Pub Rants

Peek Inside the Agent Mind

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I’m in the happy position of having sold all my recently submitted projects. Love when that happens. It also means I’ve got nothing in the pipeline to send out.

I’m doing a lot of reading in the next couple of weeks to see if anything wonderful comes my way. I’ve also recently hired an outside reader that I trust to help with the requested pages inbox. Angie was at the Publishing Institute with me back in 2002. We have similar tastes and the same good eye. She’s not interested in being an agent but she loves reading the sample pages and she’s never wrong. She always forwards exactly what I want to read and makes the right judgment on passes. She’s worth her weight in gold!

We devoted all of last Monday to reading the inbox. I imagine we went through at least 50 or 60 submissions and didn’t request a single full manuscript. Sometimes it happens that way. Other times, I see two or maybe even three things I want to read more of.

But we both felt the same way about some of the stuff we did see last week, and I thought I would share.

I wrote an article that touched on some of these points for Backspace: The Writer’s Place. Feel free to read the full article if this catches your interest.

What gets a request for a full manuscript?

1. Great writing, great voice, with a great original story line.
2. As I’m reading the partial, I’m excited and can already think of four or five editors who would love what I’m reading.

(Hint: How can you as a writer get the same feel for the market? Read the deals posted on Deal Lunch at Publishers Marketplace. You do that for several months and I promise you, you’ll have a good sense of the general market and what is selling.)

What’s going to get a pass?

1. Fresh storyline but the writing isn’t strong enough.

This is so heartbreaking. Often I’ll see partials where I’ll think, “this is a terrific concept,” but then the writing just isn’t strong enough to carry the story. Time is too scarce to work with an author to see if he or she can get it there. There are too many other possibilities out in the world.

2. Sharp writing with a tired storyline.

This is heartbreaking too. I can tell the author is talented but the story has been done (and done, and done again…) I just passed on representing an author for a YA work because it had a reality TV storyline. I loved the characters, her voice, and thought the story was very fun. I just think that plot device has been done one too many times, so even though she has great talent, I passed.

3. Average writing with an average storyline.

This is true of a lot of Chick Lit sample pages I’ve read recently. The writing isn’t bad—it’s just not blow-me-away great. The storyline won’t excite editors who will only buy in this field if the novel is unlike anything that has hit shelves before now.

4. A beautifully written but boring work.

I hate when this happens. The author is clearly talented but has a story that I just wouldn’t buy if I were in the bookstore. Clearly, I’m not the right agent for this novel. Even if you are writing literary fiction, I do think there needs to be some kind of commercial hook to propel the story. Even GILEAD (a novel I blogged about so you know I love), had the hook of an elderly father writing a letter to his seven year old son so that his son wouldn’t remember him solely as that doddering old man. That’s a great hook—and her writing was so gorgeous…).

5. Poorly written material regardless of story.

Here’s another secret I shouldn’t be revealing. Sometimes these partials are highly entertaining. Angie and I were in tears over a science fiction partial (that was not requested by the way) that was so “good” we read aloud passages to each other. I’m a nice person but this partial was almost like a parody of writing. Even nice people get snarky when pushed!

6. Stories that clearly don’t fit in the market.

I’ll get a cover letter that will say something like this: “my story is a blend of science fiction and romantic comedy with elements of suspense. It can be called Chick Lit.” Huh? It is only the extraordinary writer who can outrageously defy genre boundaries and become a phenomenal success. It just doesn’t happen often. You need to know where your novel fits in the market.

7. Partials with demanding or unprofessional cover letters.

I pass just on principle. If an author seems difficult in tone, and trust me, this is apparent in cover letters we have received, I’ll pass because I just don’t want to deal with that personality. Life is too short to deal with negative and demanding people. Assertive and pro-active authors, now that is a different story.

And before I sign off, Angie has a request. Please, no using the word “resplendent” in your opening chapters. It’s an automatic NO based on principle alone and since she’s reading in front of me, you might want to take that to heart.

28 Responses

  1. bruno said:

    Wow. So far we’ve been talking about queries and now we’re on to partials. This is clear evidence that even if you can write a decent business letter with a good hook there still might be a rejection letter coming with your name on it. Yikes. As this is currently the stage I’m at with my first novel I’ve gone back to make sure the first three chapters are polished until I can see my teeth in them, that’s after two previous editing jobs. And the synopsis? Talk about stress. Who needs coffee in the morning? I just remind myself I’m a writer and I get very sober and wide eyed very quickly. Gotta tell you, the non-fiction market was a cakewalk compared to this. Still, never boring.

  2. Duke_of_Earle said:

    Dang. I can’t help but wonder which of those “pass” categories my recent query fell into. Sure hope it wasn’t one of those that got you two into hysterics.

    Too bad you can’t assign each rejection reason a number (as you sorta did in your post), and simply email back the corresponding reason number with your “no thanks” note. We wannabes would value your opinion, even though it differes from our own.


  3. Anonymous said:

    duke of earle said “We would value your opinion, even though it differs from our own.”

    How, after reading this blog, would you expect an agent to have time to offer one?

    I thought that once too. It used to drive me crazy. The ‘what’s wrong with my writing wail. If only they would tell me I could make it right.’ I’ve been lucky enough to have several comments on my manscripts. I value them immensely, even more so now. But now I know the answer, while not simple, is easy. If it had grabbed them in the first place then it was right. And I’m not talking about one or two agents. As Kristin has said, what grabs her might not grab another agent and vice versa, so one has to try several before thinking the writing sucks.

