The Many Reasons an Agent Rejects a Book

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 11 2015

In response to last Friday’s post on Thoughts on Sending Rejection Letters there was a great comment from a reader that I thought would be better addressed in a post to the audience at large.

E.L. Wagner said…
I’ve heard these kinds of comments before, and as someone who is out in the trenches querying a novel, of course, it’s hard not to get discouraged when an agent says they liked your book but it wasn’t quite what they need for their list at the moment, but they’re sure someone will end up repping it.
Out of curiosity, why would an agent feel that they personally couldn’t sell a well-written and marketable novel (or get it a deal that does it justice), but another agent might be able to? It may seem like a naive question, but it’s one that I’ve wondered about.
I get the “this is promising but it needs a lot of work yet” rejections some people get. All else being equal, who wouldn’t prefer to take on a manuscript that needs a minimum amount of polishing before shopping it to publishers? But all else being equal, what makes an agent think they personally can’t sell a given manuscript when someone else might be able to?

I can imagine that as a querying author there is always so much to get discouraged about. I know I feel it myself when I’m submitting my client’s work and get those second reads that don’t pan out or an enthusiastic editor that can’t get the support of the rest of her team. That being said, I also know that finding someone who has some level of enthusiasm is another positive step in the right direction. It means there is something there and that the author and I are on the right path. I’m also painfully optimistic that good things are always around the corner.

There are a ton of reasons an agent might personally feel she couldn’t sell something. It could be that she likes it, but doesn’t have the vision for it (I think I’ll talk more about this tomorrow), it could mean that she sees the potential marketability in it, but also worried it’s not quite there yet and doesn’t have the time or enough enthusiasm to take the risk.

Different agents have different specialties and strengths. One might love editing and working on revisions while another feels she’s better at selling and working with the author on the back end of things. Both might do mysteries, but one might feel her strength is historical while the other is a female protagonist. It could be a connection with the voice or a certain knowledge of just two editors who happen to be looking for this thing. Or, it could just come down to level of enthusiasm and how full an agent’s list is.

There are so many different things that come into play when an agent rejects a work and its rare an author will ever know them all which is why it’s best to take the good news when you can and run with it.


4 responses to “The Many Reasons an Agent Rejects a Book”

  1. Thank you, JHF! I strongly believe in focusing on the good/positive parts of life! When my husband started teaching me how to golf, he said "remember the good shots, they will keep you playing the game". He is right (don't tell him I admitted that). I can visualize most of my best drives, chips and putts. The exhilaration from seeing 'MY WORK SOAR' keeps me craving for more and ultimately in the game!
    Keep swinging!
    Christina Mitchell

  2. Avatar E.L. Wagner says:

    Thanks for taking my question 🙂 Good, thought provoking answers there.

    It's easy to forget that you guys have to deal with sometimes cryptic comments from editors too, and that even editors have to deal with their higher ups and make guesses about what is ultimately rather unpredictable–what readers want to see more of, versus what they've probably seen enough of for now, and most especially what new and crazy idea will be the next big fad versus something that makes readers go "what in the heck is THIS?"

    It doesn't make it easier for those of us who are trying to sort out how and why our MS might get a fairly enthusiastic "almost" from a couple of agents but polite form rejections or simply crickets from others (and for knowing when one should just give up and rewrite the thing from scratch or just write something else). It's good to remember that it's a tough row to hoe for everyone, though.

  3. E.L. Wagner, we don't often think about how far up the line our work has to go, which means, until we are really, really successful, we are often at the bottom of the hill, you-know-what, has a tendency to run down.

  4. Avatar AJ Blythe says:

    Great advice: it's best to take the good news when you can and run with it