Monday, September 14, 2009

Computer-Generated Responses

I’m sure this recent submission question, sent to the blog questions account, came primarily out of frustration, but it presents a question that I would like to clear up.

On Saturday at 4:10 pm I submitted an e-mail query to you and on Sunday morning, 10:09 am, I received the following rejection response, obviously program-generated: [copy of rejection letter deleted for space considerations]

This response is identical to a response I received from you about a year ago for a different book.

After spending weeks crafting just the right query letter for my new novel, I find it incredibly discouraging to get an automated brush off like this. If you are so busy you can’t entertain new work or new authors, why not be honest with your followers and just say so. I chose your agency, and you in particular, because your website and blog offer encouragement to unpublished writers – from your website: ‘So often we hear about authors caught in the middle of publishers who don't want to see their work if they are unagented and agents who don't want to see their work if they haven't been published. What's a writer to do? Luckily you've found BookEnds, a literary agency accepting queries from both published and unpublished authors.’

I realize my work may not be good enough to be published, but the only way to determine that is to get someone who knows what they are doing to actually look at it.

While I definitely use form rejections for many things, the only time I use automated responses is when I’m out of the office, at which time you’ll get an out of office message. If I am closed to queries I will clearly alert readers and writers through my Twitter account, the blog, and the Web site.

Any queries that are sent to my email account are read by me and responded to by me. In fact, at least a few times a week I do take that extra step to give some feedback that may or may not be helpful to the author. As for the times you mention, I assume you gave them as a representation of how quickly I responded. In the same way authors often spend their weekends querying, agents often spend their weekends responding to queries. Sunday is the quietest morning of the week for me and I can get a lot done before the world even wakes.

I can only imagine how discouraging the query process is for authors and I do wish there was an easier way, but the fact that I’m using the same letter after a year does not mean I’m not looking for new authors. In fact, so far in 2009 I have taken on roughly six new clients in both fiction and nonfiction, many of whom have sold already. I’m always looking for something new and exciting for my list, but keep in mind those six new clients came out of roughly 1,500 queries.

I hope you’ll stick with your writing and keep sending out to agents. You’re right that there is no way to know if your work is publishable until you can get someone to read it, and for that to happen you just need to keep plugging away.



David said...

That was really kind. After all, your job is frustrating too, and the average unagented author needs you more than you need them.

If you or anyone at your agency represented science fiction I would put you at the top of my list for when I finished polishing and workshopping my novel.

Elizabeth Lynd said...

What I don't understand is why writers believe a swift response is an unconsidered one. Sure, it came fast. That's great--now you know this agent won't be representing you and you can query others. The letter from the writer seems to suggest that s/he believes an agent should spend many minutes or even hours considering each query. That's just not reasonable.

It goes like this: you write the letter, and query the agent. Agent reads it (and if you've followed guidelines, that should take about thirty seconds or so). Agent is intrigued, or not. Sends response, and goes on to the next in the line of hundreds.

Agents don't owe us anything. They owe their clients their time. They are seeking new clients, and we are happy to query them in hopes that we are among that group. But why in the world would you want an agent who didn't feel a sharp response to your work? How can you imagine that agent, who didn't feel enthusiastic after a short time, will keep up a fire for months and maybe years to sell your work? Honestly, a rejection is in your best interest as well as the agent's.

Keep on querying, and complain less. A no isn't a rejection of you, but only your query. Maybe it's not a great query, and if you get only form rejections then you should revisit it. Or maybe it's not a great project after all, in which case you can do what thousands have done: write another book.

Venus Vaughn said...

6 clients out of 1500 queries. That makes me feel both better and worse.

The odds are near impossible, but, hey, everyone else is getting rejected too.

pj schnyder said...

It was not only kind, but very professional in a way that sets a great example. Prospective authors should be that professional too.

You work Mon - Fri, and go the extra mile to read queries on the weekend.

Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

I've got a question. Let's say you have a client who has published a handful of novels, all of which failed to earn out. The client's working on a new project. Do you recommend that she finish the new novel on spec, and submit the whole thing? Or do a handful of chapters/outline?

Do you tend to get more/better offers for full manuscripts than partials, all else being equal?

(And yeah, I know that all else is never equal, but you know what I mean!)

Aimlesswriter said...

