Want to know what goes on inside the minds of those enigmatic creatures, agents? Here’s my take on how agents make decisions during different stages of the query process:
What it means when an agent turns down your query:
This can mean a million different things, but what it ultimately means is that your book wasn’t right for the agent, and the agent wasn’t right for your book. I did a blog a while back that broke down the most common reasons I turn down a query. Other agents might have their own blogs on the topic. But one thing I have come to realize over nearly 15 years of reading queries is that when I read a query, my job is not to make an objective value judgment over whether a book is good or not. My job is to determine whether or not I personally like something. This is because reading is a 100% subjective experience. It’s impossible to come to an objective opinion on the merit of a book. And even if I was able to do it, the publishing industry as a whole doesn’t operate that way, so my determination that a book is objectively “good” wouldn’t necessarily mean any publishers would agree with me. Publishing is a lot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You hear one person say, “It’s too hot” (“I really love the characters, but I felt the pacing was slow”), and another person say, “It’s too cold” (“I thought the pacing was wonderful, but I didn’t connect to the characters”), and so on, until you get to the person for whom “it’s just right.” So don’t take a “no” as a judgment about the worth of your book, because all it means is it wasn’t right for that particular agent.
What it means when an agent requests a partial:
Typically what this means is that the agent is curious about your book, but wants to get a better idea of the writing before they ask for the whole enchilada. I tend to request partials for one of two reasons.
Reason #1: I didn’t get to see any sample pages upfront, or I only saw a small sample, so I’m not sure whether or not I’ll connect to the writing. The most common situations where this applies for me are Twitter pitch parties and pitches during conferences. In these cases, I really like the idea of something, but the proof is always in the pudding, so I don’t want to request a full manuscript until I know I like the writing.
Occasionally I’ll receive a query with no sample chapters (someone clearly didn’t read my submission guidelines). 99% of the time I will turn down these queries, but every once and awhile I’ll be curious enough from the query to request sample pages, so that’s another situation where I’ll request a partial.
Reason #2: Sometimes I’ll know from the first two chapters that there’s something about the voice that I’m not connecting to, but I can’t put my finger on what it is, and there are other things about the writing that I like, so in those situations I often request a partial.
But those are just my reasons. Some agents always ask for a partial before they request the full. So try not to read too much into it if an agent asks for a partial.
What it means when an agent requests a full:
The reason I request a full can be anywhere between “I’m intrigued by this, let’s see where it goes” and “OMG, THIS IS AH-MAZING!!!!” But for other agents “I’m intrigued by this, let’s see where it goes” could mean they request a partial. Every agent is different.
For me what requesting a full typically means is that something about the writing and the voice of the narrator has grabbed me. I might not know where the story is going, but I’m curious enough to read more.
What it means when an agent turns down a requested manuscript:
Clearly there was something that the agent admired about the manuscript or he/she wouldn’t have requested it in the first place. The primary things that I take into consideration when reading a manuscript are: writing, characters, plot arc, pacing/tension, and the market for the book. If I have concerns about any of these things, I have to take a step back and think about how serious my concern is, how fixable it is, the time investment involved to fix it, the likelihood that the author will get what I’m concerned about and be able to fix it, and the likelihood of selling the book with or without it fixed. If I feel like the author might not be able to address my concerns, or that the time investment involved to address my concerns is too large when weighted against the likelihood of selling the book, then I turn down the book. Publishing is a risky business and agents don’t get paid unless they sell a book, so if they’re uncertain their risk will pay off, turning a book down is their best option.
What it means when an agent asks for an R&R:
For anyone unfamiliar with the term R&R, it’s when an agent turns down your book, but gives you feedback and asks that you resubmit the manuscript after you’ve made some changes.
My thought process for deciding whether or not to work on a manuscript is the same as what I described above. The difference is that there are aspects of the book that I love and believe in sufficiently enough to make the time investment of giving the author pointed feedback and reading the manuscript again feel worthwhile. An R&R is also a great opportunity for me to see how the author responds to feedback and what he/she can do when given specific direction, without the risk that comes with signing an author.
What it means when an agent offers to represent you:
Again, I use the same thought process as I mentioned above, but in this case I feel strongly enough about the stuff I like about the book to overcome any concerns I have. For me, the writing and the characters are the hardest things to nail, so if the author has accomplished both of those things but the plot lags a little, I’m usually comfortable with signing an author. If it’s the other way around, and the plot moves quickly, but the writing and characters are only ok, I will probably turn it down. But that’s me.