Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SCBWI's Open Letter to the Kid Lit Industry About No-Response-Means-A-Rejection Policies

One of the powerful things about SCBWI is that it functions as a collective voice for authors and illustrators.

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,


Linda Zajac said...

Why don't publishers that don't return manuscripts require a postcard INSTEAD of an SASE? The postcard would look like:

_ yes
_ no

1. It's fast and easy to check off a box and put a postcard in the mail? It doesn't require moving a manuscript to another envelope, sealing it and dealing with incorrect postage.

2. The writer gets a definite answer!

3. A postcard costs less than an SASE for a manuscript.

4. Editors could add some quick comment to the postcard if they felt like it and had the time.

What do you think?

Jim Hill said...

Thanks for posting this, Lee. And thanks to Stephen, Lin and SCBWI for looking out for the best interest of the content creators that fuel the industry.

Kathleen Foucart said...

I completely understand that "no response means no" frees up an agents' time, and gives them more time to read submissions and work with their current clients. However, I personally find it even more disheartening than a rejection to simply never hear back.

I've also had emails or responses get caught in spam folders or simply disappear into the internet-ether. Even with an automated response saying a query was received, that does not guarantee that I will see a response, should one be sent to me. With a "no response = no" policy, I certainly wouldn't be following up if I hadn't heard back! It could lead to a missed opportunity for both agent and author (and no author wants to be thought unprofessional for not responding to an interested agent!).

I'm not sure there's a "perfect answer" to this issue, because I do see both sides, but it is something worth discussing. Thanks for the post, Lee!

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate SCBWI's stance. Writers need to respect and appreciate how slammed agents are, but at the same time, agents should give writers the courtesy of a three second auto response to save us months of wondering.

I'd even be satisfied with a one word, "Nope."

Great post!

Julie Hedlund said...

GO SCBWI! I also agree with Kathleen that a no-response feels worse than a rejection.

Mandy Hubbard said...

I wanted to respond, becuase I think some of the facts are being misrepresented, and also because I think the article is rather unbalanced.

I'm both an author and an agent, and for the record, I respond to all of my queries with a request or a form rejection, and respond to all full mansucripts with as much detailed feedback as possible.

However, I do not have a problem with agents who conduct themselves differently, and I think they're being unfairly villainized.

1) None of these agents made the decision to do "No response means no" without a fair amount of agonizing. It was something they felt had to be done in order to continue to be an effective agent. I've only been agenting for 18 months, but I'm absolutely amazed at how long it takes to just conduct business-- responding to emails, working on editorial letters, following up on submissions, etc. I get up at 5 and I'm working all day, and I work until past 10 on many nights. I liken it to a conveyor belt that never stops moving. There is never a single point where I am 100% caught up and have nothing to do for my existing clients. Time is finite. It's not that "it only takes three seconds to send a form response." It's that you're asking for an agent to make clients which he or she DOES NOT INTEND TO WORK WITH the priority OVER conducting business which is presumably earning them their income. If there are eight hours in a work day, trust me when I say there are more than 8 hours worth of things to do.

2) By "requiring" an agent to send a response, you're slowing down their response times. This means authors actually wait LONGER for an answer, and that an agent may very well end up missing out on projects becuase they're still 100 queries away and plugging in form rejections.

3)I don't quite understand the logic behind this quote: "However, a writer's time is also valuable, and the no-response system steals months or even years from our marketing efforts." Firstly-- see above. For some agents switching to a respond-to-all policy would actually leave writers waiting longer. But secondly, how does no response steal any time from a writer any more than submitting and finding out three months later than you're being rejected? Regardless of whether you'll ever hear from that agent, you should never be sitting around, twiddling your thumbs, but rather continuing to query and work on your next project.

4)Further, I'm not sure how this is relevant: This is clearly bad for the industry; more multiple submissions will further clog an already overcrowded pipeline. The SCBWI discourages mass submissions.

