Manuscript Reading: Don’t assume we’ll read it right away, or at all.

You spend two years writing a novel. You start submitting it to agents. You get some sample material requests. And it disappears into the abyss…

Or so it seems. What happens behind the scenes is different in each situation and different for each agent. If we’re excited we might push it to the top of the pile. If we’re super busy we might be excited about it, but it might take days/weeks to get to it.

I want to reiterate not to assume anything. If we get back quickly or if we get back slowly we might have the same levels of excitement, but it surfaces differently depending on a variety of factors.

In addition, never assume that we’ll read the whole thing. If we’re loving it we will, but if we waver and see the stack of contracts on our desk reminding us of the other things we need to be doing, we might put down your work and never pick it back up. Just because we requested it, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that we’re dropping everything to read it (or read it all). 

What to take away from this? Keep your pacing tight, your work well-written and exciting. If you get us excited enough to request it, make time to read it, and perhaps get a second in-house read, you made it though a number of barriers to entry. But there will be more, and there will be variables.

When we have a full work load we’re looking for reasons to put your manuscript down, don’t let us–make your words count.

Image via Priscilla Nielsen (NPR)

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

27 thoughts on “Manuscript Reading: Don’t assume we’ll read it right away, or at all.

  1. This is a really good post. Not only is querying a challenge, but keeping the agent’s attention after the manuscript is requested is yet another challenge. It’s sad in a way.


  2. Hi. Thanks for posting these. It’s a great glimpse behind the scenes. Is word count a factor for you? You have two manuscripts. Both queries hooked you. One is 50,000 words. The other is 90,000 words. Which would you be more apt to read first?

    Thanks again.



    1. Hi Marc. It depends on genre/age group. 50,000 is good for MG/YA but much too short for adult fiction. 90,000 is on the long side for YA, but could work for adult. Word count is about taking the amount of words that it takes to tell your story while fitting into the tropes of the genre you are writing in.


      1. I’m curious. What is it about adult fiction that disqualifies a 50,000 manuscript? Let’s take a 50,000 word thriller, for example. If it moves like a bullet and keeps the reader in suspense and gets them turning those pages, and only needs 50,000 words to do it, isn’t that a good thing? Or are you taking the publisher’s concerns into account? I imagine it might stem from them wanting to set a certain price for a book, and having the reader balk at paying said price for a thinner book.


      2. Hi Marc,

        You asked for my opinions and that’s what I based my answers on. Those are my tastes in length. 50,000 is the upper cusp of a novella so too me, that’s too short for a full length novel.

        Others might have differing opinions. Hope that helps!


  3. Thanks for this reminder. Patience is not my strong suit and the query process must be the biggest test of patience there is. Except I heard submissions is worse :-/ so maybe us queriers are being vetted in more ways that one.

    That being said, I’ve had ms’s disappear into some sort of black hole after a request and I just don’t understand why some agents can’t answer that nudge email after 6 months of patience with a simple, “Sorry, it wasn’t for me.” Yeah it will hurt but silence is much worse. Because somewhere in that silence is hope or at least a door that hasn’t been completely shut (because, you know, aspiring authors are notoriously delusional).

    If I could change one universal law about the submission process, I would make it standard that agents could Form R a partial or full ms with a note at the end “You lost me on page __ .” That would so helpful!


    1. Thanks, Jessica. I can understand your frustration with not hearing back. Even agents get this treatment from editors from time to time. But, 6 months is a long time not to be hearing anything.

      It’s a subjective business, so even if someone said they stopped at pg 38, another agent or editor might have got lost before or after that.

      So, you deal with the hand you’ve been dealt from the querying process, but it’s up to writers to deliver a ms that we can’t say ‘no’ to.


      1. Yes, yes, it’s all subjective I know. It’s not us it’s you. I know why you (plural) say that (A: it’s true sometimes) and (B: Writers can be scary-crazy sometimes). But for those of us with our wits still about us, we actually did Query you because *we respect your opinion* so when you say “I can’t tell you anything about your rejection because it’s just my opinion.” We’re like but I #$@! I care about what you think or I wouldn’t have queried you!


