Most of you know by now that I used to work as assistant to a well-known and highly-respected literary agent in NY (remotely). I learned so much in my time with her about writing, querying, and publishing. Mostly, I learned exactly what it is that agents are looking for in submissions and what sends some of them straight to the DELETED folder. I have posted a couple of times about how to avoid this happening to you and how to write a proper query (see my earlier blog posts). But today, I thought I’d write a little expose and give you all an inside glimpse into what goes on behind the curtain when agents are reviewing submissions from authors around the world. This, my friends, is my confession.
Fact One – (Some) Agents Don’t Read All Emails Themselves
I will start this one by emphasizing that I said SOME agents don’t read all their emails. It may even be most, but certainly not all. I know for a fact there are a few who do read each and every submission themselves. But they are few and far between. Now, you ask, if agents are not reading all their emails, how are we getting replies? That is nonsensical! Let me explain. A lot of agents these days are hiring interns and assistants to help them go through the plethora of emails they get every single day. My agent told me once she’s gotten as many as 300 in her inbox in one day, though the average is about 100. So what my agent did was to send me batches of emails by simply forwarding them to me in my own agency email (usually 10-20 at a time) and then I would read through them for her. If I felt the query was up to snuff AND something she would personally be interested in, I would then request the pages (or the entire book, if really, really good) and then I’d ad to my “to-read list.” (More on this later.) If the query was not formatted right at all, or not even slightly in my agent’s wheelhouse, or quite frankly, badly written, I would simply delete the email and move on to the next one. Most agents have a “no reply means no” policy, and this is why you did not get a reply. Your query was deleted for one of the aforementioned reasons. Did I enjoy doing this? Absolutely not. But do I understand the logic behind this policy? Yes, I certainly do. Which brings me to my next fact…
Fact Two – No Really Does Mean No (and so does no reply)
If an agent hasn’t replied within a month, give or take, in all likelihood, it’s a polite pass. But wait, there are exceptions. Yes, I’m fully aware there are some agents who take even up to six months or more to reply. I’ve gotten responses from those agents, too. One even waited an entire year to reject me. But in MOST cases, they (or their assistants) see your email fairly quickly. It just takes some time to read through the query then sample pages (if asked for) and send a reply, if they do reply. Is it okay to politely nudge an agent after 6-8 weeks as some have said? Technically, I think so. But would I do it on a query alone? Absolutely not. It serves no purpose other than to potentially annoy the agent. Either they’ve not replied because they’re not interested, in which case, you’re only going to put them in an awkward position or trying to explain why it’s just not right for them, or they’re still reading your sample pages and all you’ve done is show them you can’t be patient and wait your turn. Again, I fully embrace the fact that some agents say a polite nudge after X amount of time is okay. I’m simply saying I personally would not do it. And lastly, if an agent says no…leave it at that. Do not reply for any reason. Not even to thank them. Especially not to pester them for an explanation, or worse yet, to berate them for passing on “the best book ever written.” Learn to take “no” for an answer and move on. One agent’s “no” could be the next agent’s “hell yes!” So just don’t give up.
Fact Three – Agents (or their assistants) Really Do Read Your Manuscript
As I mentioned above, some agents use interns and assistants to help read queries and submitted materials. This includes books received after a full request. For my agent, I was asked to read any book I had requested from the author and report back to my agent with a one-page summary of the plot and my thoughts on the book and the writing. So while maybe Agent X is not the one reading your manuscript herself, someone she has trained to discern her personal tastes and what constitutes a good/sellable book is reading it in its entirety. That is, if your book is good. If it’s not, or if it doesn’t pique my interest, or if the writing doesn’t hold up to the amazing plot presented, or it falls flat halfway through…whatever the reason…that is when the agent will not read your entire book. They’ll only read as long as their interest is held and if the writing is up to snuff. Another reason an agent will stop reading is if the book, no matter how intriguing, is poorly written and/or edited. Not only does it prove the author is not ready, but it shows they did not care enough to learn their craft first and have it edited thoroughly first. It also shows they are impetuous and unable to be patient and do what is required - a quality that most agents will find less than endearing. So the takeaway here is to make sure your manuscript is well-written, that you’ve learned all you can about the craft of writing, and that your book is polished and as error-free as possible. If an agent reads your entire book, odds are, if you don’t get an offer of representation, most likely you’ll at least get some thorough feedback. So don’t be lazy.
