Make Me Jump off the Fence

So, when querying me, maybe you followed my guidelines, submitted an appropriate manuscript, and your work has much to recommend itself. So why am I not getting back to you right away? Am I ignoring you? I’m sure it feels that way, and I’m sorry.

What has probably happened is that your manuscript (and yours is not alone), has me sitting on the fence. Think about that expression. Who wants to sit on a fence? It can’t be comfortable!

I may be on the fence for reasons, including but not limited to:

  1. I have several submissions in your category and am unsure if yours is The One.
  2. I’m not sure if your platform is sufficient for me to take the leap.
  3. I’m unsure if your topic will work.
  4. I’m debating if your manuscript has a chance in a crowded market.
  5. I’m undecided about your writing style or voice.

What do all these points have in common? That’s right: uncertainty.

In other words, your submission is good, but is it one I think I can sell? As you know, reputable agents don’t charge a fee to market manuscripts to editors. I don’t get paid unless I sell your work, so we are partners. When your book is rejected, both you and I are rejected. I’m not shrugging my shoulders while pocketing your hard-earned fee. I’m taking a chance with you.

For everyone’s sake, I need the chance I take to be based on my knowledge and experience, not whimsy or even my high opinion of you personally. I have to be selective about the books I choose to represent.

Though this process has its frustrations, there are significant benefits. One is that editors don’t get swamped with hundreds of terrible manuscripts that authors paid agents to pitch. Instead, when an agent submits a proposal, that agent says she thinks the project will fit with the publisher and editor, and she is saying she believes in the book and the author.

So Now What?

Being ignored is no fun, but the most painful experiences are often the most instructive. Now is a good time to go back over your proposal and see what spark it’s missing that keeps it from getting a response. Or send out a proposal for a different project and see if that resonates. Whichever path you take, make sure the proposal and manuscript sparkle. Do everything you can to get the agent excited about you and your work. Make the agent jump off the fence.

Your turn:

How many books did you submit before an agent jumped off the fence?

What do you think is key to getting an agent to respond to a proposal?


51 Responses to Make Me Jump off the Fence

  1. Avatar
    Rebekah Dorris May 18, 2017 at 4:32 am #

    This is one of the most instructive posts I’ve seen on the purpose and process of finding an agent. I’ll plan to pass this on now when writer friends say, “I need an agent? What even IS an agent?” God bless!

  2. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray May 18, 2017 at 5:17 am #

    Tamela, the challenge (for me) is I do not know how to answer your question, because I do not know if the agent – any agent – is on the fence, or if my proposal has been rejected. It is not typical to get a “no” response from an agent. Some will respond with a “Thank you, but no thank you” response, but most simply leave me with the deafening and frustrating silence. Do you inform an author that you are on the fence?

    As for the second question, I suspect the author needs an irresistible platform. If I had 36,000 followers on Facebook, and 125,000 blog subscriber email addresses, that would be likely to get a nod of approval.

    The photograph of the kitty on the pointy fence is adorable, by the way.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 9:09 am #

      Damon, I don’t usually say, “I’m on the fence,” but it’s true that no news can be good news. I do try to let the author know I’m still reviewing, though. There are many reasons for a review to take awhile, in my case most often because of the volume of my workload. With agents, just keep in touch and you should get an answer.

  3. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 18, 2017 at 6:51 am #

    I’ve done my best, but no agent has yet jumped off the fence for me, and that’s OK.

    Had it happened, my life today would be different, and the graces and blessings changed. I don’t want to wish away today yearning for a past that never was, and will instead just do my work with a full and sincere heart, and let the Hand of God form tomorrow.

  4. Avatar
    Carol Ashby May 18, 2017 at 7:48 am #

    Your agency is stellar because you actually do respond to proposals with a rejection notice instead of ignoring them while authors hang there, waiting for a response that never comes. When you are on the fence, how long do you remain there before you let the author know that you’re still considering the work? Even hearing that your work is in the maybe pile instead of the ignore pile would be tremendously encouraging.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 9:11 am #

      Carol, I don’t have a standard time to check in, so it’s a good idea for authors to prod me. Oops, I guess I’d better check in with my assistant now… 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Katie Powner May 18, 2017 at 7:52 am #

    This reminds me of the rare evening in our home when the kids are in bed on time and my husband and I think “hey, let’s stay up and watch a movie!” (Again, let me emphasize this is rare, LOL.) We scan Netflix looking for something decent and end up “on the fence” regarding most of the movies or shows. Is this worth missing sleep for? Is there something else we’d like better that we just haven’t found yet? Didn’t we watch one kind of like that last time?