I'd recommend this person join a critique group, RWA or one of the other writer support groups. There they will find people in the biz to look and hopefully critique their work.
This isn't an agent's job. (although when you do give us comments even with a rejection...we LOVE it) I don't think agent's owe us anything and even a form rejection is nice. At least they acknowledged they recieved and read it even if it wasn't for them.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

A "no" may not even be a reflection on the quality of your query. It may be a good or great query, but simply not what that particular agent is looking for. Hold your head high, know you're querying the best in the business, and gracefully move on.

Good practice: For every rejection you receive, send out at least one more query. And, in the meantime, work on your next book!!

Anonymous said...

If this writer feels the work isn't 'good enough' to be published, why are they submitting in the first place?

Talk about waisting an agent's time.

As others here suggested, it would be in the writer's best interest to join a critique group.

MAGolla said...

How many times did that writer pick up a NY best selling author's work only to find it unreadable?
--Da Vinci Code, anyone??

Writing is subjective. Just because a gazillion readers like X, it doesn't mean you will.

I'd prefer a quick negative response over the 'no response means no' crap that some agents have resorted to--but that is a rant saved for another day.

You're too nice, Jessica. This complainer needs to grow a pair.

Travener said...

I have no problem with form responses. I don't expect an agent to take the time to crtique my query or my synopsis or my book (but certainly welcome it if they do). And frankly, if it's going to be a rejection, the faster it comes, the better -- like ripping off a Band-Aid.

The important thing is this writer actually got a response. There's nothing more frustrating than waiting to hear from agents who respond only if they want to see more of your work. If you haven't heard from them in three weeks, four weeks, you still don't know if your query's still backed up in the queue, or if they've already passed on your book and you just don't know it yet.

So, Jessica, don't apologize for using a cookie-cutter reply, and thanks for actually letting the writer know what your decision is. You turned me down two weeks ago and my response then was to do what I always do when I get a rejection -- send a query to the next agent on my list.

Mira said...

This was a really nice response, Jessica. I would guess the writer is new to the world of publishing and blogging, and doesn't yet quite get the 'culture.'

One important part of the 'culture' is that feedback on an author's work, for the most part, come from critique groups and/or professional editors.

It's a challenging world for a writer right now. My personal advice to this writer is to gain a sense of purpose and confidence from the inside, and from friends and family who care about you. The world of publishing is evaluative and impersonal. That doesn't mean there aren't nice people here, but once you move from writing to querying, you've entered a business culture, where you are expected to compete and 'perform.'

There are problems in the culture, of course, and you can choose to go a different route, but if you go the traditional route, understand that, for the most part, the industry does not 'nurture' people, it evaluates them.

Heidi Willis said...

Jessica - you are a class act.

I always appreciate how kind and sympathetic you are, even when you must get the same kind of frustration every day.

At some point, every one of us was at the beginning. And you never slam anyone for that.

Your responses are always gracious.

Marshall Buckley said...

Certainly a rejection is better than no response at all, but I wonder if this writer is still at the stage of taking such things personally.

I think being able to handle rejections as "just part of the job" is likely to stand you in good stead for when an editor asks you to change/delete part of your work - you may have spent months (or years) crafting your work, but once you're done with it you need to be a little dispassionate about it and accept such chnages with good grace.

And always remember, it only takes one acceptance to make you forget all those rejections!

Anonymous said...

Imagine how you'd feel if you had a same-day request for a partial or full, then your ms. sat around for months and the agent wouldn't even read it by their promised response time? When you do finally prompt them, then they either ignore you or form-reject you.

Be glad you know now instead of waitng for the slow, agonizing brush off that takes months of your time & energy.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like they were confusing automated response with the form rejection letter. Not much one can do about that. Also sounds like they wanted feedback on their writing. An agent of course is the wrong place to be looking for that (if you are reading this, frustrated writer). Even if the query is intriguing, you won't likely get much feedback regarding the first few pages. There just isn't time in an agent's life to get the kind of response you're looking for. I had a partial with Jessica, and she gave me a couple of polite lines about why it didn't work for her. If you want detailed reasons, you do indeed, as others have stated, need to find a crit group.

sbjames said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becca Cooper said...

I'd just like to join the masses and say I thought that was a wonderfully gracious and tactful way to respond to a frustrated author. I really hope he/she sees and appreciates this post. :)

sbjames said...

