The agent query: are you owed an answer?

Let’s talk about representation.

While swimming around out there in the blogosphere, I have splashed through articles after posts after tweets on the subject.  Just now, I started thinking of topics I could address regarding agents, managers, and attorneys for writers.  It’s endless!  Here’s an excerpt from my list:

  •                the difference between agents and managers
  •                why writers need attorneys
  •                what your reps should do for you
  •                what you should do for your reps
  •                how not to treat your agent
  •                beginning and ending those relationships
  •                interactions and communication: expectations and red flags
  •                difference between book agents and screenwriting agents
  •                approaching representation
  •                recommending other writers

And it goes on…

So I’ve decided to start with the beginning—finding an agent—and specifically in the book world as opposed to the screen world.  Why?  Because of a handful of posts I’ve read out there recently, and because of this topic: The “no response means no” policy on queries.

In case you’re unfamiliar, a quick lesson: “queries” are what writers use to approach book agents.  A query is a letter that is intended to—in relatively few words—entice an agent to read a completed manuscript and make an offer of representation.  Some agents respond to every single query, even if it’s just some version of “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Some agents put out a blanket statement on their website stating that if they don’t respond to a query, it hasn’t been accepted…

Which has prompted a flurry of internet debate.

I’ll give you a sampling of what’s being said.  Agent-turned-MG-author Nathan Bransford brought up the question—should agents respond to everyone?—on his blog.  If you check out the comments, you’ll see that lots of people chimed in, with the majority of comments being from unrepresented writers who fell down strongly on the side of believing that agents should respond to every single submission.

Natalie Whipple—YA author and former client of Nathan’s—responded to his post with a brilliant commentary titled “Agents Are Not Your Employees.  You Are Not Their Customers.”

Jessica Faust—a book agent over at BookEnds—had a post the very next day called “Seeking an Agent Is Not Seeking a Job.”

Of course I have an opinion on the subject.  I think that the fury over the “no response means no” thing is… just silly.  Here’s the deal: agents should be reading the work of their clients and responding to their clients and selling their clients’ manuscripts.  Agents represent their clients.  Those clients do—and should—come first

Yes, of course agents are always interested in finding good writers, new writers, debut writers… but they are not obligated to read the work of writers who are not their clients.  It’s the same way you are not obligated to open your own front door to a kid hawking candy bars.  It’s the same way you are not obligated to talk to an unsolicited caller offering tree-trimming services.  Yes, the candy bars might be amazing.  They might be chocolate spun from gold.  They might be heaven in a foil wrapper and worth well more than the $3 being asked and taking just one tiny bite would be life-changing… but you are still under no obligation to make a purchase.  You are not even obligated to stand on your doorstep and listen to the spiel.  You have a life, after all.  Your own kids, your own dinner in the oven, perhaps even your own candy bars waiting to be eaten.  Same with the tree-trimming.  Maybe your maple could stand to be pruned.  And maybe this trimming service is the best in all the land.  Maybe they make trimming look like choreography and trees look like art.

Doesn’t matter.

It’s still your choice.  Your call.  Your time.  You’re the one who knows how much money you can afford to spend on outdoor services, and whether or not your cousin is coming down next weekend with his own buzz saw, and if you just happen to prefer the less manicured look of an overgrown, deeply shading tree.

Same thing with agents.  They are the only ones who know what their work load is like, and how many meetings they have scheduled this particular week, and how many calls or emails they need to make to their current clients, and the height of the stack of manuscripts waiting to be read.  Yes, they represent writers but if they don’t represent you, they don’t owe you an answer.  Is getting an answer nice?  Well, sure.  But answers take time and, from what I understand, time is at a premium for agents.  It’s something I understand all too well.  Time is one of my most valuable commodities, also.

What do you think?

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  • Mirka Breen

    I’m of the school that no one owes me anything unless we have signed something regarding this, or have a verbal agreement. So the issue could be framed like this: the question is really what is best for the agent.
    I would imagine that in an ideal world an agent would be best served by responding to all if they are open to new clients. But I understand that in the real world most agents get too many queries to respond to. The most important thing to do with their time is to work with their existing clients, not wade through queries. {Just as the most important thing to spend time on for a writer is, still, to write.}
    I am grateful to all agents (and even more, to editors) who remain open to unsolicited queries. However way they must manage this openness, it is good to have the door open (if only a crack) than ask the impossible. The heaping sluch-pile has already shut too many doors. Keep them open any which way you can.

    • Anonymous

      I like the way you express that, especially the reminder that our job is, first and foremost, WRITING. YES to keeping those doors open!

  • Stephanie Theban

    You put this very well. For years, I was in a position where people sent me resumes. If I had placed an ad seeking applicants, I would provide a response to the resume. Otherwise, I figured I didn’t ask fornthe job application, and I didn’t have the time, inclination, or obligation to respond. I see agents the same way. If I send them something out of the blue, no need to respond. A clear policy that let’s me know that no response after x period is a no is nice, though. I feel a bit differently if it’s a requested submission. I think a response is polite then. However, I define “requested” very narrowly. It does not mean I’ve met the agent at a conference. It does not mean the agent said he or she indicated it would be fine to send something. It means a particular agent has read part of a particular manuscript and asked tot see more or that the agent asked to see the manuscript after revision. That limits the “a response would be polite” to a small percentage of submissions.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Stephanie — thanks for stopping by! I absolutely, completely agree with you on the requested submission. Of COURSE that deserves a reply. Otherwise, it would be like me asking the kid with the candy bars to come back with a larger selection… and then slamming the door in his face. Just rude!

  • Stephanie Theban

    Sorry for the typos in that reply. The iPad and I mostly get along, but sometimes it embarrasses me,

  • Ann Herrick

    I think as long as it’s clear that “no response if not interested” is the policy, then it works.

    • Anonymous

      Agree! I follow several book agents on Twitter. Some of them will tweet that they have read all queries through so-and-so date. Authors submitting to them then know that if they submitted before then, they can check that agent off their list. It’s clear.

      And thanks for stopping by!

  • http://stevewhibley.blogspot.com/ Steven Whibley

    I agree. You’re contacting them, so how they deal with the communication is in their court. If they ignore and expect you to take that as a rejection, you should do that. If they want to send a form rejection, so be it. Priority goes to signed clients. Now, once the author/agent relationship has been formalized by a representation contract, I’d expect everyone to be professional (meaning responding to emails and such).

    • Anonymous

      Hi Steven! Thanks for dropping by. Absolutely agree with you — once you’re a client, emails should be responded to in a timely manner.

  • Anonymous

    Wanted to add something: my own (amazing, well-respected, communicative) agent sent me an email after this posted. She said I could quote her on the site, as follows…

    “Though I try to read and respond to as much as possible, you are quite right that it is all about time, and that existing clients have to have priority re: that time allocation.” (Lisa Gallagher at Sanford J. Greenburger)