What Does It Mean When an Agent Responds to My Emailed Query?
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
A couple of weeks ago one of my clients wrote to ask the following of me:
“As I’ve observed and visited with many unpublished authors who attend conferences, I find that the trend increasingly leans toward an editor and/or agent asking them to send their mss or additional work for review. No matter what else they may be told during that appointment, they hear NOTHING but the fact that someone has asked for their manuscript and they believe they are now going to be published.”
“Weeks, months, and sometimes more than a year will pass and they hear nothing. They don’t know whether to send to someone else, ‘bother’ the agent/editor they’ve sent it to for they fear that will anger them, or continue to pray and believe it’s going to all happen in God’s time.”
“During my earlier years at conferences, editors and agents frequently sat people down and said, ‘You show some promise, but you need more work.’ Or ‘Your writing skills aren’t quite up to snuff—how about considering some additional classes and mentoring.’ Anyway, you get the idea—they took it as their responsibility to tell these hopeful authors the truth. And, believe me, I know that’s a hard thing to say to someone. But is it not better to speak the truth in love than to let these folks sit for months on end thinking they’ve just been given a golden ticket?”
That’s a tough indictment, but nonetheless valid. I decided to try to decode some of these unspoken agent signals this week. Let me first offer a disclaimer which I will repeat each day of this series. Disclaimer: These observations are based largely on my own practices and those I’ve observed from the many agents I know and admire. But each agent is different (just like writers) and has different strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to your experience with agents YMMV. (Your mileage may vary.)
So. . . what does it mean when you’ve emailed a query to an agent– or mailed it, depending on their stated preference– and you get a response that says “send the proposal,” or even “send the whole manuscript?”
Here’s how I would decode that request: The agent is sincerely interested, based on your query. When an agent works through his or her queries, he has set time aside, is focused on finding excellence and is in peak analysis mode. He doesn’t do this when he is stressed, tired or overwhelmed; which is why it sometimes takes a while to hear back. So if you get a request for further material, consider it a sign of solid interest.
Many agencies, like Books & Such, do not reply if uninterested. Those agencies usually give a specific timeframe. “If you don’t hear back from us by [date] you’ll know we are not interested.” Books & Such, for one, makes sure to honor the stated date. All queries are read so, if the time frame passes without word, the writer knows. Why do agencies do this? It’s because of the sheer volume of queries. It is not possible to get back to everyone who queries. Few of us have sufficient staff to accomplish that task, even if we only used a form response which would tell the writer nothing anyway.
Writers often bemoan the fact that they never get any feedback. “How do we know why our query didn’t interest you if we never get any feedback?” If you’ve been in this industry– reading blogs and attending conferences– you already know the answer. It’s a limited resource issue– agents simply do not have the time or staff to give feedback. Those of us who love to interact and mentor hate that aspect of this system but it’s reality. Besides that, we’ve been trained by the few bad apples who don’t understand the realities. In our early years as agents many of us tried to give a little bit of feedback which invariably opened a stream of dialogue– either vitriolic anger, prolonged argument or request for clarification. We’re fast learners. It didn’t take long to realize it was safer to refrain from any specific comment.
So what does it mean if I don’t hear back? It could mean the agent is saying:
- “Scary! Really scary. Make sure to block sender.”
- “Writing doesn’t seem to be quite there yet.”
- “Umm, nope. I don’t think so.”
- “Good idea. If only I weren’t so full.”
- “Good idea, but, unfortunately, the writer doesn’t have the platform to interest publishers these days.” (nonfiction)
- “Good idea, but I have [client’s name] who is already filling this slot.”
- “Good idea, but not for right now. Sadly, the market’s not there at this time.”
- “Interesting writer but not a fresh idea. I’ve seen this same idea/plot too many times recently.
I know, I know. That doesn’t help you decode a no or a non-response. You’ll have to look for other clues. I’ll talk about what it means when an agent begins to informally communicate with you on Thursday which addresses some of those clues.Tomorrow we’ll answer my client’s initial concern when we talk about what it means when an agent requests your proposal or manuscript at a conference. Wednesday we’ll discuss what it means when you never hear back. And on Friday we’ll talk about what it means when an agent offers representation.
VENT WEEK: This is vent week in the comment section. The process of finding representation is so exasperating that it frustrates us all– writers and agents alike. Here is your opportunity to vent and be heard with no repercussions. What makes you hate this system. Any suggestions for fixing it? Let’s talk about it together.