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Funny You Should Ask: Why did my literary agent stop submitting my manuscript?

After submitting to several imprints, all of whom passed, your literary agent says she “will no longer be actively submitting” your manuscript and asks what you're working on next. What now?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she explains why your literary agent may have stopped submitting your manuscript and is asking about what's next...

Dear FYSA,

After submitting to seven imprints, all of whom passed, my literary agent said she “will no longer be actively submitting” my manuscript and asked what I am working on next. Some of my friends have had agents submit their manuscripts to as many as 20 imprints. Why isn’t my agent getting back out there with something she initially said she believed in?

Sincerely, Short End of Stick

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Dear Shorty,

This question, much like a myriad of other author questions, can best be answered by my third-grade teacher, Ms. Gamlin: Keep your eyes on your own paper.

Whenever one of my clients tells me about something that an author friend “got” from his agent or editor, and we get to the “Why come not me?” portion of the call, I lift up the back-page of the calendar hanging on my wall and add a hash mark to the long-running series there. Every time I slash a diagonal through a group of five, I take a shot. It makes it fun for everyone! Here are just fi ve of the many reasons why you might be getting the “What’s next?” more quickly than some of your writer friends:

1. THE ISSUE WITH YOUR PROJECT is a unanimous one (meaning that all seven of those editors replied with some variation of the same), and one that isn’t easily addressed with further revision. For example: “We already have a sci-fi fantasy featuring ninja mermaids in the queue,” or, “Th e protagonist was unlikable without still being accessible,” or, “Th e story is just too quiet.”

2. THE MARKET IS SATURATED with the themes explored in your work and no new angle is being explored in yours.

3. ONLY A FEW IMPRINTS are looking for your type of story or publish it well, and those few imprints are the ones that have passed.

4. THE MARKET HAS CHANGED and the appeal of your subject or even your whole subgenre has waned.

5. THE AGENT HAS A SHARP EYE for which editors want which projects in your subgenre, and/or only works in your subgenre and always sells to the same six or eight editors because she feels there isn’t anyone else with similar taste.

Or any combination of the above. Or your agent is spending your submission time browsing designer shoes online. (Holy delicious do I need to get on the waitlist for the Tory Burch Kingsbridge Mule.)

The fact is, publishing journeys are like fingerprints on a martini glass: They are all different, and—hey, who’s been drinking out of my martini? I will grant you this: When your agent said she wouldn’t be “actively submitting” further, she should have followed that up with a clear series of supporting reasons why—even if they are hard for you to hear.

Remember, your agent does believe in the manuscript—she never would have shopped it at all if she didn’t—but belief alone doesn’t sell books, or my butler would be writing this from my private island. Sometimes, too, we agents can believe in the author a little more than the book, and the idea of the first novel needing to get out of the way to get to the real gold is not a unique one.

When I signed Renée Ahdieh, I told her that I was going to go ahead and shop her first young adult manuscript, but that I had a feeling we were going to hear no. I also told her, however, that I had faith that whatever she applied her talents to next would sell. And that’s exactly what happened: The Wrath and the Dawn was her second eff ort, and a bestselling one at that. But I was very clear with her from the start about my intent.

In the end, the takeaway here is that if you keep looking to the left and the right, you may fall off the path. Clarify with your agent why she is looking forward to what’s next, and thoughtfully consider doing the same.

Ask Funny You Should Ask! Submit your questions on the writing life, publishing, or anything in between to with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on and in other WD publications.


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