To All The Books I’ve Loved Before

 by Helen Lane (she/ her), Junior Literary Agent | Booker Albert Agency

In this blog I’m going to try to give context to some of the most hated phrases querying authors receive from agents: the dreaded, “I liked your book but didn’t love it enough to represent it” or “I love it but I’m not the right agent to represent it”. 

Now, these are always frustrating things to hear because it can feel like an impersonal response with no real meaning. They’re lines I’ve received many times as a writer myself and, more recently, found myself typing into rejection letters as an agent. The truth is that although it is a generic statement it does have meaning, which I’m going to try and unpack a little using my own experience. 

Since becoming an agent a few months ago I’ve passed on many brilliant books that I knew needed work but couldn’t decide what the fix should be. The book was great, and I was sure it would be picked up by another agent or publisher, but I knew that I was not the right agent for it. And to take it on would be a disservice to the author, because agents are supposed to help make a book stronger. Please believe me when I say it’s deeply frustrating to have to pass on something I think will sell and could make a lot of money later. Because who doesn’t like the idea of making money!

What happens more often is that I really enjoyed the book; I would read it, think about it after, and would definitely pick up a sequel if it was out in the world. But, when I sign a book, the first thing I do is produce an edit letter. This next bit is different for every agent, but this is how I work: to produce that edit letter I read the book 3 times back-to-back. I’m going to repeat that. BACK-TO-BACK. How many times have you done that, even with a book you really liked? Now, I know that authors everywhere will point out that they’ve read their own books at least that many times. I’ve done it with mine. But, and I mean this with the greatest respect, I would point out in return that it is a very different thing to do for someone else’s work.

So, while I’m doing this mammoth reading session, I’m also thinking about the story even when I’m not actively working on it. Jotting down fixes and suggestions, re-reading my usually very long edit letters until I can practically recite them. I then send it off to the writer and we book in sessions to discuss the changes, sometimes as often as every few days. After that, I will be talking about the book with my client; re-reading edit chapters; thinking about it in between discussions; and re-reading the whole manuscript again and again until it is as perfect as we can make it. Then, at the end of all of those months of living and breathing ONE book, I still have to love it enough to be excited about it (genuinely excited) when I talk to editors, to want to help plan the sequels, and to start that process with the next book the author writes.

There are hundreds of books that I’ve loved. Sadly, there are very few that I’ve loved enough to throw myself into in this way. And this is where personal taste and those dreaded phrases come in. Just because I am not the agent who loved this one book that much, it doesn’t mean another agent won’t. So, when you get those response saying, “it was great, but not for me”, please take it as the compliment it is meant to be. You’ve written a great book. And your “ONE” person who WILL love it is worth waiting for. Because they will want your book to succeed as much as you do.