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Back to Querying Agents? Sometimes, You Have to Switch it Up!

Two women with a rope playing tug of war
Switching Agents can be a Tug of War With Yourself. But it's Also a Chance to Open up New Possibilities.

If you’ve read my post on the day I was offered representation by two different literary agents for two different novels, you know what an incredibly rare (but wonderful) day that was for me on my journey to representation. If you’re a writer and have been searching for an agent, querying them, receiving form rejections or, occasionally, rejections with feedback and offers to resubmit, you know the excitement that comes with those emails (most agents only take submissions via email or submission forms on their websites, so you’ll probably get an email—IF they even send one; a lot of agents tell you up front that they’ll only contact you if they’re interested). I’m here to tell you, sometimes it works the other way around. Back to querying agents? Sometimes you have to switch it up.

I’ve had an agent for about eight years. My agent is a pleasant, knowledgeable, known entity in the world of publishing, and I’ve come to love her—that’s how incredible she is. She’s taken my work, made recommendations, I’ve edited, she’s sent out my manuscripts, and let me know why the editors at the publishing houses passed on them. All good stuff (though, of course, it would have been nice to have received an offer by one of the bigs, which is—and has always been—my main goal when it comes to publishing). But last month I decided it was time to change things up a bit. And it was a sort of “it’s not you, it’s me” sort of deal. It was a tug of war between myself and myself.

Publishing is a rough business. You know it, and I know it. Well-regarded editors and publishers at Simon & Schuster, Little Brown, Penguin Random House and others have been let go due to buyouts and layoffs. Self-publishing and vanity press books are exploding. Tik Tok has authors selling thousands of books (not all of them all that great). In short, publishing is changing, and the business model is no longer what it was. Book sales are up. Book sales are down. Publishers Weekly said the first nine months of 2023 showed a decrease in sales of 4.1 percent. A study in 2022 said it was going to be growing by roughly 4 percent over the next five years. Who knows what the actual numbers are. Either way, they’re volatile, and if you’re an author, it’s hard to figure out what the hell is going on, and where you might fit in. That’s how I feel, anyway.

Publishing is changing, and the business model is no longer what it was.

Back to my situation. Like I said, I love my agent. But the literary market is about money, just like everything else. Yes, publishers take on literary books and other books they know will likely not pay out, but they have a slew of books they know (or have a pretty good idea) will, which means they’re able to take chances on books that aren’t guaranteed to make it rain. The bestsellers chip in to pay for the not so bestsellers. But the risks they take aren’t crazy risks—they’re calculated risks. Risks based on historical precedent. Risks that could pay off. And part of that risk is making sure they aren’t setting themselves up for failure. Included in that is the number of pages they prefer to publish, for economic reasons. When it comes to self-published books and digital only books, word count may not matter as much. If a publisher is shelling out the dough, you can bet word count matters.

Publishers balk at acquiring longer books. There are multiple reasons for this. First, it costs more to print longer works. Longer works also mean longer editing times/costs, storage space for the books, and then there’s something called price elasticity. Price elasticity, in short, means how much of something is demanded based on the change to its price. If something is more expensive, there’s a good chance that the demand for that product will be less. According to multiple sources, trade paperback novels fall into the $13.95 to $17.95 price range. Book buyers are accustomed to paying in that range for new novels (if you’re purchasing a novel on Amazon or some other online retailer, scratch those numbers unless it’s a new book you’re buying). That price range assumes a certain word count, probably somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words. At that range, the publisher, the agent, the author, are probably satisfied with the profits. Raise those prices, and there’s a good chance the average reader will balk and move on (unless the novel is written by a well-known author or has won awards—something to distinguish it from the rest of the books out there).

Woman sitting inside a cardboard box
I've Always Been a Writer. A Creative Person. And I Never Want to Put Myself in a Box. Ever.

Back to my situation (again!). My novel, THE LOSSES, is 326 pages. I forget the exact word count, but it was somewhere around 80,000 words long. The publisher would have liked it to be closer to 300 pages, but they allowed me a little leeway (I didn’t want to cut certain things and they were cool with that). But they’re an indie and not Penguin Random House or W.W. Norton, where perhaps things would have gone a different way. That said, I write long novels, and I don't want to put myself in a box. Ever. Writing long books is what I enjoy doing, and it’s just something I’ve always done. Whenever I shared a new novel with my agent, she always (and rightfully so) pushed for me to cut cut cut until I was down to around 100,000 words. But it was torture to me. I’d read and grown up on books that were the long, big books, and that’s what I wanted to write (and what I write naturally). I recently wrote a novel that’s just over 200 pages, and I like it, but I know it’s going to get longer. And that’s okay—because it’ll end up around the “right” word count for sending out to editors at publishing houses, assuming it gets to that point. I’ll get a better gauge on that once I workshop my novel with my core writing group prior to sending it out.

Whenever I shared a new novel with my agent, she always (and rightfully so) pushed for me to cut cut cut until I was down to around 100,000 words. But it was torture to me.

My latest novel, however, is 165,000 words. It’s a political novel that deals with social media. Those 165,000 words translate to 502 pages. Absurd, for sure. BUT I’m not looking to cut it by 200 pages. That’s just not what I foresee for the novel, and while I’m willing to cut a bit of it, it isn’t going to make that magical 300-page count. It just won’t. And I knew my agent wasn’t going to be thrilled or even want to tackle having to deal with sending it out. Hence my back to querying literary agents.

Two people shaking hands by a laptop
If You've Worked With a Literary Agent Previously, There's Nothing Saying You Can't Make it Happen Again.

Last month, I started querying again after eight years. When I wrote my query letter, I felt good about it. I felt like I knew what I was doing. It felt refreshing in a way, but, obviously, there was a kind of fear and sorrow accompanying that excitement. Was it a mistake to take a different route after finally getting an agent I liked and not having to send out queries to agents who may not even reply to my query? Sure. Most definitely. But there’s also being true to myself, and my inner, rebellious self kicked me in the ass a little bit and told me to just jump, to just go for it. And so, I did. I have five other novels waiting to go out, but I believe this is the one that’s primed for the current political climate we live in. It’s also the most commercial-type fiction I’ve ever written. So, I figure, what do I have to lose other than time? I write because I can’t do anything else. Or there’s nothing else I want to do, anyway. I’m a writer. I write big books, and I write books that fall into the sweet spot of 80k-100k word counts. Most books don’t make it to being represented by literary agents. Fewer get sold to editors at publishing houses. If you’re a writer, you know the odds. If I’m going to get rejected, I may as well put forward the books I want to see published first, word count be damned.


Cully Perlman is an author, blogger, and Substantive Editor. He can be reached at


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Jun 25

I write on the short side, mainly because I was a journalist and words were scrutinined very carefully.


Jun 25
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I can't write more than a hundred thousand words if my life depended on it. That's amazing.

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