Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What Does a Prospective Agent Owe You?

Those of you who regularly follow the blog know that I try to be an affable individual and aspire to help out the up-and-coming authors in need. However, there comes a time when, as someone trying to appear cool on a reality TV show might say, it's time to keep it real. So brace yourself, because I'm going to keep it real today. Quite real. So real reality will look like a CARTOON.

Last week the always-astute Jessica Faust at BookEnds posted about how much feedback you should expect from an agent when you've sent them a query or even a full. I'll give you a hint in case you are link-averse: the answer is less than 1 and more than negative 1.

Here's my two pennies on the matter. Authors who have spent months years or years on a manuscript and who are going through the ordeal of trying to find an agent and who are emotionally invested in their work tend to feel like they are OWED a personalized, detailed response from a prospective agent, even if it's just a query. I get lots of angry e-mails because authors feel like I OWED them more than what I gave them in response. But since this is keeping-it-real day, I have to tell you -- unless you're a client, a prospective agent doesn't owe you anything. Our responsibility is to our clients.

Now, politeness and good-faith dictates that agents will usually respond to your submissions, will usually personalize a response to a partial, and will usually try and offer some sort of feedback on a full. This is because most agents want people to continue to submit to them, and thus will try to be as polite as possible. But not always. And not because they owe it to the prospective clients. Rejecting manuscripts is not how we make our living. We make our living selling books. And keep in mind -- the time we spend rejecting manuscripts is actually time when we are not selling books.

Here's the good news - if you submit to me, I have different rules! If you send me a personalized query and/or mention the blog I'll try and give you a personalized response (emphasis on try). I also try and give some feedback on partials and fulls, and I blog and answer questions over at Absolute Write. This is because (1) I am a young agent actively building my list and want to receive as many queries as possible and want to be the first person people think of when they are sending their first query (queries welcome!) and (2) because I have an acute sense of guilt about rejecting 10,000 people's life's work every year (the nightmares!). But ultimately my responsibility is to my clients.

So please keep this in mind -- if you're going to keep up a smidgen of sanity during the submissions process, in my humble opinion the first thing you should do is drop the notion that you're owed something from prospective agents. You're not. If you receive a personalized response it's because an agent took time away from their busy schedule to try and help you out. If you receive a form rejection or even no rejection at all it's not because the agent is a horrible person and who broke some inviolable rule. It's because they're busy and a "no" is a "no" whether it comes with feedback or without feedback.

And that's keeping it real.


A Paperback Writer said...

I don't know, Nathan. Agents who don't even bother to send a form rejection in the provided SASE seem to be a little low in my mind. Surely, even a bad writer who followed directions and provided an SASE deserves a form rejection letter so that s/he knows not to keep waiting.
I can understand why it's not possible for an agent to give feedback on rejected queries, but a form letter (or e-mail) is merely civility. I don't think civility is ever wrong.

Nathan Bransford said...

a paperback writer-

I agree with you that it's the civil thing to do, and if people are following an agent's directions they should receive a response.

Subservient No More said...

I can't believe that people send you angry emails. Wait a minute, yes I can. People are just crazy. You'd think they'd make the connection that unprofessional behavior like that could never lead towards success. Still, human beings never cease to amaze me.

I don't feel like anyone particularly owes me anything. A little rejection, form letter, personal letter or no response at all, never killed anyone. It's good for you.

Colorado Writer said...

Yay for saying it out loud!

Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan: I believe it.

I occasionally do requested critiques for newbie writers on a couple of the loops I belong to. I mostly do these off-loop privately with the writer. I've been astounded at some of the really nasty replies I've received--especially when I was trying to be very, very diplomatic and kind. Or, almost worse yet, the writer assumes that this means s/he can send me anything s/he writes and demand feedback any time s/he likes.

It has certainly cut back on the number of these critiques I do. I can't even imagine what it must be like for you getting 10K queries a year. God love you.

Tom Burchfield said...

