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On Querying Agents: What’s a Personalized Rejection?

How do you know that a rejection is a sign to keep going? The personalized rejection can give you some hope.

With 113 rejections in this last round of querying, I’ve developed some theories about what constitutes an authentic and individualized response versus a template goodbye. 

So what’s a personalized rejection? A personalized rejection

  • gives you a sense of what’s working in your manuscript;
  • what’s not working for the agent or editor, that is truly out of your control;
  • and/or helps you see you might just need to carry on.

Here are some form responses and some personalized ones.

Form

We’re sorry, but your project is not a fit for our agency at this time, so we will have to pass. Thank you for considering us and best of luck with your future queries.

 

Still a Form

Though there appears to be a specific reference to the manuscript in this one below, it’s a form response that really doesn’t offer a specific compliment.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider NO SMALL THING. I’m sorry to say that while there was a lot of creativity here, I didn’t connect with the writing in the way that I needed to in order to be the right agent to champion this work. As you know, these decisions are largely subjective and another agent or editor may have an opinion completely different from mine. Thank you again for thinking of me and best of luck with your future queries.

Personalized

Thank you for reaching out! Your project sounds very cool, but unfortunately doesn’t feel like the right fit for me, as I don’t find myself especially drawn in by sports-themed storylines on the whole.

 

Thanks for your query. Sorry to say this is a pass for me. I’m particularly un-sporty and find sports-related things difficult to relate to. I’m the wrong agent for this.

 

“It’s Not You, It’s Me” argument in these two personalized responses can be taken as a go-ahead to look more closely for those agents who are “sporty.” It’s very helpful when you’re racking up rejections and see this glimmer of an indication that maybe it’s not all you. Maybe you need to narrow your focus. For example, in order to find “sporty,” I started looking for agents who had repped nonfiction sports as well as YA)

But ones like these, that are actual light at the end of the tunnel, are even better:

Thanks for reaching out about NO SMALL THING. I love your voice, but I didn’t fall head over heels for the premise on this one, so I have to step aside. I know it’s tough when your agent leaves the business, and I am certain you’ll be snapped up by an agent soon. And please know that I’d be happy to consider any future projects you may have.

This agent not only liked my voice, but she wanted to see anything else I wrote. That is not usually something you hear in form rejections.

Or even the one that comes at the end of an agent reading the full manuscript. (One that got 9 requests for fulls. This manuscript had already been on submission to 11 editors with my second agent.)

Unfortunately, AGENT X cannot offer representation at this time. While you’re clearly a very talented writer, the submission list for NO SMALL THING is fairly extensive and we’re not sure we have the editorial vision to give the book the edge it so richly deserves.

You will see a range of things in this business–agents who submit to over 30 editors, and those who won’t submit to more than 15. Knowing which kind of agent you’ve landed is important if you want your agent to query in multiple rounds several editors before stopping.

This is obviously only one opinion, and we wish you the best of luck!

The Coolest Kind of Form

I have to end with a form rejection that really summed up for me what are the challenges in this industry. As author and writing coach Lisa Cron (Story Genius) recently shared on the Literaticast podcast (with agent Jennifer Laughran) it’s damn difficult—and unfair—how few great books make it through the agent or editor gauntlet.

“97 out of 100 people who sit down to write a first draft don’t make it to the end…3 people out of 100 are going to make that first draft. When you take that 3 percent and winnow that down to the number that do several drafts and really decide to pitch to an editor or an agent…The statistic I’ve heard out there is that 96% of that remaining 2% get rejected….How many really great manuscripts never see the light of day…It’s a crap shoot. It really is a crap shoot.”

If that’s true (and I believe it is, as I shared in my Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business confessional), then this form response sums it up from an agent perspective:

Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that NO SMALL THING is a good fit for my list at this time. Please remember that the decision to represent writing is based on a lot of factors, which are often difficult to qualify. Passion for a project, connection with voice, current workload, market saturation, concept timeliness; all of these are considerations, in addition to the quality of your writing. If you continue to work on your craft, to query widely, and to research your potential agents and intended market, I am confident you will find the right match.

This agent was correct.

