Just got off the phone with a former student, who called to ask my opinion of a rejection letter he'd received from an agent.
"You might have a chance at publication," this so-called author rep wrote, "if you change the whole plot and the era, and write a story that's more formulaic."
Now, before you defend the agent--because yes, they do sift through a lot of garbage in search of The Next Big Sale (they don't call it The Slush Pile for nothin')--let me set the stage: This novel finaled in four reputable writing contests; its writer has 14 short stories published in major market magazines; this was the author's first and only contact with said "agent;" I'd never heard of him (and if a 'been around forever' gal like me doesn't know him...or someone he represents...).
It always riles me when one individual so misrepresents himself that he casts a creepy shadow over every member of his industry. So this is what I told my former student:
This guy did you a favor by rejecting you. Signing a contract with a bozo like that would only invite more snarky, unhelpful, hurtful comments. A real agent knows his biz. And let's face it: Literary agents are salespeople and personal representatives, so a lack of people skills is not a good thing. If he couldn't put some thought into a constructive, professional rejection, he ought to consider the Plain John approach: Thanks for your submission. Good luck placing it elsewhere.
The student wanted to know why would someone whose web site boasts "We're looking for only the best, most well-written stories to represent" would send a letter like that. The answer, in my opinion: Pure, unadulterated laziness.
The agent isn't looking for "a fresh new voice" or "a story that excites me!" What he really wants is a seasoned author who's disgruntled with her agent. Maybe her agent represents too many other midlist authors, and can't pay enough attention to her work. so she's looking to change camps, and sign with a newer, less-busy agent who can focus more on her...and her career. Signing an author who's already 'branded,' who comes to him with a well-developed fan base means he only needs to mention her name, quote some sales stats, and voila! He gets 15% of every publishing deal. If that isn't enough, he also gets to ride Miss Big Name's coattails, meaning lots of all-expenses-paid trips to writers' conferences, where he'll meet with unpublished authors and those with a book or two under their belts...while scoping out other Big Names in the early phases of feeling frustrated by their agents.
When all is said and done, the lazy agent won't pay Miss Big Name any more attention than her 'old' agent did. The difference? When this guy ignores her, it won't be because he has hundreds of other clients' business to oversee, it'll be because...
...you guessed it: HE'S JUST PLAIN LAZY.
What every author needs is an agent who believes in their authors' talent, who is genuinely enthused about their clients' work, and who'll translate that into excitement when he's introducing those clients to editors. Anything less, and authors might as well represent themselves.
In my opinion, the student sidestepped a land mine when the lazy agent rejected him. Because there's no doubt in my mind, a guy like that would peck away at the student's confidence until he considered shelving the book and taking up woodoworking, instead.
Because you don't need an agent to sell toy trains.
P.S. This humble author is pleased and proud to say she has never been represented by a lazy agent.