Pub Rants

Why Agent Honesty Is Overrated

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STATUS: Today is about royalty statements, a submission, and a film deal in process.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE DRIVES ME CRAZY by Fine Young Cannibals

Writers on submission always want to know the answer to this question: “Why aren’t agents just honest in their response to my sample pages?”

In other words, if we think the manuscript sucks, why don’t we just say so?

I’ll tell you why.

1. In my experience (and I can’t speak for all agents), any honest reply generates a response from the writer. Unfortunately, we simply can’t get in a dialogue with the thousands and thousands of individual writers who query us in any given day, week, or month. Better to send out the form letter.

2. Sometimes it really is subjective. I’ve passed on manuscripts that I literally hated. Thought the writing was terrible. Yet another agent has taken it on, sold it, and the book did well. Who was right and who was wrong? See? Subjective.

3. I know y’all will disagree but it’s not actually an agent’s job to tell you that your writing needs work. That’s why writer’s conferences can be important and why most writers need a good critique group. The key with critique groups is to find one with writers who you can trust to be honest but helpful with their feedback. I just did a critique workshop at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and it was amazing. I let everyone else in the room speak first to the writer being critiqued. More times than not, I simply said, “I agree with so-so” and didn’t have further comments to add. That’s how good the writers were in my group. I’d recommend them to anyone looking for real feedback.

4. It’s impossible to say something doesn’t work without explaining the why of it. And sometimes the why is so detailed (from grammar issues, to misplaced modifiers, to dialogue not working, to plot issues, to no character development) that my explaining of why would just take too much time. Simply easier to say NO via a form letter or via inclusion of one of the more generic response line. Sad but true. And sometimes, it’s really hard to figure out the “why” if the writing really isn’t ready

5. Where a writer is now is not where he/she might be a year from now. I’ve been to a lot of conferences over the years and have heard many a keynote speech from hugely bestselling authors. In their keynotes, they often will relay a story where an editor or an agent told them it was hopeless—to never write again. But here they are, X many years later on the bestseller list. Uh-huh. Where you are now is not where you may be in the future. Why should I discourage you if writing is your passion? If you’re planning to stick with it, then you’ll work on craft until you get it or until you discover that the cost of getting it isn’t worth it to you.

Granted, for some folks, it will be hopeless. They’ll never learn the craft but I certainly can’t know that from one submission read if the writer is one who can learn or one who never will.


30 Responses

  1. Keith Schroeder said:

    Tony Robbins would say, “The past does not equal the future.”

    Whenever I read a self-pubbed book I get the same feeling. It doesn’t work and I can’t always put my finger on it.

    I agree, you shouldn’t discourage writers. They might produce a beatuful book I’ll spend hours enjoying. Time will tell.

  2. Jm Diaz said:

    You had me at Number 1 and 5. Those two alone explain the whole reason to me. Thank you for your (dare I say it?) honesty.
    This doesn’t mean we have to start dialoguing or anything 😉

  3. Barbara said:

    I actually do agree with you on #3. There are a lot of people out there whose job is to help you learn to write. An agent really isn’t one of them. By the time you’re submitting to an agent, you’ve presumably learned to write.

  4. TLH said:

    While it might be good to get some feedback from agents occasionally, I am glad that most of them sent me form rejections. It’s one thing if my fellow amateur writers tell me I suck, but it’s entirely another if an expert says it’s horrible.

    What I can’t stand are the agents that never respond one way or the other, they just ignore me. How much time does it take for you to send me a form email? Then I can cross you off my list and be done with it!

    ~Tara

  5. MeganRebekah said:

    I really like #5. Practice really can improve anything. A genetically gifted athlete can be outdone on the field by the person who spends more time perfecting their skill. It’s the same for writers.

    (PS – I linked to your blog in a tongue-in-cheek way today!)

  6. Sara J. Henry said:

    And here’s a reason agents often don’t respond to queries they aren’t interested in or give any personal response (Lee isn’t an agent, but the level of vitriol in the responses to his note probably approximates what agents sometimes get.)

  7. lettersfromlordship said:

    Great post. I appreciate it.

    It’s truly amazing how many people submit to agents every day, week, etc. You have a tough job.

    P.S. I love that you include music with these posts. “Holding Out For A Hero” yesterday was fun — I was involved with a teen theater production of Footloose a few years ago, so I heard the Broadway musical version of that song over and over — and the Shrek one is a different take. I thought you’d go for Billy Joel’s “Honesty” today!

  8. Charlie said:

    I much prefer honesty (unless you think my writing stinks). 🙂

    Seriously, you bottom lined it. It’s not your job. It’s OUR responsibility to present work so good that you cannot say no.

