Thursday, August 20, 2009

agent follow-ups

Yesterday, someone left me a comment on a back post about agent follow-ups, but I wanted to answer more publicly, since we haven't talked about this particular issue in awhile.

If you've been around here a long time, you know my stance on agent proactivity. Different agents have different strategies for following up with editors, and, frankly, some of these strategies are really, really ineffective.

Here's the thing: editors have developed a habit of hiding their heads in the sand. I can speak on behalf of not all editors, but most. We have so much work--so many deadlines to meet in-house, and so many proposals and manuscripts to read--that if an agent doesn't follow up about a manuscript there is a 9/10 chance we're not going to read it (certainly not going to buy it).

When an agent doesn't follow up, they're demonstrating a number of things, the foremost being that they don't EXPECT the book to sell. "Oh nope, this is no hot property, take all the time you need" is the message we get. And honestly, it takes 15 minutes for an editor to know whether they want to read more or not--not 4 months, or 6 months. Sure, we need a kick in the pants to pick the manuscript up. But if you wait 4 or 6 months to give us that kick in the pants, we'll never, ever, ever get herded into, say, auction on that book.

Furthermore, let's think about this from a practical standpoint. My assistant vets each of my proposals as they come in, and flags ones she thinks I should prioritize because they look interesting. Even if I haven't READ your proposal per se, my assistant and I have already both thought about it in terms of where it might fit (or not) on my list. Say I know right away when a proposal comes in that it's not a good fit. Am I going to pick up the phone and cold-call your agent and be like, "Yeah, no"? Umm, no. As a head-hiding editorial type, I flee confrontation on pain of death. Am I going to *seek out* an uncomfortable rejection phone call? Uh, no. So if you don't call me and ask, you're never going to hear my simple answer one way or another.

Can you blame me? Seriously? I mean, who here ENJOYS saying no to salespeople?

Furthermore, there is a particular type of agent whose business MO is the famous "throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks" technique. That means they take on tons of stuff that may or may not sell, preferring to take a risk on an unusual book than not give it a shot. The catch is that these agents tend to put less work in per title--survival mechanism; how else would they get their work done? This scheme works a lot better for nonfiction, where proposals are concept-driven, than it does for fiction, where drum-tight prose and very particular editor targeting with a pitch are key. The bad 'uns among this lot are the worst culprits for never, ever, ever following up. Often, I quietly feel bad for their authors. Bad enough to face unsolicited conversation by picking up the phone and rejecting the book (if I even remember to)? Uh, no. Sorry. My comfort over yours. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

I get tons and tons of novel manuscripts--tons. I get probably 100 manuscripts (or more) for every novel I acquire. Not exaggerating--when I'm at work later, I'll check my submission log for exact numbers, but I remember pretty well where I was at last time I looked. Also, I know where I'm at: since I work at an indie, I'm hardly the top of the totem. I'm usually on either second or third round submissions, depending on what the novel is about. That means that editors higher up on the totem probably get 2 or 3 times as many submissions as I do--every agent is pitching every literary debut at a particular handful of editors (I could probably tick off their names here). Those poor ladies and gents are also getting hit up by the bum agents who try casting everything at the wall to see what sticks, and then never follow up. Only they have to see a lot MORE of that stuff. So of COURSE I wouldn't blame them for not replying.

As for an agent who tells you that an editor hasn't responded, that's as good as a pass: you have one of two situations here. Either you have a lousy agent, who never followed up, or you have a disorganized and rude editor, one you don't want to end up working with, anyway. The reason I say this is because, as mentioned above, when it comes down to it, it only takes 15 minutes to know whether we want to read more--longer, obviously, if we do, to consider the book, but still--and it's very easy to formulate a polite and helpful rejection letter that helps the agent understand why you're passing.

Yes, situations differ depending on your genre, as certain genre editors have their own traditions. And as I said, I can't speak on behalf of all editors--only most.

