Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Several years ago, I wrote the blog post below because things were kind of, well, crazy. Actually, those circumstances inspired me to create several posts. Last week set new records for craziness, and I found myself re-reading those posts and thinking, Some things never change. Because those posts remain relevant (I know, having relived them ALL last week), I want to re-share them with you. I think you’ll gain insights into how agents, authors, editors, and publishers relate to each other and often cause each other to roll their eyes or pull out the Kleenex.
Now, join me behind the scenes of What Drives an Agent Crazy?
Every job has its drawbacks. You know, the stuff you’d just as soon not have to deal with but manage to plow through because of the inherent rewards in what you do. When I was an editor, proofreading was the do-I-have-to-do-this element of the job for me.
The Good Stuff
Agenting has plenty of rewards: working with clients for decades and seeing the long-term payoff for lots of dreaming and doing the hard stuff everyday; introducing a writer to the reading world; celebrating with clients when they hit the best-seller list or receive a notable award; reading lots of great books before anyone else sees them; and developing strong relationships with publishing colleagues (editors, other agents, marketing and publicity folks, the publishers themselves).
Okay, that’s the good news. Now for the bad. Agenting has its share of crazy-making scenarios.
The Not-So-Good Stuff
An agent feels his insights were taken for granted when he offers significant feedback to an unrepresented writer on a manuscript that boosts the writing to the publishable level–and the writer chooses another agent. Hello, who brought you to this dance?
Sometimes an agent turns down your manuscript because it isn’t ready, or because you haven’t found your writing voice. But that agent might see enough promise, or finds the work close to being ready, or just plain likes you and spends time explaining to you elements that need to be addressed to move the work to the next level.
Yes, the agent understands the advice is free and that the writer isn’t obligated to come back to the agent after addressing the issues. The agent is owed nothing.
Writers Miss the Point
But in actuality, that agent might be very interesting in hearing from you again. Yet writers generally don’t go back to agents who have seen past material to ask if they’d like to take a look at something new or at the same work with major changes. The agent, who already is familiar with you and your writing, might well be the most receptive person to your work.
Writers aren’t considering that an agent who provides guidance is motivated not only by wanting to be helpful but also because of seeing promise in you and your work. To take those insights, implement them, and then hand the document to another agent, results in disappointment and even a tinge of sadness for the helpful agent.
I think it’s helpful for the writer to see this circumstance from the agent’s point of view. Giving that advice cost the agent something. Every phone call, every proposal reviewed, every manuscript read takes the agent away from current clients–writers who are making money for themselves and for the agent.
Avoiding Contributing to Craziness
Publishing relationships are like any relationship: Show respect for the other person’s talents, time, and knowledge, just as you would hope they show to you.
In what ways could agents show more respect to writers?
How could writers show more respect to agents?
What does it mean when a lit agent gives you feedback on your work? Click to tweet.
Are you taking advantage of a lit agent’s feedback? Click to tweet.
Simply getting back to us querying writers would be good. My response rate is about 40 percent. Did you receive it, are you done reviewing it? In a perfect world an agent might comment on the quality of the submission, but I understand that takes time. From 72 queries I have received only one that indicated the agent read it at all. “Sorry, wasn’t hooked enough.” Ok.
I understand how frustrating it is to have your query met with silence. In a perfect world, agents would respond with an “I got it,” followed by, “Here’s what I think.”
But the deluge of queries makes it financially a non-starter to be that engaged. Several years ago, my assistant kept track of how much time the office spent in receiving, reading, and responding to queries for one month. It was a staggering number of hours. And we hadn’t found a single strong prospect with whom we wanted to continue the communication.
At that point, I realized I had to be fiscally responsible and find a less time-consuming way to handle submissions. That’s when I set a policy that we would only respond if we were interested.
That’s frustrating for writers, who are trying so hard, I know, but in light of the tremendous output our office was experiencing, I had to find a less expensive way to proceed.
Janet, this is probably beating a dead horse, but since you asked…agents could follow the practice of other businesses that ask for proposals where an email is sent telling the submitter that the proposal or query has been rejected instead of making the submitter draw that conclusion from being ignored. I’ve run the numbers, and the time and effort required to send a form rejection would be considered very reasonable in most businesses.
Carol, I don’t know what numbers you ran, but the experience in our office showed indicated the additional time to respond was way beyond what we felt we could afford to invest. Especially since it’s unusual–rather than normal–for us to find someone to represent through the query process. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen because it does once or twice a year. Yup, just one or two new clients through the query process. Considering we received hundreds of queries every week, that percentage is extremely low.
Damon J. Gray
Would it seem beneficial, then, to not accept email queries? Is the cost (negative goodwill) worth the benefit of two contracts a year? Perhaps it is. This is well outside the realm of my expertise.
Agents to writers, writers to agents: grace! Less rush to judgment, more grace. Holding to the “mile in their shoes” standard. The whole “there but for the grace of God go I” thing.
*”May my words be sweet, because tomorrow I may have to eat them.”
