Hot off my 2014 numbers breakdown, I thought this was an excellent question; because the truth is that the majority of R&Rs DON'T work out. And not just with agents; I get R&R requests from editors that don't work out, too.
I think the answer as to WHY lies first in breaking down two kinds of R&Rs:
- Surface-level R&R
- Love-the-premise-enough-to-not-let-this-go-but-needs-so-much-work R&R
The first can be a simple fix; a "I need you to take out the mention of the word birthday in this so I can take it to a meeting since my house is allergic to the word birthday" sort of fix. Those usually work out (and yes, an editor might ask for a surface-level R&R to take to a meeting - gone are the days of seeing potential and being able to buy. An agent is less likely to ask for this; perhaps only if the surface-level request changes birthday to anniversary and they want to make sure you're cool with that).
The second is asking for a very thoughtful overhaul.
In my experience, the R&Rs that I've seen come back and fail had one of four issues:
- The author took my notes, executed, and called it a day.
- The author took the plot in a new direction that didn't resonate with me
- Timing - in the amount of time that's passed, the market changed
- The R&R ends up highlighting more issues, or that the hook you were looking for really just isn't there in the execution
(excluding unsolicited R&R, my opinion of which can be found here)
#1 is a problem if the R&R is not a surface-level revision request. Often, an R&R will have quite extensive revisions needed - and not just adding in a sentence here or there. For example, if your issue has to do with character development, or pacing, it could mean striking whole scenes, starting in a whole new way, finishing in a whole new way, ALONG with peppering in changes throughout. And those kinds of changes require a lot of thinking. If my note was, "I don't really find her likeable here," well, the answer may not necessarily be to just work on making her likeable right there. It might be that the situation needs more depth, that the reader doesn't understand enough where she's coming from - changes to OTHER parts of the book leading UP to that scene.
So if you want your R&R to have the best chance of succeeding, THOUGHTFULLY revise. I think it's perfectly ok to come up with a game plan, too, before you dive in, and run that game plan by the requesting agent or editor.
#2 is an unfortunate situation that might be because of a thoughtful revision. As I mentioned above, I think it's ok to ask if the direction you're taking the novel in sounds good to the agent or editor before you slash and burn to try and avoid it failing for this issue. But, at the end of the day, it might be that the new direction you're writing really IS the best direction for the book - and it's just that the agent isn't the best agent for it.
#3 is a tricky one. Because a thoughtful revision takes time. I know that. But taking TOO much time also leads to market shifts, and/or perhaps that agent or editor will sign a new project in the mean time that's too close to yours to be able to take yours on after revisions.
I think the time you should take on a revision really depends on the amount of work needed; if it's really more of a surface revision, I wouldn't drag that on for months. If it's something you're having to really spend time overhauling, a few months may be just what you need. I will say that the longer you take, the more I expect to see; I WILL be disappointed if you take four months and shift around some sentences. I have signed R&Rs even if they aren't totally there yet if the author has totally impressed me with the revisions undertaken. And I have never been impressed with surface tweaks when more depth was needed.
So don't cheat yourself worrying over this; if you have to take a year, take a year - just know it's POSSIBLE that you might run into the timing issue. If you do, that might mean timing was off for your book anyway - if it shifted that fast, likely your genre was in a down trend and selling it may have been difficult anyway.
#4 might happen when an agent is on the fence; it's possible for an agent or editor to just love the writing, and/or the hook...but...there's something...just something not there. We see that spark, and might do an R&R, hoping, ok, we fix this, and that'll be it. I'll be fully pushed over the fence. But when it comes back...nope. Still on that fence.
If that's the case, that's the point an agent will have to decide they're just not the best editorial fit. Seeing potential and not being able to take it where it needs to go, or realizing, you really DON'T love it as much as you thought, can happen - and be highlighted by the enthusiasm you feel for the project when the R&R comes back. This is a tough one, too; it's hard to know when this will happen. An agent isn't going to request a revision and all that work just to be mean; they genuinely want to see it get to the level of OMG I LOVE THIS!!!! And sometimes that doesn't happen.
That is a risk you take with revisions...and you must, in the end, decide to revise, or start fresh? Only you can answer that.
I think what helps with #4, and ALL issues, is that regardless of whether or not you succeed with an R&R, the goal shouldn't be to approach it for a WIN. The goal should be to approach it TO MAKE THE BOOK BETTER. Don't fixate on making that one person (agent or editor) happy; consider their notes as a free professional critique you won in a lottery. Ruminate and really dig into potential issues and fixes, and in the end, send out a book that you're happy is MUCH stronger knowing that it could be a yes - but it doesn't matter, because you have a stronger manuscript to keep sending out regardless.
Here are my tips on thoughtful revision practices:
Ponder, Polish, Perfect
Peripheral Character Development
The Plot Dot Test
Doctor Reader: Show vs. Tell
Pacing Your Hero