Agency Lessons: Not a good fit

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today, I'm reaching into the mail bag to answer a reader question about querying. Here's the question:
What does it mean when an agent says "it's not a good fit for me" when it was exactly what they were requesting?
This is a great question. As agents we tell you to pay close attention to our submission guidelines and what we are looking for. Many of us tweet special requests and there's an entire website dedicated to finding out exactly what agents are looking for. But, it's not uncommon to narrow in on an agent who has requested the very special blend of genre/character/voice that you have and still come away without a request. 

The reasons for this pass fall into two main categories: Missing the mark and Missing the goods

Missing the Mark
So an agent asks for a historical romance sent in Spain and you are pumped because you have just the Spanish Regency that is going to wow her. Turns out your Spanish Regency involves the aristocracy and what she was really looking for was something focused on the commoners.

It's easy to say, then why didn't she just say she wanted a Spanish historical that focuses on the commoners. But that's dangerous territory for an agent, the more limitations we place on our submissions list, the more authors who think we won't be the right match and pass us over. Or maybe we that agent was okay with the aristocracy, but recently took on a Russian historical that focuses on the royal family and just needs something different.

As agents we'll never be able to pinpoint the exact manuscript we're looking for, because we haven't read it yet. Does that make your job harder? Yes. It also makes our harder, too. It'd be lovely if I could give a check list of exactly what I want in a manuscript, but I don't know what those items are yet anymore than a reader knows exactly what they want out of a book.

So there's really no such thing as "exactly" what we're looking for.

Missing the Goods
Please don't throw tomatoes at me when I tell you that there are some phrases agents use to very politely say "this book just isn't good enough". No one likes to be told their book isn't up to par and it isn't any fun as an agent telling people they are not good writers. And yet, it happens. We get queries for projects that are just not even close to being publishable work. Not that the author in question can't be a fantastic writer, but the project is not ready.

"Not a good fit for me", "not right for my list", "not something I can sell", etc. These are all phrases that can mean, this isn't good enough. Now, I say can mean. Because they can also mean that a book just isn't the right fit. I come across projects all the time that are perfectly good stories, it just isn't something I feel strongly enough about to represent. So it's not right for my list. But sometimes, I say this because it's nicer and softer than saying "this is not even close to being publishable in it's current form".

Which is it?
When it's your query on the line, how do you know which of the categories you fall into? For sure, you really can't know. Yeah, sorry. But the best way to find out is to surround yourself with some honest critique partners who are willing to give it to you straight. You won't be doing yourself any favors if everyone only tells you how great your story is. Find other writers who know what makes a good story and then get their honest feedback.

This can be painful, but it will hurt a lot less than hundreds of form rejection letters.