        My ms was form R’ed by three agents last year. I had no idea what i was doing wrong. It could have been page 1. It could have been…there’s no point in listing…anything. So I was ready to trunk it. Because I didn’t know how to fix it (yes it had been beta’d. A lot.). So then I got this email that I had been shortlisted in this contest that I didn’t even remember entering. Of course the contest only sent/publicized the good feedback about my novel. A super busy, publishing director from the big P was one of the judges. After the contest, I emailed him, groveling “Please tell me what’s wrong with my novel, a word, a sentence of feedback would be nothing but appreciated.”

        He wrote back, “I don’t believe in the character ____. You can’t start where you started. You have to rewrite her.”

        Even though, I know I said this is what I wanted, it hurt like a sonofagun. But after I dragged myself out of my tear-soaked bed three weeks later, I started writing like a mad woman. I tried to see it how he saw it. I transformed this character. And I know my ms is now exponentially better than the one I subbed to him.

        Now, it’s in the hands of 7 agents. Who knows what will happen? That’s the power of basically three sentences that this editor wrote (out of pity?). If I ever do get published, it will be thanks to him and I’ll never forget it. I hope I’m sending him some serious good karma.


      2. I can see that frustration. Sometimes we don’t have the words to give that you want to hear so we feel it’s best to go ‘generic’ with our feedback. It’s terrific you found that one person to give you the energy you needed to push on. Good karma is powerful. Good luck!


    1. If I am going to offer rep I often read 2x and have an in-house read (intern etc). I read once when I request an R&R.

      When I suggest an R&R I write an editorial letter of comments/suggestions for improvements which requires a full read.

      When I offer representation I make a list of what I love, what needs work etc. And present all of it when I make an offer.

      I have never taken exactly what was submitted to me and taken that to an editor. At least a few tweaks are always necessary.

      Hope that helps Eric!


      1. Thanks! That does help and is informative.

        But what I was most curious about is, how far on average do you generally get through a manuscript (10 pgs, 20 pgs, 100 pgs, all) before you know you’re going to do offer rep or R&R, and then read the rest to figure out which?

        Thanks again. Blogs/twitter that give writers a glimpse into what agents are thinking are extremely valuable.


      2. I see! Sorry, I misunderstood that.

        “What I know I’m going to do” changes with each project. If my heart is beating hard when I’m reading it and I’m mentally going through my rolodex and/or I’m crying because I’m moved: I’m going to have to move forward with it in some capacity.

        Whenever I start to have that emotional reaction to something I know I need to work on it. However, when I’m done the ms my rational, business brain kicks in: can I sell it, is there a market for it?

        I’ll know in the middle of reading it whether it’s a pass or whether there is potential. It just changes with each project.

        I don’t have a definitive cut off. The first time reading I go for a purely emotional stand point. Then I step back and evaluate what I’m feeling in a ‘agenty’ way.

        Thanks, Eric!


  4. Incredibly helpful post and comments. Like many others, I try to interpret the silence (and obsess over it), when I should really be writing – much like I should be cleaning right now rather than surfing. The subjective nature of the industry does challenge my confidence. I keep reminding myself JK Rowling was rejected many times, so of course I’ll be rejected many, many, many times. *climbs into rhino hide and picks up feather duster*


  5. Maybe what too many of us need is a dollop of (unrealistic?) self-confidence. In over 25 years, I’ve never connected with an agent I thought I could work with. Close–but that doesn’t count, does it. I go back to the days when snail mail was your only option, and the expense even then inhibited me. The hope I had then was that there was such a thing as a midlist still, and that would be my home if I were lucky. Now I believe there is no such thing, competition and conglomerates have combined to make all but a few indies care only about the bottom line. Hence the upsurge in online publishing. If that’s all you can get, you end up aiming there. Forgive me if I sound both jaded and discouraged.


    1. Everyone certainly brings their own experiences to their pursuit of publishing.

      I can understand where you come from Joan and I know authors who didn’t and could never fit with agents. It’s conforming to the industry, but I believe in its merits or I wouldn’t be here.

      I wish you all the best, Joan!


What do you think? I love hearing from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: