Why Does It Take So Long?

dawn frederick

It’s that time of the year, in which I now get projects ready for the Fall, while also ensuring any materials requested before the summer were read (if received by 7/31). I personally set aside two personal deadlines every year to ensure I can make a dent in the requested reading materials, as the backlog of reading piles up and it takes many hours to get these items read. This generally happens at the end of June/July and the end of December annually.

Ironically getting these materials read is the hardest thing to get done, as the general daily tasks for being an agent (let alone running my agency) takes a lot of time and attention. I know not doing these tasks would set up my agency for failure and we would no longer be able to stay in business, so they can’t be ignored.

As a young agent in 2002, I honestly thought agenting would be a moment where I had lots of “free” time where I would get to read as much as I wanted. I learned quickly that this was not the case, that so many other tasks are part of the agent title. That’s why so many writers find themselves waiting such a long time for agents to get through these requested reading materials.

Here’s the general timeline for an agent (at least for me):

  1. The query is sent (while I’m open to queries). I will respond to queries received in that window of time, and delete any received while closed to submissions. This will take anywhere from a few days (if an idea jumps off the page) to a few months for me to respond to every query.
  2. I will usually request a partial (first 50 pgs) for fiction and a proposal/sample chapters for nonfiction. Once these materials are requested, they will then reside on my reading tablet until I’m in a frame of mind to dive into reading these materials. No author should want me to read their idea while I’m distracted with items needing attention in the daily tasks at the agency. I need to be in a specific mindset in order to get cozy with those potential ideas.
  3. If I like a partial, I will request the full ms. If I like the nonfiction idea, I will ask to speak to the author via phone (as nonfiction is sold via book proposal).
  4. If I am going to pass on the idea, I will need to set aside time to write a detailed rejection letter, with at least a few reasons why the idea didn’t personally connect with me. I do not have time to do a full professional critique (there are people you can hire for this), but I can provide a few clues on why I’m sending a rejection letter.
  5. If I request a full, there’s probably a good chance I will be reading your idea in the next 2-5 months (sooner is preferred, but usually it happens later). This is because I already have a full dance card, and I need to have time to ensure I read my active authors’ new book ideas too.

This means that for any author querying me, let alone most agents, it’s a good idea to budget somewhere of 1 to 6 months minimum—this includes if we request a partial, and then a full. We do not intentionally drag out the process, but there are so many tasks at hand, and a desire to ensure our current authors are given full attention, that most authors will find themselves waiting a lengthy time for a response from an agent.

So what does this mean for the person who wants to do an exclusive submission? That’s generally not a good idea, and most agents will not demand an exclusive. Additionally this means that taking the time to be strategic in whom you query, as well as ensuring your idea is fully “baked” is essential beforehand. It’s a great idea to ensure whomever you query is a good fit, since you will have to wait for this query process to play itself out for every agent.

The reality is that no agent will never force you to rush the process. While there is generally a level of anxiety that comes with approaching agents, please note we are each going to move at our own pace—as we will not generally read your requested materials within minutes of receipt. It’s best to budget potentially weeks/months, before we read your book idea. It’s not personal thing, we are literally trying to juggle our daily responsibilities with the creative side of our job. It’s to an author’s advantage to allow us to be in an open and creative mode (without the daily pressure of organizational tasks), so that we can hopefully enjoy and connect with the story you’ve created.

Lastly, I noted that the idea needs to be fully “baked”—in that the book that is being proposed has been fully fleshed out—that the writing is the best it can be and that the story is standing on its best legs. I find it disconcerting when I’ve requested someone’s book (partial or full) and realize quickly that it’s not remotely ready. I will do my best to read what is requested in its entirety, but if there are too many issues, I will stop reading as soon as page five of any book. This means that not only do I need to send a rejection, but now it will take additional time to write a letter that could have been avoided if the person had slowed down and made sure the book was fully ready for agent eyes. I do not enjoy sending rejections, but the teacher in me will always strive to provide some input that can hopefully help the author on the path to publishing.

This is why I have a very strict policy that I will not request a revise & rewrite if the book has too many issues. If the story is good, but there are some minor kinks that can be hammered out with a few more drafts—and I really like it, as well as the professionalism of the author, I will request the R&R, but this only happens less than 2% of the time.

Ideally, it’s always better if you take as much time as possible to make your book the best it can be. It will usually generate more interest from agents, as well as a smoother progression to publication. If the writing is strong, the odds are already in the author’s favor—and that also means I hopefully get the opportunity to work with that author too!