Monday, August 25, 2008

could you just refer me...?

Ok, I have a pet peeve. This applies both to unagented authors (who despite all my recommendations have still not gotten an agent before trying to submit to me) and to agents--many, many agents, including some good ones. It's this line:
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear it's not right for you. Could you pass it along to someone at your company it would be a better fit for?" [Grammatically, for the sticklers, that should be "for whom it would be a better fit," but in the interest of capturing the realism of the situation, I've chosen not to use archaic grammar no one would actually SAY. But back to the point now.]

Why does this bug me? A couple reasons.

1) If you don't know who at my company is a good fit for it, I might, on a more bitter-tempered day, wish you'd done that research on your own before submitting it to me.

2) If I passed on your project, and if my reason was that it wasn't right for my list, this might mean (horrors!) I didn't like the project (nothing personal--it does happen, though). Naturally, I'm polite and would never ever tell anyone if I hated their manuscript and would have preferred to use it as kindling to roast myself some S'mores on a dragging August afternoon than waste postage on sending it back to them. At best, I was lukewarm about it (because, let's face it, if I really, really love it, I'll try to coax Robert the Publisher into letting me buy it no matter what my list actually looks like, and even if I failed, the agent/author would know a little more about that journey). So "not right for my list" is a kind of generic rejection that encompasses the whole spectrum of vile hate to lukewarm.

This means that by asking me to pass it along to a colleague, you're putting me in an awkward position. I either have to tell you "Actually... no" point-blank (again, I am really bad at direct rejection and HATE this), or I basically am forced to act as an in-house agent of a work I probably didn't like that much! Awkward. Now *I* have to ask a *favor*--that they read your [possibly crappy] manuscript--of colleagues I would rather save for other favors. Boo.

3) Further awkwardness ensues on the follow-up. Who do you follow up with? Me? So then *I* have to nag my colleagues--who have zero incentive to look at this, since you weren't bothered to contact them directly? I *hate* nagging. Ugh. But *especially* nagging people I like to waste time on something I didn't like! DO YOU SEE THE RESENTMENT BUILDING?! But on the other hand, once I've rejected it once, I can't reject it again *for my colleague* and you just keep calling me! In fact, you might call me and complain about how my colleague isn't responding to you, because you forget that they have literally no incentive!

I am going to go home tonight and work on my fortitude in telling people no. You, in the meantime (you know who you are!!), should go home and work on picking the people you want to submit to yourself, so this whole chain of annoying events doesn't happen.


Lisa said...

I've learned over time that going out of my way to be nice to strangers almost always comes back to bite me. You should respect your own time as much as people who are asking you to go out of your way are not. Perhaps a stock answer along the lines of "you know, what each editor is looking for at any given point in time changes so often that I'd be doing you a disservice if I did that. Best of luck to you." Saying no and closing the door is often the kindest response.

Ithaca said...

Just to put another point of view. I used to have long conversations with my editor in which I would draw him out on the books, films, music and so on that he liked/hated. This was very enlightening - he loathed Winnie the Pooh (and all whimsy), loved Irene Handl, Sybille Bedford, William Trevor, Proust, Dante, Montaigne, Pascal, Svevo, Palahniuk, hated Anthony Powell, thought Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx were pretentious bores (to stick to writers). I asked why he didn't share this with agents, who might otherwise have thought that (say) a work of Proustian genius could never find a publisher. He said if he did he might not be sent a book on baseball that he might want to publish. Basically, as far as I could make out, he was entirely shameless about concealing his personal preferences from agents.

BUT (as you'll have noticed) I was able to winkle all this highly classified information out of him - so presumably people who worked with him might ALSO have picked up some of this at one point or another. A colleague might loathe Proust (many do), or find William Trevor terminally dull, but think that a book reminiscent of one or the other might appeal to X. It wouldn't really be acting as substitute agent to say, Look, this book reminds me of Proust, whom I find unreadable, but X is a big Proust fan.

I can understand that one might not want to bother for the sake of a book that reminded one of the Great Unreadable One. For better or worse, though, no amount of research by conventional channels would have enabled the author or agent to dig out this information.

JES said...