    The things that have got me after I’ve read a couple of agents blogs are the minor things. Like forex having a professional e-mail address. I would never even have thought of that. Mine is kinda quirky, but I will say distinctive, and I’m pretty sure my query letter sucks. We’ll see. There might even have been a portal in it. Somewhere.

  4. December Quinn said:

    Too bad you can’t assign each rejection reason a number (as you sorta did in your post), and simply email back the corresponding reason number with your “no thanks” note. We wannabes would value your opinion, even though it differes from our own.

    The problem with this, Duke, (aside from time constraints) is that some other agents have tried this, and apparently found that the furious and angry responses they get make it really, really not worth continuing.

    Not everyone is as nice and understanding as you and me. 🙂 There are a lot of people out there who really believe that any agent who rejects them deserves a snotty reply.

  5. Duke_of_Earle said:

    Well, gee. I’m in the habit of thanking the rejecting agent for the prompt reply (if I get one) and always acknowlege the demands on his/her time. Just good business and (un)common courtesy, the way I was raised.

    As for time constraints, that was my point. How much time does it take to write a “#4” on the top of the form letter as you stuff it into the supplied SASE? That’s all I was suggesting.

    The angry comments? Well the world is full of jerks I guess. And I would assume that the simple standard form “No thanks, not for me” letter many agents use offends some of them enough to show their true colors in vituperous reply.

  6. Anonymous said:

    so . . . achem . . . did you clear the in box, or are there a few partials left you haven’t looked at yet? ::eying the mailbox nervously::

  7. Kirsten said:

    I’d just like to say how much I appreciate the opportunity to glimpse what it’s like “on the other side.” It’s one thing to know that agents get a lot of queries, for instance. It’s another to imagine what it would be like to have 700 come in over a two week period. That’s (conservatively) at least 140,000 words’ worth of query letters. A deluge. Yikes.

    I’ve begun viewing the responses I get to my queries in a completely different way. I’m sort of astonished to even get a “no,” LOL

  8. Anonymous said:

    Yikes. I know you have one of my partials. Hope you didn’t open it on Monday…. though I’m sure you did.

    Does anyone know if Kristen sends her r’s by email??


  9. Anonymous said:

    Anon. read your emailed partial request where it says do not send an SASE and that she will return via email her response to save costs on paper and time.

    I would assume that she responds via email.

  10. Heidi said:

    Aw man!

    Our timing is off by six months. Here you’ve cleared your backlog and are now looking for brilliant stuff, but my brilliant stuff won’t be ready for a little while.


    Save a spot for me.

  11. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Phew! I did a word check on “Pixie Warrior.” The word “resplendent” doesn’t appear once. I did find one example of concupiscence. It appears in the following paragraph:

    “I should explain that when Father gave me my first notebook and pen, I briefly thought of becoming a story teller. But, I will never be a great novelist. I don’t run with the bulls; I don’t drink to excess; I avoid concupiscence – I think. (I’m not too sure what that is. But I’m certain I’d avoid it if I knew.) I have no imagination.”

    So, we’re ok with this, right? Oh, heck. I’d better keep submitting this. I think I was just deleted!

  12. Anonymous said:

    I must say I adore your blog. As an author starting on the ‘search for an agent’ part of my publishing plan. Just wanted to say thank you. – CLD

  13. Anonymous said:

    ‘Unless specifically requested, never send your partial by Fedex overnight. You are simply wasting money. It’s very rare that we will read a partial the week it arrives. It won’t make us respond any quicker.
    Also, never send your sample pages by certified mail or in any way that needs a signature. My building has a reception desk that handles all incoming packages. They will sign on my behalf, so the above doesn’t bother me. I did just talk to an agent friend last week who wasn’t home (and yes, many agents have home offices) when the Post Office attempted to deliver an envelope with a signature request. The Post Person left the yellow announcement on her door. The next day she wasted a morning going to the post office, standing in line for 45 minutes to receive a package that was simply a proposal (and not even one she requested!). She was livid. She opened the envelope. Took out the SASE. Wrote on the author’s cover letter the rejection and a curt note. Tossed the proposal in the recycling bin right there at the post office and dropped the SASE in the post box and walked out.’


    I’ve sent a requested by priority that had to be signed. But only because I was late getting it out due to natural disasters and felt that I owed that to someone who had asked for the work.

    Did not realize this was a no-no. Also did not mean to make anyone feel like they were supposed to read it faster. YIKES!

    Thank you for putting this out for us to read. Very helpful info.

  14. Anonymous said:

    What about Rejection Reason #8 – it’s just not a genre you represent?

    Or is that only a nicer way to say #1-6?

  15. Sandra said:

    Does anyone posting know what it means when an agent says she isn’t taking unsolicited submissions? Who represents you to an agent? I thought that was the reason you looked for an agent, to get representation. I’ve seen a few agents post this on their websites, and I’m totally confused.

  16. Elektra said:

    Sandra, I believe it means that, unless they contact you (seen your work in magazines or whatnot), don’t bother. You could probably also get in with a client referal, if you happen to be so lucky.

  17. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    I send anything that requires a large manilla envelope with deliver confirmation (which as far as I know does not require any effort on the part of the recipient). It’s for my peace of mind.

    So, is Angie bribable with either chocolate or hand-painted silk?

  18. Anonymous said:

    Unsolicited submission can mean don’t send a partial or full manuscript as your first contact. Query first, the agent requests a partial or full, now your submission is no longer unsolicited.

  19. December Quinn said:

    What about Rejection Reason #8 – it’s just not a genre you represent?

    Or is that only a nicer way to say #1-6?

    IME, no…”not a genre I represent” means just that. Someone subbing, for example, a True Crime novel to Kristen will be told that’s not a genre she reps…because it isn’t. Some people don’t do their research before subbing.