To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that.

Hunter S. Thompson

So you’re done with your book. It’s as good as you can get it. You’ve cleaned up the writing and the formatting and you’re ready to start sending it out into the cold, uncaring clutches of the monolithic publishing industry.

Scary, right?

I doubt you’ll believe me when I tell you it’s not at all cold or uncaring. In my direct experience, book editors love books, and love the people who write them. There’s been another merger recently that does make it appear increasingly monolithic, but that’s a subject for another post. In any case, people are buying books and reading books, and not even Joyce Carol Oates or James Patterson can write all the books, so they are looking for new books, and (believe it or not) new authors. No one is going to discover the next franchise author unless they find that goofy kid from Maine who turns out to be Stephen King. Deals are being made, people! It’s true.

And I know it’s hard to hear people like me tell you to patiently, laboriously work through literally years of submission and rejection, submission and rejection, over and over again in constant pursuit of that elusive one “yes” that gets your novel published. There has to be a short cut. There has to be a way to game the system, cheat the algorithm… time the query, at least…?

When is the best time to query agents? I have no idea. I’m pretty sure it’s the spring. Everyone works more in spring. But really the best time to query a specific agent is to listen to them and believe them when they say they are open to submissions, and likewise believe them when they say they are closed to submissions.

But I feel like I have to try to offer some insight, so it occurred to me to look at at least one dataset I have available. I pay $25 a month for PublishersMarketplace and at least for that query period I would suggest all authors do the same. This is where you find the agents that are open to submissions and how to submit your manuscript to them. You can find which agents repped your list of comp titles (books close to yours in genre, sub-genre, setting, etc.) and so might be open to that kind of thing, and know the right editors to send it to.

In terms of when is the best time, I don’t have data for when agents are open or closed, or when they sign new clients, but PublishersMarketplace does give me solid data on deals that have been signed; when that deal was reported; and who the author, agent, and editor were.

You have to be inside the paywall to find the page The Latest Deals. I went there and set the filters for 2020 and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. This came back with 86 deals from January 7, 2020 (Boundless by Jack Campbell to editor Anne Sowards at Ace via agent Joshua Bilmes) to December 22, 2020 (Plague Birds by Jason Sanford to Jason Sizemore at Apex).

This is, keep in mind, when the deals were done: signed and ready to be reported to the pubic. This is not when the book was actually accepted by the publisher, not the day the author signed the contracts, etc., so there is some unknown amount of time that passes from that editor asking for a full manuscript to when that deal is finalized and ready to be made public. Add to that the time it takes between querying an agent to signing with the agent to having the agent get a full manuscript request from that editor, and you have an unknown length of time that is at least many months, easily a year or more. For at least one anecdotal case, in her article “For Brandon Sanderson, It’s Back to the Beginning,” Laura Steven wrote:

Before becoming the Brandon Sanderson most of the fantasy world knows today, the prolific author wrote 13 manuscripts without selling a single book. He took a job as a night clerk at a hotel because he could write while on shift. Despite a mounting stack of rejection letters (mostly telling him to be grittier, he says, “like George R.R. Martin”), he persevered. He was rewarded in 2003, when Moshe Feder, an editor at Tor, acquired his novel Elantris 18 months after it was first submitted.

So then after that unknown length of time plus or minus eighteen months, and all those other variables, can we still get anything out of this? We can try.

Here’s how many deals were reported to PublishersMarketplace for the (adult… YA is a separate list) fantasy and science fiction genres in 2020, by month:

January: 11

February: 5

March: 13

(Q1: 29)

April: 5

May: 8

June: 6

(Q2: 19)

July: 10

August: 6

September: 9

(Q3: 25)

October: 6

November: 4

December: 3

(Q4: 13)

I find it not at all surprising that the smallest number is in December, but I am a little surprised by 11 deals being reported in January. Maybe that’s just a sort of back-to-work-after-the-holidays thing. This was 2020, too, so the low numbers in April, May, and June may be complete aberrations thanks to COVID-19. In fact, all of 2020 might be a giant anomaly, so let’s look at 2019 too…

Believe it or not, there were actually a dozen fewer deals reported in pre-plague 2019, but still let’s see how the monthly totals match up

January: 7

February: 8

March: 8

(Q1: 23)

April: 9

May: 4

June: 6

(Q2 19)

July: 9

August: 2

September: 2

(Q3 13)

October: 4

November: 11

December: 4

(Q4: 19)

Most deals in both years were reported in the first quarter (January-March). Both years saw an above average number of deals reported in January and July. Both years saw a below average number of deals reported in August, October, and December. The biggest month for deals in 2019 was November, but in 2020 the biggest month was March. That alone tells me nothing.

I think the best we can get from this is that…

  • I am not a statistician by trade or education.*
  • Deals are reported throughout the year.
  • Editors start their year by signing deals after some unknown number of months of reading, thinking, presenting, P&L-ing, negotiating, and so on.
  • They also get some deals wrapped up before August when New Yorkers typically flee the hot, humid city for an extended vacation. They still do that, right?

Other fun facts:

An agent handled all but one of the deals in 2019, though there might still have been an agent involved, just no name was mentioned.

The reported deals in 2019 were weighted toward fantasy, with 44 fantasy deals compared to 23 science fiction deals, with the remaining 7 a mixture of both or I just wasn’t sure from the brief description. That there were almost twice as many deals made on fantasy novels as for science fiction doesn’t surprise me at all. If anything, that felt like a nice trend up for SF.

If you’re targeting an agent, the top five fantasy and science fiction “dealmakers” of the past 12 months are, in order from most deals to least: Russell Galen (Scovil Galen Ghosh), Paul Lucas (Janklow & Nesbit), DonWon Song (Howard Morhaim), Naomi Davis (BookEnds), and Michael Curry (Donald Maass).

I think one thing all of those agents, and the editors they’ve sold their clients’ books to, will tell you is your job as the author is to write the best book you possibly can, put the grind-work into getting it in front of the right person, and in the meantime be writing an even better book.

Always remember: The only thing we have control over is the quality of our work.

—Philip Athans


* If you see anything in these numbers I don’t, please share that in a comment!


Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Great points! I would add keep writing new materail once you’re done with that amazing manuscript you’re submitting. It took over 50 rejections and 12 years for me to get my publication offer. It can be easy to give up, and I almost did, but if you really want it, go after it.

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