The Agent’s Cipher

No, it’s not a new book by Dan Brown, it’s an earth shattering discovery revealed on an obscure website so secretive I’ll be hung from Blackfriar’s Bridge if I reveal its name. Every UK literary agent’s rejection letter contains a secret code.

You thought rejection letters were standard replies? You and me both. Assuming agents are too busy to reply in person to every indie hopeful and debut author, we all thought these letters were pre-written, which they are. But what we didn’t know is that the reason for rejection is contained within the carefully worded brush-offs. Read on to find the five main reasons they don’t want your novel.

1 – ‘we felt the work was not right for us’

meaning: Your novel doesn’t contain any of the stock characters necessary to provide a story with a left-leaning agenda necessary to enforce a middle class guilt trip. Orphans, widows, divorcees, recovering drug addicts, wealthy families who have ‘lost everything,’ people with an unusual affinity with inanimate objects, snow, bricks, slices of bread etc.

agent cipher
Portrait of a Literary Agent, attr. to Tom Keating after Gainsborough, c1870

2 – ‘we need to feel enthusiasm for the authors we represent’

meaning: your surname/address suggests you might be ordinary and will ultimately embarrass us when we introduce you to the London literary establishment and Jonathan Frenzen.

3 – ‘another agent may be interested in your work’

meaning: some agents actually employ non-interns, but they obviously have more money than sense. We, on the other hand, prefer to avoid vulgarities like profit and strive to maintain a business model that relies on posh people pretending to work for a living.

4 – ‘we’re not in a position to represent you at the moment’

meaning: come back. and try again after you have completed our expensive in-house creative writing course.

5 – no reply whatsoever

meaning: you don’t live in north London so you’re simply not worth bothering with.

The website also revealed the secret meaning behind the coded message ‘US authors may find it more beneficial to approach US agents and publishers.’

meaning: we’re sick of reading third-rate YA rubbish written by bored grown-ups who enjoyed watching The Hunger Games.

When approached, UK literary agent Connor Feddlestone of Feddlestone Hurley Burleigh said ‘This is news to me. The main reason we reject unsolicited manuscripts is because the author doesn’t know how to spell sado-masochist.’

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31 thoughts on “The Agent’s Cipher

  1. Or my personal favourite – “We don’t know where to place it.” I would have thought the bin might be a good start. I just don’t know what their problem with medieval underwater romance is.

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  2. It’s amazing how truly self-righteous and anal my own liberal cohorts become when analyzing or marketing art (i.e. #1). I wonder if people realize that writing “progressive” stock characters or heavy-handed social metaphors won’t make any real-world difference.

    Also, if I have to see or read one more YA trash ripoff of The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, I’m gonna slit my wrists!


  3. BTW why is the lady ‘Literary Agent’ in the painting carrying what looks like a pick hammer? Is it to assist her in climbing to the top of the ‘sent for your kind attention’ pile of manuscripts, or to ward off disgruntled writers and publications, or simply to hack her way out of the crypt each morning?

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  4. Ah, this brings back memories… Not fond ones, you may be sure. But also a feeling of gratitude for the self-publishing world we live in now, despite its quirks. (Let’s face it — it’s better if one’s writing is available though mostly ignored rather than languishing in a box or on a floppy disk).

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      1. My theory is that insistence on paper submissions is a way of reducing the numbers. Only those who are serious will print the document, find a suitable envelope, include the all-important SASE (for the rejection), and pay the postage. I’ll bet it works, if not as well as intended. The number of people in recent decades who discovered a writer in themselves is amazing. I have a theory about that too, but will refrain from spelling it out. 🙂

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  5. Even though your post is tongue in cheek Chris, it reveals to those that still think publishing with the mainstream is the only way to go, just how up themselves the Big Five and their hangers on really are. The best thing I ever did, once I’d managed to finally get out of my contract, was to follow the Indie route. 😉

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    1. I’ve always thought agents can produce standard replies that give some clue as to why a submision is rejected. Without that clue we are prone to thinking all sorts of things which is bad for everybody. A little bit of transparency and honesty can’t be so difficult.

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