What does this mean for you? I know this sounds TOTALLY CRAZY--especially to authors who have been struggling to secure representation for a long time--but ask your prospective agent what their submission plan is like before you commit to working with them. Also, ask if you can call some of their other clients as references (or look up other clients on the internet and see whether they have glowing things to say, and/or whether this agent is well stocked on Publishers Marketplace deal searches, which are not always representative but can be of use). You DON'T have to commit to an agent just because they're offering representation. And I promise--a bad agent is MUCH, much worse than not submitting your book at all. If an agent submits badly, not only does it mean your book isn't going to get read or bought now, it means it probably never will. In publishing, you can't cross the same bridge twice.

Ok, rant over. Pant pant. Please consider the floor open.


Welshcake said...

Moonrat, this a great post. Having the low down on what goes on (or doesn’t) between agents and editors is useful in terms of thinking about the questions to ask agents.

I do think the temptation to sign with the first agent who offers is huge. Thanks for the reminder not to do this without asking LOTS of questions!

PS: does anyone know if there's a UK version of Publisher's Marketplace where deals are reported? I know some UK deals are reported there, but not many as far as I can tell...

Whirlochre said...

As a writer, I'd prefer to secure an agent capable of weilding a variety of swords with which to cut to the chase. So — a flurry of Errol Flynn strokes (beg pardon) where necessary with an option of the full Conan should the going get rough.

Given that agents live off the proceeds of the commission made from successfully placing books (unless they have a sideline breeding exotic dogs, or juggling), it ought to follow that they should be fighting for their chosen manuscripts like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, but as with every profession, there are clearly dilutions of warpaint, and I don't suppose writers can find out much about the behind-the-scenes goings on until they are behind the scenes with their chosen agent.

So thanks for this post. To my list of necessary questions to be asked of a potential agent (along with 'who's on your list?' and 'should I lose the artsy Dickens beard?') I now see it's perfectly right and proper to discuss their willingness to kick ass.

moonrat said...

Welshcake--there isn't one that I know of, although a large number of British agents report to Publishers Marketplace now. I mean, not as many as Americans, but some, and a growing number.

Whirl--yeah, "Do you want to kick ass?" should be a question you dont HAVE to ask. But alas, it is.

Natalie said...

Thank you for this post! Quite enlightening.

booksandbiscuits said...

Welshcake: The Bookseller is pretty much the UK equivalent of Publisher's Marketplace in terms of publishing news, jobs etc, and they have a rights deals section which reports some, but not all (I think) deals:

Hope that helps!

Lexi said...

Goodness me.

My question is, do the same rules apply when a writer submits to an agent - I'm thinking of an agent who has shown interest, but then goes quiet. I've always thought the rule was never pester. Am I wrong?

JES said...

Probably not possible to quantify this, but what's the point of diminishing returns for agent follow-ups? I mean, there must be such a thing as an agent who's such an aggressive follow-upper that you stop taking his/her calls.

Yeah, I did think, "This sounds TOTALLY CRAZY." It sometimes seems that everything which happens to a book after the author types "The End" on the final draft before submission is TOTALLY CRAZY -- i.e., that actually writing the book is the only bit that makes sense. Talk about falling down a rabbit hole.

And let's pretend we're not even looking at the time stamps on your post and comments.

Shreds said...

I've been reading this blog for a few months now, and I thought I was getting used to the sweet-sour enlightenment, but there you go again, blowing my mind with information that instantly acquires that "oh, yeah, duh" sort of feel.

Thank you again for shedding light on the other side.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I'd love to hear more about what it's like to be a second or third-round editor. Do you feel that the best project get 'creamed', or do you end up with projects that you can handle better than the larger houses?

Also: my agent's had a mystery proposal out since December. She got me a huge deal last time (huge for me; six figure) which utterly failed to sell through. I -think- the delay is that she wants to get me something in the same ballpark ...

magolla said...

Too bad you can't post a list of the spagetti-throwing agents, Moonie. Oh, the system of finding the truly BAD agents is pretty good (preditors & editors, Absolute write, Writer beware, etc). But what about ineffective agents? A list like that would be priceless

Sara J. Henry said...

I have heard horror stories - like the writer whose agent granted a 14-month exclusive to one publisher.

People need to realize that a bad agent can be worse than no agent (not that I recommend going agentless).

