Fish or Cut...Book?

Let me try to explain my problem without being overspecific (just in case my agent lurks hereabouts).

About a year ago I acquired an agent (I had more than one offer of representation) with a decent sales record. The agent was enthusiastic about my book, which she viewed as a major commercial proposition. I made the revisions the agent suggested, without any whining or footdragging, and the agent sent it out to a few editors high up the food chain. They came back with compliments on the writing, story, and pacing, but shied from the subject matter.

We talked, and the early enthusiasm already seemed to be flagging. Suddenly my ‘terrific’ book with its ‘terrific’ characters didn’t seem so terrific. The agent sent it to five more houses. We haven’t heard from all of them, but what we’ve had back so far have been more of the same—praise for the writing, and no thanks (though some have been kind enough to say that they are probably making a decision they will regret).

When I ask what the plan is from here, my agent replies that there aren’t really any other 'top markets' (which isn't really a direct answer, is it?). When I ask about other publishers or options—and I would never bring those up if the agent seemed to have a plan—I receive rather curt notes explaining that those really aren’t reasonable possibilities.

I have the feeling that I am being dropped as a client without being formally dropped. One novelist friend (who has been publishing for over thirty years) tells me that this is becoming a fairly common agenting style when representing unpublished novelists—throw it high a few times, see if it is sticks, and if not, neglect the author until they go away.

I’m reluctant to simply walk away from the book. It’s not immortal literature, but it’s a good novel. Heck, even my agent thought so, once upon a time.

What does this look like from the other side of the fence? Thanks for whatever light you can shed.

Ouch. Well, it depends on how many houses your agent sent it to. If your first round was 20, then she sent it to 5 more, 25 no's is a pretty good indication that it's not going to sell (And yes, those of you who sold your book after 376 submission, please post a comment here and prove me wrong). If she only sent it to 10 total, there's probably a few more places she can try, but her confidence is obviously flagging.

I've had plenty of "terrific" manuscripts hit the ground running, only to slowly lurch toward their unpublished death. Agents are pretty good at hunting out the good stuff, but that doesn't mean publishers will always or ever agree with us.

I suggest asking your agent bluntly if she thinks this book has run its course. She may give you a blunt answer back, so be prepared. You are probably not being dropped as a client, but your agent may not think spending all her efforts on this particular book is a good use of anyone's time.

If you're not happy with your agent, if this is a deal-breaker for you, then find another one. If you don't want to leave, then move on to the next book. I don't know about your friend, but I certainly don't throw 15 billion projects on the wall to see what sticks. Does your friend also complain about those young wippersnappers who drive too fast and listen to the rap music?

Working with clients who'll be in it for the long haul pays off better for everyone in the end.


Anonymous said...

"(And yes, those of you who sold your book after 376 submission, please post a comment here and prove me wrong)"

I'm just starting, so my agent and I are waiting to hear on the first batch, but isn't that essentially JK Rawlings story? I thought she sent Harry Potter to many more than 25 publishers before one bought it. Or is it different if you're represented instead of doing it yourself?

December Quinn said...

JK Rowling sent it to a lot of agents, I believe, before getting repped by one. But Scholastic/Bloomsbury is a pretty big publisher, so I can't imagine it was 25th on the list of publishers to submit to. I'm pretty sure it was snapped up fairly quickly by them...it was the agent search she had a hard time with.

I could be wrong, but I'm fairly certain that's how it went.

AM said...

According to http://www.jkrowling.com (her offical site), the second agent she subbed to became her agent, and it took him a year to sell it to Bloomsbury.

The bio doesn't give a specific number of rejections before the sale was made. I've heard 7, but that's probably as much myth as any other figure people bandy about regarding JKR.

Anonymous said...

I went through something similar. My agent sold my first manuscript -- it took 24 tries. With my second, she tried six places; it did not sell. With my third, she tried two places; it did not sell.

I decided my agent had flipped "the bozo switch" on me and asked her if she thought I just wasn't marketable. She told me otherwise, and that I just didn't understand the market, but my gut was that anyone who was trying less hard, and falling out of love with my manuscripts over time was probably not a good fit for me in the long haul.