-Multiple submissions are an expected part of the business, and are in the best interest of the writer. You don't want to hang around for months waiting for one or two answers. But even if an agent changed their submission policy and replied to all queries-- are you really going to reduce the number of agents on your query list? Presumably you've done your research and you're being smart about it. The word "mass" submissions seems intentionally misleading-- perhaps 5 or 10% of agents are no responders. There's likely less than 100 agents who are truly a great fit for you. So even if you did increase the number of agents due to the no responders, you're talking a small handful of agents. There's no "mass submissions" involved here.

If I sound a little short here, I apologize. It's a frustrating situation for agents, as well, not just authors. These agents are VERY uprfront in their submission policies, and it is the WRITER who chooses who to query. I'm not sure why, then, SCBWI is formally 'calling out' agents whose policy they don't agree with. I think you guys would have been better served educating your writers on making smart choices and reading submission guidelines so they knew what to reasonably expect when they queried.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Maybe it's because I come from a more corporate background, but I don't agree that every agent or editor should respond to what are essentially cold calls. Some choose to and I do appreciate that about them. But having a no response policy will not stop me from submitting to an agent of my choice.

I do agree that an app or something similar could/should be created that allows the writer to know that the submission made it to its destination. There are more glitches in the system these days and an increasing number of e-mails that never get where they were supposed to go.

If this same application could also be as simple as deleting a submission (and also delete the submission), then an auto-rejection could be sent out as the submission made it's way to that electronic trash can.

Whether or not such an application could be created and not be cost prohibitive is another question entirely.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

I think Linda Zajac's idea is a great one. Easy, quick, cost-effective, and solves the limbo problem!

Anonymous said...

Who gives a flip about agents or query letters anymore? I'm going to e-publish, and so are thousands of other writers. We've had enough of an outmoded system that robs us fair royalties and creative control.

Anonymous said...

My comment is to Mandy Hubbard,

You say only 5% of agents don't respond to queries, yet I sent 69 queries and only received 14 responses.

80% Did NOT reply to my query.

Andrea Wenger said...

When people I don't know solicit me with products I don't want, I don't respond to them. Why should literary agents? Come December, when they're inundated with NaNo books from people who haven't bothered to edit, why should agents have to reply to all those clueless wannabes? Writers should assume that every submission is a rejection until they hear otherwise.

Anonymous said...

So, let me get this straight, agents don't have to reply to a query. Okay. However, if you submit to multiple agents and get a positive response from one, you are expected to contact all agents that you have not heard back from to tell them that someone else is interested? How about we (authors) don't do that anymore? You don't want to take time to contact us? We won't take time to contact you? Let's see how you like wasting your time on a manuscript only to discover that another agent snagged it before you did.

Sharron said...

When I got my SCBWI newsletter, I thought long and hard about this issue. Even wrote about it on my blog. I'm still going with my first thought.

I can send my unasked for submission via certified mail and know it gets to its destination. It costs more, but that's part of the business, IMHO. I don't expect a response.

HOWEVER, when I put SCBWI member on the lower left hand corner, I always get responses. Being an SCBWI member does carry weight!

Second, there is a difference between entitlement and correspondence. I write something and I like it and work hard to make it the best it can be. But that's my choice. My choice also to send it out. I am not entitled to have it looked at, if it's a 'cold call.' The publishing house/agent doesn't have a duty to respond to me. It would be nice. But we have not entered into a contract. I'm just hoping, with fingers and toes crossed, that it will find its way off the slush pile and into someone's hands. That's the chances I take as an author.

I wish it were different. I wish I were entitled to be read. I'm entitled to write. That's about it.

Linda Zajac said...

I currently have a proposal at a publisher that does not return manuscripts. It's been there a long time--almost a year and a half. That's a lot of my time. Six months after it was submitted, the editor wanted to see another chapter I had completed. Six months after that, it had been there a year and again there was interest in new developments I informed the editor of. I am a serious professional writer who has invested a lot of time waiting on this manuscript. I have been patient with their decision making process and mindful not to send it all around town when one editor has it. If somewhere along the line this turned into a "no," it sure would be nice to know that.

LC said...

@Andrea: Your analogy is faulty. First, it's not your job to respond to unsolicited product offers; however, it's the very definition of the agent's business model. Also, I doubt you're fending off people trying to give you money.

