Although it's annoying not to know whether I'm waiting in potentially fruitful suspense or already safely rejected and recycled, I've seen some of the hostile letters that agents sometimes get in response to quite professional, or even encouraging, rejections. I can sympathize with an agent who has simply had it with getting threats and name-calling when she declines to offer representation. Looking back on the years I spent teaching freshman composition, I can think of some students I whose papers I wish I could have graded by non-response.
What I haven't figured out--and it may be unknowable--is how to tell when I've been kept waiting long enough for an answer that a particular inquiry no longer bears thinking about. Consider the following chronology:
At a pitch appointment, an agent requests a 100 page partial ms. Per her guidelines, I snailmail the partial to her within the week.
The agent's assistant emails to say something on the order of, "We're really excited about what we see here. Please send your bio." I reply with the bio within 48 hours.
Early December 2006
After waiting the customary 3 months and a bit before nudging her, I send a two-line email to the assistant asking whether she received the bio and whether there is any news. I wish her and the agent happy holidays. No response.
Late January 2007
Because literary agenting seems to be a business with a lot of turnover at the bottom, I allow for the possibility that the assistant I've been in contact with no longer works at that agency. I make bold to send the agent herself a 2 line email wishing her a happy new year and asking whether my work is still under consideration. No response.
June 2007 (today)
The agent's assistant sends me a cordial rejection email, approximately ten months after the agency's last communication to me and almost exactly a year after the agency received the partial ms.
Now, this is an agent who is not known for representing fantasy. She includes no writers of speculative fiction on her client list, and I've never seen her name in Locus. It was surprising that she requested the ms in the first place, and it would have been even more so if she'd offered to represent me. But what surprises me most is that her assistant thought there was any point in emailing me at all by the time June rolled around again, six months after I'd already assumed rejection by non-response.
Or was I wrong, back in January, to assume I was already out of the running? Is it really possible that, a year after the partial arrived at that agency, they were still in the process of making a decision about whether to request the full ms?
I suppose I should take it as a compliment that I rated a form rejection, in this age of rejection by non-response. At least I can guess my little nudge emails came off as sufficiently professional that the assistant wasn't afraid I'd send her a nastygram in return.
I wonder if I'll ever hear back from the other four agents who've requested manuscripts.
It's at times like this that I take comfort in remembering that Jean Auel got turned down by 18 agents before she found one who wanted to represent her. And I currently have exactly as many rejection letters from agents as J.K. Rowling ever got.