There's quite a controversy going on since this summer, as the "If you don't hear back from us in x amount of time, it means we're not interested" policy of some publishing houses has been increasingly adopted by agents.
Agent Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency wrote a post on her blog explaining "Why I don't send rejection letters" that talked about the negative karma of sending out rejections. (One of the commenters quipped "first time I've heard of an agent's karma running over a writer's dogma.") Jill was so swamped with negative reaction that she actually changed her query policy. She's still open to unsolicited queries, but says if the no-response-within-a-month-means-no policy doesn't work for an author, they should query a different agent.
Agent Rachel Gardner with Word Serve Literary Group also wrote about her agency's "If you don't hear back within 60 days it's a no" policy, saying "Cutting out the step of responding means I can read and consider twice as many in a given hour." (Rachel is also closed to queries at the current time.)
Agent Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary had a different take, in her post "No, you're wrong, and here's why," where she explained her system for sending rejections, and mused it might even give her a competitive advantage over agents who don't respond. (Janet's open to queries)
Former agent Nathan Bransford chimed in with his take on responding as well. He personally did respond, but agreed with Janet that he felt responding gave him an kindness edge. He also said, "I know it's frustrating as an author to send queries into the ether, but agents have every right to set their own submission policy, and if an authors doesn't agree with it they are more than welcome to query someone whose policy they prefer."
And agent Jennifer Laughran at the Andrea Brown agency explained the reason why they have both a no-response-means-no policy and an auto-responder to let authors know their queries were received. And yet she admits "But... I really do try to respond to things, at least with a one-line form rejection, despite the fact that our official policy is "No Response Means No." It is just a personal quirk of mine, I truly hate leaving loose ends."
The impassioned comments to these and other posts (hundreds and hundreds of comments) and many different conversation threads on kid lit listserves cried out for a reasoned, collective voice for authors to speak out.
Here's the Open Letter to the Industry SCBWI has published in response to all this:
THERE HAS BEEN much controversy of late about whether or not writers are entitled to expect a response from agents and editors to their unsolicited submissions. Many publishing houses have adopted the policy that no response constitutes a rejection of the project. More recently, some agents have begun to adopt this policy. If there is no response in a given period of time, which ranges from three to six months, it is assumed that the project was rejected and writers are free to submit their work elsewhere.
We at the SCBWI understand and are sympathetic to the rigors involved in responding to each submission. The last thing we want to espouse is additional unnecessary paperwork for editors and agents, whose time is best spent developing worthy book projects. However, a writer's time is also valuable, and the no-response system steals months or even years from our marketing efforts. The fact that a writer will never hear back about the fate of his or her manuscript leaves us hanging in limbo, never being sure that the manuscript arrived, was looked at, or was ever under consideration.
From the writer's point of view, never hearing back encourages us to undertake multiple submissions so as not to waste time waiting for an answer that may never come. This is clearly bad for the industry; more multiple submissions will further clog an already overcrowded pipeline. The SCBWI discourages mass submissions. We teach our members, and provide them with the tools, to target their submissions specifically to agents or publishers who have demonstrated an interest in a particular type of work. However, if our members never hear back, even in a form rejection or an auto-response email, how can they be expected NOT to mass submit?
There must be some way to accommodate the two sides of this issue by providing writers with the feedback we need without unnecessarily consuming an agent's or editor's valuable time. As an organization, we encourage both publishers and agents to find a cost-effective and efficient way to let writers know that they are free to submit elsewhere. Surely in this age of auto-response and other electronically sophisticated means, a quick and easy response click is readily available and would mean a great deal to writers who are trying to conduct their careers in a businesslike way.
Stephen Mooser, President
Lin Oliver, Executive Director
As published in the SCBWI Bulletin, November/December 2011 Edition
Illustrate and Write On,