Chip MacGregor

December 4, 2012

Why does it take so long to hear from an agent?


I’ve had several questions about literary agents recently, including…

Some wrote and asked, “I just waited four-and-a-half months for an agent to give me a response to my proposal. Why does this take so long?”

Well, any good agent is busy, so it takes a while to sort through the ever-increasing stack of ideas. We used to get in between 200 and 400 proposals each month, many of them from people I’d never heard of or had any contact with. Many of those we simply delete, since it’s not my job (nor do I feel a moral obligation) to personally coach every wannabe author. The ones with promise we’d review. But there’s no guarantee that I’ll respond to a cold submission. So let’s be clear about one thing: If you just send in a blind query, to an agent you’ve never met nor talked to, you may never hear from that agent. I don’t respond to most unsolicited queries. I have someone look at all of them, and if something strikes us as interesting we might ask for more information, but I don’t have the time or inclination to respond to everyone who wants to write me. On the other hand, I do respond to all projects I ask to see, and try to get back in a couple months. 

I’d say the normal response time for most agents is usually in the 6 to 8 week range, and I think it’s fair to say at some times of the year we get busy, and it takes us longer. But it’s not that we’re trying to take a long time — I’ve got people I already represent who need me, and that’s the first priority for any agent. I state clearly on my website that I don’t have the staff required to manage every unsolicited request, since the bulk of my time goes toward my current authors, but I understand the frustration of having to wait. It can get frustrating. Recently there have been stories about angry authors attacking literary agents for turning them down (true story: a rejected author physically attacked an agent in New York recently, and the FBI is investigating the verbal attacks of one nutjob on some agents via email), so you may find more agents being reluctant to respond to proposals coming in over the transom. I should also note that I have a list of qualifiers on my site (things like “I don’t represent poetry”), but I’m regularly surprised to find people have sent something to me without taking five minutes to check and see if I represent it (“Here’s my book of poetry — I hope you’re as excited as I am!”). So do your research before sending. But, to clearly answer your question, if it’s been more than four months and you haven’t heard a word, my guess is that the agent isn’t interested, or at least isn’t enthusiastic. Sorry. 

Another writer wants to know, “Should an agent be paid 15% of writing jobs the author sets up? For example, some houses pay a flat rate for non-royalty projects. If an author has an on-going position writing articles or curricula, is that something the agent should expect to be paid on?”

That depends on your agreement with your agent and the situation in question. For example, I don’t represent magazine pieces — they don’t generally pay enough to matter, and authors get twitchy when an agent wants 15% of a $200 payday. So check your contract to see what your agent gets paid for. I have a friend who has regularly set up part-time editorial jobs and magazine pieces for an author, and since he was responsible for it happening, he earns a commission on each piece. I represent Keri Wyatt Kent, who has written for several magazines and websites. When she generates a writing job, I’m not paid a commission. But she also has done book and collaborative projects, and I’ve generally negotiated and been paid a commission for those project. And yes, it can be sticky if an author turns up a freelance book-writing job on his or her own. My advice would be to talk this over with your agent before you face the situation, so that you’re both clear and there aren’t any hard feelings. I don’t want to make my own process normative for everyone. Some agents have created the entire career for an author, and their agreement calls for the agent to be paid on every project that author does.

A fellow agent wrote to tell me, “I was at a conference recently where an editor for one publishing house was inviting every writer to send in a manuscript, then was following up with a letter offering a self-publishing deal. Be aware — the sharks are not just on the agent side.”

I appreciate the tip. I haven’t seen this happen, but I checked with other agents and discovered they’ve seen this numerous times. It’s doubtful a legitimate publisher would pull this type of bait-and-switch, but be aware. And this would be a good time for me to add that there are plenty of good, honest literary agents out there. So don’t assume my recent diatribes are intended as an indictment of everyone. I’m not denouncing the profession, just tired of seeing authors get less-than-stellar service from some people in the industry.


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  • Becky Doughty says:

    Chip – I’m also wondering if the changes in the publishing aspect of the industry affect the amount of time agents have to spend on new clients, on their existing clients, and on landing publishing contracts. Does it seem to you like the funnel outlet is shrinking, but agents and other “gateways” are expected to do more in the same – or less – time? know it’s one of the things I’m concerned about….

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I think that’s a fair question to ask, Becky. Seems like we’re all busier than ever.

  • Rick Barry says:

    I’m sharing this URL with a new writer friend who hasn’t been able to understand why his queries don’t get a quick & courteous reply. I tried to explain, but your response clarifies that the reality has nothing to do with rudeness.

  • Ruth A. Douthitt says:

    Actually, I heard back from you and Amanda within days and for that I am truly grateful because I know how busy you both are. You provided feedback and encouragement. For a writer, that is priceless! Thanks again.

  • Iola says:

    “It’s doubtful a legitimate publisher would pull this type of bait-and-switch, but be aware.”
    Another blog I follow reported Penguin as doing this, and most people would consider Penguin as reputable as they come. There are worries that Simon & Schuster will do similar now with Author Solutions.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well, I hear these sorts of rumors, Iola, but don’t like passing along names unless I see it for myself. In this case, it was a medium-sized house that most folks would consider reputable.

    • Iola says:

      Fair comment. After all, most of what we read on the internet is hearsay rather than fact. Although I do give Writer Beware more credence than many other sites.

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