I've learned not to get mad about it, period. Sad and discouraged, sure, that's natural. The only time I get mad is when I detect dishonesty or amateurism . . . when I was writing screenplays, I encountered that a few times, but even then, most agents were polite and professional and I just went on with my search.

Of course, this reply is just an excuse to point you to my blog, where I discuss my views on Harry Potter and childhood literature. Cheers!

C.J. said...

holla! hey haay hey! props for keepin it real - fo' sheezie! (one reality show post deserves another, eh?)

anyway, the whole wait 6 months for a form letter rejection isn't my favorite part of writing to be sure - but, the email query is an improvement if for no other reason than to shorten the time table a bit.

nathan, if you're ever looking for a suggestion for a post, i'm curious about what (if any) doors close when an author decides to publish with a POD service. would you be more or less likely to consider looking at a story for representation if it had printed this way? personally, facing the dauntingly slim chances of finding an agent, i wouldn't mind dropping the 400 bucks to get my story out there in the interim - but would i be shooting myself in the foot to do so?

btw, sorry to say it, but spencer hawes is only going to keep you guys in the 'out of the playoffs but still no top five draft pick' area. (my t-wolves are in the same boat though)

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I'll post about that soon. I think it's a good idea.

As for Spencer Hawes.... let's just say I wasn't the happiest Kings fan on draft day. In fact I'd rather not talk about it. In fact I just pounded the table in anger. Now you've done it.

2readornot said...

I'm always pleasantly surprised by personalized responses to queries (I've only received a few of those) -- what still irks me, however, is when an agent requests a full and then sends a form no. However, it only took a few of those before I got the message, and it's true that I don't sub to that agent any more ;) (So I'm a little slow....)

spyscribbler said...

That mentality is definitely skewed. How can anyone expect an agent to spend time and effort on something that will not be making them any money?

It's really nice when they do, but it's definitely not owed. If I write a stranger, what right do I have to expect anything back? Especially when I'm not paying them anything?

Civility and politeness is a blessing, and feedback is a gift. The appropriate words are 'thank you,' not 'you owe me.'

Jillian said...

I'm sure there are writers who do approach the querying process with a sense of entitlement. The "you OWE me" spirit is alive and well in many circles, not the least of which is the sometimes-rabid circle of aspiring authors.

However, a sense of "you OWE me" is not always what's behind a writer's desire for a decent, personalized response. In many cases, it's simply the basic need to be treated with respect, as a fellow human being.

I'm not talking about the initial query. Yes, form responses always stink, but they're far better than the lofty, "I only respond if I'm interested (snif)." Closure is a necessary part of the rejection process, and it's hard to have closure without a definitive "no."

But once an author has reached the requested partial stage, the very least an agent can do is to mail merge the author's name and book title into a basic form rejection. No, it isn't "owed" to the author. It's just -- nice. Decent. Respectful of the author's time and effort, just as, hopefully, the author has been respectful of the time and effort of the agent.

As for fulls? At this point, it had darn well better be a personal response. Again, not because it is "owed." I'm a big girl; nobody "owes" me a thing. That's never been my attitude. But to hand over my entire novel (at my own expense, if it's been snail mailed) to an agent who might ultimately make money off the venture, and then to receive a form "no thanks"? Frankly, it feels like a slap in the face.

I know because I've experienced it. I received a rejection to a requested full (snail mailed) that wasn't only a form letter, but it was addressed to "Dear Writer." Yes, I wasn't even given the courtesy of a name. All this, after waiting for endless weeks to hear what the response would be. "Dear Writer," indeed.

No, Nathan, nobody "owed" me a personal response. It just felt really, really awful to receive a "Dear Writer" letter after having gone so far.

Conversely, I've recently received the most wonderful rejection of my life from an agent who had requested the full manuscript. She didn't "owe" me anything, either, but her response was intensely personal, referring to specifics in my story and explaining why she ultimately decided to pass. Assuming she types around 50 WPM, the response probably took her about five minutes to write. Hardly a dent when you consider the length of a full work day and the relatively small amount of fulls that most agents have sitting around (compared to vast amounts of initial queries and such).

