Agents, Schmagents, and Pink Flags

Hi there.

I’m not sure if you saw the #SchmagentRedFlags hashtag on Twitter this week, but if you’re a writer who is agented or querying agents, you should check it out. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “schmagent” is short-hand for agents who are not very legit or respected in the industry. I wrote about them a while back in this post: Shady Business.

The hashtag shared some good insights and tips to new writers. But then I got involved in a conversation that made me pause. An agent – a legit, respected agent (not a schmagent) – said if an agency hasn’t done a deal with every Big 5 publisher, they aren’t legit. I agreed and disagreed with this, but it didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Twitter was not going to be the right venue for me to say things without thinking first, so I left it alone.

My initial response was that some agencies are just super small and niche, but I kept circling back to new agents (which are not the same as schmagents, as you’ll see in my older post linked above!). So, I conceded her point and let it go because I did agree with her. Mostly, anyway. But I kept thinking about it after. Do agents need to have an established boilerplate with every Big 5 publisher in order to be considered legit? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed outdated to me.

It is 100% an advantage for an agent to have established relationships with as many bona fide publishers as possible, especially the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). If you’re a writer who gets an offer of representation, you should ask that agent who they have established relationships with and where they’ve sold projects similar to yours. If they don’t mention the major players at all, that might be a problem.

But, not every agency is the same, nor are the needs of all writers the same. Such as:

A 10-year-old agency specializes in only children’s literature. They’re known for several award-winning books and a few bestselling authors through publishers like Scholastic, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and have had success with a few imprints at Big 5 publishers. But, for whatever reason, they have never sold a book to Hachette. Maybe they got close, but never got an offer from them. Maybe they went with another publisher during an auction. In any case, after 10 years, they still don’t have a boilerplate with one of the Big 5. Are they considered a schmagent? I would hope not, and I would hope that a children’s book writer getting an offer from an agent with that agency would jump on the opportunity.

A similarly hypothetical agency could be one that’s been around for about 5 years and focuses on romance, and maybe some erotica and NA too. In only a short period of time, they’ve established important relationships with places like Harlequin and Kensington and are known for a few successful series within those genres. They might also find they work with mostly digital publishers these days because that’s where the market has shifted. Therefore, they might not really have had a need to sell to all 5 major publishers. A good agent follows the market they’re trying to sell to. They keep up with industry trends. Agents need to be open and adaptable, and if certain genres aren’t as big in print anymore, we need to adjust accordingly.

One last example I was thinking about are the quiet literary novels. Not Franzen or the big splashy Great American Novelist literary novels. I mean the ones that get critical acclaim and are brilliantly written, but the average reader probably hasn’t heard of them, nor do they care. You see these novels with places like Graywolf Press, Melville House, National Book Award committee discussions, and, well, these novels, basically. There are a few dedicated and amazing imprints with Big 5 publishers who still seek quiet literary fiction. They publish it well and put marketing dollars behind them, but an agent can’t rely on a few imprints to sell a book and then call it a day if that handful of editors pass on it. Sometimes books like this are a labor of love, and writers should want an agent who knows how to effectively sell their work even if it isn’t a 6-figure deal with Penguin Random House every single time.

So, those were my larger-than-Twitter thoughts about this and I’d be curious what others think in the comments. Mostly, I just think the industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and the fact that we say The Big Five instead of the The Big Six should be evidence that agents can and should diversify their submission lists and establish new relationships in the industry.

Like I said before, a relationship with the major players is still a key component to being a good agent. But maybe it’s not everything after all. Maybe it’s not a red flag so much as a pink flag. Maybe in another five years we’ll have The Big Four, and even if we end up with The Big Three it won’t mean publishing is dying or dead or any other nonsense like that. It just means everyone involved needs to look outside the “model” and realize it might not exist anymore, so what’s next?

Conferences: A Cheat Sheet

I’m a big fan of writer’s conferences. I went to two last month, have one coming up this month, and another in August. Last year I went to nine of them (which, I admit, contributed to my slight burn-out by the end of 2012). I like meeting writers from other parts of the country. I like seeing other parts of the country. And I like knowing that even in the smallest of towns far, far away from Big Literary New York City, there are tight communities that care just as much about the craft of writing as they do about the business of getting published.

