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.
I agree with Randy that the level of enthusiasm is good indicator — but hard to judge. I asked an editor to critique my query letter at a conference. At the time, she said it was overall a good letter. I took her at her word and started sending it out — with no luck. It made me sit down and reread her critic. There were parts of the letter that she was very enthusiastic about (This is impressive), others less so. I started reading between the lines of her critic and realized she was probably trying to be encouraging and that I need to keep the parts that impressed her and rewrite the rest.
If you haven’t already, you might want to check out the “Query Shark” web site. It’s inspiring, encouraging and depressing! But I studied her site, rewrote my letter and now it’s getting bites.
April Henry says
It could be that the agents are seeing more pages than the editors are. I’ve seen the first five pages of manuscripts that amazed and intrigued me – but then when I saw more, it all started to fall apart.
Val Clark says
Can I add to that, Randy – make sure the query letter is pristine! If, like me, you can’t afford to pay a copy editor, find someone who will relish getting their red pen to your work and cherish them – shower them with chocolate or red wine or whatever. In Australia if you don’t have an agent publishers often ask for a MSS assessment. This is tricky because it needs to be done by someone with industry connections; someone whose opinion the publisher/s you are targeting trusts. Worth a phone call or an email for their recommendations.
Judith Robl says
And the clue may be in the word “decent.” You don’t want to be selling a decent manuscript. You want to be selling a magnificent manuscript.
Polish and hone. Find an editor, coach, or mentor who will love you like a parent and tell you the truth like your ninth grade English teacher.
In this competitive market, “good enough” just isn’t.
Morgan L. Busse says
A word of caution: a bad agent is worse than no agent. I have not personally experienced this, but heard enough horror stories followed by that bit of advice that I have taken it to heart. I research every agent I am interested in to see if they are good at what they do and someone I want to work with.
Another note, it could also be the manuscript you are shopping around is no longer in style or that particular agent does not know any publishers looking for your genre at the moment. That is what I have run into. Great manuscript, just not the right genre at this time. But that’s okay, I’ll be ready when my genre does come up. And in the meantime, I’ll be writing more books 🙂
Elizabeth Varadan says
Oohh, I like that last,Morgan: “ready when my genre does come up… In the meantime, writing more books… That’s kind of where I am right now. I’ve been told story collections for children are hard to market right now, so i’m revising my historical novel (with my group), and biding my time.