I was deeply grateful for her personal response and wrote to tell her so.

Not all authors are toads. Some of us are simply thankful that somebody takes the time to humanize the process a tiny bit.

bran fan said...

So, now I'm wondering--and I hope you'll make a blog post about this soon--what does an agent owe to his clients? How much time and attention? It seems to vary so much from agent to agent. My first agent acted like even my e-mails were bothering her. My current agent spends a lot of time on me. So, while it is interesting to see what you owe someone who is not a client, what do you owe someone who is?

Kimber An said...

Thanks for your educational blog. I'll keep it on my radar.

joycemocha said...

So here's another one for you, Nathan--how many thank you notes do you get in response to a personalized rejection?

I'd queried this one over in a writing newsgroup (rec.arts.sf.composition) because I got a very encouraging (as in "you came close, try again with something else") type of rejection which was very positive and I felt it needed a personal response. Hey, I'm relationship building here, y'know?

A wise and experienced writer person agreed that acknowledging positive personal rejections with a thank you was a Good Thing.

Then someone else chimed in that a particular writer sent a thank you card for *every* rejection. Not just the personals--all of them.

What do you think of that?

(For myself, a positive personal one, yeah. A form? No way. And we won't get started on those rejections I'm supposed to pick up by telepathy for lack of response--rude, that, very rude, and if I ran my job that way, I'd be fired.)

Nathan Bransford said...


I do get thankyou notes for queries, and I appreciate them -- they're by no means necessary, and I'm afraid I can't change my mind just because someone is very nice, but it's certainly a refreshing alternative to the "Who are YOU to reject ME" emails (and yes, I do get those).

Anonymous said...

First, I agree with everything you've written here. Second, I want to thank you for the time you put into your blog. You don't earn your living sending out rejection letters, and you certainly don't earn anything by blogging and helping us newbie writers. I hope gratitude rewards you on some level, but further rewards will flow to you as a result.

Just as we're owed nothing by prospective agents, we owe prospective agents nothing! That's not said to be's just a fact. We're free agents! Granted, we're maybe the free agents that weren't drafted and not yet really invited to training camp, but free agents nonetheless. Some of us will get through the trials and tribulations. Some of us are bound to write something publishable at some point (even if by mistake!). We can and will query those who have treated us with respect and least I will. Conversely, why would I again query an agent who didn't have the time to send back my SASE with a "no thanks?" Is that someone I'd entrust my life's work to? That's like asking someone out on a second date who no-showed the first time!

Anyway, please keep up the good work. Completely independent of your blog heard a great story about the way you treated a writer friend of mine. A little good will goes a long way. Whenever the subject of "what agents do you know of" comes up, your name is usually high on my list. On behalf of writers, I apologize for the jerk writers out there you have to deal with sometimes. Please shrug them off and know that there are a lot of others out here who are very appreciative of your efforts and your kindness.

Stephen Prosapio

(something is wrong with my sign in, but I wanted to make sure to leave my name)

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, Stephen! I agree with you about writers being free agents as well -- it's important to remember that writers have rights and that they're free to make their own judgments about who they want to work with. Definitely a good thing to remember.

John Levitt said...

I used to send "thanks much for your time" emails on any partial that had a personalized rejection.

I had rejections with feedback from two agents who requested fulls, which I thought was extremely nice of them.

And I submitted a requested full to one well known agency which then never bothered to reply at all and ignored email requests for a status check. And that's the kind of thing that makes writers cynical about agents--I don't care how busy you are, that's simply unacceptable business practice.

Writer, Rejected said...

I have to say that Nathan speaks the Gospel, here. It is a little difficult to hear, and may rub the wrong way when it comes from the agent's p.o.v., but it is important to take it in.

The agent owes the submitting writer nothing. Zippo. Civility is dead, my friends. It's a sorry, sorry state, but that's just how it is. The peeps in charge of our future are squeezed by profit margins and too much paper on their desks and a dismal market.

