Asking for a Literary Agent Referral

When writers ask for a literary agent referral after rejection, it really gets my goat. (I’ve already done posts on rejection response, but there really is more to be said about it.) Some writers, after a query response that’s a pass, will ask me if I can refer them to an agent who might be a better fit. Before anyone gets upset and defends this, let me say that I understand it perfectly well. Agents are inscrutable to most people. We are intimidating. How can you possibly know what we want? (Especially when we sometimes don’t know what we want until we see it, as frustrating as that is.) I totally sympathize with writers who want any clue as to who might be a good fit for them.

literary agent referral, query response
When an agent’s query response is a pass, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board — not ask for a literary agent referral.

Reasons NOT to Ask for a Literary Agent Referral

However, there are two reasons why I dread this question after a query response that’s a pass. First, the easy-to-hear reason: I don’t know much more about other agents than you do. I know the agents at my own agency very well, but not agents at other agencies, unless I happen to be friends with them or see a lot of their recent deals posted. Besides, even if agents are friends in their off hours, they compete for projects and for editor attention at work. It’s not one giant share-fest between agencies. At Andrea Brown, if you read our guidelines, you’ll see that a “no” from one agent means a “no” from all. So if I’m passing on a manuscript, I’m saying that it isn’t a good fit for me or any of my colleagues.

Believe me, we do think about this. We routinely pull manuscripts from the slush and pass them around if we think they’re a good fit for another ABLit agent’s tastes. This only happens with excellent manuscripts, however, and projects that show great promise. Something we really want to hand off to a colleague because it is an amazing project but not up our alley for whatever reason.

Is Your Work Ready for Publication?

This brings me to my second point, the one that stings a little: 99% of what I get in the slush is not ready for publication. The majority of the time, when I reject something, I reject it because it isn’t good enough for publication. If I reject your project but think it shows great promise, if I reject your project but think you have talent as a writer, believe me, you’ll know. You’ll know because I’ll tell you. If I send you my standard query rejection note, however, please don’t follow up and ask me for a literary agent referral to someone else. My colleagues and I all have a finely-tuned sense of what makes a saleable project. If the writing or the story aren’t there yet, another set of eyes reading the material won’t change that. Think about it. Why would I want to forward you on to another agent? So they can reject you for the same reason? Besides, reputation is everything, for both authors and agents, and I don’t want to attach my name to a bad referral. (Dealing with rejection? Tips for moving forward.)

Identifying Potential Agents is the Writer’s Job

The agent search is aptly named. It is a quest. It is part careful craft, part shooting blindfolded. And it is a writer’s job to do. Unfortunately, you have to research agents, try to decipher their tastes and query them yourself. The only people who get a literary agent referral from me are those who seem like they’d be a fit for someone else at the agency. If this happens, I’ll tell the writer about it first thing. In any other situation, please don’t ask.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

29 Replies to “Asking for a Literary Agent Referral”

  1. great post. i’m surprised people ask for referrals. i just generally mark the agent off in my spreadsheet and move on…Do you think you could do a post about what the main reason is for rejections of books that you really like but couldn’t offer representation to? I mean the one who don’t get a form rejection. Just curious what most that show great promise are usually missing. Like pace, character development et cetera.

  2. This is a look into agencies that I’ve never read about before. Very enlightening. Thank you for this. I’ll be checking out the contest this weekend. Good luck to all who submit!

    Happy Friday,

  3. Asking for a referral after a form rejection does imply a certain amount of chutzpa.

    My favorite part of this post was, “if I reject your project but think you have talent as a writer, believe me, you’ll know. You’ll know because I’ll tell you.”

  4. Right on. Gosh, I never even knew writers would ask for a referral after a rejection letter. The thought never crossed my mind to do something like that . . . Yikes. Oh well. Happy Friday, hope you enjoy your day.

  5. Writers ask for referrals after rejection?

    The thought never actually crossed my mind.

    Wow. I’m just incredibly embarrassed by a rejection. I need to resist the temptation to reply to the agent apologising that I queried them…

  6. I am constantly blown away by blogs like yours. Writing a novel is not as easy as it appears. Not only do you have to finish it (and it has to be not only perfect but marketable), you have to hunt for suitable agents, construct the perfect query letter and deal with rejection.

    Umm… yup. I’m up for that.

  7. Gets my goat — I haven’t heard that phrase in a long time (and I think only from my father) — kind of makes my day (yeah, I’m easy like that).

    Is there ever a time when you’re willing to have a back and forth (e.g., after a full manuscript reject)? I know some agents have mentioned that there’s some leeway there, but even contacting agents then seems a bit too presumptuous.

  8. When I’ve received a vague rejection on my MS I have asked the agent at what point he or she stopped reading. That helped me to identify where my MS bogs down.

  9. That 99% comment is why I haven’t queried my ms yet — I’m going to keep revising until it hurts 🙂 Happy Friday!

  10. Wow, I’m such an ADD reader — how bout you RTFP, Bane 🙂

  11. It’s also a tad cheeky because you’re asking someone else to do your work for you. Researching agents/publishers properly takes a lot of time and energy, and you’d have to know both parties quite well to be able to make a match. Hmm, there’s an idea for a middle-man job – the personalized ‘writer to agent’ matchmaker service!

  12. Ha! Siski, great idea! A match-making service for writers and agents.

    This is a fantastic post. It helps sooth my ego to think I never thought of asking an agent for a referral. Tells me I’m at least doing one thing right. Now, I think I’m more optimistic to tackle the rest.

