Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why Jane Dystel turns things down

I love to say “yes” to writers who send me ideas, proposals and manuscripts, but, in reality, I wind up doing this less than two percent of the time. Why, I am asked often, do I turn down so much of what is presented to me for representation? In no particular order, here are some of the reasons I and many of my colleagues say “no” instead of sending out agency agreements:

A quick turndown is a submission that has obviously been sent to many other agents and editors. Most of the time, I simply don’t find this kind of wholesale submission attractive and, because there is so much else on my plate, as soon as I see that the material has been indiscriminately submitted to others, even to agents at my own agency, I pass and go on to the next idea.

Then, of course, there is the appearance of the material. Often, ideas or pitches are badly written and chock full of misspellings and grammatical errors. A pet peeve is those who refer to their work as a fiction novel. Again, these submissions fall into the “life is too short” category. If the author doesn’t care enough about his or her idea to present it only after carefully checking grammar and spelling, then why should I?

There are the non-fiction ideas whose author has not carefully thought out who the potential reader is (one of the most important questions any prospective author should address), or where the writer has no credentials to write about the subject he or she is suggesting. These days, rightly or wrongly, credentials and platform are everything and those without them are turned down by publishers all the time. Potential authors really need to spend time dealing with these issues before mailing off their queries.

And then there are the ideas that have been over-published. What is the point of writing the millionth dog training book (unless you’re Cesar) or Italian Cookbook (unless you’re Lidia or Giada) or knitting book (unless you’re the knitting guru to the stars)? We agents are looking for new ideas, creatively thought out and presented.

The novels I consider should be complete (partials are almost always turned down) and checked for correct grammar and spelling. If others have read and commented on them, it is often a good idea to include their opinions. Novels are the most difficult projects to find homes for and so we, as agents, are most critical of these. Again, with fiction, the writer should be able to identify his or her reader in a covering note.

Finally, and sadly, I turn down material that has previously been represented almost all of the time. Even if I like what I have read, because the material has been previously “shopped” my chances of selling it are greatly diminished. Spending time on projects like this isn’t fair to those clients whose projects I do think I can sell.

Having said all of this, I am out there in the market every day, looking for new, exciting writers and projects to represent and though I do turn down about 98% of what is presented to me, I try my best to say “yes” at least several times a week..


  1. I'm surprised that you turn down a manuscript because it's been submitted to other agents. If we writers only query one, or even a few agents at a time, it would take decades for us to find an agent. I can understand not wanting to take on a manuscript that's already been seen by a bunch of editors. But other agents?

  2. You said, "If others have read and commented on them (your novel) it's also a good idea to include that information."


    If you mean your friends and family -- isn't that a major No-no, as in, "My mom liked this book?"

    Obvioulsy if you are talking about other agents/editors, then is that still a smart idea? This agent liked it -- but not enogh to represent it, here, do you want it?

  3. Liz...I think she means sending out mass e-mails to multiple agents at the same time. You can send queries to as many agents as you want (no one can argue that point), but don't let them know you're doing this.

  4. Dear Jane,

    It's our job to shop.

    I know y'all talk amongst yourselves - copiously, but damn, at what mysterious number has a manuscript been "shopped" too much?

    As for commas, semicolons and the like... fully two thirds of extant punctuation did not exist in Shakespeare's day. Language, both spoken and written, is alive and ever changing - as are the people who speak and write it. And yes you can tell the difference between unique, original, judicious used of those little marks and trash dumpster punctuation!

    (Notes from the Arkansas champagne caveman)...

    Haste yee back ;-)

  5. Liz, it isn't that we turn things down just because a few other agents have seen it. But if names are switched, other agents are listed on the same e-mail, or you make mention of how many people have turned you down (why do people do that??), then it becomes apparent that you're applying to any and every agent just because they're agents. We'll take more time with someone who has chosen us because we might actually be the right fit.

