The Absence of Yes: Why Agents Don’t Answer Your Email

April 21, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Di Brown

I’m querying a memoir.

Is there any single sentence in a writer’s life that is as debilitating, exhilarating, and soul-crushing?

Got a gut-wrenching story that took a decade to live, two to recover from, and five years to write? Summarize it in two to three paragraphs. Synopsis. Outline. Show the arc. Outline your platform. Demonstrate the market. Do it really well and an agent might glance at the first ten pages. Or not.

In most cases, I’ll never know. Because agents don’t write back. I’ve sent out ten queries this month, and I’ll be lucky if I get a response to even one of them. Is there a silence more deafening than a four, six, eight, twelve week wait that ends in…nothing?

“If I handled my mail the way agents do,” I whined to another writer, “I’d get fired in a heartbeat. Months-long waits? No status updates? Don’t bother to respond at all? Not a chance.”

“But…you do the same thing.”

“Are you KIDDING me? I most certainly do not!”  I work in IT. I have the stats to prove how quickly and consistently I reply.

“You answer every person, every message?”

“I’m sure I occasionally miss a few but overall, yes.”

“Every network management company, training provider, security vendor…”

“Well, not all the cold-call sales spam, unless it’s something we have a need for, but all the people…

And that’s when it hit me: In that agent’s inbox, I’m the spam.

I see my queries as a business communication: Dear Agent, let’s chat about this project and see whether we can team up to get it off the ground. I can’t conceive how they could simply ignore it, disregard the courtesy of even the most perfunctory reply.

But to the agent, I’m not “people.” I’m one of a hundred cold-call messages they received yesterday. A hundred messages they need to dispose of to make room for the hundred that will arrive today. The people in their mailbox are clients, publishers, editors, media outlets, reviewers, lawyers, and book club reps. I’m the sales spam. And that agent is managing their day the same way that I manage mine.

But I’m a writer, not a salesperson.

A lifetime ago, I worked for a telemarketing company—in the office, not on the phones. I was not cut out for sales. I worked with some amazing sales reps, and even the best loathed cold-calling. The success rate was awful, no matter how talented you were. Cold calls didn’t convert to sales often enough for the commissions to pay the rent.

And here I am, thirty years later, cold-calling agents in batches of ten. One of a hundred voices invading their inbox and demanding “check out my product.”

If I was not cut out for sales, am I not cut out for this? Would I be better off just self-publishing, and avoiding the endless black hole of querying? Tempting, but the reality is that if I self-publish, my success would still depend on my ability to market and sell my book.

Maybe I should just give it up altogether.

Or maybe I should climb out of the center of that black hole and get a different perspective. Embrace the silence.

I am the spam. I send cold-call emails to agents, calling out to them to look at MY product.

Choose me!  Choose me!

The majority of my queries get deleted. The handful of agents who want to know “what happened next” often decide it’s not topical enough, it’s too similar to something they already represent, my platform is insufficient. With or without regret, they click the delete button just as fast as I do for the vendors who email me each day.

And it doesn’t mean anything. Not when I do it, not when they do it.

Some days I am still tempted to mass-mail every agent on Publishers Marketplace a link to my how-to videos, and suggest they set up some automated rules for their email accounts so I will get a darn kiss-off note when they categorize my query as “decline”. (I’d get a lot of agent attention, but probably not the kind I’m looking for.)

But I’m staying in the game.

I have something to say. I believe it matters enough, can matter enough to enough readers that it’s worth the effort to find an agent and a publisher to partner with. I think about how many times those telemarketers—the really talented ones—would get hung up on before finally making a sale. They needed continuous sales to pay the rent. I only need one to turn a dream into reality.

When I send my next ten queries, I won’t expect any of those agents to answer me, because I know I am the spam. I will shout into the void, “who wants a memoir about a girl who runs away from home to become James Bond!” and I will be greeted, over and over, with silence. A silence that isn’t rude, dismissive, insulting, unprofessional, or a cosmic chorus of “no”. Just the absence of “yes”.

