Advice for aspiring authors online abounds, and we soak it up. Some advice is so pervasive that we don't question it — after all, so many industry professionals agree as do the stories of other writers' successes, so who are we, as new writers, to think otherwise? But you know what, I disagree with one of the fundamental tips for traditional publishing success.
I read quite recently in an interview with an agent I'm considering querying her opinion that considering small presses is perfectly valid — if you've already queried and been rejected by about 400 agents. This idea that we as writers should query any and every agent who represents our genre is quite common, but frankly, absurd. It places us in the position of begging for acknowledgement, as though we need the stamp of approval from absolutely anyone with the title "agent" before we can be taken seriously, which devalues our work, our talents, and our voice in this process.
Yes, good agents are incredibly helpful, and for many writers, quite necessary in navigating the intricacies of the publishing world. But no, not having an agent doesn't make your publishing deal with a small press any less of a publishing deal. And no, settling for a bad agent doesn't put you in a better position for your career. So, we as writers need to stop putting 100% of the power to establish the value of our work in the hands of anyone and everyone who calls him/herself an agent.
In fact, we should be extremely careful in selecting which agents we query. Sure, we shouldn't take potential agents off our lists for flimsy reasons, and we should research all agents who represent our genre before deciding whether to query a given individual or agency, but we should stop approaching the idea of an agent as someone whose seal of approval we require regardless of its quality. Let's face it, a degree from MIT has more value than a degree from West Valley Community College, and agents are similarly not created equal.
In reality, an agent is a business partner, someone who will help shape the trajectory of our careers, our public image, and our work. This person needs to be someone with whom we are comfortable working, whose opinions and experience will be assets to our careers. Yes, it'd be nice if s/he was also someone with whom we got along on a personal, amicable level, but the fundamental issue is that signing with an agent is entering into a professional relationship — one we should hope and expect will last for many years.
With that perspective, it makes absolutely no sense to query just anyone. We do have the burden of convincing an agent that we will be an asset as well, but first we must decide if the agent in question could be an asset to us, in a stronger way than simply being able to say that we are represented by an agent.
I made the mistake of querying some agents with whom I ultimately wouldn't want to work, when first sending out Mending Heartstrings, and I recommend other writers don't waste their time doing the same. In theory, we could realize that we don't want to work with an agent after getting "the call," but let's face it — when we're so close to what we think we want, few of us would be willing to say no, even if in our gut we know this isn't the right person to partner with. It's easier to make that decision for yourself, without being put on the spot by someone finally saying, "Yes! I like your work," than to turn around and say, "This really isn't the right match for me."
So don't query any and every agent who represents your genre. If you've only found twenty with whom you'd be interested in working, and all twenty say no, then reevaluate the trajectory of that manuscript. It can be submitted to small presses, self-published, or shelved while another one of your works snags you that perfect agent match. Perhaps you will even discover an agent of whom you hadn't heard at a future point, and that agent will be the right one for you.
Waiting to publish with the right people in your corner is a much smarter move than begging for the attention of anyone who will have you, and ultimately being disappointed but possibly stuck. Switching agents isn't easy, so we may as well accept the time and effort (and yes, the rejection) necessary to find the right partner for our career, right off the bat, and then put in the effort necessary to impress him/her right back.
If you'd like a concrete example, beyond just my opinion, check out this author's story.