    And in terms of the other feedback that we like to see, anonymous is right, we don't care what your step-uncle had to say, and you shouldn't be blurbing agents who rejected you. But if you have quotes from people of note--successful authors, judges of writing contests, celebrities--then by all means, send them along.

  6. Tell us...and whether you have submitted this project to the entire publishing community already. (From your submission Requirements)
    I shall never make mention of multiple submissions again.

  7. Wow!
    Several times a week?
    I see that as promising:)

  8. I was thrilled to see that you say "yes" several times a week. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

  9. Reading your entry, I am struck by how hard it is for both agents and writers alike.

    It's tough for us writers because we spend ages agonizing over our work, refining it, having it critiqued and commented on it by other writers, endlessly sorting out details, reordering events, mulling over characters and plots. Then we tweak it and polish it and, with high hopes and great trepidation, send it out to agents after carefully researching which ones we feel it might best be suited to -- and back it comes with a form rejection.

    It's tough for you agents because you see all the awful stuff people will send you, and mixed in with that, the rare jewels and not-so-awful stuff of talented writers. And occasionally, you must get wonderful manuscripts that are polished and beautiful and obviously the end products of much hard labor and creative effort, but which you know you cannot sell. I've been in the position of saying no to people before, and it is not pleasant. Saying no to good writers must be hard indeed.

    But Beverley and Anonymous are right: the fact that you say yes several times a week is promising, and enough to keep me reaching for that brass merry-go-round ring.

  10. This past Friday I got a call out of the blue from a woman who had gotten my name from "a friend of a friend," (always a time to worry.) She had written a 600 page novel that she was about to pitch to an agent at a writer's conference here in Austin. Knowing that I was already published, she proceeded to pick my brain about how to pitch said novel, and for an hour I found myself growing more and more frustrated.

    Here's the deal; it isn't enough to write The Next Great American Novel. In fact, you may as well put all that hard work into a binder and store it in your closet if you haven't done your homework first.

    These days it's JUST as important to understand, research and study the marketplace and how it functions as it is to write a good story. I believe that's a lot of what Jane is referring to here - with a little time spent thinking about the book business AS A BUSINESS you might really help yourself when you want to submit your query letter to an agent.

    Some questions to think about: What genre would your book fit into? (Note...if you said, "Fiction" you got it wrong!) Go to the bookstore on a weekend when it's at its busiest. If your novel were published, what section of the bookstore would it be in? Mystery? Fantasy? Young Adult? Self-help? Now look at the people in the bookstore surveying the shelves. Are there mobs of folks in the section where your book would be? Or when you go to that section, is there dust collecting on the shelves?

    And if your novel is, in fact, 600 pages, and all the other novels in that genre are 300 pages...it might be a good idea to cut your book in half and pitch the extra 300 pages as the sequel.

    Next, consider how long it took you to write your Magnum Opus. If it took you the better part of five years, (like my caller) gaining a writing career might not be your thang, babycakes. As my astute agent once told me, "Publishers hire authors, not books." If you get sold to an editor, she will not be thrilled to discover you take five years to deliver on a deadline. If your book is a hit - your publishing house will want another novel...fast.

    To give you an idea about pace - I'm under contract to deliver two books a year with one publishing house, and another book per year from another house. My pace is 3 1/2 books a year...AND I have a day job. Do you have to set that as a goal? No, but selling books once you're published is addictive, you'll give up a lot of your life to deliver on a deadline.

    The last question I would ask is, who do you write just like? (Note, this is a trick question.) You should examine your style, consider who inspired you and by "consider who inspired you," I mean what current BESTSELLING authors are you most like? (And please don't name a dead guy like Hemingway...go for someone who's got a pulse and is still turning out those bestsellers!)

    Publishing houses compete against each other, author for author. If you are like bestselling author So-and-so from Random House then Hyperion, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, etc. might be interested in obtaining you.

