When do agents, if ever, “owe” an author feedback? Should an agent who has asked to read a full manuscript always be required to provide constructive, personal feedback as to why the book didn’t work for her? What about an agent who has asked for a partial? Do the same rules apply? Is an agent then required to give feedback?
Obviously (I’ve said this before) I don’t think an agent ever owes an author (other than her own clients) anything. However, it is always nice, extra nice, when an agent can give feedback. I also know that a number of authors feel that if an agent goes to the trouble to request a full manuscript then feedback should be given. Fair enough, I can understand that once you’ve reached that final stage in the “getting an agent gauntlet” you might feel that way. The trouble is, for the agent, it isn’t always that easy.
For example, I know that now, in the age of ereaders, many agents are finding it easy to skip the proposal stage altogether and simply ask for a full manuscript. It doesn’t cost anyone anything monetarily and it allows the agent to simply keep reading if she feels she needs or wants to. In that case the full manuscript is really thought of more as a proposal. If that agent only gets to page 20 before realizing the book isn’t for her, does she need to say anything other than it’s not for her simply because of the number of pages requested?
And what about proposals? When requesting proposals I view it as a testing stage. In other words, all too frequently I’ll request things that I’m not sure about based on the query, but willing to give a shot. If I felt I were required in some way to give personal, constructive feedback as to why it might not be for me, I can tell you right now that I would request fewer partials (and manuscripts). Think of it like trying on clothes. I don’t always try on something I love on the rack, but sometimes I’m intrigued enough just to see how it might look. The really great moment is when you try it on, thinking it will never work, and wammo!, that pair of pants, that manuscript, is the perfect fit.
Okay, so here’s the clincher. What if I read the manuscript, not the entire thing, but I get at least halfway through and I can see the author has talent, I can see the plot has potential, I can even see that another agent might pick it up, but (here it comes) it’s not for me. Really, honestly, sometimes that’s the absolute best answer I can give. Sometimes it just isn’t for me and there was no way to know that ahead of time. Haven’t you ever done that with a book you bought? The plot sounded like something that was up your alley and it was certainly in a genre you like to read, but in the end the book, for whatever reason, just wasn’t for you?
I know these are questions that will never be answered to the satisfaction of all. Ideally authors are going to want as much feedback as possible, and you should. A good author knows that any feedback, from agents, other authors, editors, and beta readers, can help you improve your writing. Agents know that too, and in an ideal world we would be spending lots of time giving all authors revisions and feedback. Of course it’s not possible. I do make every attempt possible to give feedback when I can. If it’s a partial and I see a glaring error I can pass on to the author, I will. Heck, if it’s a query and I can get specific about why it didn’t work for me, I will, and certainly on manuscripts I try to say something, even a little something, beyond the form. What I find, though, at times, is that I’m stretching to find that one thing that didn’t work for me and that’s when authors are getting most frustrated, when my attempt to give you a real reason falls short and sounds like nothing more than a form letter.