  9. Bane of Anubis said:

    I agree w/ the subjective nature, but if there’s a consensus (perhaps not that ‘you suck as a writer,’ but something like ‘this isn’t marketable,’ it’ll help give the author insight).

  10. Carradee said:

    When I was 15 and first got computer access (and a fanfiction.net account), I was also a freshly awakened grammar geek. That meant I could see all the errors–and, thanks to being newly sensitized to it, couldn’t stop myself from seeing the errors, either. I also lacked the experience or tact to know how to give a critique that wasn’t entirely negative, because I knew I lacked the skill to know what was innately good, but I could tell when something wasn’t.

    Another commenter on a story I, ah, “critiqued” called me “rude and a little mean”.

    Through practice (and those science books I was reading), I figured out to nest all my negatives inside an opening and closing positive. That helped.

    Not entirely, though. (Why would someone who “hates” a story read through twenty-plus chapters then politely point out a plot inconsistency?)

    I also figured out that most people who claim to want honest feedback actually don’t.

    On one story in particular, the writer asked me to do a line-by-line critique. I did. Other readers of that story came after me.

    I’ve also had plenty of cases of putting something out for critique and having people scold me for doing things that are actually correct or elements of the genre or style. (It was shocking how many people called “faerie” a misspelling.)

    Personally, I would rather have someone tell me “I’m sorry, I despised your main character or writing style or something and couldn’t get through the first paragraph” then have that person not say anything or slog through it to try to offer feedback. I also dislike receiving entirely positive feedback.

    From my experience, I’m not the majority.

    All that said, I’m more surprised that agents ever offer personalized feedback. Ain’t your job. Your job’s to find what you want to help sell.

  11. Kerry said:

    So, new question: if you ARE one of those writers for whom its hopeless, how do you know? (some of us have wasted decades, and we’d like to know it’s hopeless before we waste more!;-)

  12. Gordon Jerome said:

    I can respect that. An agent isn’t a hand holder, they’re a literary salesperson, and something has to work enough to inspire them to want to try to go out and sell it. It’s not their job to teach writing to writers. A simple rejection like, “Thanks, but I can’t use it,” is cool–in my opinion.

    What bothers me is the way you go into so many of the writing forums and it’s all about how to smooch the buttocks of an agent correctly so they will notice your query letter.

    If a story is good and the query looks like the writer might be able to write it well, an agent that rejects it may well be rejecting some serious profits. That’s their problem. If they’re in the game for the lipstick on the gluteus maximus from wannabe writers, then that’s their thing.

    I tend to think most agents aren’t that way, at least not ones who are actually trying to get rich (And let’s face it, who wants an agent that isn’t?).

    I like to think of myself as an artist. I like to think that even if the serious royalties never make it to me where they belong, I will keep writing anyway. Because I do enjoy it. I enjoy it, and I think I’ve seen some signs that I might have something remotely resembling a kind of talent. I don’t know.

    All I do know is that even if it hasn’t found a home yet, I’m very proud of my first novel, and I’m really excited about my next, and the one that will come after that.

    Right now, I have a short story I’m revising, so I have to get to work.

    I do like your blog, however. And I like your choice of music. And I like the fact that you’re willing to share the inside scoop with us on the outside. We need it.

    Hasta.

  13. Barbara's Spot on the Blog said:

    I thought my book was finished but since exploring and learning about agents and publishing and querying and craft I realize that there’s still much more work I can do on my book.

    This advice is really worthwhile. I’ve never thought of attending a conference before but now I think I’ll put it on my to do list.

  14. Laurel said:

    I lurk here a lot. You do such a good job elucidating that I don’t typically have anything to add but this one struck a chord.

    Agents are shopping, in a sense. Each query represents a product an agent may or may not think she can sell. I had a retail business for five years. When I went to market and trolled through hundreds of vendor booths in a matter of days I did not stop at each one and tell them why I did not think their product would work in my shop. I didn’t have the time and frankly, neither did they. Both of us needed to pursue products or clients we would potentially do business with.

    Sometimes I passed on something because I had already placed an order for two similar products and I knew I couldn’t carry three lines of the same thing. Sometimes I thought it sucked. Sometimes the expectations of the vendor were unreasonable- by the time I calculated double plus ten percent on the cost the price point wouldn’t work. Whatever. They didn’t care because they didn’t have time and it wasn’t my job to tell them.

    I had to assume by the time they invested in marketing their product they had already made it as good as they could.

  15. Gordon Jerome said:

    Hey Gilbert,

    James Joyce wouldn’t be published today, neither would Stephen King with most of his more recent novels if he didn’t have a huge platform.

    But that’s why I feel kind of negative about the aspect of writing fiction that centers on getting published or “writing to the market.” It seems when we do that we lose the art. And it’s the art that makes it valuable.