No matter where and what conference I attend, there are always similarities among the writers. I’ve gotten quite good at knowing who is ready for publication and who still needs time to find their voice, as eager as they may be. Of course, the best times are when writers surprise me.

In 2011, I wrote a post on how to pitch to an agent at conferences, or rather, how not to pitch. Since then I’ve been to a lot more conferences and met a lot more writers. More than just pitching to an agent, here are a few tips to keep in mind when attending a writer’s conference:

1. You Will Not Leave a Conference With an Offer of Representation
OK, I’ll say you will very very rarely get an offer of rep at a conference because I’m sure there have been exceptions to this rule somewhere. But, 99.9% of the time, you will not get this offer at the actual conference. Going to a conference based on who the faculty will be is great, but keep in mind that even if your dream agent (which you should not have!) attends, he or she still needs to read your work before making an offer. Your pitch, premise, and overall demeanor could be perfect all weekend, and you may even make a personal connection with the agent of your choice, but that doesn’t mean we can magically pull a contract out of our back pockets. Your job is to pitch your project to an agent. Even if they say “yes,” that “yes” is usually followed by “send me your query and sample pages.” I’ve had writers stare at me blankly even after I told them to send me material, as if they expected more from me. Do you really want an agent who doesn’t even read your work first? No.

2. A Conference is For Learning
Meeting agents and editors is great, but the main reason to attend a conference is to learn. Conferences provide more than just pitch sessions. Agents and editors often critique work, and the organizers of the conference offer several excellent seminars and workshops for writers to attend. It’s about learning the craft, learning the business, and learning that just because you finished your novel doesn’t mean it’s ready for publication.

3. Writer-Friends Are Valuable
Regional conferences are the best way to meet other writers in your area. Your friends and family can provide all the support in the world, and a few of them may even be skilled enough to read your work objectively. But writer-friends? They are a special breed. They can turn into Real Friends, but unlike your non-writer friends, they know exactly what you’re going through. They’re going through it too. They know what writer’s block is; they know what querying is like; they know the hell that is the revision process. Having them in close proximity means you can also get offline and grab a drink (or a cupcake) with them, which is just as important as sharing your work sometimes.

4. No One is Forcing You to Attend a Conference
Conferences are expensive. Organizers need to pay for the location, provide meals, cover travel and hotel costs for faculty, and a lot of other minor expenses that add up. That means you, the writer, have to pay to attend. You get quite a bit for your money, but it’s still your money. Remember that you volunteered it for the opportunity to be there. It’s amazing how many writers yawn their way through seminars, become defensive over critiques, and ask questions such as “what good is an agent anyway?” during Q&A sessions. It makes one wonder, why are you even here???

5. Agents and Editors are People Too
Please treat us with respect. This post at From the Write Angle is one to bookmark and memorize about this point. Also, understand that the time to pitch your book is not when we are chewing our food or going to the bathroom. Thanks. 🙂

How many of you have attended writer’s conferences? What do you wish you knew about them before you attended that you know now?

Shady Business

So, earlier this week via The Twitter, agent (and author!), Mandy Hubbard mentioned her distrust of new agents who have no publishing background. This started a conversation, which I participated in, about the merits of these agents and start-up publishers who claim to be legit.

The thing is, many of these new agents and start-up publishers (usually digital-only publishers) aren’t aware they’re not legit. They have the best of intentions. They’re people who follow the industry closely and, because of the transparency provided by blogs and Twitter, they think they have enough information to start their own companies. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and some of these newbies do succeed and prove their worth. Most of them, however, don’t help an author rise to any level beyond what the author could have done themselves.

When I started at Curtis Brown, I was an assistant and only an assistant. I also kept up with industry news and market trends, but mostly I was an apprentice at an established agency where I had several agents to learn from. Before that I was an intern at a different agency and read the hell out of the slush pile. Reading the slush pile and writing reader’s reports for agents seems like busy work, but here is what I learned from it: In my first year as an intern, what I put in the “yes” pile was usually not what the agent would have said yes to, and more importantly I learned why. My experience is very, very common among agents at my level and those at the levels above mine. Reading someone else’s slush pile is a very helpful rite of passage.

If I took on clients within that first year of working in publishing, nothing I took on would have sold, I wouldn’t even have seen a contract until it was my own client’s, and I would not have known how to negotiate in my author’s best interest. Every agency is different in terms of when they let assistants take on clients, but those decisions are always based on “is this person ready?” New agents who don’t have that kind of experience in publishing, but just want to take on clients to “help authors get published” don’t get that feedback or education. This is why, despite their good intentions, they end up hurting authors.

