Agent Hunt, part 2

In my last post I talked about the process of looking for an agent. This time I want to go into more detail about the inevitable next step: getting rejection letters.

I’ve talked about rejections before, in the context of getting them from editors. The reasons that agents have for rejecting writers are much the same: your work might not be their cup of tea, they’re just not crazy about you enough to be motivated to put in the tons of work required, they’ve only got so much room in their client list and you didn’t quite make the cut, and maybe – just maybe – your writing isn’t quite ready for prime time. Let’s look at some specifics.

Note: it’s customary in the writing world not to name agents or editors and not to quote the entirety of a communication, for the sake of confidentiality and professionalism. Opinions differ on this, but I’m sticking with the professional ethics thing. Naming names can drift too quickly into internet flame wars, and there’s too much of that already.

Here’s the basics of a typical rejection letter:

Thanks for your query… I’m afraid I will be passing. I’m just not enthusiastic enough about the concept of your story to feel that I’d be the right agent for this project… Best of luck in your search for representation.

I’d suggest taking this literally. The agent has a tough job and she really needs to be head over heels to champion your project in the face of an increasingly difficult publishing world. If she’s not that enthusiastic, she won’t do the best possible job, which isn’t fair to either you or the agent. Keep moving and look for someone who’s more into your story.

Here’s a relatively new development I’ve seen in this batch of queries, which I didn’t encounter in my last agent hunt 14 years ago. Some agents require you to query using a web form, and they send an auto-reply to let you know your query has been received. This was part of one of the auto-replies:

Please note that a pass should not be construed as a statement on your work’s publishing viability; it is just my subjective determination that the project isn’t a good fit for me and the agency.

Many of these recent form letters have taken on this very soothing, conciliatory tone, but it was a little unusual to see it before a decision had even been made. I suppose it’s considerate for an agent to assure writers that they mean no offense, but I have to warn you: if you’re going to put your work out in the world, you need to be prepared for offense. You will get bad reviews. You will face lots of rejection. You need to be able to console yourself and move on.

Speaking of moving on – and more rejection – I want to mention one more interaction I had with an agent. First I should mention that there’s a trend among some agencies to open their own in-house publishing companies, where they use ebook and/or print-on-demand technologies to publish their clients’ work directly, rather than negotiating a contract with a publisher. Critics say this can create a conflict of interest; agents may not negotiate contracts that are to the authors’ advantage if they think they can make more money by publishing the books themselves. I admit I was on the fence about this issue until the following interaction happened, and you’ll have to do some research and decide how you feel about it yourself.

Here’s how the rejection letter went (and I’m paraphrasing because the language was so unusual, quoting it would eliminate any sense of anonymity). The agent said my sales were too low, my writing wasn’t edgy enough, and I’m writing in the wrong genre. These criticisms make no sense from an agent – an agent should be able to find a publisher who works with my style and genre, and if they were concerned that my name has been tarnished by low sales, they would suggest a pseudonym. But if the agent was instead looking at me as a candidate for publishing, these concerns make more sense. Small publishers often try to create a niche in terms of style and genre, and a lack of marketing dollars may mean they want writers who already have strong followings to bring in the sales. In other words, this agent was not looking at me as a potential agent client, but as a potential publishing client. That’s something important to keep in mind as you evaluate agents. Do your research and decide what you’re really looking for.

That’s a little bit about rejection. What are your experiences with agents?

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