Damon J. Gray
Shirlee, I love your responses. You are a precious gift to this community.
Shirlee,I love your response. And I agree with Damon. You are a GIFT.
I’m one more in the Shirlee fan club. Amen to your post today!
Awww, your kind words are the gift — well timed, coming on the day I was stranded in the elevator at work (y’all put enough bounce in my step to get me to the 4th floor on foot).
I love the heart of those agents who care, in taking a new writer under their wing and helping them in areas of improvement needed to succeed. It’s been a wonderful journey these two years in this new world of learning, part of this learning is communication. Perhaps writers need to know if there is an open door once opened is still available in the future if there is improvements being made? I love being respected as a writer in being told the truth. What is expected of me and what is needing to be done to improve my journey and my manuscript. It’s one of the reasons I come to this group. Second it’s important to me to have an agent who loves God and respects His Word. When you have two people coming together knowing they live in an imperfect world, but love a perfect God and His word it’s easy to come to agreements in respect to the process of loving each other being patient and forgiving when we mess up and also being humble when we need to be. Remembering, the agent has the clients best interest at heart, don’t take it personally 🙂 keep an open mind as to what is being suggested and making sure to do what is asked in a contract is taken seriously will develop a good working relationship.
I believe a writer can show respect to an agent by taking their advice. A successful agent is a successful agent for a reason. I’ll take their advice with open arms. I’ll make necessary changes, follow their lead, and be grateful for every moment that agent gives to me. I’ll trust them, do everything possible to be the best I can be for them and me. And thank you, Janet, for sharing this side of things …
I agree with Mark and Carol; the ‘no response means no’ paradigm sets up a de facto caste system in which the agents (and their selected authors) are the poobahs, and everyone else is an Untouchable. Even by email.
* It’s also potentially inaccurate; I have sent a proposal to which I got no response. This proposal had come about through an introduction by an author already represented by that agency, and my patron strongly suggested (didn’t now they allowed that language on the internet) that I email the agency to see if my proposal had in fact arrived. It hadn’t. But as the agency had the ‘no response means no’ protocol in place, without the (cattle) prod, I’d have shrugged it off.
Andrew, I think most agents handle proposals with a more personal approach when they come with an introduction from a client or an established author. At least the Books & Such agents do.
So following up with a “did you get it” email wouldn’t be viewed as inappropriate.
Damon J. Gray
I certainly understand the frustration of offering helpful feedback and seeing that advice carried to a competitor.
Agent to Writer:
Communication flow is critical in this relationship. I have had excellent feedback from one B & S agent, taken it very seriously, implemented it in the extant proposal and will writing going forward with those tips in the forefront of my mind. I got pretty good feedback from a competing agent’s amanuensis who said essentially the same things the B & S agent said. That represents good communication. Now, on the flip side of that, I was asked for a proposal by a B & S agent, sent it, and have heard crickets for the last seven months. Even two follow up emails (“Did you receive the proposal? Any follow-up questions?) and have heard nothing. Is that a rejection? A wait-a-little-longer? I don’t know, because the communication line appears to be down.
Writer to Agent:
Respect your time! I know you are inundated weekly with a barrage of emails, queries, proposals, and that does not even account for the client load you are already carrying. Even this blog is intruding into your time cache. I am exceedingly reticent to ever contact an agent directly, and even when I do so, it is along the lines of, “May I shoot you a quick question…” Secondly, when an agent does offer feedback, especially when the feedback is comprehensive in character, understand what a precious gift that is. The agent has carved a chunk of time out of that cache mentioned above and given it to me! Do NOT discount that.
Wonderful posting, Janet. This should garner some interesting feedback.
Well, I’m not happy to hear that the communication line is down between you and one of our agents. Not the way we want to do things.
I’m assuming said agent is inundated at the present and just skimming through emails. I’ve certainly been there–more often than I care to admit.
I suspect these disrespectful actions by agents are fueled by insecurity. It is incredibly hard to approach someone once you have been rejected.
How can agents show more respect? Shoot. I guess a simple auto response email that says, “I have received your submission. If you do not hear back in 6 months, your book has not been selected.” Just to give the author a sense of finality to it.
And maybe, an automatic signature in the email you use to send feedback that says something along the lines of “I would love to hear from you again as you improve your craft” just so…the writer truly knows that another submission would be welcome.
Nonetheless, it seems like most websites say something to that effect, at least the first point, so I don’t think agents are generally being impolite. 😀
How could writers show more respect for agents?
This is harder to answer, because my first thought is “To just ask if you aren’t sure what your next step should be. If you get notes back, or a polite but personal rejection, ask if the agent would like to see more later.” But I don’t know if agents actually want *more* emails. 😀
Anyway, those are my thoughts. Insecurity plus rejection is probably why writers try a different agent after getting a feedback-rejection. And maybe automatic responses would help ease those insecurities for authors. 😀
Blerg. Sorry for the typo. I meant to say, in my first sentence: I suspect these disrespectful actions TOWARD agents” not by agents! My apologies.
