Can I re-submit to an agent who turned me down?

November 29, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Several questions have come in lately regarding relationships with agents…

One person asked, “Is it okay to take a proposal that you previously submitted to an agent, rework it to resolve the problems, then resubmit to them, explaining that you took their advice to heart and made the changes they suggested?

It depends on the agent and the situation. Here’s how I approach it… If I see potential in your writing, but I’m not crazy about the particular proposal I’m looking at, I may say to you, “This has potential, but it also has problems. Here’s what I’d suggest you do in order to improve it. Try this, this, and this. Then you’re welcome to send it back to me for another look.” I don’t do that often, but occasionally I’ll see talent in a writer and that causes me to want to work with them a bit more. Other times I’ll just say to an author, “You have talent, but this story isn’t working. Why don’t you write something else, then resubmit.” (I do this even less frequently.) If an agent invites an author to resubmit, that means the agent sees something they like in the author’s work — so by all means follow up, do the reshaping, and resubmit.

The same person wrote this: “I had an agent send me a letter, but he didn’t really decline my project. He just said it’s not a fit for his agency. What does that mean? Should I reshape it and try again?”

It means he’s declining the chance to represent you. I receive hundreds of proposals. Sometimes it’s clear the author just isn’t ready. The writing is weak or the story is bad. In those cases, I just decline. I’ll usually say we’re declining without giving a reason. Why? Because it’s not my job to fix all the bad writers in the world. Unless they’re paying me to do an edit, I don’t feel a need to offer a lot of input. But keep in mind that sometimes I’ll tell an author I’m not a fit for a particular project. For me, that means exactly what it says: I don’t know what to do with your project. If you come to me with a book that I have no idea how to sell, it doesn’t matter if I like the idea — if I can’t sell it, it’s no good to me. So I’ll just say, “This isn’t a fit.” Maybe I’ll encourage you to keep searching, or maybe I really have no idea what to do and can’t answer any questions for you.

Different agents decline things different ways, so I suppose this could also be a weasley way of simply declining you. There used to be an agent blogger called “Miss Snark,” who would look at proposals online, and did a wonderful job of telling bad writers to go to hell. It was her way of saying, “Look, there are a million people trying to write books. I can only represent a hundred of them. Do the math.” So if I say to someone, “This probably isn’t right for me,” then take my word for it — it probably isn’t right. I’m not the guy for it. You don’t want me selling it. Trying to fix it and send it back to me won’t help me become the guy for it. Just move on to another agent.

And someone wrote and asked, “What does an agent want to see in a novel proposal — a full manuscript? Or a synopsis and overview?

Initially, I just want a query that gives me the basic story and reveals your writing ability. If I like it, I’ll ask to see sample chapters. If I like those, I’ll ask to read the whole schlamozzle. It’s become almost impossible to sell a first-time novelist without a completed manuscript.

Another wants to know, “What is the best way to meet agents? (I don’t live in the US.) And are agents and publishers looking for sci-fi novels these days?”

If you don’t live in the States, you’re going to have a hard time meeting an agent. You may want to invest in a visit, and perhaps attend a writing conference where you can be face to face with an agent. It’s always nice to meet your agent face to face, though I’ll admit I represent a few authors I’ve never met. But getting connected, getting to know one another, makes for a better long-term relationship. However, I’ll give you a secret: If you really want to catch an agent, the best thing you can do is to become a great writer. It’s true. Work and rework your manuscript. Hone your craft. Become great, then all you’ll have to do is send in your samples and agents will fight to sign you. Honest. There are few great writers, and I’m not sure I know any great writers who aren’t represented or published. Become a great writer and you’ll get published.

As for your sci-fi novel question (usually referred to as “speculative” these days), I’d say that, like always, the response is mixed. There’s a hardcore speculative readership with a small number of publishers. It’s probably grown in recent years, but it’s divided into new categories recently. (Are all the vampire  and endtimes novel speculative? Are all the science novels we’ve seen lately sci-fi?) If you’ll check my business website you’ll see that I don’t personally deal with much speculative fiction. It’s not my thing — I don’t read much of it, so I don’t sell much of it. But other agents who work with me handle it, so it’s best to run it by them. And remember, you don’t want to be chasing the market, you want to be setting the market. So write a great novel, and no matter what the category is, somebody will be interested in publishing it.

Got a question about publishing or writing? Send it along and I’ll do my best not to screw up the answer.

Posted in Agents, Proposals, Questions from Beginners

  • Karen Morris

    Thank you, as always, for the wonderful insight, Chip. I’m working to complete novel #2, and admit I’m rather gun shy after my first go-around with query letters. I had a lot of encouraging declines, and tried to look at book two with a better business mind when developing the plot. Hopeful I will prove to be a good fit to some lucky agent this time around.

    • chipmacgregor

      I’m sure it’ll happen for you, Karen!

      • Karen Morris

        Aw, thanks, Chip. You’re at the top of my list, so be warned – a query letter after the new year is imminent. :-)

  • Meghan Carver

    I always learn something new here, Chip. Today? “Schlamozzle.” Love it! Can’t wait to try it out on someone and see the look they give me.

    • chipmacgregor

      Schlamozzle — it’s a Yiddish word, and I think it originally meant “good luck charm.” But I learned it as “the whole big thing.” The full schlamozzle.

  • Rick Barry

    Schlamozzle. You just knew I couldn’t skim your post without stopping to look up this word I’ve never seen defined. The online definitions I found seem to offer a different usage, but I get your idea.

    Thanks for taking time to answer these!

  • Cherry Odelberg

    This is the wisest and most encouraging advice I have heard in a long time : “You don’t want to be chasing the market, you want to be setting the market,” Onward! Into the fog.

    • chipmacgregor

      I believe that to be true, Cherry. I see authors chasing the market frequently, and in my view they’re always behind the times.

  • Martha Ramirez

    Great advice, Chip. I have a question. What if an agent requested your ms, ended up rejecting it, and you reworked the ms before submitting to a publisher and got at offer?
    The writer prefers to be represented by an agent, should he/she take the chance to ask if that agent is interested in the publisher’s offer?

    I imagine if it is reworked they would like to see it. Maybe. But also, what about those mss that were rejected and not reworked yet a publisher is interested?

    • chipmacgregor

      Good question, Martha. I’d probably get in touch with a good agent and talk with him or her about your situation. But be aware that an agent needs to EARN his or her salary, not just step into a 15% commission for doing next to nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sharyn.kopf Sharyn Kopf

    “Schlamozzle.” Wasn’t that in the Laverne & Shirley theme song?

    Once again, Chip, thank you for sharing your insights! I plan to finish my ms by the end of the year, so I’m devouring any knowledge I can get as I prepare for the next step(s).

    • chipmacgregor

      You know… I think it was. I just realized that, Sharyn.

  • Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

    After reading this, I’m feeling quite honored at the proposed suggested changes, given the rarity of such an offer. :-) After ACFW, my family bought a house and underwent a crosstown move (those have to be the worst!)…so evenings have been spent unpacking boxes rather than reworking the craft book. But be on the look out for it sooner than later!