Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Agent Feedback

In a comment recently I was asked to explain further why agents do or don’t give feedback and when it should be expected, if ever.

Honestly, feedback should never be expected and is never owed an author. Not when the material is unsolicited, and not even when it’s a requested full. I know, I know. It’s the polite thing to do. If an author sends you a full manuscript then the least an agent can do is give feedback, right? Wrong. In fact, in some cases the most damaging thing an agent can do is give feedback.

Let’s look at it this way. How many published books have you read that you absolutely hated? Your friends and family raved about them, and for the life of you, you can’t figure out why. You thought the plot was trite, the characters weak, and overall it was a painful read. If that’s the way I feel about your book, do you really want my feedback? Clearly my opinion about your work is nothing but an opinion and probably won’t do you any good anyway, especially if another agent feels differently. All my feedback would do for you in this instance is stress you out, make you feel like you haven’t a chance at getting published, and give you nothing to work with.

What if I just found it boring? I can’t pinpoint why or how it can be fixed without telling you to start over. The book was nothing but a snooze. Is this going to help you? No, probably not, and, again, another agent might feel completely differently.

Some agents or agencies have a policy never to give feedback unless they really feel they want to open a line of communication and see more work from an author. Others are less discriminating and will give feedback when they feel they have something to say or have the time. I’m of the less discriminating variety. If I truly find there are one or two things that I think are problematic, I’ll happily let you know. Truthfully, though, if there were only one or two things that were the problem, then I’d probably offer representation or ask you to make revisions and resubmit. Usually it’s bigger and broader than that. Usually it’s the characterization. Something that can’t be fixed easily. Or a plot issue. Again, usually something that can’t easily be fixed. And often it’s a little of both. Sometimes I just took on something similar or I don’t see a big enough market for it.

So what I’m trying to say here is that the trouble with giving feedback is that it always makes the problem look simple. Like if the author just made one quick change you’d have a sale. Since that’s rarely the case, feedback is really a catch-22. While it’s interesting to see what the agent has to say, it’s not necessarily going to help you in the way you want.



Anonymous said...

That was an education. Good food for thought.



Anonymous said...

This is a fresh approach to an old debate. Great observation.

I think that feedback is the job of the agent that represents you or the coach you hire as these folks are paid for their time. Other than that, find objective people that you have a personal relationship with who don't mind volunteering time.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of what James Rollins said at ThrillerFest during one of the workshops. He'd read the reviews for his first book and noticed that many of them commented on lack of characterization. So he was trying to work on the characterization. He submitted the manuscript to the editor, who saw some of the characterization attempts and asked him what he was doing. He told her, and she said that his great strength was making a book a page turner and to stop worrying about what the reviewers were finding wrong.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, as usual your blog is just great. I wish you handled my genre (literary fiction). Once a good agent made suggestions on my novel, and after a few months, she agreed to see it again with my revisions. But after a year, she passed with no explanation. Really good to hear your take on it. You're always a pleasure to read with my morning coffee.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Mmmmm. No, sorry.

Respectfully, you're ducking this a little too easy, Ms. Jessica. Once explanatory sentence on a partial or a full is well within your intellectual acuity.

You are an agent. The reason books work or don't work is your job. It's part of your DNA.

When you say "What if it's boring and I can't pinpoint why?"... I don't buy that. You know why it's boring.

"Sorry author, but I just didn't empathize enough with the protagonist's plight."

"Sorry author, but the conflict arcs just weren't dramatic enough to pique my interest."

"Sorry author, but the story was so frontloaded with character development that I had mentally checked out by the time the inciting incident dropped."

I read you every day. You are a brilliant woman. You can come up with a single, semi-polite, semi-honest sentence that explains why you passed on a partial or a full.

Couch it in subjectivism, fine. That's cool. We understand.




As Rob Schneider says in every Adam Sandler movie: "Youcandoooit!"

Anonymous said...

I've also attended panels where agents have said they are loathe to give any sort of comment as writers tend to take that as an invite to resubmit and get mad when you don't want to see what they've done to "your specifications"

Anonymous said...

Love hearing the agent pov! I've always wondered about that and now I understand.

Anonymous said...

Dwight --

This business IS completely subjective. There've been plenty of projects that we've passed on because we just didn't "see it" that have later gained representation from another agent and sold. That's the nature of the business. If we'd provided feedback, the author may have made changes so that the book wouldn't later appeal to that other agent, or worse yet, that would've discouraged the author from sending the book elsewhere.

