Publishing Essentials: Deciphering Passes

Previously, we’ve discussed handling rejection when on submission with agents and editors—but what does a “pass” really mean? A pass can take several forms: a personalized note, the dreaded form letter, and unfortunately, more often than not, total radio silence—all of which can be difficult to interpret. So let’s take a closer look at deciphering the publishing “pass”.

You many send out your query, and despite continually refreshing your inbox, hear nothing but crickets. Don’t worry—the publishing world isn’t ghosting you. Most publishing professionals have very full inboxes, and receive a large volume of queries every week. In some cases, it would be humanly impossible to reply to every query, and professionals must limit themselves to responding to only those queries that might be fit for their list. Personally, while I have the best intentions of getting back to everyone, in reality, time is at a premium, and it is necessary to prioritize client relationships. Sometimes, your query will just get lost in the deluge of a very busy day. The take-away is that not hearing back from a professional isn’t a personal slight, and likely has nothing to do with your work. Follow up within an appropriate time frame—anywhere from 6 – 8 weeks—and keep the communication lines open, updating with any developments at your end (such as an offer of representation or publication).

Having said that, if your query letter isn’t on point, you can expect that it will, in fact, be ignored or deleted. Make sure you are putting your best foot forward by following the basic structure of a query letter, and avoiding common pitfalls.

Receiving a form letter isn’t nearly as bad as it might seem. Form letters are both a sign of respect and efficiency—they are a genuine thank-you-for-your-time that necessitates a cookie cutter format to be able to respond to as many queries as possible. They are an acknowledgement of your work even when publishing professionals have little or no time to write back. And there’s nothing wrong with having an assistant or intern respond on behalf of an agent or editor. The new generation of publishing professionals are smart, ambitious, and talented, and they have the ability to single out your work from the anonymity slush pile, and recommend it to their employers.

An agent or editor may pass on your work because they are not particularly invested in your genre, because they have a difficult time connecting with a certain narrative structure or perspective, or it could be for completely personal reasons, like a bad break-up means they aren’t ready to read an epic romance (yet). I’ve had editors pass on my projects for having too many cats (or not enough cats), for being too “authentic”, and for just not having that special spark they need to move forward with an offer.

Both agents and editors are making a huge investment in your work with an offer of representation or publication; they will have to read multiple drafts, and champion the project to their team, their colleagues, and ultimately readers. In order to take a project on, the agent or editor has to love it, and how to get a publishing professional to fall in love with your work is just as tricky a question in business as in romance in real life. The most frequent pass you will receive will be “it’s like, not love”. But you only need one agent or editor to recognize your work, fall in love, and carry your book to publication.

There are also many, many market variables that can affect your submission, from saturation levels to what’s trending, to the specific state of a particular publisher’s upcoming list. You may have written a brilliant book, but an agent or editor already has something similar on their list. Or perhaps you are at the tail end of a trend (recall, the publishing cycle is generally two years long, so the books you see on shelves were purchased a couple of years ago already!). You may receive a pass on your work because the timing just isn’t right—you are either ahead of your time, or behind it. But take heart in knowing that the market is cyclical, and your subject or genre will be in demand again at some point in the future!

In my opinion, just getting a pass from an agent or editor is a sign of the strength of your work. As very busy people, if a publishing professional takes the time to respond, you should accept it as a sign of encouragement. It can be frustrating to receive vague, ambiguous, or cryptic feedback, but hang in there—if you keep at it, you’ll find the right publishing home.

Closely consider any constructive criticism, but practice letting the like-not-love, not-a-fit-for-our-list-at-this-time, and we-already-have-something-similar passes roll right by you.

We can help you get recognized by agents and editors by writing the strongest possible query letter in our upcoming workshop!

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