What Does It Mean When an Agent Responds to My Emailed Query?

Wendy Lawton

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“As I’ve observed and visited with many unpublished authors who attend conferences, I find that the trend increasingly leans toward an editor and/or agent asking them to send their mss or additional work for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?”

Gulp!

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.

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18 Comments

  • Mary E Hanks says:

    Thanks for the insight. Wow. It would be cool if we could find a universal numbering system that correlates with the list given above. Agents could answer with a #1 response–no other words–which means “Scary, really scary!” It’s hard to hear nothing.

  • This will be a great week. Thanks for broaching this
    subject. :)

  • David Todd says:

    Wendy:

    Given the difficulties of being a seller (of manuscripts) in an extreme buyer’s market (agents and editors being the buyers), I understand the system and how it has become what it has become. Rome wasn’t built in a day and won’t be changed in one either.

    The only problem I see with it is we, the sender of the e-mail, cannot know whether the e-mail actually made it to the agent’s inbox. Maybe it got caught by a spam catcher, and the agent doesn’t scan the spam for things that should have gone through. We realize that if we put in the subject “Query” or, in the case of a post-conference submission, “Requested Material” that it should get through. But, after the stated time (2-3 months is typical), if we don’t hear back, we wonder, “Did they actually receive my submission? Should I e-mail just to verify they received it? Or should I just forget it, submit it elsewhere?”

    A simple auto response from the agent’s e-mail program would end that, something like, “Thank you for sending your [query] [requested material]. I have received it and will review it in time. If you don’t hear back from me in ____ [months] [weeks] that means I’m passing on your project. I wish I had time to give a personal response with feedback to each writer, but the volume of items I receive prevents that.”

    That one automatically generated e-mail will eliminate a mountain of writer worry, and probably save the agent from a slew of follow-up requests clogging the inbox.

  • Nikole Hahn says:

    Thanks for the information. My vent: I once got an agent letter that was totally insulting. Mind you, at that point in my writing career I hadn’t chosen a genre. I had a children’s book story idea for series, but in looking back, I wasn’t focused yet. I wasn’t ready for a writing career. However, the agent was so rude. I steamed for two days over it, but at the end of two days I continued to write and continued to find my voice. :o)

  • Nikole Hahn says:

    Question: When I am ready to send my novel, can I send it to various agents and editors (that is if the website doesn’t specify no simultaneous submissions)? Or should I exercise patience and do one agency or editor at a time? What is good etiquette?

  • Nikole Hahn says:

    What if at a writing conference I do two agent appointments and both ask for me to send in the manuscript to them(yeah, I know…dreaming big here)? Do I need to tell the other that another agent or editor is also getting a copy? It’s my first conference next year and I don’t want to make a mistake.

  • Wendy, Thanks for being honest and open about this. Having been through the system, my major concern is that often the person sending the query has no idea whether it actually arrived. Call me a Luddite, but I don’t totally trust the Internet, and I’ve had my share of messages get snagged on a bramble bush beside the Information Highway. I wish everyone would simply reply, “We’ve received your query. If you don’t hear from us in ** weeks, you may assume we aren’t interested.”

  • Judy Miller says:

    Great topic, Wendy. :) I can’t imagine the long hours editors and agents spend at conferences seeing one after another hopeful new author. It has to be daunting! With so many appointments, I know I would be exhausted after the conference ended, and having to review all those incoming proposals would be even more of a challenge. Somehow it seems there should be some way to make the system work more smoothly for everyone–just not sure what that method would be.

    Perhaps a forum where agents and editors take the stage at ACFW and/or Mt. Hermon and tackle this subject would be helpful. A forum where there could be an open exchange between writers, editors, and agents. I truthfully believe this has to be as difficult for the “swamped” editors and agents as it is for the authors who are waiting to hear. And maybe we should throw conference directors into that mix on the panel, as well. I would guess that conference directors don’t want disappointed conference attendees, which is another added stressor for agents and editors.