I will admit to feeling very like this writer. I've spent hours reading through archives of an agent's blog, crafting a query after considering her client's posted samples, truly believing she and I were a great fit- only to get a form reply in less than 1 hour. It felt like a slap in the face and one's immediate reaction is to slap back.

But I would still prefer an almost amazingly prompt no to nothing- for weeks, months, all the while harboring nagging what ifs? what if my email got lost in cyber space? what if they accidentally deleted it? what if? what if? what if?

Stephanie McGee said...

Great post. Thanks for being so graceful and professional in your response to this. (I'm not the author in question.) It's always nice to see the human side of agents.

Mira said...

Oh, I want to add one thing - teachers.

There are wonderful classes out there where a writer can get guidance.

I think the need for a mentor or guide, and even a cheerleader, is a very legitimate one for a writer.

So, it's good to want a mentor, but the agent doesn't usually play that role for those who aren't their clients, and maybe not even then. Depends on the agent I think. Mostly agents advocate for your work after it's finished.

But there are lots of wonderful mentors out there in the world - I'd recommend this writer go find one! :)

Unknown said...

Jessica, I know this is very tedious because I do follow you here and on Twitter and know just how many queries you receive. But this one finally made me want to ask you something:

Do you always reply to queries? Do you ever NOT reply?
Just wondered, that's all.

Robena Grant said...

Writing comes with lots of R's, research, rewriting, revision, reading, and of course rejection, but there is also rejoicing.

This writer had the ability to finish a manuscript, had the courage to submit it for someone's critique, and needs to rejoice in that. There are so many would be writers who never start, or start and never finish a manuscript, or finish and never let it see the light of day.

While I understand rejections hurt, and I've had my fair share, I think we writers all need to understand that rejection is only one small part of the journey, there is so much more about our writing that we can feel positive about.

Kimberly Kincaid said...

Gah. 6 in 1,500. Should I laugh or cry? :)

I have a lovely little shrine of rejection letters posted next to my desk. Wanna know what I think of *every time* I look at it?

At least I'm trying my very best, and my very best changes a little every time I read things like this blog (or others similar to it). It's evolutionary, and I think it's really decent of Jessica and other agents who offer their time and energy to help newbies like me grope their way through an otherwise overwhelming process.

Speaking of...aside from RWA (I'm a romance writer)- does anyone know of any reliable places to find critique groups? I'm all ears...

Mame said...

Taking it personally is just terribly counterproductive. Taste is SUBJECTIVE. People seem to forget that. There's thousands of agents out there. Keep trying! Agent targeting is pretty pointless.

Unknown said...

@ Anon 8:59

I'm not an agent, and no way do I want to pre-empt Jessica's answer, but if all this writer's previous novels failed to earn out, there's still a question of the degree of failure. If I understand everything I've read on blogs, it's entirely possible for a book to fail to earn out and yet make a profit for the publisher. So I'd want to know, how bad did these books bomb? Did they bomb? Has this author built up an audience and a recognizable personal brand, never mind the advance issues?

All that said, if the record is marred (or in the case of a debut author, nonexistant), I can't imagine an agent who wouldn't want to have the full manuscript in hand before trying to shop it. In my opinion, if you go out there with just a partial and a synopsis at this point, you are taking a good chance of shooting yourself in the foot. No sense in doing that, if you can help it.

Hope this helps. :-)

Leigh Hutchens Burch said...

I hope that (if the author of that ego-mail reads this blog entry) she doesn't feel the slightest sense of satisfaction that she is, in fact, now a "published writer." I just get this sad feeling that she'll be flattered by your attention, though it wasn't for her benefit directly.

I also hope that she doesn't make the same assumptions in her writing that she makes in life. It would make for very underdeveloped characters and a predictable plot.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer, Lucy.

I'm talking about a midlist author/unexceptional advances/mediocre failure/no platform: in other words, a perfectly average case!

I suppose my question is really: how much better is submitting a full manuscript instead of a partial with outline, given a perfectly unremarkable career? (Because the career is far enough along that the agent *will* try to sell books based just on chapters/outline. But I wonder if things would sell better if the whole damn thing was written on spec.)

Rachael said...

Who that was very kind.

As a querying writer, I'd rather have a one day form rejection than no response at all.

Vic K said...

Interesting. I wonder what a writer is thinking when they pen a missive like this...

You would have to be seriously frustrated to risk your future with an email as ignorant as this one.