Fact Four – An Agent May Like a Book, but Still Reject It
Why? That makes no sense, you say. Not on its face, it doesn’t. After all, if an agent loves your book and the writing is superb, why on earth would they not offer representation? The answer is simple – your book is not marketable. I learned this while training with my agent. The first couple of books I read for her, I absolutely loved, so I recommended the agent read them and offer representation. But to my surprise, she would later tell me that she really enjoyed them and agreed with my assessment of the writing, but the story was not one she felt she could sell in the current market. Now, I’ll be the first to admit…I still don’t get what drives the market at any given time, or what the hell agents are exactly looking for currently. To me, a good book is a good book and therefore readers will read it. Can I get an “Amen?” Alas, I don’t make the rules. And there are rules, apparently. My agent tried and tried over email, phone, and video conferences to explain to me how some books, while good, are not good enough for an editor to buy it. Some things, however, are a given. For example, paranormal books right now are just not “in” anymore. Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and Sookie Stackhouse all took advantage and got in at just the right time. Nowadays, readers have had enough sparkly vampires and angsty shape-shifters. But there are some genres that are almost always going to be “en vogue.” Literary novels, memoirs, fantasy, suspense/thrillers, etc. will almost always sell well. But it’s the subgenres and/or plot tropes that decide if even those books have oversaturated the market. Basically, what it boils down to is that if you get a rejection after a full manuscript read, it does not necessarily mean there’s something wrong with your writing or your story. It simply means the agent doesn’t think she can sell it at the time you have submitted it. So don’t give up and don’t give in. But absolutely do not try to write just what you think will sell. That is not what I’m saying. Write what you know and love, but just know that it’s really not the agent turning you down so much as the market.
Fact Five – Agents Are People, Too
Agents get a hard time. And as I’ve already said, even though I’ve both been repped by and worked for literary agents these past few years, I freely admit I still don’t understand exactly how to please them sometimes. It seems like you read conflicting advice everywhere you turn. One agent says NEVER do this in a submission, while another agent says ALWAYS do that. And each of them seems to have a very unique way of requesting submissions. Then of course you have to worry about if your book is being overlooked because it’s not an #ownvoice or #diverse book, though I digress. You get the point. But if I had a penny for every time I heard people bashing agents on social media for not replying soon enough (or never at all), for acting like they’re better than authors, or for being unnecessarily picky, I would never have to write a another book. But you guys…they’re really just like us. They are! They are just doing a job that is very demanding on both their time and energy and that pays them very little to nothing until/unless they land a major book deal for a client. When they sit at their computers and read query after query after query, they are not getting paid a dime. They are doing it because, yes, they hope to make money one day, but also because they love this industry as much as we do, and they truly want to make authors’ dreams come true. So let’s give them a bit more credit and back off them just a bit, shall we? Remember that we need them, like it or not, and that they really do want to find that great book and they really do want to make THE CALL as much as we want to receive it.
I could probably keep going, but I’m afraid I’ll lose your interest, if I haven’t already. So those are just a few of the things I learned during my time as a literary agent assistant. If I had the time to keep doing it, I would still be there. But my editing business and my writing just had to take priority. But the lessons I learned during my time with this agent are invaluable and I will carry them with me the rest of my journey. Now maybe you, too, can learn a little something from this confession and I hope you took something away from it.
If any one has any questions about the querying and submission process, or my time with the agency, or even my editing services, please feel free to contact me. Don’t forget, I also edit queries and synopses and I use the insider tips and tricks I’ve learned to help my clients. I hope you will join the list one day soon. Until then, best of luck and happy #amquerying.