    Sometimes we never find anything and end up watching a couple funny clips of Jimmy Fallon on YouTube and going to bed. Better luck next time. But sometimes a movie pops up on the screen and we both sit up and say “That’s the one!” I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly makes us both sit up like that, but we are then off the fence and diving in.

    An agent’s proposal perusal process is kind of like that, right? 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Richard New May 18, 2017 at 8:14 am #

    I appreciated this blog very much. It provided me with more information as to what’s going on within the agent’s head. Other blogs have mentioned what goes on within the agent’s office as the piece makes it’s way towards the next rejection point. Too bad a beginning author (me) can’t see and understand all of this ahead of time.

    And an author refining a piece to it’s most polished and perfected point still seems like a hit-or-miss attempt.

    Oh well, try, try again.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 9:13 am #

      Richard, I’m glad this post helped you. Authors can increase their chances by being as informed about the market they’re aiming for as possible. Yes, write and polish your best work, but have an idea where an agent might take it.

  7. Avatar
    Judi May 18, 2017 at 8:35 am #

    Great information. Thank you. I do have a question. When we get no reply from an agency that typically replies with rejections, and we go back to examine our proposal and find it could have sparkled more, then what? Is there an opportunity to get some fresh sparkle in front of the agent without crossing the lines and being a nuisance? Or have we simply missed our chance with that agent and should submit a reworked proposal to another?

    • Avatar
      Christine L. Henderson May 18, 2017 at 8:48 am #

      I would love feedback on this as well. I sent in a proposal to an editor and included the synopsis, but neglected to send in the first 3 chapters as part of the guidelines (of which there were many) Should I resubmit or move on to another source?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 9:14 am #

      I look at reworked proposals all the time!

  8. Avatar
    CJ Myerly May 18, 2017 at 8:50 am #

    This was insightful.

    My current WIP is my second manuscript, but the first I’ve considered submitting to an agent. Since no agent has seen my work, I’ve yet to have them on or off the fence.

    I think the key is that something in the proposal must set it apart. It could be a unique twist, voice, or characters that are just so much fun you can’t help but want to read more about. Just a thought. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Joey Rudder May 18, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    What a great post! This really helps me to see what it’s like to sit in your chair and all that is going on “behind the scenes.” You are so careful with writers’ hearts, and I thank you for that! Yet you still give us the “tough love” we need to grow and become fruitful in the publishing world. May God bless you!

    As for me, I’m waiting and praying as things are lining up. I haven’t approached an agent yet, but I’m taking all of your advice (along with all the other great information from Karen, Dan, and Steve posted here). So I guess I’m waiting, praying, and learning! 🙂

    Thank you, Tamela!

  10. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson May 18, 2017 at 9:49 am #

    I cannot imagine the mountain of submissions an agent must go through and the tough decisions you face. Saying “No” can’t be easy when you know writers are biting their fingernails, hoping and praying for that thrilling “Yes!” I submitted one proposal during the time I sought an agent simply because it was the only one I’d prepared. I continued working on my next WIP and prepared the next proposal when it was completed.

    In order to get an agent to notice your proposal, I think it should first meet the requirements of submission. It should be free of misspelled words, be written in a professional manner, and all sentences tightened to get your point across without excess words. The hook must be so intriguing that it captures the agent’s attention.

  11. Avatar
    Edward Lane May 18, 2017 at 10:04 am #

    I have to ask you what the maximum word count is for a novel which will make you jump off the fence? I have 3 manuscripts and I need to cut back on 2 of them on my word count to be considered, I SUSPECT. Do you ever get hurt falling off the fence?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 10:21 am #

      I’m reluctant to consider anything over 100,000 words. This now means that tomorrow a big publisher will contract for a ten-volume series of 500,000-word books!

      As for falling? I’m not too accident-prone. 🙂

      • Avatar
        Edward Lane May 18, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

        Very helpful! I have to find 20,000 words to cut somewhere to get you to consider abandoning the fence!

