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Why An Agent May Not Submit Widely

I’ve had many writers coming to me over the course of my leaving myself open to questions. (If you have any general writing or publishing questions, email me at mary at kidlit dot com or leave them in the comments anytime!) Some of these writers are struggling with their agents. I know, I know. Most would simply die to have an agent in the first place, but once that hurdle is cleared, there really are issues that come up. Sometimes agent/writer relationships dissolve. Sometimes communication isn’t the best. It’s certainly a wonderful professional achievement to land an agent, but being agented isn’t a magic bullet guarantee of getting a publishing contract.

One question that a lot of writers have goes along these lines:

I got an agent. Yay! But my agent isn’t really sending my project out to a lot of editors. Is this normal or does this spell trouble? Do they not like me anymore? Etc.

There are a few behind the scenes reasons why your agent might be sending to a smaller list. First of all, “small” and “a lot” are quite subjective. That’s why you should talk to your agent about submission strategy before you sign with them. They might be the type to blast your submission all over New York, or they may be more selective, sending to six or eight carefully chosen editors at a time. Both of these approaches can be the “right” way of submitting. It all depends on the project, its prospects, and the agent’s personal style.

When I was submitting, for example, I would try between six and twelve editors at a time for a project, and I’d have a list of other potential names ready to go for future submission rounds, if necessary. That way I could control the submission, be deliberate about my selections, and usually only contact one editor per publishing house. You can submit to more than one if you target different imprints, and sometimes that approach makes sense, but those judgment calls, again, depend on the circumstances of the project.

This is the part that can get dicey, though, and it’s frustrating because it’s largely out of the client’s control. Sometimes an agent has projects out with a lot of editors. If you have twenty clients, for example, and they’ve all turned manuscripts in recently, you can find yourself with fewer and fewer potential available editors that aren’t already considering your other submissions. You want to send to the right editor for the project, always. But you also want to send to editors you know and like. This keeps your relationships alive and inspires those editors to give your projects more careful consideration. You want to work with them, they want to work with you. And, more importantly, they trustyou to bring them good stuff that they can buy.

This brings up the issue of capital. Just like editors have capital with the pub boards–it’s understood that they will bring their directors great manuscripts and only really fight for what they believe in, rather than bringing ten things to every meeting and trying to make a case for things they’re lukewarm on–agents have capital with editors. You don’t want to send an editor three projects while they’re still reading your previous subs. That’s careless and maybe they won’t be as excited to open your future emails or take your future calls because soon your pitches will feel like impersonal spam. You’ll be backed into a corner, because you don’t want to cannibalize their attention in favor of one client over another. So if an agent already has other projects with the Perfect Editor that they had in mind for you, you may not see Editor’s name on your submission list. At least not until the previous project either goes through or doesn’t.

And sometimes an agent gets into a relationship with an editor at a certain house, and they want to take care of that relationship because said editor is handling a big book or top client for the agent or agency. (This sounds a lot like office politics, and it is. Sometimes an agent has the agency’s other interests to consider.) It’s unspoken but recommended that the agent bring more projects to that editor, in the hopes of lightning striking again. If that’s the case, and that editor isn’t a fit for a certain client’s work, maybe that whole publishing house falls off of the submission list for the new client. Agents try to be as diplomatic as possible, but it’s a tough decision sometimes between thinking either “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I sent him something not quite his style” or “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I contacted a colleague of his instead of wasting his time with something not quite his style.”

Sometimes, it’s true, an agent will only submit to a few editors because they don’t believe in the project 100% and they want to test the waters. That’s a tough pill to swallow. To be perfectly honest, sometimes agents send out projects against their better judgment because they are feeling undue pressure from their clients. “I have a feeling this won’t sell as is, and I feel like I’ve tried to discuss the issues with my client,” they think. “But the client says it’s ready and wants to see a submission list, so maybe I’ll send it to a few editors. If it doesn’t sell, at least the rejections might mention the same issues, and maybe the client will finally listen.” That, and sometimes you want a little vindication when a publishing colleague agrees with you. This way you’re not the only bearer of bad news about a writer’s beloved manuscript, and there are more messengers to shoot! Editors, of course, do not appreciate being used as a “second opinion” on problematic manuscripts, but this does happen on occasion.

This article lists some scenarios that might result in a smaller submission list from your agent. The key takeaway, though, is that you should keep all this in mind and yet be more proactive. It’s your agent. They work for you. If you suspect any of the above, ask them why their list seems small. Get into specifics. Don’t look at it and take offense or start constructing conspiracy theories. A lot of realistic considerations go into a submission strategy, and you deserve to know what’s going on. If an agent is out with projects all over town and that leaves no editors out there to give you a fair audience, see if you can’t wait a little bit. If an agent is frustrated because they feel like your manuscript still needs work, do the difficult thing and try to see where they’re coming from.

Client management is difficult, as is sitting at your computer and waiting for news from your agent–the person in charge of making your dreams come true. Be honest, be informed, be understanding. Keep your lines of communication open. And if you feel like something is going on, and it’s not making you feel great, start that conversation sooner rather than later. Judging by the emails I’ve received from agented writers, there are too many out there stewing in silence or complaining on message boards. That doesn’t have to be you!

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    There should be a TV show about this, agents and editors and writers, instead of The Office. Required viewing for all of us :)

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