I bid her adieu in a friendly way, saying we had different tastes, which I believe is true, and probably a good reason to part company.

Then I signed with someone else who'd heard of me, but didn't represent my genre. I'm feeling nervous, because he hasn't gotten back to me on a new MS I wrote. I finished by his deadline, but he's more than three weeks late for his. I'm wondering if it's because it's out of his area and he doesn't know how to proceed, or if this is normal -- my first agent was quicker. I also wonder if I should just find an agent who specializes in my genre, or if this makes me look like an agent-floozy.

Thoughts, anyone?

Jo Bourne said...

Hi Anon --

Ummm ... why go to an agent who isn't familiar with your genre?

And why did an agent decide to represent someone in a genre where his contacts are weak? Is he branching out, maybe?

Three weeks past deadline seems a good time to call up and say,
'Yo ... Agent man!'


Anonymous said...

Jo Bourne:

Good question - he's trying to branch out. And he was so flattering. But I think I might look for someone who specializes in my area.

He could turn out to be great, but this isn't an auspicious beginning, and I don't want to play the squeaky wheel game.

I'd rather just work with someone who matches my by-the-deadline approach, even if it requires starting over on a new MS.

Anonymous said...

opAs someone new to the writing game, I'm wondering how frequently people switch agents. Judging from the comments here and on other threads, stuff I've read on other sites, including 'famous' author sites, it doesn't seem all that uncommon.

Jean said...

My first thoughts were, "I hope you're working on another book." and "Write another book." I hope the writer wasn't just waiting around for this one to sell. She/he is getting praise on most aspects of it, and the item nixing it seems to be subject matter. That leaves me thinking this author could sell, but this particular book has something about the content that makes it too risky right now. Or did I miss something in the original read?

Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness said...

I like that Miss Snark's advice is so consistent. Nearly every time a question like this arises she says, "talk to your agent." Seems like sound advice in any situation.

Waiting around for the agent to drop kick you or wait for you to slink into obscurity would be just as much the writer's fault as the agents, in my opinion.

I'm not saying I wouldn't be disappointed by my agent losing interest in a mss. But,I think of it like this - you get an agent to help you get published. The perk in that is it gives you more time to write and develop more mss, instead of hitting the bricks to sell your work.

That way, when/if you have to have that heart-to-heart, "hey are you still loving my work?" You'll have more to offer if they say, "Not this one. What's next?"

Anonymous said...

Sounds familiar. A friend's agent has sent his novel to 19 editors, most of them very high on the food chain. Lots of similar comments: great writing, terrific voice, just no one falling in love with the story enough to offer for it.
Meanwhile my friend has spent the last year pre-writing a new novel, and sending out a couple of short stories. That's it. He's convinced the novel will sell, and e-mails the agent at least every couple of weeks.
I think I would have moved on with the next book, to have something for my agent to market when she finally says "enough."
I guess what I want to know is when is enough? How many higher-up eds saying no does it take to move on? It's not that the agent is running out of enthusiasm as much as she's running out of major houses/editors to send to(I've seen the letters), and the author is adamant about not sending to small presses. And if it's up to the agent to say uncle, should the author be upset? The agent is totally legit, good sales record, and has spent major $$ on this novel with what now looks like slim chances of payback for her.
Maybe I just have agent envy.

Anonymous said...

Do agents ever feel they've made a mistake when they take on a client? That the enthusiam was misplaced, and after a couple of passes that this book is a money pit and not a money machine? I want to know how agents get out of representation if that happens and still save face and reputation?

Anonymous said...


There's no guarantee any agent can sell a book, no matter how terrific he or she thinks it is. If it doesn't sell, it's too bad, but it sounds like your friend's agent is trying.

Anonymous said...

AgentC--Thanks for the response to my post.

As I said, my agent sent it to "a few editors" and then "five more." The total is, I believe, 8 submissions. Eight.

