Monday, December 01, 2008

Decoding Agent-Speak

I think one of the most frustrating things a submitting writer faces is how do you read those rejection letters? What exactly is an agent saying when she says that the book “didn’t grab her” or “the writing isn't strong”? Do you need to do revisions? Should you stop submitting? Or should you just ignore them all and carry on.

The truth is that these phrases are simply gentle ways for the agent to say “thanks, but no thanks,” and unless you know and understand exactly what an agent is saying to you I wouldn’t read it as a sign that revisions are needed. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but unless you know what those revisions need to be (either from an agent’s feedback or your own evaluation) there’s really nothing you can do about it.

The reader who asked this question said that one of her fears is spending a year sending out what could possibly be a flawed manuscript. Well, the truth is that even agents spend time sending out “flawed” manuscripts, or at least manuscripts that don’t sell. This is why I encourage authors to work on something while submitting. Working on something fresh can help you worry less about the book that’s on submission and puts less pressure on that book. If it doesn’t sell and if it does have flaws, hopefully it can be okay if the next book is even better.



WendyCinNYC said...

Thanks for the reminder to stop checking my inbox and get back to work on my current WIP. I needed a kick in the pants.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to be objective about your own work, and unfortunately agent and editor responses weigh heavily. Keep on writing--absolutely. Whether you recognize it or not, you're getting better with each book.

Anonymous said...

It helps to put rejections in perspective. I recently read an interview with Stephenie Meyer (of Twilight fame) and she got 9 rejections from agents plus 1 non-response. Can you imagine being one of the 9 agents who rejected her? *Smiling*

Kimber Li said...

First, she should get herself to a critique group, such as Buddy up with a Grammar Goddess if you can't afford editorial services.

Second, hang out in Queryland long enough and you'll be glad to receive any response at all from anything you send out, whether it was requested or not. Sure, rejection is no fun, but imagining your query letter was used as kitty litter instead of being read is worse.

Three, Anon 9:11 is right.

Anonymous said...

That's why form rejections are so difficult. It's so hard to tell if a book is rejected because the idea is old and tired, the writing isn't up to par or the agent/editor doesn't think it will sell.
But I was taught to keep writing. The best promotion is the next book. Writer's write. All that trite stuff that keeps me going every day.
I do understand why a personalized rejection isn't feasible.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I think if an author is as sure as someone can be that the story and writing are strong (critique groups, beta readers, real editors, etc) then we have to remember it's a matter of taste -- and a matter of marketing. If an agent likes your story but doesn't think it can sell, it doesn't matter. This is a business, hard to swallow but imperative to remember.

God Girl Goth said...

Thanks for your thoughts on rejection letters.

For my first manuscript, I made it to the final cut, but alas no contract in the end. And my second was passed on with the same company. But I'm getting read and I'm getting a personal response, so those manuscripts will go right back out to new agents and editors to find a home. In the meantime, I'll keep on writing and that same editor will get the first round of submissions when it's ready.
This is not a profession for wimps; that said, a paycheck would be nice :)

Kate Douglas said...

I sure wish there'd been blogs when I was first submitting to agents and editors, not only to get great info such as the topics Jessica posts, but also for the wonderful feedback she gets from her readers. When I was knocking my head against the publishing brick wall twenty years ago, I did it without any feedback whatsoever. You guys are great and your comments are all fantastic. My word of advice--don't give up. If I can do it, people with your "smarts" can obviously make it!

Anonymous said...

Jessica: Your blog just gets better and better.

Now if I could just write that query letter and book that gets your pulse racing....

Anonymous said...

Not too long ago I received a hand-written note from an editor of the New Yorker that simply said something to the effect of "This is nice, but not for us. Feel free to try again." Not the most definitive of notes, but it made my day because it meant that I was close enough to have warranted at least some encouragement.

As to knowing whether to revise or not, if there is explicit direction and it really makse sense then yes I will revise based on a response, but otherwise the process is so subjective that what one editor/agent thinks is an issue may be gold to another.

James Buchanan

Carolyn V. said...

Is that what that letter meant?! NOOOOO. j/k I would also recommend meeting with agents at writer's conferences. It helps to know what's going on in their minds. Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I think something else that's important to keep in mind when querying agents is to be somewhat choosy who you're querying. If you're writing a mystery, you're not going to want to query someone who primarily represents sci-fi. Some authors simply make the mistake of querying everyone in hopes that something will hit the mark, but, much like birdshot, it doesn't. It's important to know who you're querying too.

T. M. Hunter said...

And here I thought there was going to be a plug for the Author-Ese Translator...


Shelli (srjohannes) said...

Thank you for the insight! I really appreciate it

Unknown said...

I've often thought that a general tip-off in a rejection letter could help the authors of severely flawed manuscripts. Like, if the agent had a handful of different form rejections for done-to-death plots, lack of interesting conflict, and other glaring issues. Authors are going to read implications in anyway, so why not lead them to speculate in the right direction?

