Best of Ask the Agent: The Infamous Editor Shame Spiral

Plus, a new graphic novel recommendation!

Hi! I’m Jennifer Laughran, your literary agent pal. Every week, this newsletter culls the best questions & answers from my long-standing #AskAgent Tumblr. This week is a true classic — all about the Infamous Editor Shame Spiral. And if you don’t care about questions… scroll further down for a brand-new book recommendation! :-)

Best of Ask the Agent: The Infamous Editor Shame Spiral

Q: “Why would a publisher tell you they had been looking for a project like your novel for a long time and were enjoying the manuscript, then cease all contact, and not respond to two polite follow-ups? Isn't this really rude and unprofessional, not to mention getting a writer's hopes up? Why not just reject it? Seems strange to be so enthusiastic and then go completely silent.”

First of all, I want to acknowledge that this stings. I know it does, and I’m sorry. (This question was asked many years ago at this point, so hopefully things are looking happier at this point!) — Anyway. It IS arguably rude and certainly unpleasant, and it DOES get a writer’s hopes up, and editors & publishers SHOULD just reject things rather than go silent. And yet… here we are. 

I know a lot of editors and publishers (and agents, obvs). A lot. The vast majority of the people I know in publishing are kind and lovely bookworms, and NOT cruel assholes by any stretch of the imagination. They no more want to hurt an author’s feelings than they want to kick kittens or tear the wings off hummingbirds. This is actually where we get into trouble. See, the cycle happens like this: 

* Author (or Agent) sends material to Editor * – Nice editor is nice! She says “Wow, this sounds GREAT! I’ve been HOPING for something great like this! THANK YOU!” – and probably it does sound great. Things sound great when you are talking them up, right? Like you wouldn’t make a project sound shitty if you wanted somebody else to read it - of course it sounds great.

* Editor is severely overworked * – Nice editor says yes too often. Nice editor also does enough work for several people. Nice editor would like to see her family on occasion. So nice editor doesn’t get to this material. It sits unread on her tablet, with other things piling up around it, until…

* Agent/Author nudges editor * – kindly, but still. Hello! Have you gotten a chance to take a peek at this yet?

* Editor feels guilty * – Maybe she replies, sheepishly, that she hasn’t, but she’ll get to it ASAP! Or maybe she doesn’t reply, because she has a Brilliant Idea: “I’ll just read it really quickly and get back to them so fast that it is almost like they didn’t even have to nudge me!”… but then life happens… time passes…. maybe this kind-nudge sitch happens again…. eventually, finally, she reads the material…

* Uh-Oh * – She takes a look and either realizes it’s a pass, or she’s just straight-up on the fence about it. I mean it SOUNDED so good, but maybe it isn’t right after all. But maybe it COULD be? Am I the person to get it there? UGHHH maybe not – but the author worked so hard, and there are are so many great things about it! And the agent (and/or author) are so lovely – you know what? They deserve a wonderful, flowery, beautiful decline with so many kindly worded phrases and thoughtful grace-notes… this is a letter that will go down in history as the most wonderful rejection of them all! But… there’s no time to write such a letter. Not this week! This week is bonkers! Let’s put a pin in this until next week – by then surely everything about the world as we know it will have changed and there WILL be time to write such a letter. Time passes…

* Agent/Author nudges editor * – Slightly more testily, but still kindly!

* Editor feels guilty x10 * – DEAR LORD, has it been that long? I can’t possibly respond at this point, what would I even say? Oh my goodness I am SUCH a jerk! I can’t just write “sorry, no” – I have GOT to write that long flowery wonderful thing! And actually it should be even better, as that’s what they deserve for waiting so long! I should give them 30 pages full of notes! But I CAN’T!  AHHHHHH

* Editor descends all the way into shame spiral and never replies* 

* Agent/Author are left in WTF Limbo*


As you can see from this example – which I have seen play out countless times – usually the root of the problem is actually an overabundance of niceness combined with a surfeit of work combined with a lack of time. Seasoned, perhaps, with a touch of fear, anxiety, or a people-pleasing inability to say NO. It certainly isn’t every editor - and it certainly isn’t every time - but when it happens, it’s sucky for all concerned.

Personally? While constructive feedback and praise are quite lovely, I’d rather a quick “not for me, thanks” than silence or a lengthy wait for flowery words. And I’m sure most authors feel the same. But the point I’m making is, even in the event that an editor takes forever or just doesn’t respond – try not to take it personally. They are not being assholes or trying to string you along or insult you – it has nothing to do with YOU, and everything to do with THEM.

New This Week!

Like nonfiction? Like STEM subjects? Like funny graphic novels? Well, have I got a book for you! MACHINES THAT THINK is the latest entry in the Big Ideas That Changed The World series by Don Brown, and it’s all about the world of computers and technology from the earliest times to today. It’s a little history, a little biography, a little science - and a lot of DELIGHT!

(The first book in the series, ROCKET TO THE MOON, is all about the history of Space Travel and is similarly terrific - check out if you haven’t!)

MACHINES THAT THINK! by Don Brown - Abrams, 4/28/20

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x Jenn