I did continue to work on my craft (a new project).

I did continue to query widely.

I did continue to research potential agents and intended market.

And eventually, I did indeed find the right match!

Thanks, Tara, for being “sporty”–and a great team player in this effort to launch NO SMALL THING!

Houston, We Have an Agent!

I’m so excited to announce that I am now represented by Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary Agency!

What a journey! Sigh of Relief + Dance of Joy doesn’t capture the many feelings of landing here after a #neverthelessshepersisted trek in the trenches…and for, yes, the third time. (If you need to hear some of the saga, enjoy this post: Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business.)

Here’s how I know Tara will be awesome to work with.

When she wrote me about NO SMALL THING, my YA novel, she said:

“I’m so excited to tell you that I really loved the story. I love Audrey’s fire and competence and confidence (even in very frightening situations). I love the light you’re shining here on the disparity in women’s and men’s teams treatment, and the corruption and unfairness of the NCAA/NBA climb that most people don’t get to witness and don’t really know about.  I love the ethics in journalism plot line and how the bitter reality of…deception forges Audrey’s faith in herself. For me, this evoked the big social issues of Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give with the fan fervor of Friday Night Lights with the additional investigative drive of The Post, Spotlight, or All the President’s Men, which I found to be an exciting and fresh combo.”

When an agent is as much on fire as you are about your story, time to do your dance thing!

via GIPHY

And then you should hear what her authors say about her!

“I couldn’t be happier with Tara as my agent. I liked that she had a background as an editor and wanted to be part of the writing process—something I was looking for in an agent. What impressed me the most, however, was that she wasn’t afraid to dream big for me, and it paid off. She was able to get me a three-book preemptive deal…

 “What else can I tell you? Tara is a great cheerleader, is available whenever I need her, responds very quickly when I email her, and is full of amazing ideas for marketing and publicity. If you’re looking for an agent that will provide personalized attention, you’ll get it with Tara!”

 “If you prefer hands-on, editorial agents, then Tara certainly fits the bill. Her experience as an editor really shows. She’ll brainstorm with clients, and offer detailed comments in drafts, partials, and proposals.”

I heard more stories of deals, right, and support with social media.

Suffice it to say, I am so excited.

My mom says Tara is a good name for me, because I already know some amazing Taras!

More to come later…there are many querying journey stories to tell, and I want to tell them to help so many others who feel they are languishing in the trenches. I have things to say about query stats and why they matter, and about how you get beyond the frustrations of knocking so much on what seems like a barred door.

Time to get to work!

via GIPHY

Never, ever, ever give up. You might just have a Tara at the end of a long, dark night!

 

via GIPHY

Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business

When your agent leaves the business, what do you do?

In June I wrote my friend and YA author Gordon Jack when I was in the bluest, most Anne Shirley depths of despair. “My agent is leaving the business,” I said, feeling as if I were delivering the worst and most shameful of news. Maybe it was because Gordon and I had slogged together in the querying mines many moons ago, and after many rejections, he now not only has an agent but also a two-book deal from HarperCollins. (Check out The Boomerang Effect in its awesomeness and satirical humor about high school homecomings and pre-order Your Own Worst Enemy if you need a good laugh about high school elections. Trust me: you’ll want it before midterms.)

Me, I’d worked in the last ten years with a first agent, and then worked with a second agent who was amazing, and together we had two different books on sub to editors. Two books I poured my heart and four years into, books that she edited like a goddess.

Now, the day of my writing Gordon, I had none of these things.

I expected support and empathy from him, which I definitely got, and then he said:

“You know I’m on my third agent, right?”

I’d totally forgotten this—how his first agent left the business, how another parted ways with him amicably after not being able to sell his first novel, and how today, he’s represented by a great agent. In my self-pity, fear, and worry, I’d forgotten just how tough his road was to publication. I got starry eyed when I heard “book deal” and forgot how fraught and undependable the rest of the process was and is.

I also forgot all the books I’ve published as an indie author and what readers tell me about them. Somehow, I shoved any good thing that’s ever happened, that I’ve ever done, aside to dwell on what couldn’t seem to happen now.