New agents at established agencies, or those who have publishing experience elsewhere, are hungry to build their lists and you should definitely query them. Put them at the top of your lists, actually. But pay attention to the backgrounds of these new agents too. If they don’t have the backing of an established agency, then Google deeper and ask the following questions:

1. Do they belong to the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives)? Note: Not every agent needs to join the AAR and I know a few at established agencies who have not joined, or just recently joined. However, if you’re on the fence about an agent and their credentials seem suspicious, not being a member of the AAR could be a dealbreaker.
2. How long have they worked in publishing? If they weren’t always an agent, what did they do before? Editor at a major house? Marketing or sales representative (meaning, they know what booksellers buy and would probably be a good agent because of it)? Were they an assistant or intern at an agency that’s respected in the industry?

3. How long have they been agenting? It should not be the same amount of time they’ve been in publishing. If they are just starting out, who do they work for? What type of agency is backing them up? 
4. What have they sold? If they’re new, this won’t be as relevant because they may not have many sales to their name yet. In this case, ask new agents where they see your book in the market. Hardcover/trade paperback vs. mass market vs. ebook only? These things matter, and knowing which format will work best for your book is something a good agent should be able to tell you. 
5. What types of publishers have they sold to? Check Publisher’s Marketplace to see an agent’s sales history. Note: Not every agent reports their deals, but new agents usually do because they are still proving themselves. So, look them up. Are they only selling to the types of publishers you could have submitted to yourself? Or do they have a few Big 6 and larger, respected indie publishers in their sales history too?
6. Are they just a lawyer? Agents are like combination lawyers and managers, and you need those skills to be good at your job. The difference is that a lawyer has no personal stake in whether your book does well (they’ll get paid either way) and their ability to read legal language rarely extends to book contracts, which is a different animal. If you self-publish or use a small press without an agent, make sure you get someone to read over your contract who is a literary lawyer. People who know legal jargon, as intelligent and educated as they are, aren’t going to have the same expertise when it comes to publishing.

I also mentioned start-up publishers above. If you choose not to get an agent – either because you’re going to self-publish or use smaller publishers who take unagented manuscripts – then you need to be extra careful. Like I said, start-up publishers can turn into legit publishers who are good at what they specialize in. They’re often digital-only, at least at first, and tend to focus on a specific genre to build up a successful niche market. Note: This is what a good start-up publisher will do. Be wary of small presses, digital-only publishers, or start-ups who want everything and anything. Usually this means they haven’t created a solid business model or know the best way to publish different types of books.

If you’re unsure about whether to sign that contract or submit to that shiny new publisher at all, don’t be afraid to ask the publisher the following questions:

1. Do you content edit or just copy-edit? Copy-editing is ridiculously important, but so is editing for the content itself. Will your book get Big 6 treatment at a small press? It won’t go through as many revision rounds and maybe only one set of eyes (as opposed to several you get at large houses) will see it. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a professional editor with a skilled eye who will make your book the best it can be.

2. What is your marketing plan for my book? They should have one, and it should involve more than a Facebook ad. 
3. Where are your books sold? If the publisher is digital-only, ask them what platforms they use and if your book will be available on multiple reading devices. If they do print books as well, ask them if they’ve ever been sold through Barnes & Noble (the physical stores) or independent local bookstores (unlikely, but worth asking).
4. Will any part of this process cost me any money, other than the royalties you will earn on my sales? Answer: NO! NO, NO, NO! If a publisher wants you to pay them, run away. They are a scam. Real publishers pay you for the privilege to publish your book. 
5. How much are you taking in royalties? The answer to this question varies, but what you’re really asking is “are you doing enough for my book to warrant taking over half my earnings?” Because if they’re only doing the bare minimum and you’re not seeing a significant return in your sales, you could have self-published and kept almost all of your royalties instead.
6. What’s the deal with your subrights department? Subrights matter. It’s how you earn back an advance faster and audio, film, serial, and foreign rights are how you get your book in more places. Most small or start-up publishers won’t have a significant presence in the film world, but if they are going to call themselves a publisher, they should be aware of foreign markets and work with specific agents or scouts to sell your book abroad.

