Thursday 9 April 2015

From an agent who turned me down.

With the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off now deep into the blood-letting stage and fine books being discarded left, right, and centre, it's probably time to post something that might ease the sting for the authors behind those pages. #SPFBO

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.


  1. This was good to hear. I am amassing a huge pile of rejection letters at the moment.

  2. Thank you for that. It helps. :)

  3. Since you've already mentioned Rowling;
    I saw a couple of editors point out that the version of The Philosopher's Stone they turned down did not have the intro the book ended up with.
    There has been quite a lot of posts in the past about how many times author X or Y was turned down by a publisher, or agent. What we do not know of course is what relation the manuscript turned had to the final book a reader got.
    Mark, could you comment on changes made to your books from initial subscription to retail version? (Perhaps in another blog post if you feel that's better.)

    1. My editor said Prince of Thorns had the lightest edit of any book she's worked on. I'd say 98% of it remained the same, though with some shuffling of commas etc.

    2. Thanks for that. Mark.
      You must write very clean copy. Do you self-edit a lot?

    3. I don't. I tend to write once then read through for awkward lines.

  4. You say that your enquiry letter included 8 chapters, a synopsis and an 8 line cover letter. This is far cry from what most agents ask people to submit (most commonly wanting 2 chapters, synopsis and a bunch of stuff about the author). Did you just send query letters as you saw fit? And did you send by snail or Email?

  5. One rejection letter [David Gemmell] received in the early 1960s read: "You mention in your resume that you are working as a lorry driver's mate for Pepsi Cola. This is an occupation not without merit. Good luck with it.";wap2