A friend of mine, whom we will call Robin for the purposes of this blog posting, is sending out her first novel to agents. She emailed me recently because she’d gotten a confusing response from an agent, and was looking for advice on how to react.
The initial response was incredibly positive; the later response seemed to backtrack and asked some questions. The one that threw both Robin and myself was “Where do you see this novel being marketed?” which seemed like a real step backward from the initial enthusiasm. It also, to me, threw up a warning flag: an agent who has to ask that may not be the right one for your book. Ideally, your agent will be someone who has a very clear idea of where your book *should* be marketed. I asked who the agent was, and what agency he was with. As it turned out, this was not a new agent working for a flash in the pan agency, which was my expectation. In fact, it was an established agent working with a major agency, which reassured me in terms of quality if not necessarily in terms of being certain this would be the right agent for Robin.
Robin emailed with her ideas about where the book might be marketed, and in turn asked where the agent thought it might be marketed. As it turned out, the agent was asking because he felt her book wasn’t quite enough of any one thing to fit well into the obvious markets, and he was essentially testing the waters to see if Robin was absolutely strictly wedded to the book as it was. He suggested a couple of books which he believed it could be marketed similarly to, under the right circumstances. And ultimately, he decided to turn it down–but provided a detailed revision letter, and said he would be very interested in seeing the book again if Robin did the rewrites.
I read the rejection letter, and in case Robin wasn’t absolutely clear on it, told her it was an incredibly positive letter–which came as a relief to her. She’d *thought* it was, but then also felt that maybe he was just playing the role of fourth grade teacher and saying, “Tsk, tsk, Robin, you’re not living up to your potential.”
That is absolutely not what he was doing or saying. This, guys, is what one step shy of publication very frequently looks like: an agent or an editor taking the time to tell you you’re doing well and where you’ve gone wrong. It’s not a failure to live up to potential: every single one of us as professional writers get at least one revision letter per book, sometimes more. Professional editors and agents are a step outside our books; they see things we miss, and usually they’re things that make us go “Argh, why didn’t I think of that?!?!” So as an unpublished writer, if you get that kind of response, for pity’s sake, for my sake, for your sake…listen to it.
It’s possible the requested revisions will take the book somewhere you as a writer don’t want it to go. If that’s the case, it’s fine; it is, after all, your book. But it’s incredibly important to remember that the person responding is a professional who believes you’ve got enough raw talent to spend several hours of his own, unpaid time suggesting ways to make your book better. If you get a response from an agent like this, *please* believe me: they’re not jerking your chain. They’re not being nice. They’re not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. They think they can potentially make money off you, or they wouldn’t have spent this much time reading and responding to your work and your emails.
They’re also looking to see if you’re capable of responding well to critique, because if you throw up a wall or disappear or argue or never respond, hey, you’re not worth the time. I’ve read Robin’s revision letter. It’s a good one. It addresses important points, some of which are very easy to fix, others of which are going to require much deeper and more complex rewriting–and Robin is bouncing off the walls with new ideas on how to address these points.
This is a case, I’m extremely happy to say, where the new author is doing everything right. She had the wisdom to come to another writer–somebody who speaks Agent, as she said to me–when she got conflicting messages, rather than flying off the handle and either panicking or responding to the agent in a hostile manner. She had the sense to pursue the question of marketing and get clarification on why the agent had asked. She’s picking up the books he thought it might be marketed similarly to, so that she can develop some sense of what he might be looking for, and whether or not she’ll be able or want to revise to something of that ilk. She has responded gracefully to the rejection letter, and in fact asked for a couple more points of clarification if they have time to provide them. She’s handling this beautifully.
So take a page from Robin’s book. You cannot do better than she’s done with this interaction. If you get as far as she has, remember that this honestly is one step shy of publication. It may not pan out this time, but it means you’re very, very close to that brass ring. Be professional, calm and courteous with the agent. (You can freak out at your friends. That’s what they’re there for.) Do not be discouraged by a rejection at this level: if you get this kind of response, you are doing something right. Don’t blow it now.