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So you're stuck in the query trenches...
Some insights into why agents might be rejecting your book
Recently,asked (I’m paraphrasing) how to evaluate a project and determine why it might be getting rejected by agents, especially if readers/other writer friends love it.
First off, Liz, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been facing rejection. It stinks. On the plus side, you are far from alone. Every writer out there, aspiring or published, has been rejected. And unfortunately, it follows you throughout your career. Getting an agent won’t shield you from rejection when you try to sell said book to a publisher. And getting that debut book deal doesn’t guarantee more book deals after that. (I continue to see my fair share of rejection even nine published novels in.)
But that is not the root of your question. Let’s get back on track: Why might you be receiving agent rejections when feedback from writers is great?
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When writer friends read for us, they are doing so from an entirely different perspective than an agent. Writer friends are watching out for plot holes and inconsistencies. They are looking for things they love and enjoy and think other readers might like, too. They are cheering us on and providing feedback and helping us shape the book into the best thing it can be. But at the end of the day, they are NOT agreeing to take on indefinite amounts of future work. Writer friends are reading one book and letting you know if they like it/think it deserves to be published.
Agents, on the other hand, already have a list of clients who they regularly work with. Most established agents have at least a dozen clients, many closer to two dozen or more. Newer agents will have fewer clients, but presumably they will add to that list until they reach a number that feels like the max they can comfortably handle.
As you can imagine, being a good agent to these existing clients is hard work. On a day-to-day basis, agents are juggling a lot. They send novels to editors (submissions), negotiate deals, review contracts, answer client questions, handle foreign and subrights, provide career strategy insights, chase for info/payments on their authors’ behalf1, read the authors’ proposals and new mss, and maybe even provide editorial feedback.2
This is in no way an exhaustive list—I’m sure I’m forgetting things—and it’s worth noting that this is simply what they are doing for their clients. Agents also have admin work of their own to handle, such as staying on top of their query slush, keeping their website up to date, maintaining relationships with editors, and more. (I’m not an agent, so I can’t get too granular on the “more” bit.)
My point, however, that agents already have a lot on their plate, so the bar is set very high when they consider if they want to sign a new client.
Some reasons agents may reject a project:
The agent didn’t head-over-heels love your book. Your manuscript might have been fine—maybe even great on a technical level—but if the agent doesn’t love it with a burning passion, they may pass. Remember, their plate is already quite full!
The book isn’t ready. It’s possible your writing/storytelling simply isn’t there yet. If your writer friends are at a similar experience and skill level, they may think the book is great/strong/ready/etc when it’s not up to the standards the agent knows acquiring editors want to see.3
The agent has several clients who already write in your lane. If you write witchy, atmospheric YA and the agent already has two clients doing just that, they may be hesitant to sign a third if your story doesn’t bring something extremely unique to the table. It would be unfair to the existing clients, and it makes the agent’s job of selling those mss harder.4
The market is currently very crowded with what you’re writing. If you have a steamy romantasy novel or a pulse-pounding thriller, the agent may be seeing editors being more selective than ever in these genres because of the surge of mss, and fear yours is not quite unique enough to stand out.
Your query isn’t working. Maybe you have a fantastic book that is right up the agent’s alley, but your query didn’t do a good job setting it up and hooking the agent. If you are receiving a lot of form rejections on your query (and little to no full ms requests), I strongly suggest revisiting your query. (My How to Query series might be of help!)
There are probably more potential reasons for rejection. I actually would love to see an agent’s take on this question/topic. But the short of it, I imagine, is this: Enjoyment alone isn’t enough for an agent to sign a new client. It’s not just, Did I like this book? It’s: Do I love this book AND think I can sell it AND do I adore this writer’s style/voice enough to want to work with them for the foreseeable future?
You can see how the number of queried books that fall into the first scenario will be quite a bit larger than the number of books that fall into the second.
It’s hard in the query trenches, I know. Especially right now. Things have never been quite so tough. But hang in there.
I’ll leave you with three final thoughts that I hope will make those trenches just a touch more bearable:
“No” doesn’t mean “never.” If an agent says that they like something about your work, you should absolutely try them again in the future. Same goes if they encourage you to query them with whatever you write next, or if they say they want to see this particular book again after revisions. They’re not just saying these things to be nice, they mean it.
Books are incredibly subjective. Fifty agents may think your book is fine/good/bad/okay/whatever but when the fifty-first agent reads it and loves it, that’s all that matters. Sure, the agents rejecting you may be missing out on a great manuscript. But trust me, you don’t want an agent who thinks your book is just fine. You want an agent who is a fan, who is heavily invested in your stories, who is excited to work with you for your career.
You could be closer than you realize. Don’t focus on the number of nos you’re receiving. Focus instead on the glimmers of light—the full requests, personalized rejections, etc. Not every no is shouted boldly or immediately, and sometimes you just barely miss out. As Scott Reintgen says in this thread, the margins can be really thin. (His comments are about submission/selling a book to a publisher, but the sentiment still applies here.) That offer of rep could be just around the corner.
Good luck to you, Liz, and the same to everyone in the query trenches.
I’m rooting for you,
Erin Bowman is the critically acclaimed author of numerous books for children and teens, including the Taken Trilogy, Vengeance Road, Retribution Rails, the Edgar Award-nominated Contagion duology, The Girl and the Witch’s Garden, and Dustborn. A web designer turned author, Erin has always been invested in telling stories—both visually and with words. Erin lives in New Hampshire with her husband and children.
An edit letter is late? The agent will chase. A payment still hasn’t come through? The agent will chase. The author can’t get an answer from their publicist? The agent will chase. You get the gist.
Not all agents are editorial. This is always a good thing to ask an agent about if/when you get an offer of rep, especially if it’s something that matters to you.
If you’re only getting form rejections, this could be the case. But if you’ve seen personalized rejections, this likely isn’t the case, as the agent saw something special in your writing and took the time to write you directly.
Agents typically have certain editors in mind for certain types of projects. As such, the agent has a better chance of finding ONE witchy YA book a home than they do securing deals for THREE witchy YAs that all go out at the same time, especially if the projects have similar vibes and styles.