Damon J. Gray
“Blerg” is a great word.
😀 We word people word fun, no?
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Like Shirlee said, grace. Oh, yes, so much grace.
And for those seeking approval and participation of any kind with any professional, there’s something I like to call “The Dirty Laundry Principle”: it’s so much harder to earn someone’s respect back if you’ve trashed them, or others, on social media.
Thank you for sharing these perhaps touchy parts of reality. I appreciate the time and attention you put into your work. It helps improve mine, especially the relational aspects.
This is helpful. I’ve always assumed I shouldn’t contact an agent with follow-up questions even if they offered suggestions. I took the “pass” as a final word. And I am always hesitent to send the “did you get it?” email even after a request from an agent.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but conversations like this should help us all learn the rules of etiquette.
The “did you get it” email is especially one to send if, after 4-6 weeks you’ve heard only crickets.
Thank you for that clarification!
Mary Kay Moody
Such needed information here, Janet. I am not alone in appreciating every tidbit of wisdom and instruction agents provide writers along the journey ~ notes, blogs, conferences… agents with B & S do a superb job at that.
While I understand your viewpoint above, I was surprised to read agents might feel taken advantage of if an author does NOT resubmit. Perhaps this is antiquated etiquette (from say 1990s?), but in an effort to reduce the tsunami sent to agents, I thought the agent would only welcome queries about a revised MS or a subsequent project if they specifically requested contact re: future work.
I do think the auto-reply “We received your query/submission” would be helpful. Especially for agencies that have a “no response is a no” policy. One agent I subbed to received my packet but lost everything in a computer meltdown. Had my proposal not been personally requested, I would not have sent the follow up “did you receive” email.
Thanks for sharing the agent world with us.
Mary Kay, the possibility of resubmitting to an agent applies only if the agent gives substantive feedback. That feedback reflects a deeper level of engagement than we can give to the majority of the work we receive.
And sending out a did-you-receive-my-submission email is always a good idea. Every once in awhile the agent didn’t receive the material–or, as you discovered the computer melted down.
The “No response means no” is perfectly acceptable for unsolicited materials. That’s exactly what we do with resumes that come in not in response to a specific position ad.
But the non-response to solicited materials is what I don’t get. You meet an agent at a conference, and they request something: a proposal, a partial, or a full. You send it. And you never hear from them again. Unless you send an e-mail to pester them about it, in as kind a way as you can. That’s demeaning to the writer. I’m 0 for 6 or 7 with CBA agents I’ve pitched to in formal pitch sessions at conferences, who requested materials that I then sent, without my prompting them later. One agent I even met at the next conference. In person I reminded him about what he had requested and how long it had been (10 months). He apologized for not getting back to me, and asked me to e-mail him every week until he did respond. I demeaned myself and did what he asked. No more.
David, I’m sorry that the lack of response is seen as putting you in the position of being demeaned by asking about the material’s status. Agents honestly are inundated by submissions, sometimes including requested submissions.
When we attend a conference, we hear so many great pitches. And all we can do is ask for the proposal to be sent in so we can look at the project more deeply. But that means we’ve asked for our inboxes to be inundated. That’s especially problematic for an agent who attends several conferences in a year.
Yes, we’re sincerely interested in your work. No, we can’t find enough time to read everything submitted. It’s maddening for the writer, and it keeps the agent in a posture of constant guilt–and longing to dig through the stack to find the gems.
Damon J. Gray
I was pondering this a bit more deeply yesterday, and came to the realization that we are in a parallel with doctors and lawyers. We (patients, clients, writers) need what they (doctors, lawyers, agents) have. The doctor has medical knowledge and proficiency. The lawyer has legal expertise. The agent has publishing know-how and vital contacts.
The doctor, lawyer, and agent also hold all the keys, all the power, so they set the rules for interaction and engagement. If my appointment with the doctor is at 3:10, and I arrive at 2:55 to fill out the required paperwork, yet sit there until 4:05 before I get in to see the doctor, that’s a bummer, but I accept it because I have no choice. But if I am 30 – 40 minutes late for my appointment, I may not get in to see the doctor at all, and I will be charged a no-show fee.
Now, here is the key. I have changed doctors because I believe I get better care from Doctor B than I do from Doctor A. I have changed attorneys for the same reason. An agent offers a service. It is a service I need, but it is a service I can get from multiple sources. So, the service has to be excellent. Not just good, and certainly not poor. It has to be above and beyond, else the writer will go elsewhere.
There are aspects of my day job that I loathe. But, they are part of the job. I suck it up, endure, and work my way through those tasks because they are essential to my doing a good job, and satisfying my clients/customers. So it is with literary agents. Treating writers with decency and respect is part of the package. Certainly you want to do it as efficiently as possible, but not doing it at all is not a good option.
That said, I’m with David. When a proposal has been requested and provided, at least do us the decency of saying, “Thanks but no thanks.” Seven to ten months of silence is terribly bad form.