So, we've got to just keep chugging along no matter what. Canvas wide and rewrite often. Check out some thoughts on the struggle at

John Elder Robison said...

Why focus on rejection analysis? Why not focus on how to not get rejected in the first place?

Has everyone lost sight of personal referrals in this electronic age?

What, really, can a writer expect? One who picks your name out of the sky and writes an unsolicited query?

Now, what is one of your clients referred the same fellow? What is a bestselling author wrote you and sent the prospective author your way?

OK, maybe it makes not difference to you - you're young. But many established agents only take new people by professional referral.

And what about publishers and editors? That's personal referral driven, too.

I try not to enter into any kind of deal without some kind of personal connection. Why don't more people think that way?

And underlying it all is (must be) writing that is publishable.

John Elder Robison said...

You know, it sucks, the way we are so dependent on these damn spell checkers that I can't even write a fifty word response without errors.

Lisa Canning said...

I too am a newbie writer. I just finished my first non fiction book and have been shopping it around. I am also a professional musician.

It is hard not to notice the silence, in the process of seeking a literary agent, and not wonder as a newbie why it cannot be different.

In music if you audition for something the auditioner speak to you when you are playing. They offer something. Your auditioner may ask you to repeat something using a different style, tempo or simply tell you that they have heard enough. But at least your efforts go acknowledged.

I recognize that literary agent are swimming in client interest but can there not be a better way to make this process more beneficial to all?

Before I wrote this book Build A Blue Bike: Ride Your Artistic Blues To Creative and Financial Freedom, I built a large business that started in my dorm room in college. Now I am not professing to be the worlds best or smartest at anything but I do know that with my creative mind alone I was able to find a better way to please the masses.

Having just completed my first set of query letters that lead to book proposal requests that lead to full manuscript requests followed by a lot of silence, the process seems inhuman for both the agent and the writer.

I guess it was my mistake to ask for feedback from 2 agents that requested manuscripts- one of whom told me "how high her hopes were and how much I disappointed her because my book required too much of her time to fix" and the other who I simply have never heard from. I foolishly thought I could, at least, with a full manuscript ask for feedback since they took the time to read it.

Thank God I have one really good agent interested in the project.

However given what I have seen so far, even if she sells this one, who is to say she would even bother to reply to my next query given the nature of this beast? Technically the writer is only a bonified client UNTIl the book gets sold and then its back to square one.

I don't know. This process leaves a lot to be desired and deserves an honest overhaul in my humble opinion.

None the less, Nathan, you are a saint for taking the time to offer some good will.

Lisa Canning

Michele Lee said...

An agent owes me an answer. Now, at the full level a comment is nice, and yes, I can accept that "liked it didn't love it" is a good enough reason for a reject. But as a matter of personal choice I don't submit to places with the infamous words "we only respond if interested". I think if you open yourself to open, unsolicited submission then you agree to sent at least a piece of paper stamped "No".

WitLiz Today said...

Gee, where is Judith Manners when you need her?

Look, it's actually real simple. The word 'owe' is offensive, unless you owe me money. Used in that context, it's a real important word to me. In any other context, well, it's offensive.

The exaggerated sense of entitlement that Americans seem to possess these days, is hell on relationships, whether 'tis business or personal.

Leads to alot less humility. Alot less humility leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. These lead to hurt feelings, which lead to some really bad chain reactions.

When I query, I expect nothing. In essence I've invaded an agents day, his home, his time, and his job. Even if an agent openly advertises he's looking for clients and willing to look at queries, that shouldn't give the writer that sense of entitlement. It just doesn't. Then you're not thinking about the agent, you're thinking about you.

As far as partials and fulls go, yes, I would expect an agent to respond. But if they don't, I would move on. The writer sets the bar on what's acceptable and not acceptable at this stage. Just be sure you move on without hard feelings. You really don't know why that agent didn't respond to the full or partial, so give them the benefit of the doubt on a personal level, but nail their ass on a professional level, ie...find another agent.

DMH said...

I received a personalized rejection to a personalized query--the agent said he had just sold something very similar. He offered a few kind words and a referral to a different agent.