I don’t need those ten people to take time out of their day to tell me that I’m the spam. I only need to hear from the one who wants to know what happened next.

Di Brown can’t decide what to do when she grows up, so she’s put off growing up until she has a plan. In the interim, she’s been a Cold War spy, learned to knit (badly), program computers (well), and had stories and essays published in anthologies on three continents. Find her on the web at, or stop by her YouTube channel for technology tips (including how to “Automate Your Inbox”).

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§ 17 Responses to The Absence of Yes: Why Agents Don’t Answer Your Email

  • Call me naive or old-fashioned, but I believe that there has to be a better way for agents/editors to segment queries from other types of correspondence, then respond to them — even if it’s a “sorry, not interested at this time” note. At least the writer would have the information necessary to know how best to proceed.

    For one of my books, I sent my query to a publisher that I really wanted to work with. After a few months of not hearing back, I moved in a different direction. As a courtesy, I sent a note to the first publisher informing them that I was working with someone else and to please pull my query from consideration. I got an email back within an hour that said, “We’re really sorry to hear that. We really loved your submission.” It would have been really nice if they had told me that earlier, whether I ultimately ended up publishing that book with them or not.

    I understand that everyone is busy, but ignoring people only makes things worse.

    On a positive note, it took years, but I am currently with a publishing house that is a marvelous fit for me — everything I wanted in a creative partnership. All I can offer is what has been repeated many times _ believe in yourself and your work, do something every day to help your career and keep moving forward. Some day, the door will open in front of you.

  • michelleredo says:

    Boy, and I haven’t started querying yet! Makes me think what we memoir writers really need is an agent to help us FIND the agent, who will then helps us find the publisher who will… Then again, as writers of true personal narrative, we’ve had plenty of life experience with a long road to whatever eventually comes… regardless of what’s behind the door that opens in front of us next. After all, we can always write about it!

  • Here’s the thing: Twenty or so years ago, ALL agents responded to every query and not because the submissions were more polished or less plentiful. Agents received paper submissions in similar numbers to today, writers sent a SASE, and that was returned with a slip of paper to let you know they were/weren’t interested. At least you knew when to move on to the next set of potential agents. It was cumbersome to handle all that paper.

    You can say what happens now is fair or reasonable or whatever because now it’s digital. It’s really not fair to writers, but it is what it is. Times change.

    • For goodness sakes, no, submissions to agents is not spam. Spam is uninvited, but presumedly you are querying agents “open to submissions” who are actively looking for something that they can love. They have invited submissions and finding their inbox full of them is not a nuisance but part of their job.

      However comforting it might be to think of it that way, your submission is not spam, it just may not be what the agent is looking for.

    • definition of spam: “Unsolicited e-mail, often of a commercial nature, sent indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, or newsgroups; junk e-mail.” If you are actually sending spam, please stop.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Jan, where are you hearing that agents got submissions in similar numbers when they were paper-mailed? I’ve heard my agent and many others who’ve been in the business a long time say that they receive 2-10 times as many emails as they used to receive mailed submissions. It’s just easier, faster and cheaper to submit via email.

      • You may well be right. I mostly knew journal editors and they were receiving dozens to hundreds daily back in the 90s. That hasn’t changed much. Or perhaps I am entirely wrong about the numbers in all submissions. Allison, you would surely know better than I would.

        Nevertheless, searching for good work is what agents are doing when they open to submissions. It is a critical part of their job. Sending agents work when they have invited submissions is nothing like spam.

        [I have wondered for a long time if the outing of rejecting agents was the reason they have recently chosen not to respond? Easier to explain the reason they did not choose to represent the next big writer is because the submission never arrived than to find their name in the list of rejections in TNYT. Embarrassing for them.]

        Failing to respond is unkind, careless, and unprofessional, especially when it is so easy to do. It requires a couple of keystrokes to insert a form rejection and email it to a writer.

