Sunday, July 25, 2010

“Should my agent let me know which publishers/editors have read my work, and provide me with copies of the rejection letters?”


“Is any agent, by the rules of the profession, obliged to inform you specifically of where your work has been submitted and give you copies of responses?”

--Anonymous


This is an excellent question, and one which speaks to many issues.

First of all, you must realize that there are no firm and solid “rules” that all agents unanimously adhere to; every agent operates differently. Some agents will provide their authors a detailed rundown of the name of every editor and publisher that he’s submitting their work to, along with copies of rejection letters, while other agents will not provide any such information to an author, at any point.

For those authors who are kept in the dark, it can certainly be quite frustrating. After years of working hard on your manuscript, after finally landing an agent, after knowing your work is being actively submitted, suddenly, you receive nothing but silence. As months pass, this silence can become ever more frustrating. If your agent is not letting you know how many publisher he’s sent it to, which publishers he’s targeted, when he’s sent it out, or how many rejections have come in, you may naturally wonder how hard the agent is working on your book (or if at all), or if the agent is even doing his job effectively. It can also be frustrating for authors to only hear back from their agent that X number of publishers have passed, without being provided with copies of the rejection letters, or hearing any of the reasons why, or without having any idea of how many publishers still have it, or what the strategy is.

From an agent’s perspective, however, providing an author with this information is not always such a simple matter. Some authors, if provided with this information upfront, can try to micromanage the agent, and tell him where to submit (or not to submit). Some authors can monitor the list too carefully, asking for too-frequent updates regarding who has rejected their work. Some authors, if kept in the loop and updated as rejections come in, may become extremely anxious when they hear about the rejections, and thus cause the agent anxiety (which the agent must be free of if he is to stay positive and do his job well). Some authors may, as a result of hearing of the rejections, second guess the agent’s submission choices; others may insist on revising their work mid submission based on a particular rejection letter. Some authors may even try to bypass the agent and contact the editor directly, either to try to desperately convince the editor, or to attempt to cut out the agent (this can be of particular concern if the author and agent have a falling out along the way). Other authors can become so upset at being rejected that, if they have a list of who has rejected their work, they may send vindictive letters to the editors (and/or call them), which in turn reflects poorly on the agent. Thus, agents have some cause to be wary in doling out too much information (at least upfront).

That said, this is still no excuse for an agent to keep an author in the dark. While a book is actively on submission, authors have the right to at least know when the agent is initiating the submission, how many publishers he will be submitting to, whether he plans additional rounds of submissions if the first round fails, approximately when that will take place, what is the ultimate number of publishers he will approach, and how long he estimates the entire submission will take. Authors also have a right to know whether their agent is approaching large or small publishers, and how many of each. Agents can provide all of this without releasing the names of the particular editors upfront , and there is no reason they should not.

Ultimately, if every publisher has passed, then when the submission is over, you absolutely have a right to ask the agent to supply you with the submission list, which should include the names of the publishers and the particular editors. This is crucial for you to have, since it will both allow you to evaluate if your agent did a thorough job, and, if you need to switch agents, it will allow your future agent to evaluate whether there are any stones left unturned that he can submit to. Your agent should also provide you with copies of the rejection letters from editors. It will be especially helpful for a future agent to know if you have any editor fans out there that should be included in your next submission.

In the big picture, this problem can be averted if you spend more time thoroughly researching potential agents upfront. If your research demonstrates that an agent has recently sold many books by high profile authors to major houses, then there is not as much to worry about, even if he’s not as in touch with you as you would hope. On the other hand, if research shows that he represents few authors, and has made few sales and to only smaller houses (and a long time ago), then there is more cause for concern. So (as I discuss at length in my books) be very thorough in your research, and choose carefully. If you make the right choice, then issues like submission lists will not be a major cause for concern.

7 comments:

  1. Jennifer Donice LewisJuly 25, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    Should I query literary agents and submit a proposal for my novel before the work is finished, although the first 150 pages (the thesis for my MFA in creative writing) have been edited and polished?

