Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Truth About Feedback

I imagine most agents start the way I did, and by that I mean eager and wide eyed, ready to dive into the slush pile and find The Next Big Thing.  Even Janet Reid is nicer than she pretends to be mean and sharkly all the time.

That may or may not be the legs of an unsuspecting writer. 
 I signed a confidentiality agreement.

When my boss first told me I could start requesting manuscripts and looking for something I could represent myself, I was so excited that I requested 11 manuscripts...that day (so I was a little over ambitious, story of my life).  But when 9 of those manuscripts showed up the next day, I read them, one after the next, and I took notes and sent feedback to the authors.

And despite the problems with that, I continued to handle requested submissions in a similar manner.  Even when I had six clients, I desperately wanted a YA fantasy, so I requested every single YA fantasy that found its way into my inbox.  Then thankfully I found Cat Hellisen.  Or rather she found me, by way of that Moskowitz girl.

But at some point this year, I hit a wall where the words of Janet Reid ("I told you to stop doing that!") really sunk in.  And I started form rejecting manuscripts and denying writers feedback.

This was a sad decision for me.  I've heard so many writers talk about how they so desperately want feedback.  I know I would have a hard time reading form rejection after form rejection.  And don't get me wrong, I get plenty of people who respond to me and ask for feedback anyway.



But here's why I just can't give it.

I just don't have the time.

This might sound callous or self important.  I know that.  But it's the truth.  Every reason I can think of for why I don't send feedback and notes, why I form reject, comes back to the fact that I just don't have the time.

1. Feedback creates a dialogue. Writers almost always respond to personalized emails (I respect that).  Sometimes the responses are pleasant and short and The End.  But with the amount of emails I get, these add up and take a while to go through.  Other times, they're rants (which do hurt my sensitive feelings even when I try not to let them) or belligerent personal attacks, which means I have to turn to someone in the office and cry/complain/rant/vent or something in return.

2. Feedback can also give writer's a sense of hope, and unfortunately sometimes a false sense of hope.  Back when I gave feedback to everything, a lot of those manuscripts had problems I could point out, but they also lacked something much more amorphous and hard to define--whatever was going to make me fall in love with it.  Yet a lot of writers revised, according to my notes and resubmitted and then I read again.  And most often times I still had to turn around and say "nope not for me."

3. I have client manuscripts to edit.  My feedback has to go to them.  These are the manuscripts I've read and loved and said YES I WANT TO REPRESENT YOU! And I doubt I'll shatter any delusions (I've seen what my clients say about me), but I edit those manuscripts.  A lot.  I read them again and again before we go on submission and go through multiple rounds of edits.  Then after my clients have editors and they edit for them, I read again, just to make sure nothing was missed.  Admittedly, I read fast, faster than almost anyone else I know.  But editing isn't a job that can be rushed.

4. The hard truth is that agenting isn't about answering queries or reading requested material.  Even pitching books to editors doesn't take up the majority of an agent's job.  It's handling problems that arise during editing, production, the release, the next book, and beyond.  And so many of those problems jump up unannounced and require a lot of phone calls and/or emails to a number of people.  Sometime one problem takes up a whole day or a whole week or even more.

Even though it grates my skin to say it, no matter how little I sleep, I just don't have the time to keep up with everything I do if I'm also giving feedback on requested material.  So I don't.  Which means, my rejection now includes:

Due to the volume of queries and submissions I receive, I'm unable to provide a personal evaluation and/or further explanation of my decision.

Which also means, when a writer replies and says "But could you tell me why it's not for you?  Any feedback is helpful!" I don't respond.  My heart bleeds a little and a part of me wants to write a couple paragraphs about why.  But I just...



Can't.

Because I have 239 other things I should be doing with the 15 minutes that will take.

* Note * 
Please feel free to disagree, however, disrespectful comments will be deleted.

38 comments:

magolla said...

As a writer and previous rejectee of Ms. Townsend, the shark, and many others. Asking one agent for feedback doesn't necessarily make your story publishable. After all, it is simply one person's opinion, and, just like having numerous crit partners, agents have differing opinions as to what stops them from reading on.