        It’s been many years since I queried agents, but I am very grateful that despite the rarity of personal responses and the disappointment of form rejections (paper rejections printed, cut up, slipped into envelopes, sealed, and put into the mail), responses always arrived despite being considerably more trouble than they are today via the internet.

  • Victoria says:

    Your comments are a good way to look at the process. I like how you realized the common thread between how you handle your professional email and how agents/publishers handle their professional emails.

  • I needed to hear this today. I am not querying yet, but have been dreading it for this same reason. May you find a home for your memoir that fits just right.

  • Yes, yes, yes. You nailed it, Di! May you someday be the spam every agent wants to open.

  • Pat says:

    Thank you for your essay! I find the process of cold querying just brutal. It does seem like the queries go into a black hole. I really appreciate the few agents that have an automatic reply for receipt of materials and the agents that send a note with a pass. But they are rare. Most times, the writer is left in the dark. It’s a poor system, that could be standardized. I don’t believe that they really read all these queries. I know in some cases, it’s the intern who reads the submissions. The agents seem overwhelmed by email. I had one agent (that I met at a conference) not respond when I sent him a full manuscript that he enthusiastically requested. I’ll never know if he even got the manuscript, maybe he just deleted the email or it went into spam. I realize that by accepting unsolicited queries, agents are trying to keep it an open system. But this haphazard approach of no response to queries and manuscripts feels very unprofessional. I really wish I had someone to recommend me to their agent, so I could bypass this process! I think it’s important for authors to realize that no response is not a reflection of the quality of the book. In most cases, they were never seriously considered.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Pat, if he requested the full and you didn’t hear back, it’s ok to follow up! Wait a couple weeks, then resend the email and say “just checking to see if you got this.”

  • rose2852 says:

    I went direct to publishers with my mixed memoir historical fiction work. All but one responded, and the rejection was universal. No editorial criticism was offered although I got the impression that mixed genre is hard to sell, and certainly one by an unknown author using an unknown ancestor as a focus. I’ve put it to one side while I concentrate on less complicated stuff!

  • Di, I have been in this writing/publishing game for a long time, but your post made me stop and exclaim, “Oh!” So we’re the spam. I don’t want to be the spam, but we have to keep at it to become “the people,” the one whose emails get answered. Thank you for your wisdom.

  • pauleneturner says:

    Wow, a great piece. A clarity that is shocking, but true. We are the spam! The cold callers. From one who spent 3 years querying agents with no bites, and has now moved on to querying publishers (with one person asking for the full manuscript at last!!!! But don’t want to get too excited), it is the perspective we need. We are the spam. But sometimes you go to the spam box and take things out of there. And maybe one day that will happen to you and I.

  • Di Brown says:

    Just wanted to thank everyone for the wonderful comments.

    It’s a tough realization – but we are, indeed, the unsolicited callers peddling one of a hundred manuscripts, and seeing ourselves that way is a bit bruising. Never more so, I think, than for those of us peddling memoir, which is personal in a way that much of our other writing isn’t.

    But once we get past that, it’s a very liberating realization – that those frustrating experiences aren’t in any any way a judgment of us or our work – just an indicator that we aren’t that agent’s “people”. I trust each of you will find that right space – the agent for whom you become “people” – and I look forward to reading your work! (I’m starting with Jeffrey Ryan’s book on Mount Saint Helens – right here in my back yard.)

    Best of luck to each of you.

  • Anne Rudig says:

    The truth is that agents prefer to find writers in three ways: by discovering something they’ve written, referral, or at writer/agent events. I’ve been told directly, “I find my writers, not the other way around.” Yet writers are encouraged to cold query by their MFA and other writing programs. There are webinars and blogs on crafting the perfect query. Last week I heard from an agent that she can’t stand canned queries. She thinks querying puts too much pressure on the writer. So having a relaxed attitude as a querying writer is exactly right. But I can’t help but think more change is needed. Covid put a real dent in writer/agent events. A referral won’t work for every agent who might be right for you. So it’s more important than ever to get some work published where the agent you seek might see it. But that’s a hard nut to crack too.

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