Monday, November 19, 2007

Agent Recommendations

Regularly I receive a response from a query I rejected in which the author asks for agent recommendations. Who else do I think they could submit to? And typically I don’t reply. Why? Because if I knew someone I thought would be a much better match for your book, I would tell you.

There was a time, not too long ago, when another agent had somehow decided that rather than simply say no to an author she would pass them off to BookEnds. I’m not sure why she decided this, or if she thought she was doing us any favors, but suddenly we were getting tons of queries from authors saying this agent had referred them to us. And it was driving us nuts. Our initial, and primary, thought was that we were offended. This particular agent reps the same genres as we do, so why on earth would we want to take on projects that she had so obviously rejected? No one likes hand-me-down clothes and I certainly didn’t want hand-me-down rejections.

When will I recommend an agent? Only very rarely. I will happily recommend another agent when I know the project is outside of my range of expertise, but has merit. In that case I might give the name of a colleague who I feel would be a better fit. And there have definitely been times when I have accepted a referral from another agent. Often, though, that agent will call to talk to me about the project and let me know if it’s a good fit first.

Referrals should be special and given sparingly. I know that when I get a referral from a client, she truly feels strongly about that author’s abilities. The same holds true for agents. I’m not about to throw around the names of other agents simply because you ask. A referral is about my reputation as much as it’s about your work, and from my perspective one will only be given when I feel, honestly, that it’s something the other agent could get behind.



Karen Duvall said...

I got my first agent through a referral. The agent I'd queried referred me to a new agent in NYC who was just starting out and building her list. This agent and I were together for a couple of years and and she was really wonderful, I miss her. But she decided to stop representing genre fiction. Her name is Doris Michaels and she's still agenting, but her focus is non fiction.

Aimlesswriter said...

Another good post. I wouldn't think I'd want to share with a new agent that I've been rejected. Wouldn't you want the agent to look at you with a fresh, unpredudiced (sp?) eye?
Of course, if asked I'd think you'd have to tell the truth as you'd want an honest relationship. Aren't most manuscripts sent out to more then one agent? So, chances are someone somewhere rejected it.
Random questions: How often do you take on writers whose manuscripts that need work? Of course we know they should be perfect when we send them, but I've also heard writers are asked to change things. What percentage need no work at all? What is the usual things that need fixing?

Anonymous said...

Jessica - I read your blog daily and I have enjoyed most of your posts, often learning something useful. But the tone of this one gives me pause.

I know other readers will jump all over me, but it's as if you're saying, "How dare a lowly, unpublished writer ask me, big successful agent, for a referral? And as far as a colleague sending a referral, that is simply beneath contempt."

Every successful writer was once lowly and unpublished. But aren't the writers the reason agents are in business? I think it's great some agents refer writers, not because they believe the writing isn't worthy of publication, but something about it seems a better fit for a colleague.

By the way, I've never asked for a referral after getting rejected. I have, however, been referred to other agents, one of whom I am waiting to hear back from right now. And I very much appreciated the hand up.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I can answer this more extensively in another post, but the changes would probably have to be minor. In the past I used to be more willing to take on books that I thought needed a great deal of work. What happened more than once though was that the author was incapable of doing what was needed. Because of that I'm more cautious now.


I apologize for the tone. Certainly that's not what I meant. I thought I made it clear what I did mean in the post, but if not let me clarify/summarize... what I meant was be wary of the agent who gives every rejection a referral. That's not a referral, that's simply an out. And yes, I am a little contemptuous of agents who do this. It's not another's responsibility to do your rejecting for you. However, many times I have received referrals from agents. Agents who, like me, give referrals sparingly. In those cases I've been very happy to receive them and have looked carefully at the work. After all, it came highly recommended. However, when you receive submissions daily that say So-and-So referred me to you you begin to wonder.

As for authors asking for referrals after receiving a rejection. It doesn't hurt to ask, it's just that I won't do it unless I really strongly believe another agent is perfect for a project that seems fabulous. In which case I will definitely refer without being asked.

Deborah K. White said...

saPlease forgive me if I got the wrong impression (my brain is already tired), but: Agents say that they reject manuscripts that are publishable but aren't something they're excited enough about. I can understand that. I've tried to read published books that are well-written and others love, but I just can't get into them. So, if that's true, why should an agent immediately think "I don't want some else's rejects" if the person was referred by another agent? I'd have expected you to assume it was publishable material but simply something the other agent wasn't excited enough about.

I'll grant that a referral from an agent who knows your reading tastes quite well (even if they represent the genre in question) would hold more weight than a complete stranger doing the same, but are you saying that you'd automatically think "reject!" in both cases?