    It’s like meeting Mr. or Ms. Right. They always (and only) come along when we aren’t looking for them. It seems we’re always more attractive when we don’t give a damn about being attractive.

    Sorry, you didn’t ask for my opinion. I just wanted to respond to what you said.

  16. David Kearns said:

    I imagine the situation is very much like real estate sales; the agent keeps those not under contract at arms-length: they don’t have to tell you anything. The writer selling the property needs to demonstrate the property has value.
    If you were selling a house in this market what would you do? You’d fix it up.
    But one thing you wouln’t do is tear the house down and rebuild it to suit each in a litany of prospective agents. A 3/2 ranch is a 3/2 ranch. If you’re pitching to someone who only sells Med revivals on the beachside, there’s nothing you can do to fix that. You move on. Least what I’d do. Don’t get me wrong it hasn’t really worked yet for me either. None of it has, but we have fun don’t we. Beats working in the electronics aisle at Homer.

  17. Anonymous said:

    ALL writers should be forced to judge contest entries before they are allowed to query agents. In each of their Q&S packets, they should also include a Certificate of Judging x number of contests, or they get a Form R.

    Contest entries don’t equate with the slush pile, but they give the closest approximation I can think of.

    The process would help in two ways: reading bad writing and figuring what went wrong helps you see the same errors in your own work; and it develops empathy for what agents go through.

    I really liked the two comments comparing the querying process to acquiring for the retail market or selling property. Excellent comparisons!

    Me personally? Give me a form R quick so I can move on. Please, please, don’t leave me hanging out to dry with this “no response means no.”

  18. Katherine Jenkins said:

    Quite a few writers are so eager to just get their work out there. They want to see a book published and don’t take time to have others read their writing. #3 really resonates with me. I believe that my material needs to be top-notch before I even consider sending it out. On my current book, I’ve worked with a writing coach for 6 months, formed a book writing group with several co-workers and am now working with an editor for fine-tuning. This is all before even thinking of sending it out to an agent.

  19. David Kubicek said:

    I totally agree. When I edited an anthology of horror short stories, we received 240 submissions per month, most of which I could tell by reading the first page that they either were not right for us or that the story was poorly written. Even if I had time to comment on the stories, how do you write a good comment based on the first page?

    Fortunately I have a good circle of readers to critique my work before I send it out. My wife, Cheryl, is my toughest critic, even tougher than I am. When the writing is good she will tell me, but when it needs works she’ll utter those four words that are both a blessing and a curse: “You can do better.”

  20. Mechelle Fogelsong said:

    Ms. Nelson, you said, “Why should I discourage you if writing is your passion?”

    I wholeheartedly agree. As an English teacher, I make it a point to include a “what you do well” section on every paper I grade, for exactly this reason.

  21. Joseph L. Selby said:

    I have a separate question with no specific thread seemingly related, so I’ll just post it in the most recent. Nelson Agency uses a community email of [email protected]… If I want to submit to Sara, do I just write my query addressed to her with the assumption that she (or both) of you get it? How does Nelson handle a single mailbox with two agents? Do you both look at everything? Would it be more appropriate to address the query to both of you?

  22. Natural said:

    there’s honesty, there’s constructive criticism and then there’s a tactless person.

    i remember to treat people the way i would want to be treated. it would solve so many problems, at least i think.

  23. Jill Edmondson said:

    I think the best advice I ever got was “be smart enough to heed good advice.”

    Bingo.

    Where you are now is not where you’ll be – words to live by!

    I remember reading books about writing & publishing and many steeled me for REJECTION LETTERS… cold letters, form letters, oh the agony! And the books all said similar to this blog post – don’t expect feedback-suggestions-critiques.

    I think having this reality check at the outset made the whole process easier to deal with.

    Cheers, Jill
    http://www.jilledmondson.blogspot.com

  24. Stuart said:

    I appreciate this post. But I will say I was encouraged to do the complete opposite – seek out the why from an agent turning down your work – so that you could at least learn something from the exchange. Fail and learn, fail and learn. This came from the keynote speaker Joseph Finder at the recent Rocky Mtn Fiction Writers Conference. Of course, I’ll take both nuggets, Kristin’s and Joe’s, and find a middle road.

  25. james said:

    “The key with critique groups is to find one with writers who you can trust to be honest but helpful with their feedback.” — easier said than done. After being in two such groups involving rank amateurs out for blood, I swore off critique groups. Better to give your stuff to trusted/honest friends or acquaintances with some grounding in writing.

  26. TLH said:

    james,

    I have had similar experiences. I’ve met far better people individually than I have ever found in a group. There are some great people here in our Blogger writing community!

    ~Tara