        • Avatar
          Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

          I think it’s easier to cut than to add! 🙂

          • Avatar
            Edward Lane May 18, 2017 at 11:44 pm #

            It would be a whole lot easier to figure out which words to cut if a brilliant agent were to show some guidance.

  12. Avatar
    Deanna Smith May 18, 2017 at 10:07 am #

    I sent you a query a couple weeks ago and have since signed up with a writing mentor to comb back through my entire manuscript to polish and tighten. I did this based off the recommendation of another agent, and I’m feeling a lot of regret that I didn’t know to do this before I queried you. Having a writing mentor is incredibly helpful, and I am so pleased with the new shine on my book! I guess this is another thing on my very long list of lessons learned. The hardest part of all of this for me has been timing. I know I have a good book. But praying and waiting for the right timing for publishing has been tricky. Anyway- thanks for this post. It’s helpful to know that it’s tricky on both sides. I appreciate you taking the time to share your wisdom this way.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 18, 2017 at 10:23 am #

      I’m glad you’re making progress and enjoying the process, Deanna! And you have a second chance with agents.

    • Avatar
      Lynda May 24, 2017 at 5:36 am #

      Hi Deanna Smith, interested in what you mean by writing mentor?

      • Avatar
        Deanna May 25, 2017 at 5:53 am #

        Hi Lynda- basically my mentor makes
        editing suggestions on a few pages and then outlines the concepts behind the edits for me to apply to the rest of the manuscript. I send new pages whenever I’m ready for the next round.

        • Avatar
          Lynda Harlos May 26, 2017 at 6:38 am #

          Thanks Deanna, can I ask where did you find a mentor and what is the price of something like this?

  13. Avatar
    Nicola May 18, 2017 at 10:20 am #

    Thank you. I just saw that you look at reworked proposals. I hadn’t really thrown in the proverbial towel but was close to it. I’m taking classes, working on outreach and polish, polish, polish.
    Thank you.

  14. Avatar
    Glenda May 18, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    Instructive post, Tamela, thank you! Working hard here in the Pacific Northwest to craft a vivacious manuscript and proposal that delivers a win-win-win-win for the agent of God’s choosing, a publishing house, readers, and me

  15. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee May 18, 2017 at 11:44 am #

    Tamela, thanks for the great posting, as always. My first proposal was picked up by an agent….we are still working on getting a publisher off the fence!

  16. Avatar
    Jerusha Agen May 18, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

    Another helpful and informative post, Tamela! Thank you for letting us peek behind the curtain into the agent’s inner workings. One question for you, if you’re on the fence about a proposal with sample chapters, do you usually ask to see the full manuscript before jumping off the fence?

  17. Avatar
    Patti Jo Moore May 18, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

    Wonderful post, Tamela – – thank you! Your comments make it easier to understand the agent’s perspective.
    And I LOVE the kitty photo – – makes me want to gently lift him off and give him some tuna! 🙂

  18. Avatar
    Sharee May 20, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

    Thank you Tamala, this was so helpful and encouraging. I appreciate that you’re willing to look at reworked proposals.

  19. Avatar
    Lynda Harlos May 24, 2017 at 5:38 am #

    Great Info: Thanks.
    Working on building a platform has been my biggest struggle as I don’t like to play the bait and hook with people. I want authentic followers.
    Do you have an article or tips on how to build an effective platform?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

      Lynda, authentic followers are best, as you noted. I recommend following Edie Melson for the most up to date information on platform.

  20. Avatar
    Justin Swanton May 29, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

    Tamela, I’m impressed that you reply to all the posts. I don’t see that often. 🙂

    One question: I’m curious about the ratio between supply and demand, i.e. do you get a lot of good manuscripts – good enough that if there was only one in the slush pile, you would certainly take in on board – or do you get a lot of so-so to bad manuscripts and a few good ones, most of which make it?

    In other words, how many competent and interesting writers don’t get published simply because there are too many of them?

    Be brutally honest – we need to know.

    God bless,


    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2017 at 12:21 pm #

      Justin, I am still getting caught up from a conference so I just now saw this. I try to take as many great manuscripts as I can. The ones I reject that are great are those that don’t fit with my list or there is another definable reason that I try to share with the author. Hope that helps!


  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 05-25-2017 | The Author Chronicles - May 25, 2017

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