Best-selling authors V.E. Schwab and Stephanie Garber recently shared their powerful stories about transitions with agents and publishers on the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. Then the other day, another friend with 10+ books published told me after I shared my tale that her agent, a person she loved, just retired.

In other words, it happens. A lot.

This was one of many messages I and other authors recently shared at the North Carolina Writers’ Network publishing panel, Patience, Passion, Strategy: Choosing Your Publishing Path and Finding an Agent. Nancy Peacock related how she had to part ways with her first agent and how her current agent helps her now. Russell Johnson shared how 150 queries and querying different novels found him his current agent. Stephanie Moore, a successful screenwriter, talked about how she once had two agents—one film, one fiction–and just parted ways with her fiction agent. She and I both just applied to Pitch Wars. Tara Lynne Groth is just embarking on her query journey and has a strategy you should check out. If one clear message came through from all of us, it’s that this business is full of variables and constant change. It demands great patience and great adaptability.

I got the courage to tell my story at this same panel—courage, because so much social media, my own included, is full of self-praise and celebration, as if nothing ever goes wrong. I mentioned the journey of the last decade. I also shared this quote:

“If I stop one person from quitting by being transparent,

then I’m doing a good thing.”

– V.E. Schwab

I shared the formula I’ve found—it takes talent and perseverance and luck, AKA timing and/or connections and/or resources. When I mentioned that formula to the friend whose agent just retired, offering this formula as if required all equal-part ingredients, she laughed and said, “Oh, it’s more than 50% luck.”

So if that is indeed the case, then luck shows up for those who show up all the time, right?

I won’t stop showing up.

“Success is a thing so largely out of our control.

Overnight Success is almost always a myth.

Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.”

– V.E. Schwab

 

In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about my Swing Away campaign (and much thanks to Liz Gilbert for helping me come up with the right tagline). How I’m back in the querying saddle again, using Publisher’s Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List & #MSWL website, and QueryTracker. I’ve got my agent lists, my query polished to a high shine, my synopsis, and a more-than-ready manuscript for my latest book. My first book is getting another look as well, and it actually may get a lot better thanks to that second look. When we began subbing it out in 2016, #MeToo and Trump had not yet happened, and when you write a book about journalism and sexual assault, it needs to be timely and eternal. I have some ideas for some upgrades.

It’s all good, as they say around here in North Carolina (draw out “good” to a three-syllable word, if you please). I mean like my husband’s song, “It’ll Be Alright.” I’ve got ideas for what to do should none of this work out, and 50 pages of a brand-new novel I’m very excited about. A lot is happening in my life right now, and it’s all happening for very good reason.

If you’re in the middle of a deep valley of Writer’s Limbo…and if that valley is storm-cloud full of the shadows of death, here’s what Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear that helped me. Why must you do this writing thing? Can you ever NOT write? Try to stop. I can’t.

Look what I wrote when I already had an agent and was beginning the book that I had to discard and start over and that just got subbed out—and am now querying again. I had to find a way then to keep going with a brand-new project, even as my baby I’d spent three years on was being subbed out. The writing challenges never end.

Embrace and adore the bumps as much as the tiny bits of glory that come your way. You must find, as Gilbert says, just which “flavor of shit sandwich” you prefer.

Because trust: that person who tells you it’s all one big glory ride? Who has nothing but great news to share? They’re either extremely lucky, or they are lying.

 

Did you know there’s even a hangout spot on Twitter for those rejected? #ShareYourRejections

 

“This is an opaque industry. It’s designed to make you feel like an island. So that when something goes wrong, you feel like the only one going through it. The pressure on authors is to put forth only good news.

You must come in with the mental and psychological preparation.”

– V.E. Schwab

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.

Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

– James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

 

All you storytellers out there? Hang tight. Stick with it. It’s all going to be okay.

 

 

 

Time to Sub

Amy Tipton, my agent, is subbing No Small Thing out to publishing houses.

Submitting to publishers means your agent, who’s formed relationships with various editors at different imprints and houses, shops out your completed manuscript in the hopes of making a deal. Your author query (that page that once got you through the portal to your agent) might be part of the pitch your agent uses.

