Q: When you get form rejections from agents, how can you know if your manuscript is unpublishable crap or if you just haven't found the right agent yet?I know this is going to be difficult to believe for a lot of you, but, I swear it is true: Rejections are not personal, and they are not value judgments about your work.
If anything, they have a heap more to do with the agent than they do with the author. Look, as you can see from the sidebar, I have about 22 clients. My first year as an agent, I picked up 16 of them. In the two years since, I've added about three a year. There is no limit set in stone, of course, but I can afford to be very picky.
I get 200 queries a week, or so, not counting ones that just come to the agency generally. So you do the math. Oh you want me to do it? OK. You have roughly a 1 in 3,467 chance that I will not send you a rejection. Did all of those 3,467 things just suck? Heck no! Lots of them were probably terrific, or at least had potential to be terrific. Lots of them were probably terrific for somebody but just not me. Lots of them needed work. Some of them might have been just... wrong, for whatever reason. But one of my form letters went to the vast majority.
"Query" means question. So think of it this way. You're asking us a simple question, we are replying simply.
The question that we are answering: Do you want to represent this?
The question we are not answering: Is this good?
To answer the second question and find out if, indeed, you are writing an "unpublishable piece of crap", you need to listen to fellow authors and teachers and your own gut instinct. Get a critique partner or join a writer's group. Here's a quick vlog from YA author Jackson Pearce about helpful rules for critique partners. You could also pay for a critique at a writer's conference. Take a class. Read your book aloud to the cats and see if they hide.
So you do these things. It becomes pretty obvious that you have a book that doesn't make readers clutch their heads in pain. The cats haven't tried to claw you to death. You love your book and you know other (smart, well-read, preferably published) people do too. You know that you have followed the query directions to the letter. You are getting rejections - some of them personalized, some with notes for revision. At this point you can pretty much assume that rejections mean you just haven't found the right agent yet.
For me, rejections and acceptances are entirely down to my personal weird quirky taste, and the fact that I only take on three or so new things a year. Very occasionally there is some concrete point I can give the author, and I try to do so when it is easy to see. But I advise against replying to a rejection with a plaintive "Whyyy??", because you probably won't like the answer: "I didn't like it enough."
Which totally sounds mean, right? But think about it this way: I also don't like the color yellow. Or the flavor of clove. Or Irish Wolfhounds. Or the way birds legs look like dinosaur legs. Or messy food. Or summertime. So what? Are any of those things bad? No! They just aren't for me.
So what do you think? Still going to take rejections personally?
(Yeah, I thought so.)