I just read an interview with four literary agents that provided a useful if painful reality check. It was published in Poets and Writers a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure the points the agents made are still valid. They lamented the poor state of the industry, how much harder it is to get good books published, how the advances are getting smaller and smaller, trends that have only worsened lately.
They were also very frank about the chances of an unpublished writer having any luck in getting their attention via a query. These four, at least, found new writers by 1. referral and 2. solicitation. Their biggest source of referrals was teachers from MFA programs. So if you are thinking about spending time and money on one of those, you ought to try and find out how effective your chosen program is in boosting your career. Seems like that ought to be one of the areas on which MFA programs are rated, some sort of Getting-Your-Students-Published scale.
If you are famous or infamous or have won a literary prize or published in a high-status magazine, you can also snag an agent. In any of these cases, they will go after you. The four didn’t quite come out and say that they ignore queries from unknowns, but they also never gave an example of a writer they discovered that way. It was all referrals, or clients they had chased down themselves.
They did have advice for all of us writers out in the hinterlands, who aren’t famous, who haven’t had a story in the New Yorker and who don’t know anyone to intercede for us with an agent – don’t concern yourself with getting published, because it probably isn’t going to happen. We should concentrate on writing better, writing for the sake of the writing.
Condescending but realistic advice. Still, I think most of us need at least the illusion of having a shot at getting published.