Digging back through my 'sent' box on yahoo mail I discovered that one of the four agents I queried over Prince of Thorns back in 2009 was also now a Facebook friend, having sent me a request a couple of years ago.
I recognised the name because the agent is pretty well known in fantasy circles and represents a bunch of authors whose names I know.
Looking at the query I sent (identical to the three others I sent: 8 chapters, a synopsis, an 8 line cover-letter) I noted that this agent had never responded to the email. They were one of the two that I like to say are still considering me. Of the other two, one sent a form rejection and the other took me on.
So, given that we were facebook friends, I messaged the agent with a blog post in mind, hoping to get some insight into the process. I explained my motivation and the agent was happy to be quoted though only anonymously. Don't ask me privately who it was - I won't say.
The first thing to note is that the agent had no memory of the query and no idea that they had turned me down without bothering to reply. Mine was just another manuscript, considered briefly and discarded.
Some might be tempted to gloat about how many months salary that decision cost the person involved - but consider that the same is true ten thousand times over for the lengthy queue of agents who turned JK Rowling from their door. It's not an easy game. It's incredibly difficult to decide what will take off and what won't. It's difficult at leisure - near impossible at speed.
Anyway, here's the quote that the agent was kind enough to give me:
"After many years in publishing before setting up the agency, I'm all too aware how difficult it is to get a publisher interested in a new writer, so I feel that I do have to love my clients' work - personally and professionally - to do the best possible job. If I don't feel that strongly, I'm the wrong agent. Publishing is a notoriously subjective business, and every new author needs both an agent and an editor who do love their work. It's hellishly difficult getting the bookselling chains to take a new novelist seriously, so that initial enthusiasm is vital. If an author’s prose doesn’t set me on fire, first and foremost, I say no, as do editors in this situation. I've taken on many authors others whose taste I admired turned down - and they've done the same thing with authors I turned down. It doesn't mean we were 'right' or 'wrong' - simply that we were the right or wrong agent for that specific author. There are no absolutes in publishing. Every book, every author's voice, is different. Thank heaven. It means we aren't dealing with 'another can of baked beans'..."
So the lesson here is one we all knew already but bears repeating. Just because your book wasn't one person's choice for best of the bunch doesn't mean it won't be the next person's. Your book may well need improving, but getting turned down doesn't necessarily mean that it does.