I certainly can't cough up a list of folks who sold things on the 376th submission. The books people bothered to keep numbers on were from the old days--when there were a lot more publishers. James Lee Burke's "Lost Get-Back Boogie" sold on its 111-th submission. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" sold on submission 122. Tom Clancy's "Hunt for Red October," he claims, was turned down by "everybody" before it went to Naval Institute Press, which did not at the time publish fiction. As to JK Rowling, her number of rejections from publishers is reported in the press as "several" or "a number," while she herself just says "lots."

I'm not asking for 121 rejections--I never really wanted any, to be frank--and I'm not expecting submission to "everybody." Or even Rowling's "lots." But, gee whiz, I can count to eight without even taking my shoes off.

I think it's obvious that I'm not happy with my agent. What I'm trying to get is a reality check. From enthusiasm to 'why bother?' in eight tries doesn't strike me as "spending all her efforts on this particular book." To couch it in Snark terms, am I being a nitwit to expect more than that? Or am I being a nitwit to even consider letting her do the same with another of my books?

annamalai said...

By now you should be at least half way through your first draft of your next book. Whatever you decide to do about your agent, write a new one.

re JK Rowling and Bloomsbury: Bloomsbury was a fairly small independent publisher before she came along. She put it on the map.

We can't really compare Ton Clancy's and Pirig's situation with today's: with all the huge conglomerates eating up the smaller houses, there really is a smaller choice these days. That's why you need to get another, better book finished, either to wow your present agent and rekindle her excitement - show her you've got more books in you - or to find a new agent. You've just started at this game; perseverance is what counts now. Keep writing. Don't get stuck on this one book.

Anonymous said...

The original poster again:

annamalai & anon:

Oh, I've got another book. But should I trust this agent with it? This agent seems to be saying "enough" after a handful of submissions.

I have not e-mailed or contacted the agent 'every couple of weeks' like Anon's friend. After the agent began marketing the book, I waited four months without hearing anything before I called.

Round two: I waited four more months before e-mailing. So I haven't exactly been hounding the agent.

I have taken to heart Miss Snark's adage that it is the writer's job to write and the agent's job to sell. So I've been minding my own business. But now I'm wondering if my agent is doing the agenting job. And I can't tell--but, boy, am I wondering.

(And, yes, I agree that we can't compare Clancy and Pirsig with today--like I said, these are "from the old days--when there were a lot more publishers.")

The question, really, is this: would you say that your agent had really gone all out for you after less than ten submissions? Would you trust that agent with your next baby?

I really am confused. I wouldn't be posting here on this topic if I weren't.

Anonymous said...

"Working with clients who'll be in it for the long haul pays off better for everyone in the end."

Clients. Um-hmm. And what about the agents?

Anonymous said...

May I ask this another way? How much can an agent afford to invest in a manuscript? A legitimate agent. How much does each submission actually "cost" the agent in terms of copies, postage, packing materials, and time?

I figure for a manuscript of around 400 pages, it costs (at 4cents per sheet, a mass quantity price that I can't get) $16. just to print. Throw in at least another $10. for postage. A couple of dollars for materials. The agent is looking at a minimum of $30. before his time. If your book went out 8 times, that agent has invested $240. plus the cost of his time. Without any guarantee of getting anything back. Time thrown in, you've already cost your agent at least $500. Is this perhaps a cut-off point for this agency? Especially if it's a one-person agency?
Looking at it from that perspective, I can see how agents would be very choosy about manuscripts.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Well, I don't have an agent about whom to complain. I do have some general business observations.

Even the best stumble. They make mistakes, become inattentive, or just don't like a project and fail to perform as they should. External events intervene too.

When this happens it's time for a calm discussion of issues. Mind readers exist only in fiction.

Ask your agent kindly worded but pointed questions. Feed back your understanding of her statements. (So, you mean ...) Let her correct any misunderstanding.

Then you can make an informed decision.

Jennefer said...

My experience thus far has been equally disappointing. I signed with an agent who absolutely loved my book, and kept telling me I was at the top of his list. We would converse initially through email, then once they pitched me to the first top 10, they would contact me by phone.