As I wrote the query, she helped with the “formula” part of the hook, which some people know as “X meets Y” (movie meets book, book meets book) to give editors a sense of what the story is about, in a nutshell. Here’s my logline and my formula:

When a teen basketball super-fan and podcaster discovers her beloved team is rife with corruption, she becomes an investigative journalist to expose the scandal. NO SMALL THING, a contemporary YA novel, is a sports-themed ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN about those who seek and speak the truth even when the tribe demands allegiance and silence.

After a year of writing and rewriting this book, I was ready to say what it was really about.

Subbing is close kin to querying in terms of the wait and the nerves. Subbing can be short or long, depending on so many things that are truly out of your hands: time of year, the depth of the agent/editor relationship, the editor’s list and queue. For example:

  • Timing: Time of year and editors’ time. August and most of December, for example, are considered dead zones: sub not, query not. What if you finish your novel on November 30 and your agent says, “Great! Let’s begin in January!” That means you’ll need to wait. Or what if an editor is launching a big book and very occupied when your manuscript hits her desk?
  • Depth of relationship: Your agent may be pitching a book to an editor for a first time, or maybe yours is one of several successes the agent’s had with a particular editor, all of which influence the readiness with which an editor takes up your manuscript.
  • List and queue:Your work could end up in a huge pile or a small pile. Know that editors and agents are reading round the clock, outside their day jobs. Take a number.

If an editor gives a personalized rejection, you learn about all the different tastes, priorities, and plans out there in the publishing world, just as you do with agents. You must submit on a different level: to the fact that you are not in control. Sometimes the no comes from reasons like these, What Ifs you have no say over.

  • What if the editor already has something similar on her list?
  • What if the editor thought she wanted a book like yours, but yours isn’t the manifestation she dreamed of? (Aspiring, querying, and subbing authors can find out what their editor wants here at MSWL (Manuscript Wish List.) Check out #mswl on Twitter, too.
  • What if the editor’s just gotten a call that her dog died? That her partner is divorcing her? Or come back from a pub lunch where a bunch of editors declared paranormal/romance/contemporary fiction (whatever your specialty is) dead? Or picks your story up at midnight on a Friday, knowing she’s only got a few hours of sleep ahead? That could sour the read that’s about to happen…
  • What if you’re not of the moment? That you chose to write about something that should reach readers, but the market is enthralled with something else this moment?

And you can’t control any of that. Kind of like fishing, where the lay of that pond, that lake, that river belongs to far greater powers than you: the goddesses of Luck, Timing, and Market. You need to sit there, patiently waiting, with a childlike trust a fish might poke its head up, and soon.

But what you can control is the quality of your book and the quality of your pitch. You can control your writing product, your writing schedule, and your writing attitude. You can control your skill level and keep seeking greater depth of talent by working it hard as you can.

What if you write about tough stuff? What if you can create another world but it’s not the escapism of video games, of fantasy, of other realms? What if you tell it like it is and that telling isn’t what some world-weary people feel like hearing right now? What if you can’t write anything else? People might argue I can control that but to that advice I say, Forget it. I know what I am designed to do.

You can control persistence. This is a small and seemingly unrelated example, but let’s say you’re married to a wonderful musician who decided to write a protest song at this very moment. He thought it would resonate with the political pulse he’s feeling so deeply, and the anger and fear he and his like-minded family and friends are feeling. He makes an amazing song, one that captures so eloquently and honestly the problems of a certain person and political party (check out the lyrics). He and his friends make him an amazing video. They put it out there, and a few people celebrate it. After three weeks, the video has close to 500 views, but that’s it. Then his wife decides one day, to try again sharing it on Twitter (after several weeks of doing so) and the number of views doubles in two days.

 

All because she a) stumbled on a thread where two things had to be in play–lots of followers, and lots of people willing to click on a YouTube link and because she b) persisted.

When I get discouraged, I remember Tenacity is my middle name.

Trust that I’ve had to relinquish a lot of best-laid plans and expectations on this journey, and just believe. That my efforts and luck, timing, and market will all intersect one day.