If any of these questions make a publisher nervous, don’t use them. These are simple questions they should not only answer, but be proud to tell you. Of course, they are trying to woo you. Tell you what you need to hear. So, go a step further and research:

1. Go to sites like Preditors and EditorsFind out what other books they’ve published. Have they had success in your genre? Do they have any specialties? A good publisher has standards.

2. Where have their books actually been sold? Can you find them anywhere other than Amazon?
3. Do they have a Publisher’s Marketplace page with reported deals? Note: This does not necessarily make them legit (as is more eloquently stated in this blog post by legit agent, Victoria Marini). But! It at least gives you a starting off point to see what types of deals this publisher has made. 
4. Who are their other authors? Contact them directly to ask about their experience. The publisher should also willingly give you their authors’ information if you can’t find it online. If they don’t, then that’s another red flag and you should be suspicious of them.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s less work if you have an agent, but if you don’t want or need an agent, be prepared. It’s incredibly tempting to sign a contract because YAY BOOK DEAL!!! You’ve been waiting forever for this. All those rejections were piling up and you were getting so frustrated and ready to quit, but OMG this publisher sees the brilliance of your book and finally all is well in the world! Yes, of course you will want to sign immediately. This is what shady publishers and shady agents are counting on.

This whole process is hard. Whether it’s you looking for a good agent or agents looking for a good small publisher (we use them too!). An easy way out only makes it harder in the long run. My job is to protect authors’ rights and make sure their books are getting the treatment they deserve. Which is why agents like Mandy and Victoria, and me, and every other agent I know get so impassioned about these lovely people who want to do good, but probably aren’t ready yet.

Long blog post is over. To sum up, research like it’s your job! Because it is. Now, let’s hug it out.

When to Fold ‘Em

This weekend I went to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference and met some very talented writers. I made more requests at this conference than I’ve had at most others I’ve been to this year, and the reasons why became obvious during our pitch sessions. For one, these writers studied craft. Not only were they just good writers, but they knew their genres and where their book would be placed in a bookstore. It was clear they read within their genres too; not once did I hear someone compare their novels to a massive bestseller or radically mislabel them.

The second reason is because the majority of the writers at this conference had a clear vision for their writing career. They did their research in which agent was the best to pitch and no one was rude or abrasive if their novels weren’t requested. They understood that it’s not personal; it’s business, and rejection is just a stepping stone to finding a better agent for their work.

There were of course some pitches that simply weren’t for me, which is always bound to happen, but I noticed another small trend in what I was rejecting. Or rather, not what, but who I was rejecting: The Used Car Saleswriter.

It goes something like this:

Writer: “My book is about [X]”
Agent: “Thanks but I don’t think that’s for me.”
Writer: “WAIT! WAIT! I ALSO HAVE THIS ONE!”
Agent: “Um, OK fine. Let’s hear it.”
Writer: “It’s about [Y]”
Agent: “Sorry, this one isn’t for me either. Someone else might – “
Writer: “But surely I have something you’ll like! Perhaps something in red! With a moon roof! I’ll throw in a juicer!”
Agent: ::slowly backs away:: ::joins Witness Protection::

OK, so this is an extreme case, but variations of this conversation do happen in pitch sessions. I see it more often in my query inbox. Sometimes I’ll get 3 or 4 queries from the same person all sent on the same day. Other times I’ll send a form rejection and their next-day response will be a new query for a different project, as if the first project they queried meant nothing. Sometimes these responses are even within the hour. The strangest repeat queriers are the ones who just keep sending new material with no mention of ever having contacted me before, as if they’ve become one with the query process and stopped paying attention to the actual humans on the other end of it.

I encourage writers to re-query even if they receive a form rejection, but it’s important to know when to stop. (Hint: Usually after two or three queries, unless an agent specifies that you can send more work in the future or asks you what else you’re working on.)

Sending too many queries to an agent who’s already rejected you says, to me, the following:

  • You don’t care who represents you, just as long as someone does. 
  • You’re not ready to query because you aren’t thinking seriously about your career. If you give up that easily on your own projects, why should anyone else invest time into them? 
  • You have no intention of listening to feedback or taking constructive criticism. If you’re ignoring form rejections and only using them as an invitation to send something else, then you’re not stopping to consider the fact that either your query or the project itself is the problem. 

