What do you do when you’ve got a decent manuscript but the agents just aren’t biting?
Stephannie posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have a manuscript for which I am seeking representation. I have been told by editors of major publishing houses, during conference critiques, that it is “intriguing, well written, and very good”. I’ve been shopping it around to agents and can’t seem to get anywhere. I get great comments from them but no ‘bites’. How do I determine if the book is unsellable or I haven’t connected with the right agent for it?
Randy sez: Publishing is a subjective business, so there isn’t any infallible way to to know if your book is unsellable.
There is an infallible way to know if your book is sellable, of course. If you sell your book, then it was sellable. But there’s no way to determine that in advance.
However, there are indicators: How many editors have said the manuscript was “intriguing, well written, and very good?” What was their level of enthusiasm? Have you shown the manuscript to agents at conferences? What was their response? Have you studied up on how to write a query letter? How much research on agents did you do before sending them queries? How many agents have you queried? Did you get personalized rejections or were they form-letters? Do you have any friends who are published novelists and who are familiar with your work? If so, what is their opinion of the novel?
It’s not possible for me to trouble-shoot things from here, since I’ve not seen the manuscript and I don’t have the 8 hours it would take to evaluate it. (And I don’t do full manuscript evaluations, ever. There are many people who would do a manuscript evaluation for a lot less money than I would charge, and I see no reason to compete with them when I have so many billions of other tasks on my plate.)
Here are some possible explanations of what’s going on:
Maybe your manuscript really isn’t all that good. Ouch! That’s a painful and frightening possibility, isn’t it? This is why I asked what the level of enthusiasm was of the editors who looked at it. Your answer to that will tell you whether this is a live option.
Maybe there’s something in your pitch to the agents which is a show-stopper. Agents generally won’t tell you this when they reject you, because they’re too busy. They figure that if you can’t be bothered to learn how to pitch your manuscript correctly, they aren’t going to be bothered to teach you. (If you were an agent getting 100 pitches per week, you’d probably feel exactly the same way.) But if you were to pitch your novel to an agent at a conference, you’d have his undivided attention for 15 minutes, and if there was some major show-stopper in your presentation, he’d be very likely to tell you. Maybe nicely, maybe bluntly.
Maybe you aren’t querying the right agents. Agents have different likes and dislikes. If they don’t do your kind of fiction, they aren’t going to want to represent it. I don’t know how well you’ve researched agents before sending them queries, so I have no way to know if you’re trying to sell ice cream to Eskimos. But my agent friends tell me all the time that they get queries for projects that are OBVIOUSLY the wrong sort of project for them, and anyone who had done their homework would know this.
Maybe you just haven’t sent out enough queries. Good agents often have full lists and just aren’t looking for new authors. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are plenty of agents out there, and if your manuscript is any good, and if your query letter is any good, you’ll eventually hook up with the right agent. But it may take some time to find him. This is one reason I asked about whether you’ve got any published novelist friends who could give you an opinion.
Querying agents is not a full time job, so you should be spending the bulk of your time working on your next manuscript.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.