What Do Agents Owe You?

Last week, a number of agents weighed in on whether "no response means no" is a good policy. I have some ideas for making the whole rejection process easier on everyone, but ultimately I think it doesn't matter. Querying is hard. Rejection sucks. And agents can do whatever they like; I'm still going to query them all.*

* Well, maybe not the snail-mail-only agents. That's really difficult from out here.

I agree with all three agents linked above. Rachelle says not responding allows her to get through more queries (agreed). Janet says setting up an auto-responder and a simple form reject is not that hard and is better business practice (agreed). Nathan says agents don't owe authors a response (big agreed).

That last one is today's topic. Because while the agents involved have been very nice and logical and wise, a number of writers have commented with something along the lines of, "How dare you not respond to every query. That's just common decency! It's rude to treat your customers this way."

I once talked about the sense of entitlement readers have towards authors. This is kind of the same thing.

Here's the thing: Unless you have a contract with somebody, that somebody owes you nothing.

A contract, in this case, can mean many things. And we, the unrepresented, do have a contract with the agents we query, but it's not what you think. Even the AAR canon of ethics -- the closest thing there is to a moral standard for agents -- barely mentions "potential clients," saying only that agents shouldn't charge them for anything.

We are not their customers. We are not even their clients. We are, to all purposes, applying for a job.

It's just like sending out a resume, or giving a girl (or guy) your phone number. If they're not interested, they may or may not call. It's up to us to move on.

Most agents state clearly on their websites what to expect. For example, "We accept unsolicited queries, but unfortunately we can only respond it we're interested."

There's your contract. By sending an unsolicited query to an agent (the first half), we implicitly agree to no response unless they're interested (the second half). It's not legally binding, no, but if they say they don't respond, what right do we have to get mad about it?

If you don't like it, don't query them.

But what about common decency? Well, I would argue that common decency demands we look at it from their point of view and not make a big stink about it. Just accept the no response and move on. It's not like our chances of getting published are dependent on whether or not we get that form rejection from everyone.

Janet Reid points out that writers are also readers, and that it's better for business to be as polite as possible at all times. I agree, and you know what? Agents are readers too. When writers publicly complain about how agents are snobbish and arrogant and have poor taste, that's equally bad business. Probably worse.

What do you think about "no response means no"? Do agents owe us anything?


Lynne Matson said...

I don't think agents owe writers a response on queries. Not a bit. It's very nice when agents respond, but it's not owed.

And honestly, I don't mind the "no response means no." Selfishly, the only concern I had (with regard to this policy) when I queried my first novel was that the lack of response always left me wondering if the agent actually received the query. I'm a huge fan of an auto-reply from agents, a simple one-liner stating "we got it." It gives you query-closure, even for those agents who have gone the "no response means no" route.

In this digital age, I think agents get deluged with queries. So ultimately, each agent must decide how to handle that massively full query inbox, and the only writers who are "owed" anything are the agents' existing clients, not potential ones. It is a business, after all.

Great post Adam! I agree with you & your well-crafted points. Happy writing!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I agree with all your points except the "applying for a job" analogy. Because agents work for authors, not the other way around (something that's easily lost in the wildly out of tilt power equation in this business). That being said, anyone else who wants your business is more that entitled to set whatever conditions they like for accepting new customers/clients. The more potential clients they have, the more selective they can be about the conditions they set.

This is just business. (Something it probably would help everyone to remember!)

Adam Heine said...

@Lynne: I totally agree on the auto-reply. I think agents with a no response policy, but no auto-reply, might be asking for unnecessary status checks :-)

Heidi W said...

Yes. But...but an agency is a business. And good businesses should respond to all legitimate consumer requests. In my own business, I respond to every email (that isn't spam) regardless of whether or not I am going to enter into a contract with that person.

Granted--I don't get nearly as many emails/calls. So I understand the agents who have the non response policy, but I still think it is a matter of politeness.

And what concerns me is the slippery slope. Agents not responding after a request for fulls (this has happened to many of my CPers) and agents not responding to their clients' emails (two of my CPers have had this issue as well--and I mean no response from the agents for weeks and months). And it seems like not responding to queries might be pushing us even farther down this slippery slope.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Also, everything Heidi said ;)

The flip side of this is that about 2 months after I accepted my contract with my agent, a "no response means no” emailed me to say she'd like to sign me. This was about 9 weeks after her NRMN timeframe was up. She was *irate* I hadn’t let her know when I had offers on the table. I informed her that it happened a week after her NRMN six weeks was up.

I won’t quote her. It will make wonderful agents everywhere look bad. I will tell you that I finally said to her that she can’t have it both ways and suggested she change her policy if she felt that strongly. I hear she did just that three weeks later after the exact same thing happened with another potential client.

Heather Hawke said...

I mostly agree, but I have one quibble. If an agent is officially accepting queries, it is a solicitation of sorts. I do think in this case some kind of acknowledgment is owed. An auto-response seems the best option to me. It seems a win for agents as it would reduce multiple queries by people who don't know the first one was received. If an agent is officially closed to queries, then they owe absolutely nothing.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Adam. I especially like your analogy that querying is similar to giving a guy or girl your phone number-- if they're interested, they'll call. That's exactly what it's like. I haven't ever minded the no-response-means-no. I guess my only thought (at times) was wondering whether they received my email or not. But when it comes down to it, so few emails are actually LOST, it's not something to seriously worry about. My friend had problems at the submission level with her email going astray, but that's more likely due to inbox filters than anything else.

Good words, as usual!

Matthew MacNish said...

I was about to point out that aspiring novelists are not agent's customers, but then you cleared that up.

I don't think agents owe us a thing, and I'm fine with no response means no. I'd rather not read the rejections anyway.

It's really kind of a tough nut to crack, because I think there's logic behind all the arguments.

jjdebenedictis said...

I agree they don't owe us anything, but auto-responders are a great idea. I have had queries go electronically-amiss, and I just want to be sure what I sent arrived.

That said, I don't like the "no interest = no response" policy. I was glad to see Janet Reid's response in particular because it's nice to know agents realize their policies affect the order in which I query them.

Or rather, it's frustrating to think they don't know, because it doesn't serve either me or the agent if I query them third, rather than first, because of their policy on replying.

It's a relief to hear they're aware of this phenomenon.

Adam Heine said...

@Heidi: I definitely agree that it's polite and is good business practice. I can't see myself budging to the point where they owe it to us though.

As for the slippery slope, you are the second person to mention that. I have no problem with NRMN for non-clients (though doing it on fulls is a little much; I'd check up on the agent), but there should definitely be a response for clients. At that point, the agent is working for them and do owe them something, I think.

Adam Heine said...

@Anon 9:16: That's a funny story. I agree: they can't have it both ways.

@JJ: I've had queries go amiss as well, so I'm big on auto-responses too. Personally I'd almost rather not get the form rejections anymore, but I admit I sometimes query agents with a fast response before those with none.

Sarah Ahiers said...

i definitely side with the Janet Reid side of the issue. But then again, i typically do. That said, i've certainly never been angry or upset or frustrated about those agents who don't respond. I just don't query them as quickly as i do the Janet Reids. It's no big deal. The world still turns for both parties

Peggy Eddleman said...

I totally and completely agree with you. Very well said!