The only thing a writer can do is to improve her craft, keep writing, and keep querying. You may not get a request on story #1 or #10 since there are simply too many variables to factor into the equation: timing, luck, and writing the right story at the right time are only a few of them.

And if I manage to secure an agent, then I would definitely want her to put me ahead of the querying pack. I'll deal with the rejections and frustrations now because it will toughen my leathery hide for the slings and arrows of nastiness later on in my career.

Merry Christmas, All! Happy querying in the New Year!

taratyler said...

I completely agree. I have no time either - shouldn't be taking the time to even comment. But seriously! I understand why no feedback. As a writer and someone who knows time management is utmost, I keep writing and editing and submitting. It'll happen when it's supposed to.

Make time for you and your family...

priorities!

melissa said...

Thanks for the honest post, Suzie! When you look at it from the other perspective it makes perfect sense. We writers only send a short simple email asking for feedback while you probably have hundreds plaguing your inbox.

Merry Christmas!

Erin said...

Thank you for the inside look into your world! Great post!

Tracey Neithercott said...

It's silly if you really think about it. If a salesman tries to sell me something do I owe him an explanation as to why his product isn't right for me? I'd never get any shopping done if that were the case. I'm not sure why agents are expected to do any different. Besides, I'd rather have an agent who puts her clients first than one who can't get back to me because she's busy replying to endless queries and following up on follow-up questions to the rejections.

A. Grey said...

This is why the 'Not for me' rejection is my favorite sort of form rejection. Any rejection hurts, but how can you argue with 'Not for me'? I mean, do you LOVE every book that your BFF does? No. And if I can't love to read something just because someone else loved to read it, why would I expect an agent to love something just because I love it? It's nothing personal, it just isn't for them. Totally understandable, and needs no further explanation.

Michelle said...

Did you really sign a confidentiality agreement...or CULT CONTRACT WITH DAGON.

Kidding. ;)

Great post - I've always been aware that most agents don't want to give false hope, and it's a great way to go about it.

Joseph L. Selby said...

You gave me feedback on a query and I very much appreciated it. You're the only agent to have ever done so, though. I do not expect feedback from any stage in the submission process, but I do hope for it on full requests. I have received feedback on all my full submissions and value a professional opinion when taking into account the whole work.

Still, the fact that you don't have time isn't unreasonable.

Shayda Bakhshi said...

D'awww, I love Angry Puppy. So cute!

And thanks for this post. I think we writers "understand" this to a certain extent, but it's also good to hear it directly from an agent.

Also, I think it's good for us to remember that you're working with your clients FIRST, and hopefuls second. I'm always really surprised when I hear about writers responding to rejections--really, REALLY rudely. First of all, why in the world are they burning their bridges? Secondly...y'all are busy folk. I honestly don't know how you do it! Sure, we'd all like personal feedback, but I totally understand why that's not feasible.

Also, it's almost Christmas! :) Happy holidays!

Mystery Robin said...

It's ok, you know. We writers understand. We're also mothers or consultants or programmers or salespeople who have to do lists that don't end and people who want things we can't give. If we don't set limits, we don't get the important things done. We get it. :)

Mary Gray said...

I appreciate this. You're doing the best job you could possibly be doing as an agent. Congrats on all your recent sales!!

The Las Vegas Writer said...

This is a great post. It's nice to be able to understand an agent and how they spend their time when it comes to rejection and requests. Thanks!

hannah said...

Cat pointed me towards this. We love you.

(and she edits us to within inches of our lives, it's true.)

bslaveboy said...

As Cat's husband, I know how hard you work. You're totally awesome.

cathellisen said...

Yep.

Basically, I could not have wished for a more awesome agent.

;)

Nerine Dorman said...

Which is why when an agent mails me with feedback and not necessarily representation, I'm a-gonna take her words to heart. Ditto for when publishers start writing personalised rejection letters... **grins**

I'm happy to report I'm at that point now.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I appreciate your honesty. Thanks. =o)

Happy Holidays and an Awesome New Year to you.

Huntress said...

For some writers of queries, the personal feedback means the agent read it.

I’ve never asked for feedback and if I received it, I would be astonished. Still a form letter creates a nagging voice that says, “I wonder if she read it.”

