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.