With requested material, I’m more forgiving. Sometimes I will ask to see future work, but if I read two or more of the same writer’s manuscripts and they’re still not clicking with me, I won’t want to read another one. I could like their third or fourth manuscript just fine, but I’ll probably still pass on it because I already know it’s the only manuscript of the writer’s that I like. [Note: By “like” I mean both in personal taste and in regard to my ability to sell the project in question.]

I’ve also had writers ask me what would happen if they significantly revise. Can they re-submit then? This depends. With queries, an agent rejects or accepts based on the premise of the book. So, if we pass on it, we likely won’t be interested even if the writing improves. If an agent requested material and the main reason for rejection was the overall execution of the plot, then it can’t hurt to try again if the revisions are significant.

You don’t only get one shot in this business. Most of the time, you get several. If one person passes, send to someone else. If everybody passes, send out a new project. No one will yell at you. But keep track of who responds and what they say. Some rejections are nicer than others, and some provide more explanation than others, but a rejection is a rejection. Don’t settle for an agent who begrudgingly accepts the one project they think they can sell. You want an agent who will leap at the chance to represent your work and be equally excited about your other ideas, that way you’ll both have a long, satisfying career.

Stop Helping Yourself

We all know querying is hard. Personally, I think writers make it harder on themselves, though I understand that keeping everyone’s individual guidelines straight can make any person insecure. If you’ve reached the querying stage of writing, you’ve probably read that agents get anywhere from 50 to 300 queries per day. While I can’t speak for every agent, I personally respond to all them, even if it’s ultimately a form rejection. This takes a lot of time (it’s also why many agents have a “no response means no” policy that’s been quite controversial recently.) Knowing all of this, writers think they need to go out of their way to stand out among the pack even though it really can’t be said enough that the only thing that will do that is to have an amazing book.

Writers with the best of intentions will include buzz words in their queries that they believe make them look more professional, and, in their minds, will attract an agent’s attention. What they don’t realize is that for many agents, these phrases and pieces of information more often serve as red flags that this writer has no idea what they are talking about or how publishing works.

Here are the Top 3 self-praises I see:

“I am a published author.”
If you have prior publications, you should absolutely list them in your query. Give the title, date, and publisher. Without that information, we have no way to believe you or take this claim seriously. Saying you are a published author when you’ve self-published or, worse, haven’t published at all makes you look foolish.

If you self-published, own it. Tell us when, with who, and for what type of book – then provide sales figures.  If you can’t give us this information, don’t feel that you have to. If your self-pubbed book only sold around 100 copies, it’s not the end of the world. Query agents with a project other than the one you self-pubbed and don’t feel as if you need to even mention that other book until you receive an offer of representation.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a debut author with no prior publishing credits. Being unknown or new to writing will never count against you if you have an amazing book, but having a fake or, let’s say, questionable publishing history can end up hurting you if you aren’t honest.

“My manuscript has been professionally edited.”
The first question that always comes to mind is “by whom?” Your friend who works at the local newspaper? A college writing professor? Your aunt who reads a lot? There are plenty of freelance editors out there whose opinions are professional and whose judgment I would respect as an agent. However, even if you used professional services, there is no reason to say that in your query. It tells me nothing about the quality of your writing or whether I’d be interested in your book. “Professionally edited” is a vague term at best, but at worst it can means one of three things:

1) You think the manuscript is already perfect and you won’t be willing to revise.
2) You could be willing to revise, but you aren’t able to do it yourself.
3) You think copyediting and editing are the same thing. (This last one I see a lot – the “professional eye” who looked over your manuscript made sure it was polished and grammatically correct, but the character development, plot structure, and overall quality of the writing were still severely lacking.)

Every writer needs an editor, but editors can’t make mediocre writing great or make an agent fall in love with a premise. All of that needs to come from you.

“My book has already gotten interest from Hollywood.”
On paper, this sounds impressive and I can see why writers include it in their queries. But let’s break this down. For one, how does anyone in Hollywood know your book exists? If you’re sending manuscripts blindly to showbiz people, not only could your idea could get stolen (and you wouldn’t be protected), but it tells me you might be signing contracts and giving away rights that renders any interest I might have had useless (not to mention any deal our film department could have made for you).

