Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why Won't They Tell Me?

Every time I speak at a writers’ conference, and every time I foolishly wander into an Internet chat room, I can expect to hear certain questions from aspiring authors. Sooner or later, in one form or another, one question always seems to come up:

Why won’t agents and editors tell me why they rejected my book? Or worse, why won’t they answer at all? 

As a writer, I certainly feel their pain; how can I ever hope to improve, if no one will tell me what needs improving? But after three years as agent, it’s easy to see the other side. 

First, it’s not my job. I know that sounds unbelievably cold and callous, but it’s true. I’m here to identify promising writers, offer their works to prospective publishers, and then negotiate the deal. Every minute I spend away from those functions, causes me to shirk my contractual obligations to existing clients. 

Second, many agents and editors receive hundreds of submissions each month. Yes, hundreds, per person. Even in a perfect world, if every writer sent in a perfectly compliant one-page query (which never happens), it would be a struggle just to read them all. Now just imagine sending even a perfunctory “no, thank you” email to each one. I, for one, would need to hire a nearly full-time secretary for that function alone. This, for a service that generates no revenue for my business. And I’m far from the busiest agent out there. 

Third, when I do attempt to offer useful feedback, it often invites an argument. Apparently, I have no right to pass judgment on their work. But wait! I didn’t call them, they called me. 

So why was your book rejected? I’ve discussed this subject with dozens of agents and editors, and it generally it comes down to six simple areas: 

1)      We don’t handle that genre.
2)      Your query itself is poorly written and filled with typos.
3)      You didn’t follow instructions.
4)      Your book is either way too long, or way too short.
5)      You didn’t give us the information we need to make an intelligent decision.
6)      Everything in your presentation screams “unprofessional.”
Just last week I sent off a brief email to an author, telling him that I couldn’t help him with his book. Within just a few minutes I received an angry retort, telling me that it was unfair to reject him before reading a word of his manuscript. The thing is, that’s the whole point of a query: to pique my interest enough to ask for it.  

So, you still think we’re just a bunch of cold-hearted jerks who can’t set aside a little time for public service? Actually, almost every editor and agent I know (hundreds) does exactly that, on a regular ongoing basis. We mentor budding writers; we speak at conferences; we visit writers’ groups to offer advice. And far more often than not, we do it for free.  

So please, put down those torches and pitchforks. We really do want to help. But you still need to meet us halfway.


1 comment:

  1. Believe itor not. I find this attitude when I teach cooking. Someone will ask, "Why didn't my (fill in the blank) turn out like yours?"
    Me: "Did you follow my instruction?"
    Them: " Yes, but I don't like garlic so I didn't add it and I see no difference between cheese from a can and that expensive stuff you use. There must be something wrong with your recipe."
    Me: "That's why mine tastes good and yours doesn't."

    Steve. You've treated me very fairly...I think some people refuse to be taught.