Knowing the bad actors of this business damage my chances of standing out in a crowd is beyond frustrating.

Ariel said...

I don't believe agents should give feedback unless seriously interested in the manuscript.
When not seriously interested, it is what I call Drive-by feedback.
Well meaning attempts to "help" writers which are more likely to make writers doubt their work, put way too much stock in the opinion of one human being, and potentially run themselves ragged making changes the manuscript doesn't need.
Not giving feedback to every writer is a blessing. The feedback might have been fabulous, or it could be time wasting, useless and unintentionally destructive.
A writer's time is as important as an agent's. We don't have time for drive-by feedback any more than you have the time to give it.

Mike Mullin said...

This post makes me even more grateful for the agents who did offer feedback on my work. And in the admittedly improbably future in which more than one agent wants to represent me, those agents will be at the top of my list.

David said...

"I desperately wanted a YA fantasy" makes me think that sometimes agents treat genres as trading cards. Oh, you have that one? I need one of those!

I guess there are good reasons for this besides the casting-a-large-net-and-hope-to-catch-a-fish-I-mean-best-seller. I would just hope that the combined love of words brings the agent and fish together. Really, no size of net will ensure the next best thing. Sometimes, it's just being at the write spot or genre. I can't imagine that picking six or seven spots up and down the river can really help, can it? Unless, and I just thought of this, agents don't always know what their best strengths are, either; and just like the author who might have to write around a little bit to find the genre he or she specializes in, so too might an agent.

suzie townsend said...

Huntress, I'm not sure why agents wouldn't read a manuscript they requested. I really do want to find manuscripts and writing that I'm in love with. I might sometimes quit before I get to the end, if I know the ms just isn't for me, but I always read.

David, when I desperately wanted a YA fantasy, it wasn't because I was thinking "I want the next best thing" it was because I love fantasy. Instead of reading me picture books, my dad read me Lord of the Rings, several times. And in 2009, I read Kristin Cashore's GRACELING and FIRE and this year I read FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK by Melina Marchetta. I love books like that so naturally I wanted to represent a book like that and find an author whose writing made me giddy to share with other people.

Also, as an agent I want a list that's diverse, especially when I'm just starting my career. I don't want my clients to be competing with each other to get an editor's attention. That doesn't serve them well. So at the time when I had paranormal YA and contemporary YA authors, wanting a YA fantasy that I could pitch to different editors was important to me.

I didn't take on anything I didn't love, though. And thankfully for me, Cat Hellisen queried me with her manuscript, then titled SEA ROSE RED, I fell in love with it, we revised a little and went on submission, and it sold to FSG.

~Jamie said...

BUT-- you know what the sweet part of the no feedback rule is? It's a gauge for new writers to find out when they're getting close. Basically, if you're getting full/partial requests and then getting form rejections--here's what you know... your concept is cool, your query letter is spot on, but the writing needs work.

Sure, you don't know what needs work--is it the characterization, the voice, or even grammar? But you DO know that you need to revisit your MS. Instead, they should be excited they have something to work with!

So, don't feel bad... just be glad that you're helping authors out in the multi-step process. :)

Ariel said...

A manuscript might need work but judging the work by requests and rejections would be foolish.
Writers shouldn't be depending on agent rejections to make their manuscripts work.
Excellent manuscripts are rejected everyday and lousy ones are accepted. It's all very subjective.
Sorry, Jamie, but really the rejections are no gauge at all.

June G said...

Thanks for providing insight about this. I certainly understand. I'm not an agent, but I barely have time to get through all my paper work on my job, so I totally understand.

If writers are able, attending conferences and such, where they can receive critiques is invaluable to learning where they may be missing the mark. I haven't regretted any that I've been fortunate to attend. My writing craft has developed and the positve feedback I recieve is evidence of that.

Thanks again for your thoughts and reasonable people will understand your position.

Dan Krokos said...

The sad thing is there are so many writers that will feel owed no matter what.

David said...

Suzie,

Oh, Not wanting your clients to compete over editors makes a lot of sense. Thanks for making that bit of commonsense clearer for me.