Before signing with an agent, don't just check out their book sales, but ask to communicate with one or more of their authors. (An agent who seems to have made some great sales could also have clients leaving in droves - you can check authors' websites to see if they're still with that agent.)

DebraLSchubert said...

Fascinating post. I'm tweeting it. Thanks!!

moonrat said...

Lexi--I believe you're 100% correct. This "must follow up!" refers only agent to editor--author to agent, it's best to be very, very quiet like mice. Quiet mice, not like Sylvester Antonio, the very noisy mouse that lives behind my oven.

moonrat said...

JES--yeah, had some trouble sleeping last night, haha. However, don't pretend you weren't also online.

Re: what's too much following up: it definitely exists. My policy is to tell agents no right away if I KNOW there's no shot, to avoid the aggressive follow-uppers. But some editors hide from them and then become increasingly anxious as the calls and emails pile up. (Trust me--I know from first-hand experience. When I was an Ass, my boss was famous for that, and I as the Ass had to lie and put them off--that was when I created my "Just say no!" policy.)

I would say I DO get annoyed when an agent follows up before two weeks have passed since the initial submission (unless it's to say they have an offer in already, do I want to get involved). Less than two weeks presupposes my having a chance to look at it at all, never mind share it with other people in my house.

After that, if I've stalled with the agent, it's my own fault if they keep harrassing me. That's what I think.

Now I do get VERY annoyed when I pass on a book and the agent argues with me. I do NOT like feeling bullied.

moonrat said...

Anon 7:19: now, that would be a wonderful blog post topic; one I could have a lot of fun with. I'll put it on my to-do.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Having encountered the Bad Agent is Worse Than No Agent phenomena, I'd like to loudly second that statement.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Since you know quickly if it's a fit, does that mean in general you're reading only the first few pages? I'm curious because when my agent sent my novel to around 15 editors, we got back a lot of great comments along with a reason why it didn't fit, sometimes specific, other times less so. At the time I wondered if they weren't reading very far but my agent said she believed most should be reading the entire manuscript. In retrospect, I believe the novel had structural (specifically pacing) issues, especially in the beginning. If I'd realized this (and I will next time) and understood the quick decision on the editors' end, I would have pulled my novel back and reworked the beginning. I know you all do things differently but would you say that for the most part, editors are not reading too far into the book if it doesn't grab them right away? (Much like agents, I guess.)

Thanks for the post!

Kiersten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
moonrat said...

Anon--indeed, we are mostly only reading a couple pages. The vaguer the answer, the less an editor read.

And very good of you to pin this on pacing--that's the reason that loses people the quickest. Pacing is the hardest thing to fix editorially, and one editors can't be sure an author will be able to manage post-acquisition. Also, one of the trickiest problems for an author to diagnose on their own.

In these days of low advances and editors not editing, I've found a lot of agents are doing very limited, multi-tier submissions instead of single widespread submissions. It's both because competition is very hard to foster these days and also because this gives an author (often multiple) chances to revise. Of course, you DO risk revising your manuscript to death. A sad path toward mediocrity with too many professional opinions spoiling the broth.

Janet Reid said...

Two words darling Moonrat: form rejection.

Some of my most beloved editors use them. As you say, you know very quickly if something isn't right.
A quick form rejection email is easy, non-confrontational, and if a nitwit agent calls to argue, just give them my number.

In fact, I can send you the wording to use. I have (cough) quite a few of them stored away.

You could even have your amazing assistant, whom I adore, send them.

amy turn sharp of doobleh-vay said...

thanks for this. I just wrote about my novel today. Ah. I wish this was a bit easier to learn. xo

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Great post! It is really interesting to see the inner workings of the publishing industry. It sounds like the moral of the story is that the publishing industry is a business first - if a writer wants to succeed, they better think of it in terms of a business and act professionally.

Starbuck O'Shea said...

Moonrat: Must profess my adoration. Thank you!

To all: Yes, authors will talk privately about agents to avoid. Chasing your agent to get business done will mess up your writing. [But a list of ineffective agents might face libel charges.] I agree with Sara J. Henry; do your research.

(former author's asst.)

Anonymous said...

