How to Decipher Agent Responses

I often have clients trying to figure out the meaning behind agent responses. The obvious meaning is clear: a request for more pages, an offer, a rejection. But writers sometimes want more—to understand why an agent passed on their work, to assign significance to the timing of a request.

As an agent-turned-editor, when I generate editorial letters for clients who have already queried their work, I have them send the responses they’ve received thus far, and I incorporate them in the letter, explaining the feedback when I can. Frequently, though, these passes don’t say much.

But since it’s obviously a topic of great concern for writers seeking traditional publication, I wanted to offer a few general thoughts on understanding the responses you get from agents.

Literary Agent Rejection.png

A Word of Caution

To start, my biggest piece of advice is to try not to read too much into the responses. I often see writers thinking, “This agent got back to me so quickly! They must really love my work; I must have a great shot at representation!” Or a writer might try to discern meaning from a generic sentiment like, “I’m sure other agents will feel differently.”

I would never put stock into timing, whether it’s fast or slow. Sometimes a quick response means an agent is enthusiastic, but often it’s a matter of chance. Your query arrived just as they finished catching up, or you sent your partial right before they boarded a cross-country flight. Agents respond to queries and requested materials whenever they can; usually this means they reply slowly, but occasionally it means they respond more quickly than you might expect. A slow response doesn’t necessarily mean they hate it; a quick one doesn’t necessarily mean they love it. 

Similarly, I’d take the wording of their response at face value. If they offer specific feedback, that can be useful. But often it will just be generic politeness, and you should take that for the neutral, professional response that it is. But there are a few nuances to the wording, so let’s dive into that.

Query Rejections vs. Partials and Fulls

In general, the more material an agent evaluated, the more consideration you should give their response. My agency didn’t ask for any materials to start, just the query letter. As such, my responses to queries were form responses that I wouldn’t recommend reading a single thing into beyond the obvious (I’m not interested in seeing more of this project). I did have a different response for Manuscript Wish List queries (some agents have many different form responses to fit various situations from referrals to conferences), but it was more of an acknowledgement than a useful response—indicating that I saw the writer was responding to a specific request I’d made, yet I still didn’t think the manuscript was right for me. 

Some agents use form responses for partial and full manuscripts as well, and this is sometimes done as a matter of agency policy. Agents are far more likely to provide personalized feedback for a requested manuscript, though, so this is where you might obtain some useful information.

When I responded to requested partial and full manuscripts, I did my best to name a positive aspect of the work and something I thought could be improved. This would often still be fairly vague, though, along the lines of, “I really liked the protagonist but didn’t find the plot propulsive enough.” That’s not really enough to justify a full revision of your manuscript. However, if a few agents mention something about the plot, that should prompt you to send your work to a set of fresh eyes, asking them to focus on that element.

More Thoughts on Vagueness

A comment about plot at least gives you something specific to focus on. But I’m sure if you’ve been querying for a bit, you’ve received a pass along the lines of, “I didn’t connect with the voice.” Voice is probably the most nebulous story element and deserves a blog post of its very own. But when it comes to passes, unless you get more specific feedback, e.g. the voice feels too immature for the age category, I’d translate a voice comment as meaning, “Something about your work just didn’t grab me in the way I wanted it to.” It’s only slightly more helpful than the perennial pass: “I just didn’t fall in love.”

Obnoxious as that response is to receive as a writer, the simplest explanation is often the truest. Agents can only represent a small amount of what they read, and they really do have to love it. So while it doesn’t present a path for you to improve (more on that below), it’s the foundation of every rejection.

Offers to Read Again

One thing to pay particular attention to is whether an agent indicates they’d like to hear from you again—either with this work or a future one. Such invitations often come at the end of a rejection, so it’s important to read them even when it’s difficult! I’m sure there are some agents who mention they’d be happy to hear from you again as a standard part of their response, but I always used it rarely and specifically, indicating that I’d like to see this again if substantial revisions were made or that this work wasn’t for me but I’d like to see future works. Make sure to keep track of these opportunities to try again; it means you’ve already nudged the door open a crack.

What Literary Agent Rejection Means.png

Why?

I know many of you just want to know why. Why don’t agents provide more helpful feedback? Why do they seem so enthusiastic when requesting only to turn around and tell you they didn’t fall in love? The second question is easy enough to answer: a request is made largely on the basis of a concept and perhaps a brief writing sample. There’s a lot for an agent to love or not in the execution of that concept over several hundred pages. The first question is more complicated; I can think of at least three significant reasons why agents don’t provide more feedback.

The biggest issue is time. Agents are obligated to prioritize their clients; they’ve already made a commitment to them and their work. Handling their needs usually takes up more than a 40-hour work week. So reading queries and manuscripts is almost always done at night and over the weekend, and there just isn’t time to respond meaningfully to everyone—not if agents are going to sleep and occasionally have lives beyond publishing.

A second reason is that providing feedback on queries and manuscripts simply isn’t their job. I mean that in two ways.