The second red flag is that “Hollywood interest” is not impressive to me unless you have an actual contract in your hands from an established production company. There is a huge difference between “Paramount Pictures wants to buy the film rights to my manuscript” and “Larry the coke dealer on Hollywood & Vine said he’ll give me $50 for it.” Both of these can mean “Hollywood interest,” and without knowing the specifics, I assume it’s the latter. Plus, think of how many promises are broken in the film industry. Some slick suit who calls you “baby” can tell you he loves your book one minute and then throw it in the trash as soon as you look away.

***

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make yourself sound more impressive than you think you are. Being a writer is impressive enough in itself, but I understand that in queries you want to add a little more. It’s called selling yourself, and this business is all about selling a product. Specifically, your product. But if you really want to impress an agent and get noticed, all you need to do is write the best book you can and know which agent will want to read it.

You should have pride in your work – if you don’t, who will? Saying you’re “award-winning” even if it was from your local library in 1998 might not change an agent’s mind about a project, but hell, you earned it and you should say so. Just make sure you’re not inflating yourself so much that you pop.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Revisions

Like many agents, I will ask for a revision of a manuscript before I make an offer of representation. I don’t do this with every manuscript I request. Sometimes I know that a particular novel either isn’t working plot-wise, the writer’s style differs from what I’m looking for, or the main character isn’t engaging enough to me. In these cases, it’s obvious that I’m just not the agent for them. I would never request a revision based on something that came down to personal preference. There are other agents, after all.

Sometimes, though, there are manuscripts that scream potential. I can’t speak for all agents, but the first things I look for in a manuscript are plot development and the main character – if those two things are done well, then we’re in business. Well, almost in business. Even if you have the idea, the writing ability, and the awesome main character that readers of all ages will fall in love with, there are still other factors to consider. These other factors are what I take into consideration when I ask for revisions.

What are these other factors, you ask? More often than not, in my request pile anyway, it comes down to supporting characters, pacing, and general marketability. Other agents may come across different factors. A writer can nail the larger issues at hand, but the rest of the novel, when not written with the same quality, can make the entire project suffer – no matter how amazing everything else was by itself.

If you’re a writer who’s been in this situation, I’m sure this is frustrating. (Even after you have an agent, you will still hear this from editors too. Then it’s frustrating for both of us!) When an agent comes back to you after weeks (if not months) of making you wait for a response, only to tell you they want you to go through it all over again, you probably think (after cursing a bit), But if you love the project so much, why not offer representation and then we can work on revisions together??? Sorry, but it’s not that easy.

Agents aren’t just taking on your project; they’re taking on you. When I ask for a revision, it means I’m incredibly interested in offering representation (I would not be willing to read the same manuscript over again otherwise). But, in my own way, I’m also testing writers. Most writers are willing to revise, so that’s rarely an issue. What I need to know is are they able to revise. Before I take on a new client, I have to ask myself, Can they effectively revise? Do they understand what I’m asking? Is this going to be a pleasant working relationship?

I’m thinking about revisions lately because I’ve had not one, but three, heartbreaking experiences this past month, and each were over those “other factors” I mentioned above:

1. Supporting Characters.
I surprised myself by loving a particular manuscript as much as I did. I requested it based on the premise, and it ended up having everything else I was looking for. I couldn’t stop reading – until! I was taken out of the narrative completely for about 50 pages. That’s a lot of pages to lose interest in a manuscript, but I had faith in it, so I pushed through. As I suspected, it picked up where it left off and I loved it again, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that chunk where I didn’t love it and how it effected other areas of the novel. I isolated the problem and realized it was one character’s fault. If only he was introduced later instead of earlier, then the problem could have been avoided and the novel as a whole would have become that much stronger. Something that seems minor never really is. Every piece of a novel matters, and sometimes that one thing is enough to make an agent wary of its ability to sell. If I was taken out of the story, an editor probably will be too. And they are usually less forgiving in terms of asking for revisions.

2. Pacing.
Sometimes I fear my clients think I nitpick about minor issues – sentence structure, wordy language, rearranging of paragraphs. Sure, compared to character development and the actual plot, these things seem less important. But they all contribute to the pacing of the novel. Does your writing style hold the reader’s interest? Are you being slowed down by unnecessary dialogue? Where does the action begin and how are you sustaining that tension while advancing the plot? Will an overuse of adjectives and adverbs make editors’ heads explode? (Yes.) Again, everything matters. Pacing was the issue with Heartbreaking Manuscript #2. Sometimes when a novel moves too slowly, it makes the characters themselves appear boring. I knew that this was not the case with this particular manuscript, yet I kept wondering why they were doing certain things or when they would do certain things. There was a lot of leg shaking. When pacing is the only thing preventing the novel from being truly great, and I see potential in the writer’s ability to improve it, I absolutely ask for a revision.