In the meantime, one can write a whole other book, if not more, while one waits patiently for their moment. In fact, Amy and I are also talking about revisiting @NervesofSteel. While there wasn’t a consensus of editors’ feedback during the subbing process, one critique that did surface with a few editors was Minerva’s age. She’s a precocious 13 year-old starting high school, and that’s a hard age for publishers to sell. Since teens read up, Minerva needs to be older. I’ve stopped resisting this one (But she’s gifted! She should be 13 and 13 only!). Hard to give up something you’ve seen so clearly about a character, but now I’m at peace with it. I’m aging Minerva up to 15 while not losing her giftedness or the fact she skipped a grade. She’s still younger than her average peers who are juniors in high school.

The revision is going beautifully–truly gratifying after the journey I’ve been on with dear ol’ Minerva Mae.

I’m off to write and submit to the page. Because there’s plenty to wrangle there.

 

 

 

What Makes a Great Agent

Literary agents get a lot done that a writer just can’t. If you’re debating whether to work with one, hearing how I couldn’t do this without Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency might help you decide.

Agent Amy Tipton

Agents can be editors, advocates, negotiators, deal makers, and prognosticators. They can be career builders. Here’s what Amy has done for me.

Does Your Agent Listen?

Every time I produce a manuscript idea or a premise, she’s willing to listen. She’ll bat an idea back and forth, and she’ll offer a plot twist or turn that can make the story take a leap forward. The last scene for No Small Thing resulted from an email exchange.

Does Your Agent Educate?

She helps me think about novel premises in terms of the market of young adult fiction and helps me better understand what editors want. While my art will always come from my muse, it has to also match the moment. By that, I don’t mean “sell out to fads or trends.” Writing isn’t just for self, it’s for audience, and so you have to make a happy hybrid of your wants and the world’s.

Does Your Agent Believe?

Not everyone wants to read about the social justice issues I write about: sexual assault, academic corruption and athletics, racism, and bullying. That’s another key: meeting of the minds. Amy’s feminist values and her commitment to social justice align with my world view. I love seeing on Facebook what outrages her, because it’s often exactly what pisses me off, too.

She understands the issues I care about, and she believes in my characters. She lives in my same fictional world where I think Audrey, T, Kendyll, Minerva, Gabe, and Diana are totally real. She stands behind my work.

Is Your Agent Editorial?

Whether I’ve produced a partial or a whole manuscript, she’ll read it super close and deliver–often, in under a week!!!–the unvarnished truth about my prose. She praises what works and rips what doesn’t. That is key. There is no room for tender feelings in this process, even though they’ll crop up anytime anyone tells you what’s bad. I’d rather have my advocate tell me straight up than an editor who doesn’t want the book.

When my first draft of No Small Thing was so very far from what it could be, Amy delivered the news. I tease her that “Uh, no!” is her signature marginal comment, telling you to cease and desist, immediately, with that nonsense you just wrote. Wordsmiths sometimes get caught up in their dreams and prose and generate unsaleable prose.

Does Your Agent Hustle?

She subs out patiently to editors. She’s built relationships over these years, she’s cultivated them, she gets how editors think. How in the world with a day job and every spare moment devoted to writing I could ever develop that…? The answer is, I couldn’t and I can’t.

She responds quickly to emails. (In fact, I’m spoiled: I often get same-day service.) Don’t underestimate this last one–it’s certainly not the least for me. If your agent can’t make time to respond or manage her inbox, then you may have on your hands a weekly struggle with wondering what the hell your agent thinks of your work and whether she values your time. Trust me, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen other authors worry about this. In my day job, I require that staff respond regularly to emails. Otherwise, in virtual employment, how do I still know you’re working for us? You can’t go off the grid. I know how hard it is to manage multiple priorities and a cluttered inbox full of missives from a variety of stakeholders. And yet, I do it. Your agent can do it. You shouldn’t have to chase someone.

These are just some of the things that make a difference to me in the work Amy does, and it makes the long journey of writing and subbing so much easier. I’ve got a companion for the journey, rooting me on, and guiding me right.

Thank you, Amy.

 

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