AgentSpeak: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”


Question_smDear Readers,

I’ve been brainstorming ways to make amends for such a long absence. Here’s hoping I’ve found a good one! Today I’d like to address a type of question I often get from my clients and other aspiring writers: “What does an agent mean when s/he says…” It will be part of a series of posts where I decode common lines from agents’ rejection letters or pitch sessions.

Here’s the first one, from a response to a query letter:

“Thank you so much for querying XYZ Agency. I see a lot of talent on the page, but I just didn’t connect with the voice [or story] as much as I’d hoped. Best of luck to you.”

It’s disappointing, of course—not at all what you’d hoped for. But what are you to make of a compliment in a rejection letter? Is this just a polite way of firing off mass rejections?

Possibly, but I doubt it. Agents use form letters, or no response at all, to signal a “no thank you” when they’re either in a hurry or they know right off the bat that a manuscript isn’t going to work for them. This one is different—it has a personal touch. Agents don’t have time to do that for every submission. So from my experience, what this response means is that (a) the agent actually read all or some of your pages (sadly, that’s not a given); and (b) she sees potential—either for this book or for your writing ability in general.

Unless they’re just starting out, most agents only take on half a dozen or so new clients per year (or fewer), out of hundreds or even thousands of submissions. They can’t afford not to be extremely picky, and that means that it comes down to either very clear marketability, or personal taste. That’s right, my friends: agenting is a subjective, not objective, business. Which makes sense, if you think about it: agents help creative people develop their art, and art is always about the visceral, the gut reaction. The heart as well as the mind. You wouldn’t want your book in the hands of someone who simply admires your handling of mechanics or a checklist of story elements. You want someone who gets it. Who sees your writing talent while connecting deeply with your characters and everything that happens to them. Someone who will talk to you about those characters as if she has known them for years. Someone who will fight tooth and nail to get you the success you deserve.

What the agent from this rejection letter is saying is that he simply can’t be that person for you. Perhaps your story is just not his cup of tea (he likes a grittier narrative style, he can’t stand characters who play tennis, etc.). Maybe he thinks your novel is too late for an already saturated market. Or maybe he thinks you’re this close, but not quite there yet in terms of polish.

There’s no way for us to know for sure. But honestly, that’s not the point. What the agent is saying between the lines is that you should hang in there. You caught his attention, and that alone puts you ahead of the crowd. So keep moving forward—by querying your next set of potential agents, or by making your next novel even stronger.

You’ve got the spark. Now build the fire.

13 responses »

    • I’m happy this resonated with you. Yes, it’s quite common for agents to pass based on personal taste, especially involving the main character–just as we readers often form strong opinions (positive or negative) of characters in the books we buy. Best of luck as you move forward!

  1. I always enjoy your posts. Thx for another great one. The statistics seem so stacked against success with agents taking on so few clients, but I will take this reality check on the numbers game as an opportunity to keep shining up the ms!

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! Yes, the odds are scary, but in all honesty, the number of “quality” submissions is much lower than that. It’s surprising how many people send early drafts or unpolished work to agents. Hard work puts you ahead of the curve. Best wishes!

  2. Great post! As an author, there is a point in every novel that makes you feel like you’re wasting your time. This is just the sort of thing that pushes you forward to keep writing to “build the fire.”

  3. Thanks. 🙂 I’m so glad the article gave you a boost. Finding the right agent is such a tough process and I have so much admiration for writers who believe in their talent and keep forging ahead. Best wishes to you!

  4. I began following your blog because of this entry, so thank you for the valuable information! As one who is just venturing out into the publishing world, I welcome every bit of advice. Though I’m not anywhere near the point to start contacting agents, I figured getting a head start on understanding the process a prudent thing to do. This blog seems to be a great place to help the novice and veteran alike.

  5. Thank you for your kind feedback, and I’m happy you decided to follow my blog. You are absolutely right: now is a great time for you to start researching and getting a feel for the submissions process, even though you’re not quite ready for that step yet. You can also find great information on the “Blogs I Follow,” listed over in the right side bar.

  6. Thanks for this encouraging post, Anita. I know being rejected by an agent can be disappointing but I think authors should take it as a challenge to examine themselves what they are doing wrong and work on it. I’ve read J.K. Rowling was rejected multiple times yet look where she is now. Getting rejected is one of the risks one has to face in the publishing world. It’s just a matter of how you react to it.

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