The "cold call" analogy is also faulty. Agenting is a service industry and authors are an agent's customers; without them, the agent won't make any money. Author submissions are not boiler-room hard-sell calls from Florida. Instead, submissions are like calling on any other service professional -- doctor, lawyer, realtor, whatever -- to see if that professional can provide a service for which they'll be paid. Lawyers don't take on every potential client who calls them, but I doubt many non-superstar lawyers would survive long by refusing to return calls from potential clients.

Would agents appreciate having editors follow a "no response = no" policy toward them?

As several people have pointed out, any reasonably well-featured email system can send auto-replies. It takes no agent time at all to use this feature to send back "I got it" messages to all submissions, so at the very least we know our emails didn't go into bit heaven. A canned "no thanks" message takes only slightly longer. Three seconds each over 200 emails a day? That's ten minutes, folks.

I appreciate that agents are busy. Right now, anyone with a job is busy. My job works entirely on email and the phone; I know what would happen to me if I stopped responding to emails. We're not asking for agents to sharpen a quill and write a long personal letter on parchment, we just want to know you got our submission and that you made a decision. Use the tools you already have! If your email package doesn't allow for auto-responses, get one that does. Take the couple minutes to set up the "no thanks" template. We'll all thank you for it.

lach said...

Well what you need is a "No" app for Iphone that utilises their Siri thing- I'm sure it couldn't be that hard.
you'd just say "No to submission Joe Bloggs" to your phone-
and it would complete the form email or text message and send it.
Possibly taking 4 seconds of time.

Nikki McCormack said...

I also understand the agent side of the issue, but I have to agree that no response at all feels more discouraging than a rejection. It's like throwing your work into a black hole.

P. Kirby said...

Good for SCBWI. I'd far prefer a one-line form rejection to the "no response..." response. It's [no response] is rude and unprofessional. Yeah, I know. Shame on me. I'm supposed to be slobberingly grateful that anyone is taking submissions at all. Well, bleh, I'm not. Given that the "no response" approach probably generates multiple submissions from nervous Nellies, it no doubt clogs the system up even more. While I certainly sympathize with the agents' workload, I know it only takes a few seconds to send off a form rejection. Responding to correspondences in a timely manner is part of doing business. It doesn't speak well of professionals who take shortcuts.

If an agent says they are open to submissions, they are "soliciting" queries, i.e., those authors who respond aren't cold-calling. The slimy copier salesman who shows up at my business--uninvited--is cold-calling. I didn't put a sign out saying: "We'd love to hear your proposals for taking care of our copier needs." If we did, however, then we should expect a plethora of salesman to come calling and they are entitled to a polite response.

DebbieV said...

I do not have an issue with the no response means no policy unless there is no time frame given. There are some publishing companies that do not tell me when to consider my manuscript as not responded to. That leaves hope constantly open where none may exist.

A postcard would feel more polite, but it is not as necessary as something as definitive as a date on my calendar.

Matt Forrest said...

I just came across this thread and wanted to respond to both sides of the debate.

First, we have to understand that this is a business and that, as a writer, I am cold-calling an agent or publisher with my query letter. I know some folks don't believe this is a correct analogy, but it's true - we are contacting businesses out of the blue with a sales pitch, and the businesses can take it or leave it. It's their prerogative.

The flipside of the no-response policy, of course, is that we writers have no idea if our queries ever even make it to the intended recipients. I would hope that agents and publishers would understand that by having - and publicly stating - their submission guidelines, they are encouraging queries. They thereby draw the ire of writers by seeming to ignore that which they are requesting...and in this age of email submissions, who knows what gets lost in cyberspace or sucked into Spam Filters? As has been suggested, a simple auto-responder saying, "thanks, we got it" would be sufficient for me. (If you don't like it, I won't expect to hear from you, but at least let me know you received what you had asked for!)

Do I like the no-response policy? Of course not - I have no idea what happened to the query! But as long as agents and publishers are at least willing to accept my submissions, I'll keep hoping they don't end up in the "Junk Mail" folder.