An Agent’s Duty

When I reject a partial manuscript, I try to give a reason (usually too much back story) so the author has something concrete to improve upon. After all, I’ve seen something promising in the query, so there has to be some kernel of potential in their project. However, I’ve discovered this policy has a down side: I’m engaging in a dialogue and the author doesn’t relent.

This doesn’t always happen. However, I’ve had several authors write back to me after I give them feedback. One asked for clarification on what I meant, so I wrote her a paragraph or two explaining myself. I didn’t mind, but it did take several minutes to give her quality information, and it was the kind of thing you can learn in a class or a book on writing. And if you’re serious about writing, shouldn’t you be taking classes or reading books to make sure you know what you’re doing?

Other writers reply thanking me for my critique and am I willing to look at it again once they revise? This is problematic for more than one reason. All I’ve read is the partial, and a lot of times I’ll reject partials after just the first few pages if the writing is bad. Which means they had five pages to hook me and they didn’t. Which means I don’t want to read anymore. So really I’m not interested in seeing any more. Furthermore, if I’ve rejected them after the first five pages, it’s usually not because of only one reason. Sure, the back story is the main reason why I didn’t engage, but I just didn’t take the time to tell them about the stilted dialogue and unbelievable characters. And I’ll bet they only go through and revise the back story issue before sending me those pages back, so I’ll read the same bad writing and reject it all over again and my time will have been wasted.

A writer – and, therefore, a part of me – would say: so why don’t you just tell them about all the things they’re doing wrong instead of just one?

Here comes one of the biggest things I’ve learned this summer. Actually, it’s not a lesson, but a question. What, exactly, is an agent’s duty to writers? From an industry point of view, an agent is there to find worthwhile projects, submit them to editors, and negotiate in the writer’s best interest. A book is almost like a business, and the writer is trying to find investors to fund it. Agents are professionals to find more people to invest in that business. They only get paid when their clients get paid. Which means query letters, partials, and manuscripts are all read for free. So why should an agent invest more time into explaining to writers – who will never pay them – exactly what they’re doing wrong?

On the other hand, writers see agents as professional readers. We always have a reason for turning something down, and shouldn’t the writer know the reason? The agent has a professional opinion, and how often can the average Joe from Missoula, Montana get one of those?

I can see both sides. And in reality, I know writers are often disappointed with form or vague rejections. At the same time, agents (and readers, like me) are bogged down with writers replying and asking can they please resubmit or what exactly is it they’ve done wrong? So maybe it’s one of those unspoken compromises in life where no one ends up completely satisfied.

6 thoughts on “An Agent’s Duty

  1. I don’t really have an opinion on this right now – especially since I’ve never submitted a manuscript – but I liked reading about this. It gave a little peek at what the publishing process is like, which I won’t even begin to understand for a while. 🙂

      • Yeah, definitely. I’ve done two novels for NaNoWriMo, but I haven’t ever bothered to edit them. Someday I’ll edit one and actually try to get it published, but for now I’m all about practicing and enjoying myself.

  2. Very,very well put. I think we all struggle with this one. Some days you’re frustrated, others you are sympathetic. Over time, you do have to come to a compromise to keep your sanity and remain productive.

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