Why don’t agents comment on the manuscripts they pass on?

The inside of my brain...

This is a tough one. Every agent feels differently about this, but my general philosophy is this: if I wrote up notes while I was reading the manuscript, I’ll pass them on, but if there are so many issues in the manuscript that I can’t tackle effectively in an editorial letter while balancing the work load of my clients then I won’t write one. That being said, there are many reasons why agents don’t explain why they pass on your manuscript and they include the following:

Time. I touched on this already, but our existing clients are always our first priority. We work so hard for them and do our best to balance reading the slush pile with our other work, but that often falls to the side as I read my clients’ work, their referrals, then the slush pile. Agents take time to read the slush pile, request material, and then take a huge chunk of their day, evening, night, and morning commute to read a manuscript that they aren’t sure whether they can invest in. If it is a pass after all this time has been put into it we need to get back to work on the phone calls and emails that have been waiting for us in the meantime.

Investment. Agencies don’t get paid until you get paid. That being said, it is always worth reading the slush pile because there are always those rare gems, however it takes awhile for those gems to turn into a manuscript that an agent can represent and sell. Our time is a huge investment and it’s all we have to give. Be patient with us when it takes time to get to your manuscript, because even though you might dislike form rejection letters even those take time for our staff to email out to everyone. We do the best we can in the careful balance of our job descriptions.

Taking attention away from client work. Client work comes first. They were once in the slush pile, or a referral that needed editing when we started working together. But, the work never stops after that. Each manuscript they write needs attention, their career planning needs attention, their existing contractual obligations need to be fulfilled which is our responsibility to them. When they deliver a manuscript to us, that rises to the top of our ‘to do’ list. All pending requested material is on hold, thus my comments on requested material too, which cannot be done with the restrictions of our existing obligations.

The complications of editing material that has major issues can be brain boggling, so ideally you need a freelance editor, not an agent. Kristin Nelson wrote a great post about why we can’t write editorial letters on complicated structural points. If the editorial revisions needed are too complex we are not the right people for the manuscript. You need an editor.

We can’t say what you want to hear, so it’s not fair. If it’s a pass I’m really torn about it’s difficult to articulate why sometimes and ‘not connecting’ can be hard to explain and justify. The ones that are hard to let go I always try to comment on, but it could also be that I’m busy at that specific time and unable to give the feedback that your work merits. You’ll know when an agent loves you work, you’ll hear it in their voice, their offer, their resounding excitement so wait for that. You’ll know it when you hear it.

I understand writers are frustration with this issue. “If an agent has taken the time to read it why can’t they write down a few points for suggestions?” However, engaging in these emails with a writer after the fact takes even more of our time and makes us less inclined to comment on the next one. We don’t have time to get into a dialogue about it for reasons of logistics and sometimes we aren’t able to pen down our complex thoughts on your manuscript when we have clients that need our attention too. Be patient. If we request your material that means we’re putting all the above work aside to focus on you for a while, so wow us!

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9 thoughts on “Why don’t agents comment on the manuscripts they pass on?

  1. carley ..
    a good and informative post. i know, as an un-published writer, all these things. still, it helps to read it again.
    i have just recently found your blog. i will certainly check in on a regular basis.
    .
    be well … do good work.

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  2. This is an interesting post. When I read the first paragraph, specifically the part that says “there are so many issues in the manuscript that I can’t tackle effectively” – I immediately thought: ONE! I’ll take ONE comment with gratitude! Even if its something like: “Your first chapter made me want to take a nap, or slit my wrists.”

    However, I totally get that agents can’t afford to engage in dialogue with an author whose manuscript they are passing on. Especially if the author is the type to keep responding, keep insisting, keep trying to “explain what they meant”.

    Also – the dedication to existing clients cannot be argued with. That’s a seriously important point. If an agent picks up my manuscript for representation, I’d much prefer she spend her time getting it to publishers than consoling other rejected authors!

    Having said that, I really wish there was a way to get a tiny bit of feedback from a passing agent as a springboard for changes to the manuscript. Beta readers are good, but the professional opinion of an agent is priceless.

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    1. I can completely see your point, Christine. However, all agents opinions will vary too so you need to take everything with a grain of salt. Trying to find one comment to connect with might help your mind set that day, but in the long run–for the benefit of your manuscript–a bunch of varying agent comments might not actually help as much as getting a professional editor to do a thorough read.

      In terms of ‘one comment’ to take away, I could never give one comment because my editorial brain would getting ticking and before I knew it an hour would have passed! So this is why we steer clear of feedback if we aren’t asking for a resubmission.

      Thanks for your comments!

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  3. If comments were returned with the MS it would make a big difference. Just like in high school, the best marks I scored in subjects were from assignments of which the teachers had returned the draft with ways to improve. Guidance is the key but I also understand how little time agents may have. It would be incredibly helpful and I would deeply appreciate any agent that may do that for me in the near future. Great post.

    – Ermisenda

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    1. You’ll be lucky to get that early guidance from an agent in the ‘improvement’ phase. We reserve the time to give guidance to clients first. The only thing you can do is hope your material connects with an agent because then we have trouble letting it go. Good luck, Ermisenda! Thanks for your note.

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  4. I think this is one of those things that…we agree to disagree. Agents have their perspective/work load and are very valid in why they can’t comment. Writers….who are working too!….have needs to understand their writing viability. I understand that agents cannot comment on every query submission. Their work is very full, they have obligations to their clients, and yes, their feedback is their commodity. BUT….there is always a “but”……if a MS/partial is asked for and given to an agent who takes 4-6 weeks to read it, it would only seem “fair” that one comment would be justified. Like the comment above, I would give a million dollars just to hear something! I hate it, it bored me, not for me, didn’t like the character’s name…..just something that says, “I took the time to read your MS.” Getting a MS request is the highest compliment for a writer…..but it soon takes the deepest dive when no comment is made. Those comments are what we live for….a path, a light to the end of the tunnel. Anyway, thanks for your article. I love learning about your side of the business. I wish I could intern for a week just to step into your shoes and learn about all that you go through/have to do. Agents are definite performing balancing acts! How they keep focused is beyond me!!! It would be enlightening for sure.

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