    So I recommend when putting thoughts into your query letters that you make it easy for an agent to say yes - the more homework you do up front, the easier you'll make their job, and trust me, they work their butts off as it is, if you've already done some of the work for them you will be so much more attractive when they consider your query.

  11. Thanks for clearing that up. I've queried widely but always after researching every agent I query to make sure my work is what they are looking for.
    I am still amazed at what some writers do during the query process (mass email queries, revealing massive numbers of rejections, etc.)
    Thank you so much for the explanation.
    And yes, hearing how often you say "yes" is encouraging.

  12. As far as I'm concerned, there can never be enough knitting books. : )

    Interesting post. I'm hoping one of you will consider covering some of the "gray area" reasons for rejection: mainly, you like something but don't "love" it. Do you often encounter mss that are close, but lack that "special something" you need to say yes?

    Also, what happens if you love the writing but aren't sure you can sell it? Or if you're lukewarm about the project, but know several editors who would be interested?

  13. I am a DGLM client. I have to say one of the reasons I queried them first (and then was so over the moon when they wanted to represent me) is that they are so discriminating. I understand on the other side of the fence, this can be incredibly frustrating (trust me, I remember!). But, once you "get past the gate," you know that Jane will do everything in her power to get your book published. And that, most importantly, she'll stick by you through thick and thin. The care she takes to pick out projects and authors she firmly believes in ultimately works in a writer's favor.

  14. Jane,
    If you guys request a full, do you ever tell the author why they were rejected? Some writers really don't know. I had a published friend look over my novel after my beta readers and she pointed out some things that I didn't even see. Do agents do the same?

  15. I've been reading your blog all day. I'm so excited about everything I'm learning, I just might query you! In an earlier post you talked about what knowing what kind of material your agent represents. So, what kind of material do you represent? I went to the agency website but I didn't find the agents individual preferrences under the submission requirements.

  16. DGLM was at the top of my list as well. So much so that when I didn't receive a response from my first query to Miriam (whom I queried because I felt my novel was in keeping with the types of novels she's represented quite effectively) after several months (yes, I included an SASE), I queried again--with a very specific reasons for seeking her out and specific thoughts about the demographics of readers for a novel of this sort, etc. I still never heard from her.

    Ultimately still interested in DGLM, I queried Jim McCarthy, but wasn't surprised when he said it didn't seem right for his list.

    I'm curious about others' thoughts. This isn't my first experience like this. Why do agents insist on an SASE they don't use? I also find myself more than a little bewildered by agents who make notes about professionalism of presentations in their submission requirements and then respond with a 12th generation, dirty, skewed photocopy for a rejection letter (which actually tends to make me thankful they won't be representing my work).

    I'm just a little baffled by the "gray areas" -- I second the request on here that Jane discuss some of those topics. Your perspective and expertise would be much appreciated, Jane!

    I've networked and workshopped my novel rather extensively, seeking the most diverse reading audience I could get. The response has amazed me. I've had readers who I don't think would have ever picked up my novel who have come back and thanked me, telling me how it has affected their life, marriage, outlook on what they want out of their life, etc. This is very rewarding -- and it makes me determined to get it on the shelves for more readers. But agents aren't having the same response. They consistently compliment the writing and the premise and the main character's story...then note one [minor] detail which didn't quite work for them and turn it down flat.

    Where do we go from here?

  17. For anon 9:16, who asks, where does she go from here?

    I sense your frustration, and believe me, we've ALL been there.

    First, do not, and I repeat do not take any rejection personally. You might like an agent and consider that to be your dream agent. But a true "dream agent" is someone that identifies and respects your work, that "gets" it.

    Passion is what drives this business, on every level. You do not want an agent that is mediocre about your book, it will make it that much harder as they try to sell it. Remember agents get their writer's work rejected on a daily basis as well. If they don't have that burning passion for your book, to stick with trying to sell it, it WILL NOT sell.