It's actually comforting to know an agent will try to find manuscripts she can love and want to share with others, not just ones that will sell. Of course, selling is important, but I'm hoping that selling is just a happy consequence of appreciated art.

It's cool that you can get giddy about the books you rep. That means you're in the right profession.

Oz, the Mad said...

This makes perfect sense to me. For I am a genius, who is geniusish. It's neat seeing a professional decribe this plight that you're describing.

Stephanie Faris said...

I think with anything in life, when we try to do the right thing often it is at our own expense and there comes a point when you have to say "enough is enough." But I can't imagine an author ranting to an agent who has been kind enough to give personal feedback. I was always gracious to agents and editors, even when one completely ripped my submission to shreds verbally. (No agent ever did that, by the way -- only one editor.) It goes without saying that any agent's professional opinion is an opinion (albeit, a very informed one). What works for one agent might not work for another and vice versa. All the author can do is brush herself off and get back out there.

Joanna said...

It's true. While the majority of writers are totally understanding people, there are still many writers who feel owed and email agents requesting (and sometimes demanding) feedback. And there are a lot of instances where feedback is given and writers respond...um...not so nicely.

I went on the same journey as Suzie. I think most of us go this route. All good intentions, and hopefully some were helped along the way! But there comes a turning point where the workload increases and when you prioritize, it's always clients first.

cyndydrew said...

That's hilarious, that you need to put right out there, like a legal disclaimer, "negative comments will be deleted"! I saw the hatemail Janet Reid posted on her blog, from the queryer who, unbeknowest to Reid, was actually The Next Great American Novelist. I relished it, along with other stories I've heard of bitter writers, rejected by the pros. Love it! I must seem SO sane in comparison!

LeAnne said...

This was really useful to know. At times we writers wonder what bottomless pit our query letters land in sometimes, but we have to realize that agents aren't just automated bots hitting a 'reject' button every two seconds. ;)

Elisabeth Kinsey said...

I am happy to support this post! Writers must do their due dilligence and get feedback from their own writing groups...one of the end stages is the agent. If or when I get a refusal, it's back to my writing group and more edits or I might throw the piece in a drawer to soak. I am in full support of an agent not giving me feedback, as that manuscript that needs feedback is not ready for her/him. Thank you!

Jessica Peter said...

I really understand not having the time, and I haven't expected any feedback with my rejections.

That said though, this week an agent rejected my partial with a line of specific feedback and I was over the moon - something solid I can look at and work with!

Mike Koch - Protect The Risen said...

The only query feedback I desire is a request for a manuscript. The dots can be connected for the rest. Thanks for the info though, I love reading yalls blog. Happy New Year.

suzie townsend said...

Oh, Mike, I was actually referring to feedback on requested manuscripts.

Lynn(e) said...

this post makes my heart sad. you can tell that you really do LOVE what you do, and you're a down to earth person, but you're not superwoman.
i can kinda see things from both sides. my sister is my best editor, and there have been a few things of mine where she's been like "i got three pages in, and lost interest". it hurts, but at the same time, i know -i'm- the one doing something wrong. thankfull, she has the time to be able to give feedback :)

keep up the good work suzie!

Lynn(e) said...

*thankfully

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Five Random Things About Suzie

1. I drink so much orange soda, it's probably running through my veins. I've been known to go through a twelve pack of diet sunkist in a day.

2. I'm legitimately nocturnal (or a vampire). I will be so exhausted at two pm that I'm falling asleep standing up - it has happened before, at Six Flags no less - but as soon as the sun goes down I'm wide awake.

3. I have a gorgeous unused $6000 Reem Acra wedding dress hanging in my closet, and it showed up on my doorstep the same day my (now ex) fiance broke up with me. And thank God for that. I wouldn't have wanted to waste that dress on him.

4. Social anxiety plagues me daily. I write a script and practice in front of the mirror when I have to make a phone call, but most people who interact with me have no idea how nervous I am (or perhaps they lie) because I've worked so hard to try to overcome it.

5. I'm actually worried that I will never love my children (when I do have them in the far off future) as much as I love my dogs. I just like animals better than people - they're sweet and innocent and soft and furry - is that so wrong?