Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Do Agents Say No?
Literary Agents Everything You Need to Know (well almost)

What is the most common reason agents decline to represent a writer?

60% Poor writing

17% Book was outside agent’s genre
10% Agent’s client base was full
8% Writer’s work and agent don’t click
5% Other

The good news is that the top two reasons given are factors under the writer’s control. Most authors develop and improve their craft over a number of years. An aspiring author certainly doesn’t have to remain in that “poor writing” category forever.

But what exactly is “poor writing”? In the decline letters they send to authors, agents often say they turned the author down because they aren’t enthusiastic enough about the material. A favorite phrase they use is, “I simply didn’t fall in love with the writing.” This is probably the source of more author frustration than any other aspect of getting published. Success or failure hinges on extremely subjective judgments. Think about your own reading experience. How often do you pick up a novel, read 10 pages and decide you aren’t interested in it? Does that mean the writing was “poor”? Not at all. It simply means you didn’t connect with the story. Every individual’s literary taste is different.

One frequently received type of rejection isn’t really “rejection” at all: The agent has all the clients she can handle at the present time, so she really has no choice but to send a decline letter to unsolicited submissions. The agent in this case was doing the author a favor; it would have been far worse to accept a new client who would receive inadequate attention. Too often, though, authors interpret such a decline letter as meaning “my book must not be any good.” Actually, the agent may not have even had time to read the submission package.

An encouraging note is that the agents’ answers here indicated that the fact a writer was unpublished was not a significant reason for rejection.

You’ve got your list of potential publishers or agencies, now what?

The first step for both nonfiction and fiction is the query letter. It is your chance to open doors to the publishing industry, to agents and publishers. Because of the volume of submissions agents and publishers receive, it has become the standard way of make a contact, rather than sending out entire manuscripts. Absolutely, positively include an SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) for the agent/publisher to contact you.

Why you need a query letter and how to write it

You never want to send a full manuscript. It won’t be read. The standard method of contact is the Query letter. A good query letter is short, one to two pages maximum.

The goal of query letter is to get the manuscript or book proposal requested by the agent or publisher. Often they request just the first 60 pages, read that, then decide whether they want to read the full manuscript.

Þ Think Like A Businessperson Trying To Make A Sale, Not an “Artist”

Writers tend to think they are the publisher’s customers, as though the publisher exists to make their dream of being a published author come true. The truth is that publisher’s real customers are the people who purchase and read books. So your goal as a writer is to demonstrate how you can help the publisher reach his or her objectives. In the query letter, you introduce both the specific literary work you want to sell them, and yourself, your background and accomplishments.

Þ There is something unique, fresh, different about your book

Þ You are professional: you will be able to deliver the manuscript on time

Þ You are willing to expend effort to market the book

Þ You have the background, experience to write the book you are proposing

Þ It fits in the publisher’s area of concentration

Þ Your book has a large market

The query letter is very challenging to write: you have to choose every word carefully. Also, your target audience reads so many of these each week, it is difficult to make yours stand. Even if you write the “perfect” query letter, it’s still a crapshoot whether your work will be requested.

The emphasis of the query letter is on “Why readers will buy my book,” rather than “Aren’t I a great writer.” Don’t start with: “It’s been my lifelong dream to be a writer.” They don’t care. It is their lifelong dream to sell more books than their competitors.

How many queries should you send out? Try batches of five or ten, then measure the response you get. You may need to tweak the content of your query letter.

Suppose you send out the first batch and no one asks for the book. What does that mean?

Suppose you send out ten. You get three polite turndown letters and no response from the other seven. What should you conclude?

  1. The agent may not be taking on new clients
  2. You have no talent
  3. Your book has no market
  4. You didn’t express yourself well in the letter
  5. The agent is swamped with submissions and didn’t have a chance to reply
  6. The agent is rude and threw your letter away
  7. The publishing industry isn’t interested in new writers
  8. You contacted an agent that is not interested in your genre

Most likely one of the following is the case:

  1. The agent may not be taking on new clients
  2. You didn’t express yourself well in the letter
  3. The agent is swamped with submissions and didn’t have a chance to reply
  4. The agent is rude and threw your letter away
  5. You contacted an agent that is not interested in your genre

Important rule:

Not hearing a positive response should not be interpreted as REJECTION, of you or your work. It may simply mean you are not getting anyone’s attention. In less polite terms, they didn’t give you the time of day.


Tomorrow: The agent said yes to your query letter - now what?

Dee Power is the author of The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors, and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them, Attracting Capital From Angels, Inside Secrets To Venture Capital and the novel, Over Time. You can reach her through her website http://www.BrianHillAndDeePower.com

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