What Agent Responses Really Mean

Querying is almost like online dating: as soon as a writer gets any indication of interest from an agent, they gather their writer friends and begin to pick apart every possible inference from the message.

Is she going to read more?

Does he like my writing?

Am I about to get the call?

It’s hard to tell, and every agent is different—plus, as with all parts of publishing, there are no guarantees. Everything is subjective! If you’re been writing strong queries and getting responses that stump you, here are some guidelines to decoding agent-speak.

If they’re responding to your query

I’m intrigued by this. Can you send me the partial manuscript?
It’s what it sounds like: they wanna read it. Some agents want to commit to a smaller chunk at first, just to get a feel for the story and the voice. Does it mean they think your story has less potential if they only want a partial? Not necessarily! It could just be a time saving method.

Can you include a synopsis?
Agh, the synopsis: the nightmare of many writers. Whether it’s 2 pages or 10 (or anywhere in between), this kind of plot summary can be a drag to write. So why do agents want them? Before they dive into a manuscript, they may want to make sure the bird’s-eye view of the plot is sound and logical. If your ending is muddled or your plot goes off the rails, you may be looking at a no—so don’t submit a fixer-upper and hope for the best! Make sure your plot is solid, and your synopsis reflects that.

Can you send me the full?
Great news! They want to read. This means you’ve broken through to the next step: no more, no less. Celebrate and then get moving on your next idea. Try not to dwell!

This sounds like a wonderful idea, but…
…it’s too close to something on my list.
The downside of hyper-specific manuscript wish lists is that agents may get flooded with a certain type of book, and by the time your query reaches them they may already have signed a client with a similar project. When they’re pitching editors, they want each project to stand on its own merits, so taking on too many Robin Hood-inspired fantasies, say, will overload their submission list. It’s not a reflection of your book!

…the market for this is too saturated right now.
Trends wax and wane, and agents are always paying attention to industry fluctuations. If they say this, it’s because they’ve spotted a lot of books in your niche getting picked up, making editors much less likely to want more. (Bear in mind that agents see deals reported years in advance of books hitting the shelves, so they can see trends that haven’t reached readers yet.) It’s discouraging news to get, but the upside is that it has nothing to do with the quality of your book, and another agent may totally disagree.

…it’s not to my taste.
Taste is taste. If an agent isn’t feeling your book, nothing can make her change her mind. You want an agent that’s passionate about your work, not meh on it. So move on to the next!

Dear author, thank you for your query…
A form rejection stings, no doubt about it. But agents are busy and can’t respond to everything personally. If they get 50 queries a day and take two minutes to respond to each, that’s almost two hours of (unpaid) work every day! (Remember, agents are paid on commission, so only selling rights to books makes them money.) There’s no point in parsing the phrasing of a form rejection; they’re standardized by the agent and simply don’t contain meaning specific to your book. Throw another iron in the fire and don’t look back.

If they’re responding to your manuscript

I loved the voice/characters/etc. but had concerns about the plot/pacing/etc.
Concrete feedback is good. Whether you end up revising for this agent, or just in general, you’ve gotten specific criticism in where your book could be better from an industry professional—even if it’s a rejection, that’s a compliment to your work. Sometimes the agent will leave the door open for a “revise and resubmit,” or “R&R,” which means they want you to do just that: fix the issues and send it back. You don’t have to do this; if you disagree with the feedback, there’s no obligation to follow the advice just for the sake of maybe landing an agent. Remember, you want an agent who’s passionate about your work, not trying to change it beyond recognition. If it’s ultimately a rejection, though, don’t push back. A no is a no, and they’ve already done you the favor of sharing some thoughts. A polite thank you is all you need to send back.

I just didn’t connect with it.
The dreaded missed connection. What does it mean? It’s hard to make general statements for ALL agents, but in many cases this means the agent loved the concept of your story (based on your query), but for them, the execution fell flat. This is often a case of a weak, less than compelling voice. If you’re getting consistent non-connects, it may be time to have an editor look at your work.

This one isn’t right for me, but please resubmit in the future.
The mixed bag. A personal invitation to query in the future is a big positive, so try not to dwell on the rejection and get to work on your next project. If you do re-query, refresh the agent’s memory about your first submission when you submit.

