From The Millions:
If it sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right. But that’s the way the machine is built, people.
. . . .
Imagine that one night you have a dream in which you are in an enormous bookstore lined with shelves upon shelves of books, each bound in the same plain white cover displaying only the author’s name, the title of the book, and a brief description of the book and its author. This is an anxiety dream, so it turns out that your livelihood depends on your ability to search this enormous bookstore and figure out which books are good and which aren’t. The thing is, in this bookstore, the vast majority of the books are bad - trite, derivative, poorly written, or simply the sort of book you would never read in a million years. You know there are some really good books in this store, maybe even one or two genuinely great ones, but from the outside they’re indistinguishable from the terrible ones.
How do you choose? Do you sit down at the first shelf and read each book all the way through? No way; you’d starve, if you didn’t kill yourself from boredom first. Do you glance at the descriptions of the book and author on the back cover, and then read a page or two of the ones that sound more interesting? That’s better, but we’re talking a huge room here – thousands and thousands of books – and what can you really tell from a couple of paragraphs, anyway?
So you begin to look for shortcuts.
. . . .
For several hundred people, most of them living in New York City, this dream is their daily reality. They are called literary agents, and if you are a writer with one or more unpublished books on your hard drive you have probably received a terse note from several dozen of them telling you that your novel is “not a right fit” for their agency at this time. In that moment you tore open that thin self-addressed envelope or read the two-line return email, you probably hated them. Not just that one agent, but all literary agents, as a class. How could they not see the brilliance in your manuscript? How could they possibly guess at the quality of your manuscript based on a one-page letter and a synopsis? And what the hell does “not a right fit” mean, anyway? Is that even grammatical English?
. . . .
If your book isn’t selling, literary agents are not to blame. It may be that your book doesn’t really belong in mainstream commercial publishing, in which case you should consider self-publication or send your book to an indie publisher like Ig, Two Dollar Radio or Small Beer Press. Or it may be that your book would appeal to a mainstream publisher, but you haven’t done the groundwork you need to do to get out of the slush pile and onto a literary agent’s radar. Or perhaps your book just isn’t ready yet. Whatever the case, you would be wise to pay attention to what literary agents are trying to tell you, even if all they’re saying is “no”.
. . . .
Most writers when they show their work to someone – a professor, a friend, a spouse – they have a reasonable expectation of getting encouragement or at least some useful feedback. But an agent isn’t a friend. An agent isn’t a teacher, either. An agent’s job is to find an author whose novel is ready for publication, or so close to ready that it makes economic sense for the agent to put the time into helping make it ready, and connect that writer to a publisher. That’s it.
Link to the rest at The Millions