The Literary Agent’s Secret Code: What Every Rejected Writer Needs to Know

This post is in response to an agent who recently replied to me asking what exactly is it that I want him to do for me.

Eh? It’s like a surgeon asking you to tell him what you think is wrong and where the best place to start the incision would be. You don’t know!? Well if you don’t, how the heck should I?


Okay. So. I am actually thinking of doing it the other way round and starting an agency representing agents to writers. That way I can decipher, for all those bemused unrepresented scribes out there, what appears to be a sort of literary agent’s ‘secret code’ that’s designed to make the gates to the kingdom appear open and welcoming, whilst in reality keeping them firmly closed.

Seems reasonable. And hey, I can be reasonable too. I’ll only take fifteen percent of the same amount that an agent won’t make from your writing (in other words, nothing), as they have no intention of acting for you anyway.

Be that as it may, I’ll leave you with the code-phrases a writer needs to look out for in ascending order of importance and arch imponderability:

1. We’re currently accepting submissions’, which means: ‘You’ll never hear from us again’.

2. ‘We really enjoyed reading your work, but …’, which translates as: ‘Didn’t you know that by stating, ‘We’re currently accepting submissions’, we clearly, and unambiguously, meant we didn’t want to see your unsaleable rubbish in the first place?’

3. Every writer’s favourite: ‘Send us your full manuscript’, meaning; ‘You’ve waited sixteen weeks to hear back from us after having sent your trite synopsis and boring first three chapters that we didn’t want to see in the first place (you just don’t get it, do you – see previous two points), so by way of a suitable punishment, let’s string the whole torturous process out by a further sixteen months before we reject you anyway’.

4. Finally, this old chestnut: ‘Please include return postage if you want your materials sent back to you’; i.e. ‘Trust us – your unpublishable manuscript will be winging itself in precisely that direction before you can type: “It was a dark and stormy night.”’

Nope. Me neither.

Good luck!


5 thoughts on “The Literary Agent’s Secret Code: What Every Rejected Writer Needs to Know”

  1. Hey John, I’ll, er, take that as a compliment. Getting into your blog.
    I am familiar with The Plague, and have always been fascinated with Franz Kafka’s, The Trial, to which we could compare it, neither of which BTW could have got an agent today due to the ‘esoteric and existentialist’ nature (i.e. no reference to Kim Kardashian) of the text. No,I am not happy either.

    1. You’ve really hit the target dead center. Most of the greatest books in literature would be tossed in the trash in today’s “publishing market”. When did creative expression become just another commodity?

      I certainly meant it as a compliment. I thought your piece was brilliant! I laughed until I cried, then laughed some more. Do you want me to forward you copies of the over 1200 rejection emails I’ve gotten from agents and publishers? Naaah! You’ve obviously already seen them.

      Best to you in your writing. May the “market” never dampen your creative spirit, enthusiasm, and courage to tell it like it is.

  2. Not just “The Trial” – perhaps even more “The Castle”, where the dying man who has been trying repeatedly to get in and has been repeatedly frustrated is told that an entrance to the castlke had been kept open specially for him all this time and will now be closed.

    One thing you haven’t covered – why on earth in 2012 do agents still insist on hard copy, expensive to return?

    1. Haha! Good point Simon – great analogy. Yeah, the hard copy thing is wasteful all round at best! I get why an editor may want a hard copy at line editing stage – just to have a tangible good look at matters and strike through with a red pen! (I am surprised my editor doesn’t charge me by the quart for red ink!) But agents … who knows??!

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