Agents and Rejection

Last week writers were invited to vent about agents at the Bookends literary agency blog. I assumed it would be published writers ranting about their bad agent experiences. I have never experienced bad agentry, but I have heard some scarifying stories. However, it was mostly unpublished writers. Some of their complaints were totally legitimate and made a lot of sense. But many of them were, um, somewhat astonishing.

They mostly boiled down to aspiring writers not understanding what it is that agents do. They seem to think an agent’s job is giving them feedback on their work and teaching them the ways of publishing. That isn’t any part of an agent’s job. Agents who provide that kind of feedback are doing it out of the goodness of their heart.

Even more aspiring authors seemed to be convinced that the main part of an agent’s job is finding new clients.

No, the main job of any agent is to look after their existing clients.

Which involves negotiating deals in multiple territories, for audio, media, electronic rights etc etc. That’s a LOT of contracts. Then they’re dealing with problems that come up between publisher and author. Bad edits. Bad covers. Late payments. Late manuscripts. Inaccurate royalty statements. Client’s editor being laid off. Their imprint dissolved. Book remaindered within less than a year. No paperback edition of hardcover. Author going crazy and turning in a book written in crayon on vellum. Editor going crazy and demanding all characters be changed into echidnas. Etc etc and so on.

My agent, Jill Grinberg, starts work early in the morning and keeps going till late at night. I’ve sent her emails at 10pm her time and she’s gotten back to me instantly. She’s had phone calls with me at all sorts of ungodly hours because I am in Sydney and she in New York City. Remember, I am just one of her many clients and no where near her most successful.

Yes, agents want to find the next big thing. But their pre-existing clients come first and take up the majority of their time. Trust me, when you have an agent you will be glad that’s how it works.

I get how much rejection hurts. It took me twenty years to get published. There was a lot of rejection on the way. It frequently made me furious. I was enraged by form letters. (I am not just a number!) I was enraged by personalised rejections that detailed what was wrong with my work. (Why are they so stupid and blind?!) I was enraged when the rejections took ages to come or didn’t come at all. (Why are they torturing me?) I was enraged by quick rejections. (What? It takes seconds to decide my work sucks? They can’t have actually read it!)

But really I was angry about not getting published. I saw lots of crap on the shelves. My book’s better than that! Why wouldn’t they publish me?!

It’s great that I believed in my writing even in the face of all that rejection. I encourage you, too, to believe. But I also know that many of the people rejecting me were right. My writing wasn’t ready. One of the rejections that hurt me the most was by an agent who said they thought I had talent and originality but they just weren’t enthusiastic enough.

Reader, I cried.

I know now that that agent was right to pass. I have writer friends who were signed by agents who weren’t enthusiastic enough about their work. In each case—after much unpleasantness—they wound up with a different agent. Ever been out with someone who wasn’t really into you? Not fun was it? It’s even worse when you’re with an agent who’s not that into you. Because they’ve got your dreams and hopes in their hands and they don’t really care.

An agent who passes cause they’re not sufficiently in love with your writing is DOING YOU A FAVOUR.

I know that’s hard to believe. But a good agent is going to be with you for the long haul. You want them to believe in your writing as much as you do. That’s what I have with my agent. It is a wonderful thing. When you find an agent that’s what I want you to have too.


  1. Steph on #

    Can I get an amen?

  2. Janni on #

    An agent who passes cause they’re not sufficiently in love with your writing is DOING YOU A FAVOUR.

    Yes. That.

  3. eric luper on #

    Nothing to add but… perfect, just perfect.

  4. Kate Elliott on #

    So very yes to this that I am going to link it from my lj.

    Years and years and years ago an agent kindly took the time to read my first complete novel, and she was kind enough to talk to me about it in person, and she was kind enough to tell me some things I needed to hear which I did not want to hear and which made me both angry and upset, and which later I came to realize were all true. In fact, she went easy on me. Why on earth this woman was that kind I cannot imagine, but she was, and I now recognize it.

  5. Kristy Dempsey on #

    Hurrah, hurrah, Amen and pass the donation plate. I’ll tithe to that.

  6. sara z. on #

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. My first agent was “just not that into me,” and it was misery. And I was not ready for an agent, my work was not ready for an agent…I needed to get better. Anger about the crap that was getting published was helpful fuel for the fire of working and working and working and working ON MY WRITING (not on getting an agent – that too, a little, but mostly ON MY WRITING).

