The long, frustrating process of querying seems so one-sided. Most queries receive form rejections with cryptic phrases like “I didn’t connect” or “just not for me,” or fall into the deep valley of No response means no.
Author after author asks on Twitter, in writing groups and workshops—why can’t they just say what’s wrong? Make a checkbox or a copy-paste? At least tell me, is it the writing or the story or what? It would take thirty seconds!
Well, no. Responding with brief-but-helpful feedback to your query takes maybe 10 minutes, after the agent has read the query and enough of your first pages to know the book is not a fit and why, then copy-paste “Sorry I didn’t believe your hero” or “Vampires are over.” But agents get upwards of 200 queries each week. Two thousand minutes a week is 33 hours. When are they supposed to, you know, work?
That’s the first reason agents don’t give feedback: You aren’t their client. They already have contracts with other authors, legally binding agreements in which they promise to spend their time selling books and furthering careers. They have manuscripts to read, revisions letters to write, editors to pitch, non-responsive editors to follow up with (agents get ghosted, too). Many agents are part-time or have another gig. Often, they tackle their inbox at night or on weekends—and after two years without reliable school and/or childcare, those inboxes are fuller than ever.
Another reason not to give feedback: Agents don’t actually know what’s wrong with your book. They only know where they lost interest in the first pages. Maybe they don’t want to spend time with the hero. But if that problem gets solved on page 50, then “Your hero is unlikeable” could send an author into a long and fruitless revision, when the feedback they really needed was “Cut pages 1–49.”
Query feedback could hurt more than it helps. Maybe they sent a form rejection because the writing isn’t ready, the story is terrible and the format is sloppy—but will saying that inspire an author to take a workshop, get a critique partner or form a writing group? Or just crush their desire to keep writing?
Sometimes they’re wrong about the market. What if this agent writes, “Sorry, vampires are over,” and the author shoulders their sadness, tucks away the book, and stops querying? Maybe next week, another agent has a line on a great new vampire series that will totally revitalize the genre, only the author quit before querying them.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can change. “Didn’t connect” can mean “the book is fine, the writing is fine, the story is fine, but it doesn’t make me want to shriek and call you immediately before another agent spots you.” How many books have you picked up in a store and decided they just didn’t grab you enough to buy? Do you owe each author a critique? Agents work for free until the book sells. Your agent must be so excited about your work that she’s happy to invest her time and reputation and take her lumps if the book doesn’t sell.
I hear authors raging that agents who don’t answer queries promptly are “violating every professional norm.” Exactly whose profession would that be? Because I spent ten years as a circus performer, and my “professional norms” include multi-gender full nudity backstage. Violating my professional norm would be noticing that people are naked instead of getting on with your business. But I sure wouldn’t expect to follow that professional norm in your break room, and you’d be pretty freaked out if I did.
Queries are sales emails. There’s not a professional norm in the world that says we must respond thoughtfully to every sales email. As authors, we’re seeking a partnership to sell our carefully crafted product. But an agent’s primary job is to make money for and with their pre-existing relationships. Making new relationships with future income potential is important but secondary.
There is some feedback you can give yourself on your own query and first pages, for free.
- Does the story begin in the first paragraph? Not backstory, not the hero’s description, not world-building, but the actual dramatic arc. Read the first pages of published books in your genre. How does the first action of the book kick off the quest, whether that’s to get sober or get the magic sword?
- Is the protagonist established as someone readers want to spend time with? Not just a “save the cat” moment establishing their fundamental humanity, but showing what they’re passionately interested in. People who are interested are interesting. Look at those published first pages again—when do you find out the hero’s personal passion? Check your own first pages. What does your hero care deeply about?
- Are the “rules” of your book clear? Does the reader know what they’re signing up for from page one? If you’re writing suspense, can you point to the first moment of foreboding? If it’s a mystery, when does the first clue appear? If it’s memoir, your voice, format or structure must tell the reader, take my hand and follow me through this—it’ll be worth your while.
Agents generally don’t give feedback. If you’ve gotten feedback specific to your book, that means they thought there was enough promise that it was worth spending precious time and risking a rude response (believe it or not, it happens!) to help you. Cheer for yourself. Revise, if you think it’s true. Then get back to querying.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.