First, as discussed above, an agent’s responsibility is to their clients. Selling their clients’ books and doing the necessary editorial and advisory work to make that happen is their primary job. Most agents work solely on commission, so it’s also the only way they make money—agents typically don’t make salaries to pay for their time regardless of what they’re working on. Obviously, reading queries and manuscripts is how agents get these clients and eventually get paid…but giving detailed feedback to work they’re not interested in is free labor.

Second, it isn’t their job in the sense that they aren’t reading your work as editors. Now that I’m a freelance editor, when someone hires me to read their manuscript, I’m looking for ways to improve it. I’m scrutinizing every element, every chapter, thinking about how to make it better. As an agent, my initial read was at a higher level and only sought to answer two questions: Do I love this? Do I think I can sell this? I would often have some general editorial ideas when I finished reading, but if I wound up signing the writer as a client, I would typically read their book again before sending an editorial letter for revision. Often as an agent, I would pass on a book because I really didn’t have any ideas for what could be done editorially; all I knew was I didn’t think it was there yet.

Finally, agents may avoid giving specific feedback because it potentially opens a dialogue or even encourages harassment. The nastiest response I ever received was when I (in an attempt to be constructive) told an author, with examples, that I didn’t think his concept was in line with what middle grade editors are looking for right now. It’s a lot easier to argue with something concrete than “I didn’t fall in love, but I’m sure another agent will!” And while I know YOU would never send an agent a nasty email or write terrible things about them online, it happens far more often than you’d think.

 

I’m sure a few of you read this blog post hoping for a magic response: This is what agents mean! This is the key to understanding it all! Unfortunately, the truth is that agents often don’t mean much beyond a polite “no, thank you.” What I hope this post does, though, is slightly alleviate your anxiety. You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re not missing out. You don’t need to be doing more. Your struggle is one shared by many. And when an agent does take the time to give a detailed pass, pay attention—the very fact that they’re doing so is significant.

Is there any other agent behavior you find mystifying? Let us know in the comments! And subscribe to the monthly newsletter for suggestions on how to respond to agents.

HYPHEN Around the Web

Apologies for a light blogging month! Part of it is due to a busier-than-expected January—New Year's resolutions perhaps? I'm not sure, but I'm currently booking edits for delivery in late March. If you're nearing the end of revisions and would like a quick turnaround, get in touch today to book a spot. (Shorter projects, like query critiques, currently have a two week turnaround.)

But I actually have written two pieces on writing this month for other publications, so I wanted to make sure you saw them. 

On The Debutante Ball, there's "7 Tips for Writing the (Neglected, Dreaded, Necessary) Synopsis." As both an agent and editor, I've seen writers struggle with synopses, and I know they aren't your favorite. But they are necessary if you're querying, so I hope this advice helps you get the job done.

And in the second issue of Backlog magazine, I have "The Four Types of Editing." There are many different tasks under the editing umbrella, and this piece demystifies what those are, when they should happen, and who will perform them. 

I'll have more tips on the blog in February, but in the meantime, I hope you find these guest posts helpful! Both sites have piles of useful articles; check them out if you haven't yet. 

The Four Types of Editing

What to Expect from HYPHEN

Welcome to HYPHEN! Going forward, this blog will be a resource for you with writing tips and publishing industry expertise. HYPHEN’s mission is to help writers hone their craft, and our blog will be aimed at doing just that. For this first post, though, I wanted to talk a bit about what HYPHEN is, why I founded it, and what our plans are for the future.

HYPHEN is a freelance editorial and coaching company. Essentially, we’re here to help you with your writing, whether that means performing a quick query critique or being by your side through the entire self-publishing process. We have a list of editorial services—though if you need something that isn’t mentioned, please reach out! We’re happy to talk to you to see if we can be of assistance. Our coaching services are less delineated because they’re completely customized. The general concept of coaching is to be your long-term (at least 3 months is ideal) collaborator. That may include providing one of the listed editorial services—but then we would help you implement it and move to the next stage.

As you may know, until recently I was a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates. Deciding to leave was very difficult, as I loved my work and was closely connected to my clients. But I often felt torn by my inability to give the kind of feedback I knew would be useful to writers. For instance, sometimes I would read a manuscript and love the concept but know that the execution wasn’t quite there yet. While I gave personalized feedback on requested manuscripts, the reality of having to be client- and sales-focused meant I couldn’t go into great detail—there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. With HYPHEN, I can focus all my attention on giving writers the information they need and ensuring their manuscripts are in the best possible condition.

Publishing can be overwhelming, and it’s a very competitive industry. HYPHEN intends to be a positive force in the community, supporting all writers by demystifying the process and providing tools to help you succeed.

I hope to grow this company based on your needs, so if there’s a service that would be helpful to you as a writer that you can’t find elsewhere, please let us know. But here are a few things we’re planning to launch in the coming months:

  • Regular editorial letter giveaways for writers from marginalized groups who could not otherwise afford a freelance editor
  • In-person consultations around the world as I travel and work remotely (Australian writers, get excited for February/March 2018!)
  • Online courses, both downloadable and live

Make sure you subscribe to our monthly newsletter, full of tips and inspiration. And follow HYPHEN on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for more advice and bookish fun.

If you already know you’re interested in working with HYPHEN, go ahead and send us an email! We’re open for business and excited to help you reach your writing goals.