    Now I’m with Mr. Perfect for Me, who may not be Mr. Perfect for You, or Mr. Perfect for Them. That’s another thing. After firing first agent and starting all over, I was going after everyone else’s Perfect Agent for a long time, and not getting anywhere. And p.s. feeling like a loser because of that. Anyway, in the end my patience and willingness to work ON MY WRITING paid off and I lived happily ever after. So far.

  7. N. K. Jemisin on #

    Author going crazy and turning in a book written in crayon on vellum. Editor going crazy and demanding all characters be changed into echidnas.

    I’ve had nightmares that started like this! I thought it was just me! =)

  8. kath on #

    I’ve had a couple of agents make suggestions about my work throughout the years when they rejected me. I take that as a gift, not a given.

  9. Danny Adams on #

    That “not enthusiastic enough” took me awhile to figure out too. I know now that enthusiasm and its linked qualities like presenting the work to an editor are half the battle, and without them an agent may as well not even jump in.

    Fortunately I’ve only had one bad agent experience, and that was someone who said he was looking for new clients never getting back to me about my submission, including silence after a single polite query about six months in.

  10. Amber on #

    Thanks for your post, that’s really good to know. I haven’t tried getting published yet because I know I’m still practicing. I love writing for the sake of writing anyways right now. I always enjoy your posts on the publishing world, though! So thanks.

  11. Amber on #

    What?? They _don’t like_ crayon on vellum?


    *bins Great Unpublished Echidna Novel and closes goatskin treatment plant*

    One day, they’ll see.

  12. Harry Connolly on #


    I think a big part of the disconnect is that so many people are used to being customers and complaining about customer service.

    “I had to wait!” “She wasn’t very friendly!” “He didn’t give me enough time!”

    Writers seeking representation are not the customers. They’re the vendors.

  13. katie on #

    Jeez, and I thought actors were bad! Ignorance-based entitlement is a scary thing. But I learned from this that agents do even more than I knew they did, so it’s amazing any of them have time to even read new submissions, much less take the time to comment. I take some of the rejection I’ve gotten even more kindly now, since so far, all of it has come with comment.

  14. Justine on #

    Thanks, everyone!

    Katie: You know I didn’t come close to listing everything an agent does. One important area I didn’t mention is all the long-term planning they do with you.

  15. Shawna on #

    Been there; not fun.

    When I first started out, a good friend of mine introduced me to his agent. She offered to read my MS, said it was good and offered to represent it. Sounds good, right? Well, she didn’t represent my genre, had no real interest in it and just wasn’t enthusiastic about my work but I thought any agent is better than none, right? Wrong.

    I’m not saying the MS would have sold in another agent’s hands but I am saying that the thought of something I put my heart and soul into in the hands of someone who really didn’t care about it was a feeling I wouldn’t like to repeat.

    It hurts, it’s frustrating–who likes rejection?– but they really are doing you a favor.

  16. thelittlefluffycat on #

    We talk about writers thinking of their manuscripts as their children — who would want to marry their child off to someone who didn’t think they hung the moon? Who wasn’t willing to move with them across country if need be, work to support them in whatever way they needed support, believe absolutely in them? You want your child to be loved and appreciated and FOUGHT for, not settled for as the lesser of offered evils. We don’t get to make that choice for our kids, we ought to be glad we get to make it for our books.

    Thanks, Justine! Great post!

  17. Maureen Johnson on #

    So much goodness and correctness.

  18. Monica on #

    I couldn’t agree with this article more.

    I don’t have an agent yet, but I have a body of work published in the gaming industry and I’m trying to move forward.

    In my opinion, many writers “forget” that the publishing world is — first and foremost — a business.

    Perhaps my view on agents is limited because I don’t have one yet, but I view an agent much like I would a business partner.

  19. Stef on #

    Great article. I have not searched for an agent for my first novel. I’ve thought about it, but it seems like such a daunting process. Could fear of rejection be holding me back? Hmmmm. Anyway, I found your article enlightening and encouraging. Thanks. Now where do I find an agent?

  20. Janet Lane on #

    “Ever been out with someone who wasn’t really into you? ”
    …loved this line! Yes, I want my future agent to *love* my writing and be excited about it. Thanks for the morning smile, Justine.

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