I like Lisa's suggested wording.

And yes, you do need to work on your fortitude. Probably better if you do it on company time than at home tonight but, whoops, there's a lot of overlap there, isn't there??? :)

H. L. Dyer said...

Blech. That is a tough spot to be in.

As though every time you turned someone down for a date they asked you to fix them up with someone else...

Graham said...

Hi Moonrat. Love the blog. As someone with a pile of unpublished books and short stories, I read a number of 'insider' blogs like yours, trying to get a handle on why my pile keeps getting bigger, not smaller.
One of the things I have noticed you say often (and others in the business say it too) is that prospective authors should 'do their research' and understand, not just what particular publishing houses want, but what individual publishers and editors want. Notwithstanding Ithaca's comment above on the possibility of editorial subterfuge, I find the possibility of obtaining such knowledge small and the likely effort involved in obtaining it daunting. It implies a degree of familiarity with the industry, an amount of 'networking' with individuals, and an investment in time and travel that are almost certainly beyond my abilities.
I have come to learn that publishing is an industry run on relationships. One of the first and perhaps the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given by an author was, 'Get out there and schmooze.' Yet for someone who is not one of life's natural salespeople, this is a really tough call.
So I'm hoping you'll tell me you didn't really mean it when you implied that a writer should know the tastes and current needs of every publisher and editor in every publishing house in one's market.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think the only solution when they ask you to forward it to someone in house is to say something like the truth if you didn't like it. "I'm afraid it's just not right for our imprint," perhaps? And deliberately changing the subject? Or would that not work in the "we're all working together here" feeling you want to keep up with agents you work with regularly? Don't know about the writers who don't know the ropes.

Anyhow thanks for sharing this bit of awkwardness. Sometimes people don't realise the repercussions. But you, having endured them with gritted teeth, know what happens with a seemingly innocuoous little request.

moonrat said...

Lisa! I love it!

HL--SO like dating. perfect analogy.

moonrat said...

Graham: no, writers really never have to know that, although it helps if they have a dream house in mind. writers SHOULD know the interests of the agents they're querying, on the same principles, though, and agent information is readily available online.

Julie Weathers said...

Just so I don't approach you about something that isn't your cup of tea. How do you feel about epic fantasy, historical, thriller, mystery fictional novels with overtones of humor and lots of fireworks (description trademarked)?

Um, well, how about Robert the Publisher then?

Could we at least discuss it over lunch?

Please, put Janet's snake back, I was just joking.

Oh, you're safe, I will not be submitting anything directly to a publisher.

I've always found people to be very kind about recommending others without me asking. A few weeks ago an agent emailed me after I made a comment on a blog and gave me the names of two very nice agents who do handle epic fantasy, historical, thriller, mystery fictional novels with overtones of humor and lots of fireworks (description trademarked). Well, maybe not yet, but I'm sure they will when they see it.

Moonie, for what it's worth, it does you no good to go our of your way to be nice like that.

If you don't learn to say no someone might one day approach you about a manuscript with a trademarked description.

Julie Weathers said...


I surely could be wrong, but I think a lot of people in the industry will pass a work on to a co-worker if they feel it is better suited to their specialties. I know I have heard a lot of agents say they do that. Of course, finding out which agent loves (insert genre here) ahead of time is good and isn't difficult.

I'm going to go on that assumption, anyway.

Do the research. Put together the master list and start culling the herd.

Bernita said...

"I've chosen not to use archaic grammar no one would actually SAY."
I do. Colour me archaic.

Graham said...

Ah. Right. You were talking about agents, not writers. Got it.

[Blushes hotly. Leaves quickly.]

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Funny now "no" can mean "yes" or "maybe" to so many people. I've personally learned over the years that "no" has to be unequivocal. And I think Lisa's got the words just right.
It's a hard lesson, after all, we're brought up to please, aren't we and unlearning the behaviour is no easy thing.
So you go practice your fortitude, Moonie, and if they haven't got the message now, perhaps you send them a voucher to have "out to lunch" tattooed on their forehead.
What me being grouchy? Never. :-)

JES said...

