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Not For Us

By: William Foster

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Not for us. Those three little words that are scribbled on the face of a writer's finely crafted query letter printed on high quality paper. Now, some would immediately conclude this to be the ultimate of rudeness, for even the slovenly would surely know manners and etiquette enough to retain a signed cover letter and return only the enclosed synopsis and sample chapters with a suitable response. But no, this breach of polite conduct is actually much tamer than one can imagine. For the real violation of civil business correspondence is far more blatant and contains a current of superiority and arrogance. And while it is true that not every being owning the title of "agent" falls into this camp of pride and airs, the numbers are weighted in an unfortunate direction.

First, let us examine the guidelines writers are asked to adhere to in the more popular resource books that are used to connect writer to agent. Professionalism, politeness, high quality, originality, and patience begin the list that describes a code of conduct that seems not only expected in a business relationship, but also very desirable by all parties involved. Yet, it seems that this standard might be one sided. For example, writers are told in one highly regarded publication to avoid the practice of sending form letters, therefore, taking time to research agents and agencies, and customizing the query letter. Furthermore, it would be in poor taste to have misspellings, poor punctuation, handwritten letters or the absence of a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Neatness is always appreciated, and so is respect. Well, this all sounds reasonable, but let's look at what many agents do in return.

It is far too common for a writer marketing a manuscript to receive form letters from agents, over-photocopied and specked, with apologies for the impersonal and informal correspondence, leaving a critical question looming in the writer's mind after reading a query response written with great economy of words. "Not for us", (because…). Hmm, that would be different, a reason, some guidance, acknowledgment that the material was actually reviewed. Well, no need to be offended by these "rejection" letters, dear writer. Your work can't really be rejected unless it was read. But take a further look at what some agents do as standard practice.

One, New York agent, in his form letter, states that, "there isn't anything about your work that interests me". Wow, nothing? Yikes! Another agent, this one in Arkansas, though in a letter that was personally typed, misspelled the writer's name, twice, had four of five sentences poorly constructed with a use of punctuation unfamiliar to anyone but her, and signed her name with, "Dr.", proceeding, with hopes of leaving a favorable impression. My, my, how should one react to this? Well, let's call this one, "dodging a bullet."

Now, some agents out there must be getting a little hot under the collar with these remarks. And you should, since your colleagues have molded this reputation that seems to be growing stronger. Some of you are indeed professional and view the writer as the reason for your trade, for without the author, well, you know where that leaves you. But your numbers are fading. And if you can honestly say that you do not subscribe to these practices, then you will be the role models others should emulate. Yet before you decide which team you belong on, think back and be certain where your actions place you. One highly respected New York agent, who writes one of the most popular guides to locating literary agents, appears to be among those who fail to utilize the SASE. Could these individuals really need postage that badly? Still, others bait writers with false hopes, ultimately charging editorial and reading fees.

Before you literary agents have the chance to wrinkle your nose and cry out your excuses, let's agree that time does not permit you to give personal attention to each piece of mail that crosses your desk. There, feel better? Hope so. But is this an excuse for an agent to allow a friend, boyfriend, etc., with no expertise in reviewing literary material, to sit around a stack of submissions and review them, as one writer in California related to me? Is this fair to writers who take their work seriously and make the effort to forge a professional writer/agent relationship when alternatives exist to publish without an agent? No, clearly it is not, and those agents who are guilty of this practice should be closing shop or publicly declaring that they are no longer accepting new material. Reform is necessary, and overdue. The rudeness has become commonplace; that is established, unacceptable by those on the receiving end, but none the less, established. And yes, time, even for writers, is a limited resource. That is were reform is screaming to take place.

Many agencies now report a rejection rate of over 99 percent on submissions. How can those numbers be true? How are agencies paying the rent? Is it possible, if queries are truly being read and considered, that placement of material can be handled through alternative means? One writer stated that he created his novel for both print and film, thinking ahead and keeping marketability in the back of his mind, using dialog that could transfer easily to film script, and locations that are real and accurately described. Is there not a possibility that this work could be marketed for film at the onset? That there is a chance for this work to turn out to be a success, leading to a book deal, foreign rights… Oh, there's that time factor again. But wait, doesn't placing material pay the bills? Well, it does. But there is another problem in book publishing: money, that is, money belonging to the publisher. Publishers only have so much to spend, and it seems to always be allocated to the same places.

Ok, we've read about it, you've experienced it, dear agent, and it is a fact that a lot of attention and marketing is directed to published writers, a sure thing on the shelves of XYZ Booksellers. But are there no options? Smaller presses are growing, and as they do, they are becoming more willing, and in fact, eager to locate new talent. And writers are discovering this, and are beginning to launch their own crusades, agentless. The advances may be small or nonexistent, but with a committed writer with a flow of material, the potential for greater endeavors is so strong. Charity work, you may think? Maybe, but is it worth the risk of not looking beyond your bolted doors? How many have passed on a project that still revisits your memory from time to time, a missed opportunity? How many have permanently alienated others with the type of behavior described above? How many care?

Some writers are turning to self-publishing, a viable option which should not be discounted, even though agents tend to view this avenue of publishing with great arrogance, dismissing credibility to the writer. And while plagued with risk and scam, the aggressive writer with enough business sense and stamina to undertake marketing and distribution can triumph. Clearly, this method isn't for every writer, but some have found great success in doing so and self-publishing shouldn't be entirely ignored. Some of the best know authors made their beginnings this way. Any guesses at what chance the abrasive agents have in trying to win over one of these successful writers after tossing them aside?

As the above mentioned and other careless and intentional infractions are being committed against the writer, something is being done about it. Resources are available to assist writers in locating agents but also serve to warn of those agencies and individuals to avoid doing business with. Websites such as, Predators and Editors, list agents and agencies, but clearly identifies those that are not legitimate and therefore, not recommended. These agencies violate industry standards and are reported for doing so, by writers who know that their voice will be heard and that they can make a positive impact for others. Yet, unfortunately, rudeness is not policed. It remains an element hidden in the landmine of life.

In addition, writers are experiencing a long overdue welcome by innovative individuals like those at WordShack Publishing, where the philosophy on building relationships with writers will shape the industry and provide an opportunity for writers to have their work read, by an international audience. is also an ideal website for readers looking for new discoveries by writers all over the world.

The world is a wonderful and changing place to be a part of. Great writing will always be with us, and will find a way out, a way to reach readers, for each writer has his or her own motivation for writing, and those determined to be published will do so. Over time, agents will change, or vanish. The literary arena simply cannot remain as it is. Great writing will be published.

As a final thought, I borrow, from an agent, a philosophy that was intended to be directed toward writers, but also can be reflected back to literary agents. Accept criticism, even when you disagree. Take time to think it over, and decide what is right and fair, to you and to others. It's not personal.

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