I'd also like to reiterate a point we've made a few times before. Yes. We're agents. That means we're responsible for making our CLIENTS' projects work. As little trouble as a one sentence critique may sound, when compounded by the number of submissions we receive, it becomes a major time commitment. Time that needs to be committed to our clients. Time that THEY are paying for through their commissions.

Anonymous said...

What can be a positive aspect of agent feedback at this stage is when during the querying process, a writer gets feedback from several different agents on the partial/full. They don't always give the same feedback, but when two or more comment on the same issue, I for one find that very helpful. So yeah, I'm all for it.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think you give most authors a bad rap here. I really appreciate ANY feedback I can get from an agent. Whether it is vague...such as your 'boring' comment...or more specific. Even if it is just one sentence. If I am lucky enough to get a full request, I really hope for some feedback if my book is rejected.

Any comment helps. And an author who wants to improve his or her craft can really learn a lot even from one sentence of negative criticism. The 'boring' comment would really make me look at my story differently. I would wonder about what was boring and would tear my story apart to eliminate it or just start over with a more exciting concept.

I am sure you don't do feedback because of many negative experiences with authors who disagree with your assessment and don't take professional advice in the manner that is intended. That is too bad. Because many of us budding authors dream of getting any feedback from an agent.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for blogging about this topic. I belong to several writers groups, and this issue comes up a lot. Why can't people understand that agents don't owe us feedback? That's what critique groups are for.

Agent Kristin Nelson blogged abou this topic last year, too. She mentioned that oftentimes, she can't put her finger on why the project didn't work for her. Sometimes it's a taste thing. She also said that more often than not, the times she's provided feedback, the writer will contact her complaining about what she said, or asking for more input.

You can't win.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Ms. Kim,

I'm not talking about one sentence for every submission you receive. I understand the dreaded "Dear Author" form letter.

(Ahem... My query has been in your slushpile for four months now. I'd be happy to get even a form letter at this point...)

I'm only talking about partials and fulls. How many partials do you read (or skim) in a week? Seven? Nine? How many fulls in a week? Two?

Yes. You can do it. It's just a tiny, tiny courtesy in a brutally dispassionate business. It's a leeeeetle nod in an environment filled with apathetic middle fingers.

I'm an unpublished wannabe. I'm the drudge in your slushpile. I'm navel lint. Fine. On 99.9% of your gatekeeper edicts I will nod reverently and try harder to be the writer you need me to be in order to ink a deal.

But on this single issue, I'm calling B.S. to power.

Once the author has made it past the slushpile gatekeeper, then YOU are responsible for around $12 worth of shipping and postage by the time you've requested a partial and a full.

One sentence on partials and fulls. One.

If the care and craftsmanship an author puts into hundreds of hours of writing and revision in order to write the pages good enough to earn that glorious request for pages... if that doesn't earn an author the right to a one sentence acknowledgement, then twelve bucks should cover ten words worth of humanity and civilized courtesy.

Sorry. I love you guys. I love the blog. I passionately disagree with you on this matter.

Anonymous said...

Dwight --

I get it. And I think that most of us do try to give at least a little bit of feedback in the case of fulls (up until a couple of months ago when we changed our submission policy, I was getting more partials than queries, so I can't say the same there...)

If it makes you feel any better, while I still don't think it's part of my job description, this issue has always provided me with a healthy dose of guilt.

Well, I guess I'd better stop blogging and go check my query pile from four months ago!!

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

I just checked my submission spreadsheet and realized that Bookends used to allow a big chunk of sample pages to accompany the query.

I wasn't scoring these as partials, but from your perspective, of course they are.

I only meant partials that were specifically requested by you.

Dwight bows respectfully and shuts his pie hole.

Anonymous said...

Jessica and Kim,
Thank you for helping me to understand the why's and wherefore's of an agent response. It helps to make the rejection easier if I understand why you just say no.


Anonymous said...

With respect, Dwight, I disagree with you. I don't believe it's easy for an agent--even the brilliant and articulate Jessica and Kim!--to write a one-line response to partials and fulls. Think of how challenging it is to write a (good) log line for our own books! And I'm not sure how helpful one line would be.

I've received feedback from excellent agents (the only type I'd query :-D), and their responses have run the gamut, from "LOVE this, you're hysterical, could send it out tomorrow" to "Is this dark humor? Was it supposed to be funny? I think it was supposed to be funny. It was really bad, though. You might want to change such and such." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the point remains: Do I change my manuscript based on an agent's opinion? Which agent's? I've been published fifteen years, and I've seen people drive themselves bats--absolutely nutso--changing their manuscripts over and over, trying to get the sale. I've done it, too. Sometimes we wind up with a mish-mash that is no longer remotely marketable.

