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!