Monday, August 15, 2011

Agents Are Not Out To Hate And Reject

Let's start with the simple fact that agents are not just money grubbing bad guys here. Despite the misconceptions that a few writers have; despite the frequent blogs that some disgruntled writers post about how all agents are the spawn of something found only in urban fantasy novels; we really are not bad guys here. There is not plot out to squash the underdog and only buy the super novel that will make us an instant success. In fact, on this later point, we are often more excited than you are (and sometimes surprised) when the editor calls us and tells us that "so and so just made the best-seller list."

What I have to stress is that agents really do listen to what you have to say at conferences and at pitches. We are looking for projects that really speak to us and beg us to sign that book and author to launch their career. We all have our wish lists of "books we would love to see." And no, we do not simply just crank out rejections one after another because we didn't want to read your story.

So, if we are so eager to read the author's stories, why do we reject so quickly? There are three simple answers here. First of all, we know what things work and don't work out there in the market. I know that some interpret that last comment as stories we are "willing" to work with, but that is far from the truth. In many cases, a story won't work because it is over-done and the readers are starting to shy away from it. In some cases, the story is simply too much of a copy of what we have already seen and editors don't want cheap copies. In some cases, the topic is one that might be too controversial or would simply piss off too many people. Yes, it might be something you are interested in, or something that needs to be talked about, but if people aren't ready, then the book is not timed right.

The second is that you have submitted a story that we just don't represent. I have talked about this before, but agents (and editors) have things they just don't work with. This may be due to the limits of what the agent can do with the project or it may be their personal knowledge of that genre. Poetry is one of those areas that an agent probably can't do much with. The simple truth is the market is too limited. As far as the personal knowledge, if we don't understand it, how can we guide you in the right direction with editorial help, or to send it to the right place?

The second, and this is probably the biggest issue, is that we know the type of voice we like. I have said this several times in rejection letters. An agent has to fall head over heels for a project and if we don't love it (or the voice) enough to want to read it multiple times, then we won't be able to fairly represent it.

The point of all this is simple. Do we reject? Yes. Do we write a lot of rejections? Yes. But this is simply due to the quantity of submissions we get and the number of situations where the story just isn't going to work. We don't like writing rejections. We really are hoping that we get that great gem and maybe it is your story. Just know that for most of us out there, if we ask to see something, the odds are you have something that might intrigue us.

And all of us have our fingers crossed.



  1. I've been in theatre for *mumbles* some number of years so I'm used to the rejection that goes along with putting your craft out there for public consumption. In both theatre and writing there is certainly frustration over getting that first break and the language used to describe being a person trying to break in is a little derogatory: cattle call, slushpile. It's just the nature of the beast but for someone who isn't used to taking the risk of offering something they've created, be it a take on a character or a manuscript, this is a frightening process. Take that insecurity, the subjective nature of making it past the first gateway, and the fact that talented people are rejected while some that appear to have little merit succeed and there are bound to be some hurt feelings. Artistic people who are truly engaged with their craft create with their hearts. Without the understanding that they also enter into a pact with the reader or audience when they offer a performance or book, not to mention that they are blending creative output and commerce (inherent opposites, IMO), there's fertile ground for hurt and frustration.

    There are agents who trade in snark. There are agents who try to present a sensible voice. Everyone has something to contribute. An emerging creative in any discipline has got to be able to take what they need to learn from each 'no' and turn it into a positive. If nothing else, rejection teaches perseverance. Without the drive to keep going, no matter what, talent can't go the distance. That's my opinion from the cheap seats. :)

  2. Yep, got to agree with Mr. Laptop & Latte above. Rejection, and how we react to it, is what separates good from great. In many ways (I assume, since I've never queried an agent -- OH THE INNOCENCE!) I suppose querying an agent is much like applying for a job (and that's something I do have experience with). Applicants may have the qualifications, the experience, the attitude, the vision... They seldom have all of them, but an HR manager may see something positive. Unfortunately, there's ONE position, maybe two or a few, but certainly fewer than the applications received. How do you get past that, make your resume shine above and beyond all the others? For an author, the "resume", in a way, is the book, the submitted material. And here's a plus: whereas an employer has usually few positions to fill, an agent is unlimited (so to speak) in the number of authors he/she would like to represent. The crux of the matter lies in the quality of the work, the quality of the person.... And, like Scott has gone hoarse from saying, on whether it's the right material for the right agent. A brilliant physicist has no business applying for a marketing position, nor an outstanding financier as a nurse or surgeon.