There is a pervasive illness in writer-land that is very bad for your health. And highly contagious. It’s called Agent-ous Contempt-ious. Onset is approximately two weeks after a writer has sent out query letters (or earlier if they’re in a writing group where other writers regularly grouse about literary agents) and presents as a chip on one’s shoulder that can grow to such a size as to render the writer un-publishable. This is when, after they have heard nothing back, they start to go through five stages not unlike the stages of grief (though, to be sure, there never really is that final stage of acceptance). First, it’s denial, “I didn’t really want to get published anyway, no biggie.” Then, it turns to outright anger. “Damn agents. Think they’re God’s gift to the world. They’re not that smart. Who do they think they are, not even the courtesy of a rejection!” Actually, this might be the end of the stages. As far as I can tell, most stay comfortably right here wallowing in their anger. This is extremely hazardous for a writing career!
I get it. Agents are gatekeepers. We pass judgment. You feel like you’re forced to jump through hoops. It is supremely annoying to pour your heart out on the page, reach out, and get rejected. Or worse, hear nothing back.
I know the contempt is fairly fierce. I have requested manuscripts from writers, read the entire thing, gotten back with the writer with a thoughtful, constructive rejection, and never heard a peep. More than once. I know it sucks to hear a “no” after your hopes have been raised, but if a writer can’t even say “thanks for considering” after I’ve taken the time to read their whole book, I’m thinking they hate the system. The number one hurdle in the system being to find an agent.
I’m reminded of a joke/story I heard years ago. Husband gets a call from his wife at home, she’s screaming over the phone because the kitchen was on fire. She tells him the story, “I was cooking bacon when your agent called, then somehow the grease caught on fire, and it spread almost immediately to the pot holder, and then just seemed to engulf the whole corner of the kitchen!! Oh my god, I was so scared!!! I called 911, got the kids and the dog out of the house, and the fire department had to blow out the window in the kitchen to put it out!!” To which he says, “My agent called?”
Agents are put on pedestals that really aren’t all that deserving. Lets back up just a bit and talk about why we become agents in the first place: we are passionate about books. We want to be part of the publishing process. Everyone thinks we’re sadists, that we love saying no. Honestly, the only reason we are in this business is because we want to say YES.
I promise you, we are decent folks. And we are an important part of the process. You don’t want to head into traditional publishing without one. Don’t waste your time being pissed off at us! Either move on to the next agent or take a good hard look at your material (the book itself or the query letter) and see if needs some polishing. DO something about it, don’t let the lack of correspondence or rejections get to you.
Harper Lee is famous for (among other things) saying, “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick skin.” When you don’t hear back from an agent, it doesn’t mean your work is no good, but it can mean a couple of things:
Your query letter didn’t follow protocols or didn’t highlight your strengths.
Your subject matter isn’t right for them.
You haven’t taken the time to position your book in the market and talk about your audience.
Your content isn’t polished enough.
If you’re not making the connection, in other words, not hearing boo from anyone, take a good hard look at what you are presenting to them. Are you following all of the query guidelines? Is your manuscript in the best possible shape it can be? Because I promise you, if you think there’s a “little” something wrong with your manuscript, there is.
Why is it worth it? Because once you hook one, we are your biggest advocate! We go to bat for you in every aspect of the process, we use our connections tirelessly, negotiate the best possible contract, and educate you along the way about what the heck is going on in book publishing these days.
Just to present my own case: I run a small agency and I’m the only one in the office. Well, me and the dog. I reasonably can’t spend two hours a day returning query emails, it’s just not a feasible use of my time. If you were my client, you certainly wouldn’t want to find out I spent two hours a day corresponding with writers who aren’t on my roster. I promise I read every query letter with optimism, looking for something that sparks my interest. But if it doesn’t, I have to just move on. Which is what you should do, too.