And I mean ignorant in both that this writer obviously isn't aware of the time turn-arounds some agents are handing out and ignorant in the sense of lacking general courtesy.

But then, I often wonder about the behaviour of some writers. Those who haunt agent blogs making smart remarks then wondering why no agent wants to deal with them. Why do it?

Basic good manners go a long way and in a market like this one, you need every advantage you can get. Being professional, receptive, polite and eager must count for you just as arrogance, impatience, rudeness and ignorance count against you.

Beth MacKinney said...

Kind response. I believe the author wrote because your original reply came so quickly he didn't believe you had actually read the material he sent, and writers are used to waiting months before hearing anything.

Unknown said...

Wow - Jessica, that is awesome turnaround time. I'd be grateful for that quick a response, ready to move on.

There was a helpful post on Edittorent a couple of weeks ago for writers, headed "Another mark of the amateur". The link (I hope you don't mind me pasting this in) is It contains a great list to help writers realise if their work "may not be good enough", as was this writer's concern. After all, polishing our work is our responsibility.

Kimber Li said...

I think a lot of aspiring authors have felt the same way. We put countless hours into creating and polishing a manuscript. We scour agent and editor blogs and websites and do our darnedest to follow all the rules, no matter how random or ridiculous they seem. Then, we send the query and it takes all of two seconds for the agent to go, "What? No blood-sucking dead guys? It'll never sell." Here's the lesson to be learned, though it is a painful one, *we're lucky to get any response at all* at this point. A lot of agents will simply hit 'delete' and we'll never even know if the query made it into her inbox at all. This is a humiliating process and no wonder a lot of us get frustrated and even vent that frustration sometimes. This means you've got to be determined and have a healthy dose of self-confidence to begin with, and also develop the ability to smile and nod a lot when you'd rather cuss like a drunken sailor.

And count yourself lucky there are agents and editors, like the ladies at Bookends, you do try to make the process as pleasant and painless as possible.


Man. They picked the wrong agent for that comment. Jessica is one of the hardest working agents in the business--and I'm not just saying that for brownie points(I've already queried her and got my rejection letter). That's just my own opinion.

There's a first:Someone complaining because the response came back TOO quickly. You just can't win. At least she takes the time to respond--form letter or not--and doesn't leave people hanging, wondering. Give her a break!

Raquel Rodriguez said...

Thanks so much for the honest response, Jessica. I'm one of those authors who very much appreciates a quick turn-around answer (not the one in the original post). I have one pubbed story, and even since then my huge rejection pile has grown. I still get form rejection letters (the longest was after a 2-1/2 year wait from one of the big NY pubs).

As professionals building a career, we need to remember to act that way, no matter what. If you're a hobbyist writer, please either get serious about your writing or don't complain when this happens. If a rejection comes, take a day to mourn and cry and kvitch and eat all the chocolate you want. Afterward, get serious about your writing again. Even if the form letter or email hurts (and they usually do, unfortunately), be professional.

Bottom line: writing and publishing is a business. All we story-tellers can do is try our best NOT to take it personally. Our stories are our babies, after all. We labor over them to create them, editing and polishing, then send them out into the world to stand on their own. It's a lot of work and time, and it's natural to be a little sensitive when we give our "baby" to the world. But writer/authors need a thick skin to survive. If not, you'll get battered and beaten down at every turn.

As already mentioned, a story may be brilliant and still garner a rejection. What to do? Keep writing, join a good critique group, don't give up and *keep submitting.* Eventually a story will connect with the right editor or agent at the right time.

While it can be discouraging, if you ARE a seriously focused writer and want a career, keep at it. I honestly believe following Jessica's valuable advice (even if querying another agent), and using proper submission guidelines will win a contract in the future.

Thank you for taking time to address this situation, Jessica, and being so candid and professional. :-)

Nichole Giles said...

I recently had a rejection come that quickly. Rather than being angry that the agent was so quick to respond, (also on a weekend, and late at night) I felt the need to thank her.

If my work had sparked her interest, surely she would have asked to see it. That's her job. But since it didn't, she was extremely kind to let me know and wish me well in submitting elsewhere. And she did this in what should've been her spare time.

I sent her a short note thanking her for her quick response. I figure if my work is going to be rejected, better to get it over with quickly than to agonize over it for months--which is what I'm doing now with a different agent who requested a full(wish me luck!).