Apparently, I made it to the desk of one of the big guys, and they were tossing between my manuscript and another. You know what's coming... they went with the other one, and the last thing I heard from my agent was, "We believe in your book, so we're willing to give it another go". We set up a phone conference, and I haven't heard another word since. I leave messages, nobody returns my calls. Emails go unanswered.

Interestingly, they have slightly changed their business name. I wondered if by chance new owners took over, so I emailed agsin from the main link. No answer.

What does one do when they've been unceremoniously dropped? And more importantly, what happens to my manuscript out there now in someone's possession? I have a signed contract, terms for two years which are over this March. What does one do?

Anonymous said...

I'm in a very similiar position with my manuscript.

My agent has done three rounds of submissions. The first two were big names and now we're still out with a few of the large indies.

He's let me know that after these that's about it. That's a total of about 14-15 submissions. it'll be two years in June.

Bummer--I also wrote a second book with the same characters and he has said he can't go to the same editors who rejected the first.

That sucks but I think I understand.

If none of these subs pan out I'm left with a decison to go to real small indies. Though if i get published there the small numbers may hurt my chances of getting a big deal in the future.

Cold business

Anonymous said...

original poster:

it sounds to me like your agent deals only with a limited number of editors. (there are agents who don't need to deal with more than 20 editors, because they can place most of their projects just fine within that limited list. Note that i said 'most',not all.

i think your agent's message to you is clear: 'i can't sell this book.'

as to what you should do:

give said agent a book he/she can sell


get another agent

Anonymous said...

We hear a lot about agents who don't respond to query submissions. Okay, not polite, but they don't know me and I don't know them. But to ignore a client's emails and phone calls? WTF?

Why do agents lose enthusiasm? If they loved a book six months ago, why not today? Is it a matter of cutting their losses if they don't make a quick sale? I would love an insider's take on this.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

There are some days when I am not enthusiastica bout my book. I've been looking at it too long, working with it too much, rewriting the synopsis too many times, and I'm sick of it. I would assume that agents might sometimes need to let a book sit for a few weeks before gearing up to go at it again (this is assuming, of course, that they go back to it. I hope they don't put it under the tequila and forget about it forever).

Anonymous said...

Last anon: it's not only not polite of agents not to respond, it's also poor business practice. Yes, I don't know them, but that's part of their job. So long as you send a SASE, you deserve a response.
I keep track of the agents who don't reply (80% of them don't from my records), and I'll never submit anything to them for future novels; their lack of business etiquette forbids it. It may not be much that they're missing out on, but then again it may.

Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness said...

original poster said: The question, really, is this: would you say that your agent had really gone all out for you after less than ten submissions? Would you trust that agent with your next baby?

On the surface, I'd say no and no, to answer those questions.

BUT, that's without knowing the type of book, what genre, niche etc it may fall in and the type of relationship you have with your agent.

This is an intimate decision based on the writing, the agent, the feedback and where it fits in the market.

I still think you can only answer these questions by having a talk with your agent. If they believe publishing this mss won't happen - ask for the rationale behind it.

Why after only eight? You can be that direct in a way that's not disrespectful.

And if you can't or believe you can't, maybe moving to a new agent is less about this project and more about how you'd rather work with an agent.

If the answer doesn't satisfy you and you believe that there are still some potential buyers out there, say so, giving your agent a chance to indicate why they do or don't believe those to be viable options.

If they're not willing to entertain this conversation - again, I could see why you'd consider moving on.

I don't mean to oversimplify this, but communication is going to help you decide whether to stay or go.

Without it, you could end up in this same scenario no matter what project they're marketing.

I admire the writers who go it alone, directly to publishers. I don't know how they keep up with the various imprints and who might be a good match for their work.

The possibilities make my head spin.

So I rely on my agent for that direction.

Right, wrong or indifferent, I only do in-depth research on a publisher/imprint once my agent gives me feedback/background or notes re: why she's sending my work to them.

We're on the second round of five for my mss - if she were to tell me there were no more after this (assuming we're talking major pubs and not small press) I'd trust her.

Is that too much blind trust?

