The Waiting Game (Requests and Rejections): part three

So by now hopefully your query is sitting in an agent’s inbox waiting to be read! I know this is one of the most stressful times for a writer – probably even more nerve-wracking than writing the query itself. Take a deep breath and everything will be okay.

Firstly, be patient! I know it’s really hard, but resist the temptation to email an agent back within a week. From experience, it is irritating for them and it makes you look unprofessional. A four week wait can be normal as some agents get hundreds of queries a day. Many popular agents have someone to specifically deal with queries and they may only be in semi-regularly, or the agent will only spend one hour a day on queries (trust me, time spent responding to queries can add up very quickly). So please, be patient – and in the meantime, why not write something new or work on another manuscript?

While you’re busy waiting, I thought I’d give you a bit of insight in the query reading and response process from our point of view.

I just want to start by saying as someone who has to spend a lot of time sending off rejection emails: agents do not get any kind of sick pleasure from crushing young writers’ dreams and I can strongly assure you they are all lovely people. When I respond to queries they have usually already been filed somewhat by the agent – left in the inbox if we need more information or want to request a partial, and the ‘No thanks’ which are either rejections or vague questions. I am then responsible for reading through the ‘No Thanks’ emails. They have already been briefly scanned by the agent and most will know within a minute if this is the kind of work they want to read. We get a lot of obvious no’s (like genres we don’t represent, unfinished work, people from overseas who have sent mass generic queries etc), but I also use judgement and discretion – if I like something in the No Thanks and feel it’s worth a look, I will respond according. In general though, most queries will then get a polite rejection letter.

Requests

The kind of email every writer wants to get, but sadly the one agents send through the least. It’s a tough market out there and it’s increasingly more difficult for new writers to get onto the page. An agent has to be really passionate and connect with a manuscript in order to take on the author as a client. This is because at the end of the day, publishing is a business and an agent has to be able to see and believe in a manuscript’s commercial value so they can sell it to a publisher.

So if we have read your query and like the sound of you and your work and can see a marketable aspect to it, we will probably ask to see a sample or excerpt. This is exciting (for you and for us) but please remember it’s not necessarily smooth sailing from here. We may read your partial and then decide it’s not what we want/were hoping for. But it is the first step in at least getting your work read by a professional who will provide you with some feedback and advice.

Rejections

Different agents have different methods of rejection, so I can only really talk the way I’ve been taught (though I would think it’s fairly standard). I always take the time to thank the writer for sending us the query and say something positive about their work, before giving them some feedback (yes, am a fan of the ol’ kiss-kick approach) and saying why we won’t be pursuing the manuscript any further. Depending on the query, I’ll then try and offer practical advice and wish them luck with future endeavours. Short, polite and professional. As much as I would love to give everyone detailed critiques and a list of other agents, publishers and writers’ centres, it’s just not possible (I could easily spend the whole day doing this!) I say this because I know there has been talk of the ‘generic rejection’ but I can strongly attest that agents’ will try their best to give personal feedback.

Why was I rejected?

Below are what I find to be the most common reasons I give:

– Your work doesn’t suit our lists – is just that. We just don’t feel that the manuscript is a good fit for the agency. As publishing is becoming an even trickier and expensive business, agents have to be truly passionate about the work they represent. I use this reason a lot – more often than not the query is well-written and the story sounds promising, but just not the sort of thing we are looking for. Also, have you really looked at the kind of work the agent is representing? Sometimes it’s just that our tastes have changed over the past couple of years and our professional interests have moved on.

– Unable to take on new work – Again, it’s more of an ‘us’ thing than a ‘you’ thing. I work for a very small agency (one agent, one part-time assistant) with an established base of clients. They already generate a large amount of work, so when it comes to finding new manuscripts, we have to be very selective (especially because so much time and effort is used on developing new works into something that can be pitched to publishers).

– Too niche – sometimes we get writing that is very, very niche. I find in this case it may be better to go directly to a small press or look at alternative means of publication. Agents aren’t necessarily the best link to publishing for everybody.

– Lack of commercial appeal – linked to above. Unfortunately, publishing is a tough business and as much as we like to read creative and challenging work, it is also imperative that we make money. Agents in particular must seek out the commercial factor in a work, in order to be able to successfully do their job and sell it to a publisher. If this is the response you get to your writing, again I would then possibly look at alternative publishing routes like independent presses.

– Bad timing – argh, I hate using this one but it’s often true. Unfortunately, it may happen that you’ve sent your YA query in a month when we already have multiple manuscripts in this genre to be read (I use this example as lately the agent I work for has been inundated with supernatural YA manuscripts).

We feel your writing is not yet ready for publication – means in our humble opinion, your writing may need more work (whether it be structural, technical or just needs a good ol’ edit).

There are other reasons which may be used, but they are usually a lot more specific to the work (like you’ve sent us your true crime manuscript query from jail and we are so totally not interested at all, in fact we are slightly freaked out). As hard as it may be (and silly as it may seem for me to say this) please do not take a rejection too hard or too personally.

I hope this piece has given you some insight from an agent (or agent’s assistant’s) point of view. In my next (and final) column, I’ll give you advice on how to respond to a rejection email and where to go from there.

-Steph of My Girl Friday currently works as an assistant to a Melbourne literary agent

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  1. What’s next: part four « Ricochet - July 19, 2010

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