Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why Agents Reject You

Of course, I don't really know the all answers to this. I'm not an agent or an intern or any kind of expert besides being someone who has traversed the query waters before.

But I think I've got an answer that doesn't get shared very often. Because here's the thing--your query letter, your personalized greeting, your hook can all be fine--and you can still get rejected. Why?

Agents reject you because they have to.

Let me explain. I work for a university, and manage a program of undergraduate teaching assistants. It's a popular program. Instructors love it--they get assistance with their courses that they wouldn't otherwise have. Students love it--they get experience and a paycheck that's usually reserved for grad students only. The only problem with this great program?

I usually have at least four times as many applicants as I do positions available.

It's overwhelming. I have to employ plenty of tactics to wade through the pile. First and foremost? Matching applicant ability/interest/experience to instructor need. This is the most important part--I can have an exceptionally qualified applicant, but if she can't provide anything of use to the instructors who need an assistant, I can't use her. So it is with your manuscript--if an agent doesn't have any interest in the topic, if she doesn't have a home for it at her agency, if she doesn't think she has the right connections to sell it, it can be awesome--but she's going to reject it.

And even then--even after I weed out the no-gos in terms of supply/demand, there are still far more applicants than slots to fit them into.

Then--I confess--I start looking for reasons to reject applicants.

I tend to preference seniors--because I'm nice and they won't have another semester's shot, but also because they have a little more experience to bring to the table. I tend to preference higher GPAs--but not always, as I think work ethic and professionalism are more important than grades. Probably most importantly, I pay attention to how the applicant addressed me in emails, how he or she handled her personal statement with the application (professional, polite, and useful? or did she blow it off?), and--this is a big one--did he or she follow directions. I even have an abbreviation on my spreadsheet--DFD. Didn't Follow Directions. Most applicants with DFD next to their names don't get positions.

I know, it's infuriating. A perfectly good applicant, rejected because he didn't follow directions? Well, not rejected entirely. I'm nicer than that. But it does reflect poorly on him, and I'm less likely to assign him. Why? Because it shows me he's not interested in playing the game 100%. He's not interested in devoting the time it takes, in giving the respect it deserves. Yes, following directions really does say those things to me--especially when the instructions are clear as day.
And especially when I have to find someone in the pile to reject. I can't give positions to everyone--agents can't offer representation to everyone, either. And their applicant pile is a lot more competitive than mine is. I can appreciate why, while they may not "auto-reject," someone who DFDed or addressed them unprofessionally deserves less consideration than someone who put in the work to send a professional, tailored email.

That person is someone with the patience and work ethic it takes--someone I don't mind giving as an assistant to a well-respected faculty member, someone who won't make me look bad for making that assignment. Someone who an agent knows can work well with an editor, with a publishing house, and not make her look bad for representing him.

And still? I have to reject plenty of people with great applications, great credentials, well-written statements of purpose. It's not them. It's the demand, relatively small in comparison to their overwhelming supply. I try to pick the best of the bunch, but I admit--I know that I turn down great applicants every year. Maybe I turn down applicants who would have been better at the job than students I pick. I'll never know.

Now, if you're only getting rejected, never getting requests, yes, something is wrong with your query or your pages. But I hear so many writer-friends trembling at every rejection, disheartened because every agent didn't request their manuscript. You know what? It does stink. But I have a ton of great students who aren't getting positions this year. It's not them--it's an applicant pile that's far larger than I need it to be.

What do you think? Can a sparkling query and brilliant pages still get rejected? Or am I making excuses for work that's just not up to par? Any tales of giant slush piles in your own life?


Brooke Johnson said...

When I was in college, I was the editor for our school literary journal. We received hundreds of submissions ever semester, and we only had the room to publish 25 or so (depending on length). There were many good stories that I had to set aside for a later editor or reject outright because a) there were BETTER stories to choose from, or b) they didn't fit the theme of the journal.

Now that I'm the editor of Hogglepot, I publish a story every single week. I wish I could say that I got enough submissions to be able to pick the very best stories, but I don't. I get maybe 10 or so submissions a month, at best, and I have to choose 4 to 5 in order to supply a story per week. They may not be the greatest stories, but they are the greatest stories among the stories that I have at that particular moment. I've learned to settle for good-not-great stories, but never will I publish a downright bad story because it's all I've got. I know agents don't have that problem, but it's interesting how supply and demand works in the publishing world.

anachronist said...

Yes, supply and demand are important factors. However, you must also be a bit lucky. There are stories about the best/most popular writers/actors/singers being rejected at some point of their career just because they were unlucky enough to deal with a wrong person/persons.

I've heard stories about the Beatles being rejected by a recording company at first because...they misspelt the name of their band. Obviously it was a spelling mistake but also obviously somebody didn't want to think outside the box. These boys were future pop stars, not, say future teachers or lecturers. I also read that JK Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was rejected more than one time just because it didn't fit the profile of a given publishing house. I can imagine the face of the editor who rejected it after the novel became such a brilliant success.

Anonymous said...

In this current state of the publishing industry, I think we would all be rejected 9 times out of 10, even if we ticked all the boxes. The selection process is so utterly subjective and based on any number of imponderables that it is no wonder authors are turning to the new and exciting indie process. I've been reading nothing but independently published novels for 6 months now and must say they are fresh, break the staid boundaries and are exciting on every level.

Rowenna said...

Brooke--really cool experience! So true--supply and demand drive so much. I find in my work that my supply of time dictates a lot, too--I could, for instance, conduct interviews to pick the best candidate, but I don't have time, so I rely on applications. Which we all know might not yield all the best picks and might miss some great ones. Sound familiar (query letters)?

Anachronist--I'd never heard that story about the Beatles! Too funny!

Mesmered--so true! For anyone pursuing "traditional" publication, there has to be a tolerance for the subjectivity. And I'm glad we've got a whole world of indie books opening up to broaden our horizons!