From Anon 11:33: thanks for the detailed reply on reading. I have a wonderful agent with a respected agency but she is somewhat new and hadn't done many of my types of manuscript. Definitely a learning experience for us both, I guess. Thanks again!

Kiersten said...

When my agent offered to rep me, she had recently started her own agency and didn't have many sales--none in YA. So I talked with her other clients, one of whom had turned Michelle down for a Big Name agent. And said Big Name agent did...nothing. No follow up. Never updated the client. Not. A. Thing. So this client went back to Michelle and has never regretted it.

I, by the way, am EXTREMELY happy with my choice, as my agent quite simply rocks. You're exactly right: a bad agent is really bad, but a good agent who follows-up and is dedicated? Invaluable.

Kiersten said...

(Sorry, Moonie...umm, sometimes I get crazy and have to come back and edit my comments because one line bothers me.)

Anonymous said...

Moonie, really good to see this post today. I'm wondering how this would translate to an unagented request for the manuscript by a top editor at a very top house. I know I can't call like an agent would, so I sent a snail mail follow-up (very polite) and then 3 months later, an email. It's now been about 9 months, which I've heard might be normal for an unagented submission. (I had a similar situation with another big house and it took a year and a month for them to reply.) How would you suggest that I proceed? I'd like to try to contact the editor's assistant this fall, when it's been a year, but I don't know who the assistant is. Hopefully an agent will step in soon and handle it for me. Thanks for any ideas.

Rebecca Knight said...

At first this post terrified me, then after my mouth snapped shut again, I realized "Oh, yeah, that makes total sense." I would avoid calling agents back, too, if I were in your editorial shoes. No one likes confrontation. Well, except jerks, I guess.

Thank you so much for shedding some light on this! I'm a kicker of ass in everything that I do as point of personal pride, so I expect the same in an agent.

carolinestarr said...

Thanks, Moonie. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

PS from Anon 1:24. Moonie, I remember your rant from a while back about submitting to editors unagented. But this was a special circumstance, a personal connection. I've come very close with agents and currently have 6 with the full.

Anita said...

I met an acquisitions editor at a conference and she asked for my first three chapters. Her reviewers read them and wanted to see the whole manuscript. I sent the whole manuscript and she said it would take a month to hear from her. I waited a month and got back to her. She said the reviews were coming in and should be done in two weeks. I waited three weeks and emailed her. She said all the info was on her desk and she'd be in touch soon. So now I should just wait it out forever, right?

When I met her at the conference, she said it was great that I was looking for an agent, but agent or not, her house would give me the same contract, if they wanted my work.

Man, I hope she doesn't read your blog.

Starbuck O'Shea said...

To Anon 1:24pm:

Try Black Hole. If you're in the sf/f/h genre, they can help you.

If outside... ah, I don't know. Try the AW Water Cooler?


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Anne. Cool site, but I'm not in those genres. I feel like I'm doing everything I can do within the realm of respectablity and courtesy, and it was very helpful to hear Moonie's take on following up.I just don't understand why these people request material if they don't have the time to look at it. But I know mine will be seen eventually.

Starbuck O'Shea said...

Anon -- I was afraid of that, about your being else-genre.

If you'd like, I can hunt through my links for some other help. Write me at fairhair [using Gmail].

Apologies to folks for hijacking the thread.


RickNiekLikeBikes said...

I appreciate the ideas. I'm the newbie simply trying to learn what it's all about. I've written for a long time and am learning what it's like to get really pragmatic and serious about it.

Michael Reynolds said...

I've made this point before and been denounced by editors, agents and wannabes, but this system is idiotic. So what the hell.

First: I'm a well-published author so I don't endure any of this. I can email editors and get feedback in 24 hours. Which is unfair. Great for me, but while I'm schmoozing on the phone with editor X your manuscript is not getting read.

The thing is that for publishing to thrive it needs more of you people, and less of me getting to shove you out of the way. We need new writers to be able to break in. New voices.

But the system is clogged with the unserious. And it is tilted strongly in favor of established authors. So we have this system where wannabes are left to chase around, gathering snippets of data about arrogant and often incompetent agents.