I guess staying neutral is ultimately better, though. No sense starting an interaction with any sort of specific comment.

Anonymous said...

To put things in perspective regarding rejections, it's important to understand that agents almost always get it wrong.

Think of every uber-seller in the last 10 years, books that every agent would kill to represent (because it would make them rich) and realize that each and every one of these was rejected by numerous agents and publishers before someone finally got it right and said "yes".

Twilight was rejected by 95% of the agents it was sent to.

Clearly this is not a particularly effective process we are dealing with here. I'm not blaming agents, but I think if I was to become one, I'd take a long hard look at the way the game is played and try to figure some way to increase the odds of not saying no to the next Twilight or Harry Potter.

Anonymous said...

As a professional (magazine) writer of both fiction & non-fiction, I think it'd help immensely if an agent or editor could just point us in the right direction re: feedback. e.g. "slow-paced" or "choppy dialogue" or "plot too complicated/slow" or whatever they feel is wrong w/ the ms.
Why not help a serious writer by pinpointing obvious flaws? Then the writer can decide whether or not to revise based on feedback, esp if the feedback is similar. Thanks for the insights!

Creative A said...

Hey, thanks for talking about this. So far I've gotten nothing but form rejections, and I still find myself scanning them for clues. It's easy to assume that if someone rejected your work, there has to be a real and fixable solution to it.


Jennifer Roland said...

I agree with Anonymous: specific reasons why the book (or article idea) elicited that underwhelming "thanks, but no thanks" would be a huge help in perfecting our craft.

Unfortunately, I know that editors an agents simply don't have the time to be writing coaches for the masses.

And so we keep writing, keep submitting, and keep progressing.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, agents barely have time to service their clients and also read submissions. To ask them to also give feedback is just not realistic. Any comments like you suggested are bound to result in a call or email asking even more questions, just sucking up more of the agent's precious time.

Agents will do this in rare circumstances when they feel the writer is very talented and was close. Those are the times the agent chooses to make the exception because they do hope the writer will try again with them.

But do not look to agents to learn how to write. Get your feedback at workshops, classes, conferences, or through books and the internet. The sooner you get that, the closer you'll be to being published.

Anonymous said...

Thanks--I already know how to write for magazines. I just thought it'd be helpful to novice fiction writers to get some direction. Not all of us are that whiny or needy--we just want some helpful feedback, esp if we're "close." Frustrating to guess why a ms is rejected and a few words will go a long way!
I don't want or expect a detailed critique but agents have a unique perspective that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing (i.e. is it marketable?). I'm just submitting a novel and it'd be nice when I do get rejected to know why! Wishful thinking, perhaps? But to writers looking for agents, that agent who spends the time to jot down a few words will make a lasting, favorable impression. Word of mouth works both ways!

Anonymous said...

Anon, that's great that you've been published in magazines. You must have done your homework to target the right markets and your writing must have been good (especially as magazines fold right and left).

Yes it is wishful thinking (and naive) to hope an agent will write back and tell you why your manuscript wasn't accepted by them. Now, it does happen. But that occurs more often when the writer came personally recommended from a current client, or when the agent had already met the writer (say, at a conference).

The numbers of slush pile subs is so high, it just is not practical for an agent to respond. Even if the writer didn't ask for more info (which you know many of them will), it is NOT the agent's job to teach writing. And that is what the criticism would involve. Most of the time manuscripts are rejected for that reason, not that the market is cool for a particular genre.

So focus on writing that great manuscript that cannot be rejected. Get your feedback from other sources that I menioned. Agents do not need word of mouth. They are already overwhelmed with submissions. Once you get yours, you will not want your agent telling you they can't read your latest manuscript because they need to respond with feedback to all of the maybes in their slush pile.

Dal Jeanis said...

For your own sake, do not engage in rejectomancy. "No" means "no", and so does every other rejection letter.

Look at it like dating - you ask someone out and they say no, are they really obligated to give you a list of your undesireable characteristics? Would you really want them to? Can you believe what they say? And if you did anything about it, would it mean anything at all to the next person you ask out?

This person might say "too serious", while the next might say "no sense of humour". It happens. And there's no reason that it shouldn't, because we all have different ideals for a partner or a book.

If you are looking for a critique or a review, then go to the proper venue for one. There are lots of crit groups out there. (For instance, check out for speculative fiction.)

There are also lots of pros who will do coverage on your book or screenplay for a small fee. Make sure to pick someone with industry credits and who's not on the Editors and Predators lists as a scammer. Also, figure out what kind of feedback you are looking for before you pick a reviewer. The closer you get to your actual target audience, the better.

Once you have a novel that promises something in the first 1/6 of the book and delivers exactly that by the last page, then you can look at how to market it to agents. And even if it's destined to be a best-seller, it's still a "not quite for me" for 95% of the agents out there.

That's because it really isn't for them. And if it isn't for them, if they don't have that spark that makes them truly believe, then they couldn't make it a best seller. For that, you need the one.

Do the work. Keep the faith. Keep submitting until it sells.