Moonie, this is off-topic but I couldn't resist sharing it. Even though I know you won't have time to read it until September. :)

I subscribe to an e-newsletter called Today in Literature. It informs me this morning that today was the birthday, in 1885, of a "granddaughter of Charles Darwin, a respected wood engraver, author of the popular memoir Period Piece, and a member of the Bloomsbury group."

Her name?

Gwen Raverat. Ha!

(Fwiw, here's a collection of her engravings. And if you don't have time to follow the link yourself, could you just refer it to a colleague???)

Natalie said...

Whew, awful position to be in. And too time consuming for you. I can't imagine people asking you to take all that time for something you said no to. Learn something new everyday.

moonrat said...

Bernita, I love you. I would totally say it, too.

But it makes my friends want to kill me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Defintely a lazy approach to trying to get someone else to do their work for them. I think you'll just have to say "I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that, but if you want to research other editors in the house who might want to look at your work feel free."

Precie said...

Just say no. Lisa's response is a kind way to do it. No matter how you say it, though, it must be done.

Remember--You really don't need to give prospective authors a reason. You could also just say that it's your policy not to refer queries. Period.

Christy Raedeke said...

If it truly is a terrible manuscript and you know everyone in your office would live a richer life never having read a word of it, you could reply:

“Thanks for your submission but it’s not quite right for our imprint. We wish you the best of luck with your manuscript.”

This covers both you and everyone in your office while positioning the imprint – not you – as the rejecter. The writer gets to hate the company instead of you. Always a good thing!

Julie Weathers said...

Graham, I think there is no reason for you to feel embarrassed. Seems like we're all in a learning phase. At least I know I am.


clindsay said...

Graham -

Honestly, in this day and age of Internet wonder, there is no reason on earth that a savvy writer cannot get all the info he or she needs on an agent or editor.

I'm an agent; my preferences are listed in at least four places online. if you Google my name, chances are you'll hit one of those websites and know instantly what kinds of manuscripts I am and am NOT looking for. Yet every single day I receive dozens of inappropriate queries from would-be writers who seemingly do not have a clue how to use the Internet.

Do your homework!

For $20 a month you can subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, where you can actively research which editors have bought what projects and from whom. There are eight years worth of book sales recorded there.

For $59 a year you can join Media Bistro's Avant Guild, and read some great insider interviews with editors and agents on just exactly what it is they are looking for.

For $0 dollars a year you can join one of any of the hundreds of writers forums out there and talk to other writers (forums like Absolute Write, etc).

The information is out there and it is surprisingly easily obtained.

My two cents.


Colleen Lindsay

Anonymous said...


In business environments, when faced with similarly annoying requests from people on a fairly consistent basis, I've noticed how easy it is to come up with a "policy." Doesn't have to be anything fancy, just enough so you can say, "Gee, I'd really LIKE to help you, but I'm afraid it's against our policy." I don't know, seems to work for insurance companies, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Arrgh. You simply have to learn to say 'no' in those situations. Rip the bandage off. Besides, people who do this are likely lacking the requisite sensitivity gene. They are playing yours like a violin if you allow them this power over you. Just say 'no'. They'll get over it quicker than you surmise.

Graham said...

Julie, thank you, but I embarrass easily.

Colleen, thanks too, but I really would never approach an agent I hadn't researched. Agents are easy. They put their prefernces in the trade directories and on their websites. Imprints are the same - they let you know (broadly) what they want. It's individual editors and publishers I have a problem finding out about.

I have a feeling that people in the industry have a rather odd idea of how visible and approachable they are - perhaps because their lives are spent fending off authors who don't take 'no' for an answer.

My own experience of agents is that they are almost all too busy even to look at a manuscript. So many of them have recommended I approach publishers directly. Publishers, of course, tend to reply that they won't consider an unsolicited manuscript and maybe I should find myself an agent.


Editorial Anonymous said...

I say, "I'm sorry, I don't think it's a good fit for any of our other editors' tastes, either, or I would have passed it along to them already."

Janet Reid said...

I have a form letter that goes out on all those kinds of requests. It says:


I can send you the template if you'd like. My asssssistant will bring it over. She likes to visit people.