I was an actress (and let’s not start on my dating history). Rejection is all I’ve ever known. Twenty rejections was nothing, a mere scrape on the knee.
I didn’t get my first request until after I’d sent thirty queries. When it came, my heart filled with renewed hope . . .
But that first full request turned into my first full rejection.
I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong, because I received a form rejection. Sadly, those are all too common. Everyone in publishing is so overworked and overwhelmed that there isn’t always enough time to provide meaningful feedback. Thus, we authors are left to flounder in the dark, wondering which part of our query package hurt us.
I went wild then. I did a massive overhaul of the book and returned to my chaotic roots, applying for every query critique offer I could find. I got lucky — almost suspiciously lucky — and landed not one, not two, but eight professional critiques. Every round of feedback made the letter more dynamic. It seemed to be a sign from the universe: I was meant to find representation.
At the same time, I found beta readers. Lots of them. They all, without exception, loved the story. Though this was encouraging, I couldn’t help but feel like the publishing industry was gaslighting me. Why was there such a disconnect between readers’ opinions and professional opinions? What alchemical element was I missing that would make the fish bite?
By December 2021, my query had evolved into its final form. This is the letter that failed to land me an agent:
Probs shouldn’t have mentioned my severe mental health issues upfront lolololo
Although I had requests sprinkled into the mix — some from pitch events, some from cold queries — I was staring down the barrel of 70+ rejections by this time. But seventy rejections, I reasoned, was nothing in the grand scheme of things. A mere flesh wound for someone like me.
Flesh wound or no, anxiety began festering in my gut. Doubt took root in my soul. Every time I logged onto Twitter, I saw another announcement of someone finding an agent, getting a six-figure deal, selling their film rights. On the surface, it looked easy for them. Then again, that’s the insidious nature of social media: it’s designed to show you someone’s highlight reel, not their behind-the-scenes.
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with me. I considered the fact that I might be a terrible writer, and everyone who said otherwise was lying to spare my feelings.
In mid-December 2021, something happened to allay those anxieties. It also provided the first crushing blow to my heart. An agent wrote back to me. He’d LOVED my book. He understood everything I was trying to do. His praise was effusive, glowing, and yet . . . he couldn’t accept my project. It was a little too fantastical, and therefore a little too far outside his editing wheelhouse.
In all my years of getting rejected, that was the first time I cried. What hope could there be, I wondered, if someone who adored my book had to say no?
Although it hurt to read, I cherish this letter. This agent showed me a great kindness that day, and I will always be grateful to him.
Nevertheless, I soldiered on.
I obsessively revised my opening chapters and sent out more queries. In February 2022, the second crushing blow came. I received a full rejection from an agent who finally said the quiet part loud. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that the mental illness rep in my book would make it “a very tough sell for traditional publishers.”
Suddenly, I saw my myriad rejections in a new and sinister light. I realized if what this agent said were true, I was out of luck. There’s a slew of fun stuff in Kill Your Darlings, including visceral depictions of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal ideation. This, I believe, is what makes the book so poignant.
It’s also what makes it “unmarketable.” And a book that the industry has deemed unmarketable is doomed to fail, no matter how good it may otherwise be.
Not all was lost, because in Spring 2022 I received my first offer of publication from a small press. My conversation with the editor was encouraging, but as our discussions progressed, I came to realize there was nothing a small press could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself.
So, with a heavy heart, I walked away from that deal—and two others.
Two more small presses expressed interest, but I couldn’t accept their offers. Though I loved the companies and the people involved, I knew I'd be ceding control of a sensitive story, and the returns would be minimal. Plus, I figured if I wasn’t 100,000% ecstatic about signing with a publisher, I shouldn’t do it.
Walking away from those deals was the final blow. Shortly thereafter, I called Time Of Death on my querying journey. My final stats:
Project: Kill Your Darlings
Total queries sent: 205
Total rejections: 202
Full requests: 19
Partial requests: 15
By this time, I was disappointed, disheartened, and disillusioned. I considered shelving Kill Your Darlings. Perhaps the naysayers were right, and there was no audience for my book.
This is one of the problems with the industry: publishers are unlikely to take chances on books about marginalized (and, in the case of mental illness, stigmatized) identities. Diverse voices struggle to be heard; they suffer in the query trenches and beyond. If your identity has been labeled “unmarketable” for whatever reason, you can be the best writer in the world and still not receive an offer.
Because it’s not about art or talent—it’s about money.
If they don’t think your book will sell, they’ll reject you. This bias disproportionately affects BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, and disabled voices.
The only thing sadder than 200 rejections is eating a “HAPPY 200 REJECTIONS” cake all by yourself.
When I marked the last of my open queries as CNRs, I experienced my dark night of the soul. Fifteen months of psychological abuse in the trenches, and I had nothing to show for it. The industry had spoken, and it had told me that no one cared about a story like mine.
I almost let them win, those trend-chasing capitalist gatekeepers. I almost let their rejections convince me that my manuscript — and therefore, my identity — was bad and worthless.
See, now I can talk shit about trad pub because I’ve given up hope
of ever finding an agent :)))
In the end, my readers saved me.
People who’d read my book reached out to me. Strangers on the internet, individuals who owed me nothing, assured me that my story was important. They loved the world I’d created.
And they reminded me that, once upon a time, I’d loved it, too.
Querying hurt me, but by all the gods of this world and the next, I vow it will not break me. I know my book is important, because readers have told me so. I know my book is powerful, because it already saved one life: mine.
If you're like me, perhaps you've considered giving up because of the dire state of the industry. Perhaps you've been looking for a sign from the universe, something that tells you to keep going. If that's so, then I'm here to say: this is it. The world needs diverse voices, and messy characters, and dark truths, and unmarketable stories. It needs us to fight against stigma and discrimination. It needs stories like ours.
So no, I didn’t find my champion this time around—instead, I became my own champion. This journey opened up a hitherto untapped well of spite-fueled energy. I will self-publish Kill Your Darlings, and I’ll do my utmost to get it into the hands of readers who need it.
If it helps just one other person feel less alone, then I will consider the last decade of rejections worth my while.
It's a placeholder cover, don't judge me.
Elana A. Mugdan is the #1 NYT Worstselling author of The Shadow War Saga. She's hailed as the World's Foremost Dragon Authority, and will fight you on the internet if you get dragons and wyverns confused. She's currently self-publishing her adult fantasy novel, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, under the pen name L. E. Harper. For more information, or to get updates on the process, you can subscribe to her mailing list or follow her on her cursed TikTok channel.