Chip MacGregor

June 20, 2016

Ask the Agent: How long should an agent take with my submission?


I’ve been receiving a number of questions about authors and agents, so I wanted to take a few weeks to explore agenting. Someone wrote to ask, “How long does it usually take for an agent to respond after receiving a requested manuscript?”

Everybody is different. I try to respond to people within a month, but this past year it seemed to take me two or three months before I could read and react to all the submissions. If you’ll check out the web site of literary agents, most will offer some sort of timeline in the two-to-four month range. I’ve heard stories of authors having proposals in to agents for eight or nine months, but my response to that would be: “Maybe you aren’t picking up the hint.” Look, if you’ve had something in with an agent for six months, and they haven’t so much as responded to your idea, it’s clearly not ringing their bell. Move on.

I should also note that I have a couple people who work for me who review manuscripts. Like most longtime literary agents, I don’t promise to read everything that gets sent to my company. I work with a couple people who have great editorial eyes, and they frequently take a first look at stuff coming in over the transom. And if something isn’t a fit, we may not respond at all. (In fact, it may not be read at all if it’s written in crayon, is a vampire novel, or warns me that I’ll go to hell if I don’t immediately read and get excited about the idea. Just so you know.)

This question also came in: “If an agent has asked you to send in a manuscript, is it wrong to continue sending out queries to other agents?”

Not in my book. The way I look at it, if I’m taking a couple months to review a manuscript from you, then you’ve got every right to use that time and try to see if some other agent might be a better fit. This should come with a warming: Not everyone agrees with me. Some agents do not want to be spending time exploring a project, only to find another agent is also considering it. So be careful. Research the agents you’re interested in working with, so that you link up with someone who’s a fit, not just someone who happens to be an agent. Oh — and one caveat to what I just said: If you and I start talking about your manuscript, and I give you substantive input into your work, that means I’ve made an investment in you and your career. I’m only going to do that with someone who really interests me, so be cautious of dismissing that. An agent who takes an interest in your work is telling you that he or she wants to continue the conversation. You’ll want to be up-front with them if you’re seriously in discussion with another agent. I had a tough situation last year — I’d spent an enormous amount of time helping an author resolve issues with her novel. When she then announced she was signing with somebody else, I was less than pleased. (May her name be blotted out of my memory.)

And one reader wrote to whine at me about agents not responding to his “potentially bestselling” proposal. His words: “I had this project in with one agent for nearly a year, and she never got back to me! I sent this to YOU several months ago, and you haven’t even answered! Why don’t agents do their job?

Um… I’m just including this question for educational purposes. To that individual, I say, “My friend, where exactly is it written that I owe you a response? My job is to run my literary agency. I mean, I work in the industry. I represent authors. I’ve got a thriving business going. And… that somehow requires me to reply to everyone who sends me their proposal? Sorry, Sparky, but that’s not how the world works. Lots of people write to me. And, uh, not to be impolite, but I’ve never heard of you. I don’t think we’ve ever met. (If we have and I’ve forgotten,you’ll have to forgive me.) I believe our only connection so far is that you decided to send me a proposal, for a project I’d also never heard of, just because you read about me in a magazine. And you did so apparently without checking our submission guidelines (though they are clearly posted on our web site). So the mere fact I’m a literary agent doesn’t automatically mean I owe you a response.  And you sending me rude notes isn’t what I would call a good mark in your favor.

“Think of it this way: If you write to the Mets and tell them you’re a relief pitcher, do they owe you a tryout? If you write to Citibank and tell them you’ve got an investment idea, do they owe you a loan? Business doesn’t work that way. I don’t owe you a response simply because you can spell my name and have figured out how to send an email. So take a lesson from all the hardworking writers out there — do some research, get to know some agents, get face to face with them at a conference, and base your writing business on relationship, not some misguided sense of entitlement.”

Sorry to be snarky. (Well… okay, I”m NOT really sorry to be snarky. But I got back from a trip, I”m tired, and this guy set me off.) Got a question about working with an agent? Send it along and I’ll take a crack at answering it. I’ll try to be nice.


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  • Shaun Ryan says:

    Well, I’m telling my 796 Facebook friends to block you, Mr. Snarky. 😛

  • Cameron Bane says:

    “Misstrer Makgregor. You wil be reely sory you didnt take me on as a cleint. My book was give to me by the Lord Ywhahah …Ywhhhwvh … Jesus, and youd better not mess with him bleeve you me. Reconsdr or else. I mean it. Your messin with cosmic stuff, man. Your freind, Clancy”

  • Judith Robl says:

    It’s unanimous! You are entitled to your snarkiness with that that guy. He doesn’t just impose on you alone. He offends those of us who take time to follow submission rules, who invest in conferences to make contact, and who consider carefully not only who might be the best fit for us, but whose literary lineup we might best fit as well.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Judith. And yeah, I tend to feel free to be snarky with people who are rude. (And then, unfortunately, sometimes I’ll fall into that same pattern. Dang.)

  • I like the snark actually. It says you are real and not afraid to be vulnerable which actually says a whole lot about your character. This is quite helpful, thank you. I can imagine the amount of reading an agent does is daunting.

  • Karen says:

    I like your snarkism— reading about some of the oafish behavior you deal with gives me an inside look at the real world of a busy agent. I think in our culture of entitlement, people lose sight of the reality that what agents do is business, and a business is about making money. If you were my agent, I’d want you to focus as much time and attention on my career as you possibly could!
    My question: I’ve read and heard that agents will pass on a project, even if they think the writing is strong, if they don’t have a place for it on their list, or if they don’t have a publisher in mind to present it to at that time. I’ve also read that it is considered taboo to re-submit the same book to an agent. Is it really submission suicide to re-query at a later date, when maybe that same agent may have a completely different set of needs and the project might be just what they are looking for?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      What a great question — and one that deserves a blog post sometime, Karen. The short answer: Sure we do. I’ll turn down a project if there’s just not room on my list at the moment. That does NOT make it a bad project. Of course, I’ll always tell the author “don’t give up — this is good,” and perhaps try to send him or her to another agent. But that’s tricky, since other agents aren’t looking for referrals from me. Will promise to write on this sometime, Karen.

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