    Thanks, Mary

  13. Great Post! Never really thought about asking an agent for a referral either, but interesting to hear how an agent feels about those who do!
    A match-making service for writers and agents sounds pretty great, but isn’t that what Querytracker kinda is? They sure make it easier to find agents in your genre, etc.

  14. Mary,
    I queried an agent yesterday and he sent me a lovely email. He praised my PB concept, but said he was not taking on new clients. He then suggested an editor (who likes historical fiction picture books) for me to sumit it to. This was my first agent query. I’ve been researching agents for the last couple months. I am unsure if I should submit this particular manuscript to the editor he suggested or continue to look for representation. I’ve had a couple e-conversations with Jane Yolen, and she encouraged me to look for an agent rather than submitting on my own. Any advice?


  15. Hmm! The rejections I get generally say something about how my characters are engaging and I obviously “can write” (or “you have a wonderful way with words”), but then they say, “. . . in the current market, I don’t know what to do with this,” or “I just didn’t love it enough.” This leads to days and weeks of rejectomancy, performed alone or with writers’ groups. I wonder if these are sincere, or if they’re just ways to say “I didn’t think it was ready for prime time”?

    I have never asked for a referral, but oddly enough I have had two agents suggest other agents who “like this kind of thing” or “handle a lot more of this cross-genre stuff.” The other agents were people I had already queried, so that was kind of a joke played by the universe, in both cases. (wry grin) I have also been told that a cross-genre novel or something that can’t really be pinned down as far as category is not a good candidate for representation coming from a first-time author. As I understand it, the entire point is that an agent is looking for SOMETHING SHE CAN SELL. If the book looks like something she can sell and especially she knows of an editor she thinks will like it, then it’s a done deal. If the book is a fantastic read for the right audience *but* is something that she doesn’t believe will appeal to the current larger market, she has to turn it down, because she’s not here for her health . . . it’s all about what will sell. This is what I’ve been told. And what I have been clinging to.

    But perhaps what I write does not connect with the post-postmodern audience’s minds, and it doesn’t fit their reading preferences. If so, then I’m out of luck, period. Right?

    (Well, you SAID to reply to at least one other blog post in order to enter the contest. So you brought my loudmouth opinion on yourself. *GRIN*)

  16. aj finnegan says:


    You’ll be a hit at every conference you ever speak at because this is the sort of straight talk serious writers not only need to hear, but want to. No one wants to make an idiot of themselves, but it usually takes years of doing so until a writer figures things out (how agencies, publishers operate; what is a reasonable request and what isn’t?).

    I love how you just say things how they are – in this post, and all of your others as well – because it takes a lot of the frustrating guess work out of things. You’re a GREAT addition to this industry, that’s for sure 🙂

  17. Good to know. Great post!

  18. One of the best things about reading your blog–and other agents’ and editors’ blogs–is the repetition of that idea that 99% of everything that comes to you isn’t ready to be published. I appreciate that you’re willing to say that straight up, because it’s true.

  19. I, too, would not have the nerve to ask for a referral after a rejection… but I appreciate the insights you give us into the workings of an agency like Andrea Brown. It’s good to know that you will pass things on to others in your agency if you see potential.

  20. PL Anderson – you’re right, querytracker is a kind of online matchmaking service. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it very useful. If I put ‘picture books’ as a selection, it comes up with only one agent! And even when you’ve found an agency, you still have to do just as much research to find out if they’re a good fit for you and your books. There’s no escaping hard graft! Hey ho.

  21. With all of the resources available to help writers find an agent, there is no reason a rejection should lead to a plea for a referral. Though the desire to reply to a rejection is understandable. Having been rejected my fair share of times, I suppose we all want something extra in a rejection to give us hope. Years ago after a rejection on a full request, an agent sent me a list of several agencies she felt were more suitable for my novel. Was it still a rejection? Yes. Did it sting a little less? Definitely. Maybe it was her standard rejection, or maybe she believed a query to another agent might result in a deal. Either way, it encouraged me to keep going. And as writers, we need all the encouragement we can get.

  22. Thanks for the straight-talk. Vastly helpful stuff, and I appreciate the honesty. Subbing manuscripts is never easy, and often painful, but understanding the etiquette of querying is half the battle.

  23. This blog is truly excellent. Love it so much, I mentioned Kidlit.com on my blog.

    I’ll be an avid reader from now on 🙂

  24. Sharon — Since you got such a great response from the first agent you queried, hold on to the editor’s name but wait and see how other agents respond. You just might get an offer, then see if that agent agrees with the editor in question and might send to them on your behalf.

    Shalanna — Your comment is exactly right. A book can be brilliant but if we don’t know how to sell it or which publisher might be able to bring it to market and find an audience, then it turns into a rejection. The best thing a writer can do, when they’re wondering if their book is saleable or not, is to go to the bookstore and spend the entire day (opening to closing) or a few days browsing what’s on shelves. These are the books that are finding a readership (at that particular store, sure) and the ones that are probably doing best for their publishers.

  25. I never thought to ask for a referral from an agent who said no. That just doesn’t seem appropriate to me. Great information and love your candid posts!

  26. Mary,
    Thanks for the advice. I’ve been tossing and turning all weekend, trying to decide what to do. I appreciate you adressing my question. Have a wonderful 2010.

  27. I appreciate the honesty of this article. It’s useful to get an insight into agents and how agencies work. I’ve had a mixture of responses from publishers and agents and, while it’s fantastic to get decent feedback, it’s also important to face up to rejection, so knowing that most agents give feedback when they are encouraged by your writing but send a standard response when they are not is a valuable piece of knowledge. Being realistic is hard, but sometimes it’s better to face up to the fact that your book’s not cutting the mustard and maybe try to write something else.

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