Oh, how I empathize with and understand the very real need for feedback. But I agree with Jessica's post--and Kim's comments: It's not the queried agent's job to provide written feedback. IT'S NOT. Stop feeling guilty, Kim :-D (who is, by the way, my agent and is absolutely a caring, compassionate advocate).

maxwell von snoosledorf said...

Somewhat related to the topic of feedback, even one sentence feedback --- I've been on a bunch of interviews for midmanagement jobs recently and I would say 1 in 10 interviewers sends even a "thanks but no thanks" form letter. Not looking for specific feedback like "you really flubbed the question about ponies vs unicorns" but a form letter saying I am out of the running would be nice (similar to the aforementioned "dear author" letter). Apparently the only way to know I am not in consideration for the job is letting the days/weeks tick by after the interview. Hmmph!

Writer, Rejected said...

I think the quickie polite agent/editor critique should go by the wayside. It's something else if someone in publishing has something very urgent and important to say, but how often does that happen? Think of all those perfuctory letters, which are just a waste of time. I say, a fine "no thank you, but thank you for sending" is perfect.

Anonymous said...

I think the use of the word "gatekeeper" here is pretty illustrative of how Dwight feels about the whole agent process.

If you look at an agent as nothing more than someone who is KEEPING you from getting published, then of course you want a reason for why they are doing so.

Agents don't work for the writers they reject. They owe them nothing. Not even a response. Do you write back to the sender of every bit of junk mail in your inbox to tell them exactly WHY their attempt to sell you viagra didn't work for you? Of course not.

When agents do send rejections, the best thing they can do is just say "no." It's the most truthful. It's not their job to teach you to write. It's not their job to tell you what you're doing wrong. I disagree completely with that assessment. even if it's "just one sentence."

Anonymous said...

I understand both sides of this argument. I don't write the publicists/authors that send me books to review to tell them I'm not reading and/or reviewing their book. But I also know how terribly frustrating it is to be getting requests for partials and fulls and then getting rejected without a word.

I did get some feedback for my book from a few agents, including Jessica, which I thanked all of them for because I knew how rare it was. I'm now sending out revisions to those agents, hope Jessica finds it on her submission pile, LOL, and some new ones. And the sad part is, the things the agents said about the book were all things that my critique group had said before, but I just hadn't heard. I'm listening better now, let me tell you.

Anonymous said...

Amy, lol, I had the same thing happen to me but the other way around. With my first book, an agent actually took the time to tell me the pacing was slow. Slow?! What the heck did she know anyway? Then people in my critique group said the same thing, and then some contests judges and I realized that, huh, maybe this agent actually had a point!
As you said, I definitely listen much better now, especially if more than one person makes the same comment.

Midwestern Writer Wannabe said...

At the very least, it would be nice if every agent gave an indication of how long the author should wait for a response before knowing there was no interest...

And I personally don't need a detailed response, but the auto-responses and self-esteem-boosting fluff really should go...(speaking in general terms)

Anonymous said...

I don't expect agents to provide a reason, even one lines which are just as subject to interpretation as pages of reasons, when they reject a proposal. If they do provide a reason, I'm very, very grateful but I don't expect it.

If they didn't, sure, I'd wonder why but that would be up to me to make sure I'm making a marketable book. And that's why we have CPs and writing groups such as my fantastic one in Oregon.

My only beef is with the agencies that say we take two weeks to respond to queries but due to the volume if you don't here from us, then assume we aren't interested. What is that, really? How do I know whether the submission made it? Maybe the ether ate it. Maybe aliens took their computer. In this day and age, you can generate simple replies like sorry, not interested. I think it's the uncertainty that gets me. At least with a plain rejection I know someone read it, it didn't work for them and so I move on. But to simply not hear anything - this is the only thing I just don't get.

But, for me, what it means is that when I see that, I have to think really hard about whether I want to submit to them. At least Book Ends will reply - no matter how much or how little they say.

Besides, they give so much through their blog, an author really can't lose.

Please don't feel guilty, Kim. Wendy is a friend of mine and she adores you. I think you must be doing something right. :D

Thanks, as always Jessica and Kim, for this fantastic, extremely helpful, blog.

Anonymous said...

Once again, I see a few bad apples ruining it for everyone. Some clueless writers see the agents' feedback as an invitation to respond, to open a dialog, which was never the intention. So, the agents get fed up (rightly so) and refuse to give anyone anything but a form. I wish that writers would be grateful for the feedback or throw it away, but not argue with it. If they kept quiet, perhaps more agents would feel freer to give feedback.