We need to move the slush pile out of the agencies and back to the publishers. And we need to make it a profit center for the corporations to ensure speedy consideration and adequate resources.

Submitting authors should be charged. Let's say $75. 10 submissions = $750. If you're not willing to invest $750 then go away and stop wasting everyone's time. You'd spend that on a suit for an cubicle job.

The submission should not go to agents, they should go to editors. Let's say editors can respond to 10 submissions a day. That's $750. Rather more than a low level editor makes.

So the slush pile gets serious treatment because it becomes a profit center. And the total number of submissions becomes smaller because the unserious are weeded out.

BuffySquirrel said...

Oh God. to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.

Anonymous said...

If I'm reading you correctly, you are saying you're loath to make the negative call to an agent and generally wait for the agent to follow up.
So I'm assuming if you had a positive call to make, you'd do so sooner rather than later.
Ergo (if I may be so pompous): all those manuscripts languishing in your file waiting for an agent to follow up are going to be rejected anyway--and mostly with a fairly generic explanation.
So if I have a manuscript currently languishing at six houses for over a year each--wouldn't you say my chances of getting a yes from any of them are pretty dim--no answer being an answer after all?
Or is there a slight possibility (I live on slight possibilities) that some or all of these editors are now in the used car business and never even read said manuscript (even after requesting it from the agent over many drinks)?

Anonymous said...

Weighing in on the issue of a bad (or mediocre) agent being worse than having no agent at all.

When submitting unagented manuscripts to editors you don't know, would a previous track record of being published as well as a new legitimately published book getting swell reviews hold any sway with editors who generally only accept things from good (or at least half decent) agents?

Sara J. Henry said...

Dear last Anon,

If you have that track record and a published book getting swell reviews ... you should be able to get a dynamite agent. I know, I'm the one who said a bad agent is worse than no agent, but I do think the unagented writer is at a severe handicap, for several reasons.

I'm spoiled, I know - my crackerjack agent gets editors to read manuscripts very quickly.

Terri said...

So, what about authors following up with editors? I had a full request from an editor (and then an agent) four months ago. I sent a polite inquiry not too long ago, but still haven't heard back. Should I just consider them both rejections and move on? Or is there something else I'm not considering.

Anonymous said...

Hi Moonrat,

I'd love to know what you think of this situation:

I sent a query.

Agent replies after 3 months, hugely apologetic that (s)he has not responded sooner, says no thanks to my query but wants to see a full for other book I mentioned in one line of initial query.

Said book not done, so I humbly send query for 3rd (finished) book, as well as partial for requested book.

Agent goes haywire saying (s)he'd just proposed the same idea in a meeting and same title for a book (s)he'd love to see (in existence) and wants to see full. SUPER EXCITED ON BOTH ENDS.

I send full of that mss and partial of the initial one (s)he wanted.

I wait. 2 weeks and still nothing.

I know this is a normally brief period, but was it irresponsible or unprofessional for said agent to express EXTREME enthusiasm for my proposal before even seeing it?

It feels a little unfair, because it did/has made my hopes fly but of course said agent could also still say, um, no.

moonrat said...

Anon--I hate to say this, but the WHOLE process is a huge emotional roller coaster. The agent in question might be more excited about your book than anything else she's ever read in her life, but that doesn't mean that her time frame lines up to yours, since her job doesn't really incentivize her to get back to you super quickly. I know, it's awful.

Also, the standard waiting period is a month--alas. Alas, alas. So I would encourage you to hold your horses and not follow up. Knit a blanket, do a lot of push-ups--whatever it is that will get you through without a nervous breakdown. After a month, you can follow up.

All this said, there's nothing to prevent you from submitting to other agents if this one isn't making you happy. Janet Reid has good advice on this. Check out her take re: multiple submissions.

Anonymous said...

So you can submit to multiple agents until you get one. But once you get one you can't look for a new agent until you leave the one you have--even if they haven't done a single thing for you in a year or more or ever. I don't get this. Isn't it like quitting your job before you have another one lined up, or moving out of your house before you have another one to move into? Is this fair? You'll notice I'm asking this of an editor. I pretty much know the answer I'd get on an agent's blog.