Maybe. But it gives me the type of peace of mind I wouldn't have if I were trying to go it w/o her.

There is no way I'd be able to concentrate on writing if I'm busy doing her homework for her - researching potential houses.

And if were doing that, I don't need her.

Anonymous said...

Previous anon:

80% of agents haven't responded to your query letters?!?! With SASEs? That's bizarre, and not my experience at all. A lot reply with form letters, but I've only had two agents ignore written queries, and I figure there's a good chance they just lost them--or moved to another agency.

I understand that a lot don;t reply to e-queries (I don't send them unless specifically requested, which means I've sent exactly one). But your 80% non-response rate is weird. Are you sure you have the right address on your SASEs?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I have a marketable series, already written and queried and rejected (by a few, anyway). I decided that a series is a lot to bite off from a new author, and decided to go with my next book, also marketable, and easier to sell because it's one volume. I'll bring out the series when I've got some selling power.

Just because your book didn't sell this round doesn't mean that after you're big and famous it won't sell then.

As for the guy not getting back to you, there are a world of people who think that if there's nothing to say, why call? Make it clear you expect regular reports, even if the report is full of rejections. What ever happened to the regularly scheduled meeting idea? Four months?? In no other business do people wait so long for contact. A monthly email or phone call isn't too much to ask.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm positive I've been putting the right address on (they're hand addressed and I double check before i put them in the outside envelopes). I have no idea why I'm not getting responses...the last line of the query is 'please find enclosed an SASE for your reply'.

doc-t said...

Only 376 no's?

but they keep saying "good luck" it only takes one yes....

kathie said...

That one freaking elusive yes. That's what I'm banking on. Just putting it out there, but my book will sell. It has to.

Lula said...

Maybe I'm a bit naive (in fact, I probably am) but I consider my agent to be a friend. Not the sort of friend that you invite to vodka-soaked Muppet Moviefests but the sort of friend that you can go to for advice on your book and on publishing. So far we seem to have a very open and honest relationship. I make sure not to pepper him with unneccessary anxious emails and he makes sure to answer my questions thoroughly and to help make my first book as good as possible. I trust him, and I like him, and other writers I know feel the same way about agents that they have had for years.

Should you like your agent? To me, it seems to make everything more pleasant in what seems to be an otherwise harsh business.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is this: Oh, how I wish Miss Snark was blogging before I signed with my agent. If only I knew. . .

It is my experience--and from what I've gathered here, a common one--that many writers are afraid of their own agents. Afraid to ask the questions that matter, that will put their minds at ease, for fear of being labeled green, annoying or a problem to work with.


An agent should only choose to work with an individual he believes in, based on work he champions. He should realize that a writer is both thrilled and terrified of putting her work "out there."

It's nice to get signed by an agent, sure. But like any relationship, professional or otherwise, it's time to break ties when there is fear involved.

Now please excuse me while I go try to take my own advice.

Marlo said...

About no responses: I stopped querying agents in 2001, because I might as well have just been throwing fistfuls of paper and stamps in the ocean. Mostly just dead silence, some return to senders, and mainly the only people who actually responded with the SASEes I gave them were, as it turned out, fee-me scammers.

And this with having purchased a supposedly current and reputable market guide.

So, I stayed my own agent, and now only do esubs.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me based upon your letter to Miss Snark, as well as you subsequent replies on the comment board that you are unhappy with this this person as your agent. If you are unhappy with her and what she is doing then why continue the facade?

Move on to someone else. In your original post, you said there were other agents who propositioned you, so you might want to get in contact with them. If your unhappy with your current agent, I just don't see how the business relationship is going to get any better.

I say fire her and move on.

In the meantime, you definitely need to be working on the next novel. Maybe its not the right time for your current novel to be published. Maybe the moon, Venus and Mercury haven't lined up yet. But at the same time, if you get another novel published, you might be able to come back to that first work a few years down the road.

There are many stories of novels sitting in the writer's desk for a few years before getting published. Perhaps with a few publishing credits under your belt you can have enough clout to finally get the first book pushed through then we the reader can decide on your subject matter instead of a suit in Manhattan.