A couple months later, I saw the deal in PW!

I appreciated his response; I'd query him again.

Sometimes they call me Kelley, sometimes Twizzle. Sometimes a lot worse. said...

Manners are manners. They're not supposed to be optional and they should be reciprocal.

But business is still business.

If anything, it's just one more step in the weeding process. Don't sign with a rude agent. And we writers should be aware--agents steer clear of crazy, demanding, or unprofessional writers. Thanks for the reminder, Nathan.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Queries? You owe nothing.

Partials that are really sample pages? Nothing.

Those are squarely on the author. If the author can't stand a form rejection (or worse), that's their problem. This is the way the game is played. Don't query agents.

Requested Partial?
Requested Full?

One. Fricking. Sentence. Response.

You can do it. You are human. You are civilized.

Maybe I'm a little touchy because I had an agent keep a requested partial out 10 weeks on an exclusive (stupid me for agreeing to it) and then got the dreaded form letter.

But whether it's the New York thing or the industry thing, please don't tell me that because you belong to a specific, cut-throat profession you consider yourself absolved from basic human courtesy.

I'm a fellow civilized human being and I don't absolve you.

The PODler said...

I think that the real question is--what does an author owe a prospective agent? I think I know. Lunch.

Besides lunch, great writing, great concept, and a great story. I think that it's very easy for the would be writer to get lost and imagine that the world is standing still. It is not. It marches forward. writing that was good a decade ago is uninteresting now. The writer must be aware, down with it, plugged into the beat of life. He can't just write, he must be sharp and know where the market is headed and what kinds of stories people love to read now as opposed what they read years ago when the writer was just starting out.

Writers become upset when they invest too much of their life and themselves in a book that nobody wants to looks at. This happens when they become lazy and don't push themselves, don't challenge themselves and don't grow as writers.

Wendy said...

Recently someone told me that if you receive a wedding invitation, you are obligated to send a gift -- no matter how well you know them, plan to attend, approve of the wedding, etc.

Isn't expecting responses from busy agents/publishers the same thing? They are under an obligation just because you mailed them something? That's just silly.

Unless an agent specifically says they will send a response if you include an SASE, I don't think you can expect it. If an agent has time to do this, do you really want them? If it is coming from an assistant slush reader, do you really care?

Jane Smith said...

So long as writers have not directly dealt with the slush pile, they can't fully appreciate the full horrors of it.

I used to work as an editor in London and was always amazed at the submissions. As packagers, we would propose projects to publishers; and if they were bought, then we'd find writers to write them: so it was highly unlikely that we'd ever take on a submission. Further, the area in which we worked was quite narrow: we packaged esoteric non-fiction--books about meditation, retreat, various religions, myth, all sorts of things: no fiction, no children's books, no poetry.

Despite all these restrictions, which were all documented in our Yearbook entry, I would daily receive proposals for childrens' books, novels, books about cars, weaponry, computing: can you see the problem? No matter how good the proposals were (and most of them weren't), the books simply didn't fit our remit.

We once had a fantastic submission (in the truest sense of the word): it was a heavily-illustrated children's story book (illustrations and text on the same pages), in verse, about trolls. Written in Dutch. No translation provided.

While we didn't take submissions, we were always looking for writers who could write quickly, write competently, and work well with our editors. However, the vast majority of the work submitted (somthing like 95% of submissions, I think) was simply not good enough to be published, regardless of the genre it dealt with. Or it was centred around a weak premise, or the submission was peppered with spelling mistakes or errors of grammar. No matter how interesting the ideas were, all proposals with more than a couple of mistakes in it would be rejected.

The sheer volume of it was horrifying. As was the miserably low standard. Most of the stuff would have only warranted harsh criticism, if I'd have sent any comment at all, and having received my share of "how dare you" letters in response to perfectly reasonable rejections, it just wasn't worth it. Good writers will get personalised rejections: bad writers (or not-quite-right-for-us writers) will get form letters at best. I had no time, or will, for anything more.

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