No means No… unless it doesn’t

January 11th, 2008 • Kate

It’s a fact of the Agenting business that if we want to ever do anything with our time other than respond to queries, we often have to send form responses. Sometimes, this is enough. I’ve done my best to craft a thoughtful form response that is generic enough to send to most of the people who send queries — occasionally I’ll edit it for a more personal response, and if circumstances change, I may toss it entirely for a different generic response.

And many times, a writer may receive one of our responses and think, “But WHY?”

Unfortunately, in much the same way that I can’t respond more personally to every query, I can’t respond personally to every writer I’ve rejected who asks for a more detailed rejection. But I can give you some hints here.

Genre Did you email me about a densely plotted political thriller? Sorry, my first reaction is no. And this is a good thing — you want to find an agent that specializes in thrillers, or at least has a strong list of editorial contacts who publish thrillers. My favorite editors and I get together and talk about strappy shoes, pink faux-fur throw rugs, and wedding planning. Not the global ramifications of a errant terrorist with a nuclear bomb plotting to take over a post office in Clearwater, FL. No offense to Clearwater.

Familiarity You may have written a brilliant book in one of my genres, and you might have no way of knowing this, but it just so happens to be similar in style, or basic plot outline, or easy Hollywood pitch (Die Hard meets Gosford Park!) to a book I’ve already taken on. Around the time I signed Matthew Cody, I was getting a LOT of superhero themed stories. And while we hope there’s room in the bookstores for a delicious plethora of superhero novels, there’s not room in my small list.

QualityYour children, Uncle George, spouse, etc. may think your book is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they have to say that. They love you. You make them sandwiches, read them to sleep, or help them play solitaire on their ancient PC. Agents aren’t family, and we have to compare your work with the best that’s out there. Publishing is a tough business to break into, and if you’re not at the top of your game, well, maybe you want to think about playing something else. (Does that make sense? Sports metaphors aren’t my thing.) If you want to be the next Manolo Blahnik, don’t just cobble together a few pieces of leather in your office and expect to be a star. Learn the trade, study it, spend time with your craft, and work on ever improving yourself. Then send those shoes to Sarah Jessica Parker.

Gut Feeling This may be the hardest one to explain, and the reason I hide behind a form letter. There might be nothing wrong with your query. It might be witty, brilliant, original, and everything I’ve said I’m looking for. It just doesn’t strike the right chord with me. I used to see a form rejection with the phrase “a suitable level of enthusiasm,” which I think is an agently way of saying, “Yeah, it’s good, but I didn’t love it.” Fact is, I think agents have to ADORE every project they sign, because we’re living with and working on them with the authors for YEARS. From query to revisions to submissions to editorial comments, more revisions, and finally into publication, one book may be on our priority list for several years. On and off, of course, but you don’t want to pick up a book you signed and be annoyed about having to work on it again.

So I hope that helps. Editorial Anonymous was running a great bit on her blog a little while ago that translated editorial responses, so check her out for more clues to the meanings behind form letters. And if there’s any responses you’ve received to your work that completely flummoxed you, let me know in the comments!

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