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  2. You shouldn't submit to agents until your work is completed. This "rule" is more fluid for non-fiction authors, but as a former assistant at an agency, I recommend against it. What happens if you reach the end of the novel and you realize that you need to change something that creates inconsistencies earlier in the novel? What happens if something comes up and for some reason you can't finish the novel in a timely manner? In those cases, the agent might lose interest in the ms if s/he doesn't see it until months after the query.

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  3. Anon, that's not always true. If you're a first time author of fiction, Jennifer, then you should finish the book first. However, **some** agents will let you pitch future projects as well and I've known a couple of authors that got an agent by doing that. Non-fiction will let you bypass having a finished book by having a really detailed outline, synopsis, etc.

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  4. Hello Mr. Lukeman,

    I’m a writer and filmmaker based out of Toronto and I have been an huge fan of your work and an avid reader of your blog.

    I have recently contacted the representatives of a noted film director with a request for a series of interviews chronicling his life and work, with the intentions of eventually polishing the results as a comprehensive book on the director, in the mold of Faber & Faber’s Directors on Directors series. I was contacted by his agent with a request for more details on the book proposal, the timelines, etc. One of the items they wanted to know about was my financial offer. This is where I was hoping to use your advice. I don’t have a literary agent and I have no idea what constitutes a standard financial offer for a project like this. Would there be an upfront financial compensation or simply a percentage of the book revenue should the interviews get published? I would greatly appreciate any insight you may have to offer me in this case.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to read my questions.

    Best wishes,
    Ray Noori

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  5. Dear Mr. Noah Lukeman,
    First of all, Thank You for your free-e-books. They have helped me a lot. I’ve also bought your book, ‘The First Five Pages’ which also proved to be helpful. I am exactly doing what you have advised (in each and every book) to never give up and keep writing.
    To start with, I am a first time writer with no writing credentials. I have written a book which is a fiction, around 60,000 words. My book is about a major event that happened ten years ago.

    I have few questions which are as follows

    1. I’ve submitted my manuscript to an agent who had asked for it and has maintained an encouraging attitude. I do think there are chances that this agent may reply positively and will represent me. But as a rule of thumb, we should not take anything for granted, should I query another agent? Since, this agent is going to reply after three months. However, I don’t want to hurt my chances with this agent. At the same time I would waste a lot of time if I wait for three months. What should I do?

    2. There are some marketing strategies in my head, which may help in increasing the sales. So, should I share these ideas at this stage, with this agent? Will it help me? For example, one of the marketing strategies which I want to suggest is launching the book at the end of this October or even at the end of this year as it may attract many readers. (I know the publishing process is long and I am asking, may be, too much. But still, considering that the length of the book is short, I would like to know whether it is possible or not.)

    3. If the answer of the above question is ‘yes’, then how should I reply or what should be the format of the letter (to this agent)?

    Your advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again for all your work.

    Sincerely.

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  6. Tricky one this. Good post thought. I think it is worth agents actually stating what their policy/strategy for communication is regarding rejections upfront - most author frustration on this comes from agents being wimpy and unclear about all this.

    As for the author who contacts an editor to harass, simply state upfront that any attempt to do this will mean an immediate cessation of contract.

    If the author tries to negotiate a deal with the editor direct, while cutting out the middle man, surely that editor's name will be dirt almost instantly if they make a deal? I think this potential problem is overplayed by agents.

    Paragraphs four and five nail it though. It's a scenario that will keep agency contacts safe, while keeping the author informed. Although if you are confident the author you are working with isn't a nutter or thief then why not tell them who you are pitching to? Authors also meet editors, go to conferences, know market information, and may be able to provide additional insight. Assuming all authors are unintelligent, over-emotional, know-nothings helps neither agent or author.

    Unfortunately the scenario where an author is asking for editors names upfront usually indicates a lack of trust in the agent's abilities or honesty - this could be rectified by agents having a clear strategy for communication, and, well, communicating that to the author who, rightly, may have their own business needs that the agent needs to meet halfway.

    Still a good post tho.

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  7. My agent, a very good one from one of the best NYC agencies, has submitted my memoir proposal to 14 publishers last week. Though I've asked him, he can't really tell me how long it will take for each to respond one way or another, whether wanting to read the entire manuscript or not. So, my question is this: in general, how long does it take for a publisher to READ and then RESPOND to a proposal?

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