If you have no response yet

Agents are busy. At any given time they’re revising with clients, preparing submissions lists, meeting with editors, negotiating contracts, chasing payments, selling foreign or audio rights, attending a conference, or, yes, reading queries. So they simply haven’t gotten to your query yet! Remember, agents are only paid with their author clients are paid; they prioritize client work to keep the lights on. No response yet is just that: no response. If an agent says a certain number of weeks with no answer is a rejection, then it’s a rejection. If not, keep waiting and try not to stress!

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

8 Query Mistakes You May Not Realize You’re Making

Writing a query letter to pitch an agent, editor, or mentor is one of the most nerve wracking steps to becoming a published writer. And a query letter is so short! Ask most writers if they’d rather write a query or a whole entire new novel, and you can bet lots will say the latter. And no matter how long a writer sweats over those three short paragraphs, there are a few inadvertent mistakes that can stop her reading in her tracks. If your query hasn’t been getting the traction you want, take a good hard look and see if you’ve done any of the following:

You’re too casual.
All agents, editors, and mentors want you to sound like a human. And these days it’s easier than ever to look up publishing pros on Twitter and learn everything from their dog’s name to their favorite flavor of ice cream. But a query letter is first and foremost a business letter. Sending a solid query that is professional, well-written, and compliant with any peculiar parts of an agent’s submission guidelines shows that you take your writing—and yourself—seriously. It’s the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent, editor, or mentor that you’re someone who will be easy and professional to work with.

You didn’t follow directions.
Query directions can be maddeningly specific: attachment! No attachment! Five pages pasted in! But agents ask for those specs for a reason, and whatever that reason is, you gotta follow it. At a time when agents are more swamped than ever—overflowing slush inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over every last clause in the contract—agents are, frankly, too busy to bother with queries that don’t follow their rules. (Remember, every minute an agent spends reading submissions is a minute she can’t use to sell books—i.e., to make money.) More than that, getting the specifics right is a strong indication that you can be trusted to figure things out on your own. An author who is a self-starter and a fast learner is always a welcome addition to an agent’s stable of talent.

Your comp titles are outdated, huge bestsellers, or missing entirely.
“Comp” titles are books that are similar to yours (i.e., the COMPetiton, or those that are COMParable). Well-selected comp titles help your agent begin to envision the potential market for your novel, which is a huge help to them—they may even start envisioning which editors might want it! But comp titles only work if they’re culturally relevant in the current marketplace and truly comparable to your book. If you say your book is like The Catcher in the Rye, that’s all well and good—it very well may be—but to an agent, that can read like a major red flag that you haven’t read a YA book in decades. Similarly, saying your book is like Harry Potter or Twilight is more or less meaningless; you’d be better off picking more niche fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content (as opposed to the bestseller potential) of your book. Don’t have comps? Poke around Amazon and read through a few books in the category to see who’s doing a similar thing, then add them to your third paragraph: “my book is a YA high fantasy that will be enjoyed by readers of X title and Y title.”

You have a wonky word count.
How long is your book? Know what’s expected for your genre (check out this post for YA and MG guidelines), and know that word counts over a certain amount (around 90,000 words) will raise eyebrows. Also, always round your word count to the nearest thousand words: word counts calculated in word processors aren’t precise, and a rounded off word count is more professional.

You waste time.
“I’m querying you because…” “Have you ever wondered if…” “My novel is about…” “What would you do if…” Axe it! Get to the meat of your plot and characters, and avoid rhetorical questions like the plague. You want your query as lean as possible.

You’re too vague—especially about your ending.
You shouldn’t give EVERYTHING away, of course, but avoid using vague, nonspecific language whenever you can. “Her powers will be tested” is much weaker than “She’ll have to draw every ounce of her fire magic to save her brother.” And never end with any variation on “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!”

You include too many characters.
Queries don’t have a ton of space. Even if your book has a wonderful ensemble cast, not every character is an A-lister. It’s fine to call characters “her best friend” or “his parents” and allow the reader to digest the information without getting bogged down in a sea of proper names.

You don’t end with a call to action—or say thanks.
This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s good form (and polite!) nonetheless. All you need is a quick “thank you for your time and consideration. May I send you the manuscript?” Boom. Done.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.