    Hmm. I think I have more questions than answers.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m so glad you’re addressing this. At my first conference both of the editors I spoke to asked for a proposal. I was so excited! Both kindly passed (rightly!). At my second conference my expectations were much more realistic. A good idea and a good pitch are just the first of MANY steps towards publication. I overheard several first-timers absolutely thrilled to have been asked for a proposal. In one agent’s workshop she asked us if we knew what it mean when someone asked for a proposal. “Nothing,” she said. Then added the caveat that it meant your idea didn’t stink. This business is such a roller coaster–thanks for helping us identify the real peaks versus the little bumps along the way.

  • Rick Barry says:

    This is both a fun and informative post. I have nothing to vent, sorry. Like everyone else, I just have to recognize that the system isn’t perfect, and so I work within the parameters of the system while constantly striving to improve the quality of my writing.

    As always, thanks for giving insight into the industry from the opposite side of your desk!

  • Wow! I already know I am going to love this week’s posts. I feel I don’t know enough about this part of the system. Though I try to read up as much as I can, I don’t think anything can beat experience.

    I’m with David and Richard on the fear of a submission being lost in the vastness of the WWW. I had trouble with my email for a few months and I had to keep checking with people to see if they received my messages. Some did and some didn’t. An auto response would make everyone’s lives easier.

    One other thing is actually securing a meeting with an agent at a conference. There are numerous requests and only so many slots, so how can you make yourself stand out so they will choose you and not the other guy?

    Thanks for this insightful post. I look forward to more this week.

  • Great post, Wendy! I still can’t believe how some writers will engage in disrespect and tell the agent off.

    What makes you hate this system. Any suggestions for fixing it?

    Good question. I think what can be frustrating is when an agent requests a partial or full and they don’t offer a detailed response as to why they decided to pass.

    Sometimes it’s pretty vague. Now this is not always the case. Some do. Some do take the time out to let the writer know, and that advice is like gold. I am soo grateful for that. I totally understand time is limited. There is just so many submissions to get through. At times though it can be discouraging but very understandable. When your so very close but not close enough.

    Good questtion on how to fix this :) Hmmm….

  • I do have to say I have had a lot of great feedback.
    (Thank you God!)

    I can’t complain too much but like I said it can be frustrating sometimes when your inches away from the finish line:) But that’s how life is.

  • I’m looking forward to the posts this week, too! I suppose frustration wouldn’t be the right word, but it makes me nervous when I don’t know if my requested material actually made it to the agent’s inbox.

    Part of me wants to send an email just to check, but the other part doesn’t want the agent to feel like I’m pressuring or rushing them in any way. So…I wait. :)

  • Loree Huebner says:

    Thanks for this post and the insight.

    I look forward to more this week.

  • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

    Wendy is on work overload today; so I’m stepping in to answer some of your questions. The most pressing seems to be the fear that your potential best-selling manuscript is lost in an agent or editor’s spam folder. At Books & Such, if you submit your query/proposal to our Representation email, you will receive an auto reply. Some agents have you send the material to their personal email. We can’t do an auto reply then because so many other types of emails are being exchanged–with clients, with editors, etc.
    If you haven’t heard anything in three months, it’s appropriate to ask if the material was received. You’ve shown patience and deserve a response of some sort.
    What about simultaneous submissions to agents? Yes, you may. Please tell each agent that the submission is simultaneous in your cover letter-email. And, if you hear from one agent, please don’t go by the precept of “I’ll say yes to whomever asks me first.” Hello, if we worked that way with marriage, just think whom you might be with now?! Instead of just saying yes, go back to the other agent(s) you haven’t heard from yet and let them know you have an offer to be represented. The other agents will dig out your project and make a decision quickly.
    At a writers conference, it actually makes agents/editors competitive to know others have requested your material. So be sure to mention it!

  • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

    Bless you Janet for stepping in to answer questions. (Can you see why I love her?)

    She’s spot on with her answers. I Couldn’t have said it better!

  • Nikole Hahn says:

    Thank you, Janet! I will do that.

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