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.
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.
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.