    Other people who've read your work and said they like it means nothing in this industry. I mean it, nothing. Zilch. Indutry standards are different from friends and family that love you and are so pleased with your thoughts, etc...

    Take a break from your book. Come back to it with fresh eyes. A new perspective. Join a writer's group if you can find one. Attend a conference, perhaps one where you can get the first three chapters critiqued. (early on, that helped my work tremedously.)

    Write more than one book!

    Rejection is EVERWHERE.

    You must perservere!

  18. Also for Anon 9:16 --

    DO NOT waste your time asking why agents/publishers reject your work with a badly photocopied rejection slip.

    It doesn't matter and you are wasting your time if you think they care. They are busy reading god-awful slush. If their rejection slip sucks, then it does. Again, it does not matter.

    Let that go.
    You need them more than they need you. Spend your time on the things you can control, like your WRITING!

  19. We wanted to take a moment to respond to some of the comments (we do read them!). First, to the person who queried twice and didn’t hear back…yikes! We’re really sorry. We try so hard to make sure everything is reviewed and replied to. Things do slip through the cracks as much as we try to prevent that. That it happened twice is especially odd and unfortunate. Again, our apologies.

    As for “gray areas” of rejection, there are many. Sure, we see things that are terrible, and it’s easy to pass on those. As often, though, once we’ve requested a complete manuscript, we find that it’s…fine. So we pass. It is our feeling that to be as effective as possible, we need to truly believe in a project. It comes down to an intangible reaction to the material. Given how competitive the fiction market is, we need to know that we’re willing to go to the mat for each project we sign on. If that personal response to the material isn’t there, we just wouldn’t be the right agents for it. Beyond that, we also need to know how we would sell the project. As a rule of thumb, if we can’t identify five editors we think would want to see the project, we probably aren’t going to have the best luck.

    Someone else asked if we provide feedback. Generally, no. First, there is the issue of time. We just can’t offer constructive criticism to everyone whose work we consider. Second, if we did offer that information, there is no certainty that an author would rework and come back to us. But from time to time, we do have some notes, and if we genuinely want to see more material from an author, we will mention it. Sometimes something is so close that we believe it is the writer’s potential more than their project, so the door is left open.

  20. Hello,

    I would like to know whether you accept cookbook pitches as well -- including of the fictional type -- or it is something that you are interested in at all.
    Thank you!

  21. As an aspiring author, I'm diligently searching for agent representation. I subscribed to Writer's Market Online and researched a ton of agents before carefully selecting those best suited to represent my work.

    I submitted simultaneously, so I was pretty worried when I read here that multiple submissions can be frowned upon in the agent realm. I only queried those who expressly accepted simultaneous submissions.

    I'm looking for representation for the purpose of moving my writing career to the next level. Agents give a writer a better sense of direction. This is my life. It's what I want to do, and, more importantly, what I know I'm qualified to do for the rest of my life. I take it quite seriously. I'm looking to be published by 2008 and believe I have written materials that can make this happen. Therefore, I don't have the luxury of time to query one agent, wait two to six months, then query another, and so on.

    While I respect my writing as a craft, I understand that the world of writing is a business. So, just as an aspiring actor has to go on many casting calls before they acquire a gig, and agents may submit applications to several companies before they land the job they want, writers have to search every nook and cranny to find the best representation they can.

    Also, agents must consider that, out of thousands of agents, there may be 20, or 30 who are a good fit for an author. Just as an agent may have 100+ clients whom they feel are a good fit for them. To expect writers to narrow it down to say 3, or 5 knowing that most agents reject a high percentage of the queries they get, doesn't seem fair. It's like dooming a writer to never attaining an agent, or taking years to do so. By then, everything they've written is out of date and they have to start all over again.

    How does an author know what's okay to do, versus what'll turn an otherwise perfectly good project and hundreds of hours out of their lives into a rejection before it's even read?

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