Earlier this week I introduced the subject of literary agents and, more specifically, my initial experiences with them – to wit, my first four rejection notices. I did my best to present an even-handed view, but given that I provided fairly frank analyses of those that I thought were less than well done, it occurs to me that my post may have conveyed the sense that I regard the profession with some contempt. I sincerely hope this is not the case. In point of fact, I actually have the greatest respect for agents, as I know the daunting number of queries they receive on a daily basis, and I myself have been in the position of serving as an advocate for a stable full of clients, doing my best to help them sell their prized possessions, and serving as the day-to-day buffer between them and those on the other side of sometimes contentious transactions. (Though I can only hope for the sake of literary agents everywhere that publishing negotiations are a lot less cut-throat, the work a lot more emotionally rewarding, and the people a lot nicer, than in M&A investment banking.) Trust me, I appreciate how hard their work must be.
That said, it’s not surprising that the first handful of notices to come back included some that in my opinion were not as thoughtful as they could have been – after all, shoot from the hip and you’re liable to miss. So, I offered criticism where I thought it was due. Today, however, it is my pleasure to give you the flip side of the coin: an absolutely wonderful interaction I had with another literary agent just a few days later. This gentleman could not have been kinder, more complimentary, or more encouraging – and he too was sending me a rejection.
This was another case where I was able to wrangle a direct connection. I will spare you the details of how I came to meet him and what I included in my initial email, because I want to save the subject of querying for its own post – and honestly, they’re not that important to this discussion. Suffice it to say, I was able to make the contact, sent him a version of my current query letter, and heard back from him a few days later. Here is what he wrote:
On Jan 11, 2016, at 5:04 PM, [Redacted] wrote:
Don’t be alarmed, I haven’t read the novel but I did sample it and read with great care your synopsis, and I know what I want to say.
The writing here is excellent and I believe that another agent, or a fantasy/science fiction publisher, will want to take it on. My problem is that the book falls into a species of science fiction called heroic fantasy, filled with ancient and noble realms and internecine feuds, mages, magic and sorcery etc. This style was a classic that dominated the genre for many decades but for me it’s lost its charms (if you’ll pardon the pun). I don’t think I could do justice to it. I think it could be published by DAW or Baen or if necessary by some of the smaller fantasy-oriented presses. I don’t know who among my agent colleagues handles books of this nature, so you might have to do some exploring.
I’m sorry to disappoint you but I know I would be the wrong guy for a book of this nature. But it’s a good book of this nature, so do press on and I wish you the best of success with it.
Isn’t that lovely? Yes, it’s frustrating that it’s a rejection, and yes, it’s even more frustrating that it echoes the same sentiment that I received from the previous personalized rejection, but he goes so far above and beyond what was necessary in how he expresses it – his words struck me as sincere, thoughtful, and even regretful. He praises my writing multiple times (again incredibly frustrating, but how can you take issue with someone who is so earnest about being the wrong man for the job?), states with real confidence that he believes others will want to work with me, and goes so far as to offer some guidance on which publishers might be the best fit. I was genuinely moved.
Now, when you receive a form rejection, that is the end of the conversation. The agent has said no, and has indicated that your manuscript wasn’t sufficiently close to the mark to warrant personalized feedback. Reaching back out to follow up – unless you have a new manuscript to offer – is extremely bad form. (Again, remember the daunting number of new queries that come in each day.)
But this was different. I had been introduced directly, and he had taken the time to write the touching note above. And so, here I thought the polite thing to do was to acknowledge it – which I did later that evening, as follows:
Thank you so much for your timely, thoughtful, and complimentary response. I greatly appreciate it – and trust me, I do understand. After all, it was my love of these old classics that led to Heir to the Old Kingdom in the first place; I know the industry suffered burnout of the form, and the resulting void over the last 10-20 years is what prompted me to write it. I am confident in the quality, and given the absence of anything similar in recent years, I think it will find a market – so I will press on until it’s out there, even if in the end that means publishing it myself.
By the way, I will be writing about my experiences in the blog I mentioned in my previous email, jamesegraham.com, starting very shortly. Given the obstacles I’ll obviously be facing, I think it may be an interesting ride. (How often does an author take on a project he knows is going against the trend, and provide updates in real time?) I’d be honored if you’d follow along!
P.S. For the record, I loved the pun.
So, that should have been the end of it, right? He was kind and supportive in rejecting me, and I was – I hope – gracious in accepting his rejection. But no! The next morning, while I’m out walking my dog, this pops up on my phone:
On Jan 12, 2016, at 7:42 AM, [Redacted] wrote:
Thank you, James. I’m much relieved, as I hate saying no to what is obviously a significant labor, and a well done one too.
Let me know when there is a significant event as I truly wish you well.
Honestly, this from an agent who according to Publishers Marketplace is a top-20 dealmaker in three different categories, and who reps one of the best-selling authors in my genre? What a mensch. I very much hope he has taken me up on my suggestion and is reading this blog so that he can see just how much his messages meant to me. (Heck, just writing this post has bolstered my resolve!) Cheers to [Redacted] – he truly is one of the good guys.
So, you see, they are out there. I’d even suggest that the majority of legitimate literary agents are probably good guys (and gals). The key is simply to find the one who is as passionate about your book as you are.
Aye, there’s the rub…