Monday, October 02, 2006

Jim McCarthy tells you to "keep on keeping on."

I recently found myself waiting on the sidewalk for a friend of mine when I was approached by an acquaintance who was dragging someone along. “Hi Jim,” he said. “This is Sarah. Sarah, this is Jim. He’s a literary agent.” My back went ramrod straight, and I tensed up as Sarah’s eyes went wide. This could only mean one of two things: Sarah was looking for an agent, or she had a bone to pick with agents in general. I hoped she was in the first camp. It seems every writer both wants an agent and wants to kill an agent. We’re in the business of selling books (yay), but such a big part of the process is rejecting other material (boo). Rejection will always be part of the business, unfortunate as that is.

See, as agents, we see a lot of material. A whole lot. Hundreds of query letters pour into our office every week, filling our Outlook inboxes and landing on our desks, which are already invisible under our piles of reading, contracts, catalogs and correspondence from editors, clients, etc. We do read every single query we get in the hope of finding the next big thing. We want to find material that we fall in love with. That’s why we do what we do. But an agent can only represent so many projects, and so we pick and choose, sometimes going on knowledge of the market, sometimes depending on a gut level response. Particularly with fiction, our decisions are very subjective.

About once a day, I get an e-mail from someone who is not taking rejection sitting down. They often tell me that I’ve made a terrible decision. Many point out that I’ve passed on the next Da Vinci Code. And that may be true. I don’t know anyone in this business who hasn’t regretted a rejection letter they’ve sent. I vividly remember seeing a project I had turned down displayed in a publisher’s catalog for the first time. I had a hunch when I first read it that there might be something there, but I eventually passed thinking it wouldn’t play. Oops!

Rejection is a major part of this business. Every author has been turned down by someone somewhere. And people do make mistakes in their decisions. I have a belief, though, optimistic as it may be, that the cream does eventually rise to the top, that good writing will find its way into print and that deserving books do get published. It takes a thick skin and a whole lot of patience and determination, but it can happen.

One of my most prolific clients is someone I turned down on the first go-round. I read her novel, saw the promise, but ultimately wasn’t convinced that she pulled off what she was trying for. I wrote an encouraging letter and told her that I wasn’t sure I could place it but would be happy to take a look at a revision or anything else she considered writing. Just a week later, I had a new manuscript in my inbox. Terrified that she had done a haphazard polish of the original manuscript and fired it back to me, I wasn’t particularly excited about picking it up again. But lo and behold, she had done a major rewrite. And it was good. Very good! Since then, I’ve sold eight books by this author.

Ultimately, what I want to get across is that we do know how difficult this process is. We try to make it as painless as possible, but getting a rejection hurts no matter what happens. Just keep in mind when you’re next in a bookstore that they all got turned down—the bestsellers and the prize winners alike. So try to be patient, try not to let your feelings get hurt, and keep on keeping on.


  1. "What she said." My comments are in the same vein as Victoria's. I go to writing conferences a lot, where the quest for agents is a heated and furious beast. I often hear people talking as though they somehow have to trick agents to get taken on as a client. (Not to be confused with assaulting agents at the coffee & tea table). I've seriously heard people talking about bribery to get an agent to take them on as a client. Also: "She rejected me, but if I could just talk him into changing her mind..."

    But you don't want to "just talk someone into it." You need them to be gung-ho from the start. When I taught 8th grade, my students knew when I wasn't into the subject, and they responded accordingly. Publishers/editors will do the same if your agent's lukewarm.

    Anyone who's written a book knows that it's nigh impossible for family and friends to think about it and love it *quite* as much as you do. A good agent will, however, and depressing as they are, rejections will sift out those who just aren't into it. You need to wait for that passion, that enthusiasm.

    And maybe save up for a bribe. (Just kidding).

  2. I, too, appreciate literary agents who provide some insight into their thinking via blogs.

    One general comment I'd offer as food for thought: the blog entry discusses agents finding things they can fall in love with, and the subjectivity of fiction choices (with choices made at the gut level, as well as with knowledge of the market). I've read similar comments on other agents' blogs and have seen them firsthand. There's nothing wrong with such a screening process - and it's to be expected with such a high volume to process. But I wonder if most fiction agents and editors have the same basic set of interests - literature, liberal arts, urban issues - - and if this might limit the fiction possibilities being explored. My particular concern is science and technology within fiction (not SF). There are very important issues at stake in this area - global warming, genetics, etc. - and story-telling is such a great way to bring about better understanding. But one sees very, very little science/tech within novels. (Of course, there has to be a human element and a strong story too.) Is there a bias among fiction agents/editors against this - or an assumption that because they have little interest in these type of things that no one else will? I'm not sure about the answer, and I would love to see some discussion on it. I go into more detail in an essay for the E-Zine at

    Again, thanks for providing some inside detail on the agenting process.

  3. Thank you for sharing an agent's view on the query submission process.

  4. I'm just curious which camp this Sarah woman ultimately fell into. Don't leave us hanging, Jim!

  5. Jim, having recently received your rejection letter, I thank you for you quick response - that means a lot. But I've a question - how can possibly garner from a query letter if it's something that you want to see or not?

  6. Susan, I have no idea which camp Sarah fell into--I simply ran away screaming.

    Kidding--she wanted an agent. Phew!

    And Stokey, making decisions based on query letters is difficult. There is always the concern that you might pass something by that you would love. The sad thing is, with about 1,500 submissions a month, there just isn't time to read every book. Oftentimes, you have to just go with your gut and, hopefully, the longer you spend reading submissions, the better you get at being able to pick out the right ones. I think of it like this--you walk into a book store just knowing you want to find a novel to read--something new and different and exciting. So you read the cover copy on a bunch of them and end up grabbing a few that seem like the best of the bunch. You might have missed some good stuff, but you hope that what you've bought will be brilliant. It's a flawed system, but it's all we have!

    -Jim M.

  7. As a writer of two novels who hasn't really done a major agent search (queried 6 two years ago, then life got too nuts that made me take a hiatus from all things writing), I'm very encouraged by the agents' blogs I've been reading. I did get three encouraging rejections -- they liked it but didn't love it enough to take it on -- so as I sit, poised to send out another round of letters, I feel more hopeful.

  8. Rejection is a major part of this business. Every author has been turned down by someone somewhere.

    That's true. I think it helps a lot to test the waters of rejection and acceptance prior to sending your novel. The novel can be a multi-year project. While writing it, there are other pieces one can complete as well. Short stories, travel stories, poetry, essays can be sent to journals, magazines, and newspapers. Along the way, someone will say YES and no matter how small (or big) the publication is, it's a feather in your cap.

  9. Very encouraging post! I have a whole flock of rejection letters and I think of them as notches in my belt. I keep them in a Micky Mouse can until the day the one comes accepting my novel--then I'll have a bon fire. The ones with little personal notes from the agent are like gold and I do take their opinions to heart.
    When I saw the post on Konraths website about this blog I was very excited! Advice from the Dystel & Goderich agency??? Priceless!

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