I've never gotten referred to another agent, BTW. I'm just confused. :) Thanks, Jessica, for the informative blog.

Deborah K. White said...

Jessica, we were typing our comments at the same time. I think your response to anon also answered my post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

From anon 10:23:

Jessica, thank you for the clarification. BookEnds had been at the top of my list of agencies to query (with an almost-complete medical thriller) until I read today's post. Then my heart sank as I thought,"OMG! I could never work with people like this."

Now I see that I misinterpreted the spirit of your post and I am so relieved. Your reply to my angst-ridden comment has renewed my faith in the BookEnds team.

I'll give y'all a holler after the holidays. Happy, Merry.

Anonymous said...

I think this is one of those things that comes down to the interactions of human beings, one on one. If the referral is mechanical and somewhat automatic, then what you have is a mechanical response to your work. Not good. In fact, it's an insult, allbeit a passive-agressive one.

If a referral is a hearfelt, "I think you may get along with this other agent", then that's something from one human to another that takes into account differences between people. That's a good thing, and should be taken as a compliment.

The problem many of us have with the process of queries, etc, is that it seems so darned mechanical. I have started hanging around here because I want to have a good idea who these agents are (even though I tend toward YA, which you don't do!). I don't follow instructions on how to do this and that very well, but I respond to the audience I have.

What I read here is that despite the impersonal nature of the biz at times, you're trying your best. Thanks for that, I really do appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica, I'm glad you clarified your position. The thing is that this type of referral isn't something that most writers are going to toss away, and to put the onus on writers for things that agents do bothers me. I understand how getting these referrals would drive you crazy, though, I really do. But is it really so bad? Maybe it's something that should be discussed with other agents, however, and not the writers who are only doing anything and everything they can to get their work in front of your expert eyes. I think new writers have it far tougher than agents, and while I empathize with your dilemma, I have to say please deal with it. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't get all of the hostility directed at Jessica about her comments today. Where is the hostility directed at the unnamed agent who misled writers into thinking they were receiving a referral, when all they really got was a rejection?

Or, maybe it was never the unnamed agent's intention to offer a "referral" in the first place. Maybe all he/she was doing was passing along information and the recipient misinterpreted. I've heard one agent say that, when rejecting a manuscript, she always adds a line such as, "I've heard that So and So is acquiring new writers; perhaps you could contact them." In those cases, she's NOT making a referral; she's passing along information.


Anonymous said...

Hostility - huh?

Anonymous said...

Differing opinions to a point in Jessica's blog doesn't mean we're hostile to her personally. It means we happen to disagree and try to give reasons as to why we don't agree or think it doesn't work. Please sharpen your pencils. Thanks.

Christie Craig said...


Another interesting post and one I think writers need to know about. We would all like to believe that an agent recommending us elsewhere is doing so with good intentions. But if not, it’s wise for writers to be aware. And this is for several reasons. First, the writer might assume a recommendation of a the manuscript means the work is perfect and doesn’t need to be reworked before sending it off to another agent, when in truth it may have been rejected because it’s weak in one area; second, if the names are given without sincerity, then perhaps, some writers may assume the other agents are reputable, and if the recommendations are not coming from honesty, they might not always be.

Any honest post about this business often brings out the difficulties and emotional side of publishing/writing. And as with any subject that is emotional, when you speak up, you risk becoming a target due the frustrations of the business.

Thanks for putting yourself out there and giving us the insight to what goes on behind those closed doors.

And as for the comments about rejections in general . . . I have over ten thousand of those little suckers—most of them are from the freelance business. But I also have over 3000 credits in that market. So a rejection doesn’t mean something isn’t publishable. However, I’ve learned to read them, try to find some value in them, and then I move on.


Aimlesswriter said...

First: Jessica thank you for your answer. And I'm amazed an author wouldn't be open to working their story into a marketable product. As much as I love my story the way I wrote it I think there's a time when you have to remember theres an "artist" side to this stuff and then there's the business side. If you want to be published you have to be willing to make your creation marketable. I would love to see your answer expanded upon in a later post--thanks!
Second: I didn't see this post as having a negative tone. I thought it was more "just the facts". A referal would leave me with mixed feelings unless I targeted an agent who no longer covered the genre or perhaps was sending me to a friend who was just starting out when the first agent was no longer accepting. But if big agent refered me to other big agent without a reason I'd just be confused. Why wasn't I good enough for the first guy?
Okay, I'm blond, I confuse easily--thats why I need an agent!

Diana said...

Jessica, thanks for this topic.

Personally, if I were an agent, I wouldn't want my name (or my agency) to be the one the other agents whisper angrily about because I pass along every writer or manuscript I don't want to handle, regardless of quality.

So what happened with the agent who was sending you everything and everyone?