3. Marketability.
I think this is the concept that most writers dread, so if it makes any of you feel any better, I never request anything unless I think it has market potential. I mean, none of us are reading in our leisure time here. This is our job. However, sometimes – as in the case of Heartbreaking Manuscript #3 – the writing just doesn’t match the idea. When I received the query, I practically jumped up and did a fist pump (but I didn’t, I swear!). It was literary while still appreciating genre. It combined different styles that I am particularly fond of. It had an amazing hook. The query itself was well-written, clear, and professional. Basically I wanted to hug it. I requested the full and perhaps I had gotten my hopes up a bit, but when I sat down to read it, my heart sank. As imaginative as the story was, the writing fell flat in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, the writing was good. It just wasn’t especially clever or vivid, and the characters, while possessing a few redeeming qualities, didn’t jump off the page. In other words, it just wasn’t good enough. And that’s what I mean by marketability. Many writers have ideas that the market supports, but if the writing doesn’t make that idea stand out in the crowd, the novel won’t sell. Which means editors can’t buy. Which means I can’t offer representation. Sadly, it’s a lot harder to ask for a revision in this case because someone either has exceptional talent or they don’t. Usually I won’t ask for a revision in this case. But in the rare instances where I’ll continue to think about the initial query and see its potential, the best I can offer is a few examples of what direction I’d like the writing to take, and hope the writer sees a larger picture.

In the same way you want an agent who understands your work, agents want a client who understands their needs. The power of revision is strong. We don’t just request them for fun or “to be nice.” We request them because we see potential in your work that’s not being realized yet. In fact, the majority of my client list is the result of spot-on resubmissions. In their cases, I had no doubt about their writing ability and loved their ideas. When I went back and suggested how to fix areas that were holding them back, they came back to me with a complete understanding of the task, and went well beyond a standard quick fix. That’s how I knew we’d live happily ever after as Agent and Author, but I wouldn’t have had that confidence if they didn’t send me their revision. Likewise, they wouldn’t have chosen me as their agent if they didn’t agree with my suggestions, or understand that I had their projects’ best interests in mind.

I understand that some writers are not going to agree with my revision suggestions, and this is always sad for me because I wouldn’t have taken the time to make those suggestions unless I was serious about the project. But, agents get rejected all the time – just like writers. Rejection is the largest part of this business, and I hope that just because I’ve shown interest in a project doesn’t mean the writer feels compelled to do whatever I say. They have every right to reject me. Plus, I wouldn’t want a client who sends me work knowing I’ll just tell them how to “fix” it. To me, that just means they didn’t write what they’re passionate about in the first place. Yes, I’m an editorially hands-on agent, but I have no interest in being someone’s beta reader. I want someone to send me something they are proud of, something they think is finished, but who is also willing to see a larger “business side” of the project when that time comes, and revise with that in mind.

Writers shouldn’t be dismayed over revision requests. They can either do them or not do them, but it’s usually in their best interest to consider the agent’s perspective. Revision requests aren’t our sadistic way of giving writers the runaround. Revisions are a part of writing, and requests should be viewed as extensions of the query process. We all want the same thing, and that’s to see your book published.

Rejecting the Rejections

I mentioned via The Twitter today that I wished my standard form rejection could read “Sorry, but your agent is in another castle.” Obviously, I was joking (even though that would be sweet), but a number of followers responded that it would certainly soften the blow. This got me wondering about form rejections in general.

They are designed to be as impartial, encouraging, and non-threatening as possible, despite the fact that they are completely impersonal. As writers who are publishing-savvy, you are no doubt aware that no agent likes giving such a reply, but the sheer volume of queries we receive sometimes make it impossible to personally respond to those we need to pass on.

So, a bit of a project for all of you who have either experienced the dreaded form rejection or are still living in fear of it. How can we agents “soften the blow” without resorting to lines from late ’80s video games?

Welcome to the fake-agenting world, writers! Leave your one-to-two sentence professional form rejection in the comments. Maybe we’ll learn a thing or two.