5 Things Literary Agents Say When They Mean No

Feb 262013
 

Snagging a literary agent for your book proposal takes nerves of steel. You might have to send a query out to many agents, while telling yourself that it only takes one who’s excited about your book.

Most agents accept only one or two percent of the queries and book proposals they read. They spend a lot of time saying no. The problem is that they don’t have time to tell you why they don’t like your book idea or you, and often their responses don’t shed any light. On top of that, you’re not supposed to ask for clarification when you do get a response, because once they’ve said no, it’s no.

Possibly the most stressful thing of all is how long literary agents take to answer. Many take a month to six weeks to write two sentences back about your beloved book proposal that you’ve spent months perfecting. And some don’t answer at all, so you’ll have to take that as a no.

As a result, many authors send their query or proposal to several agents at once, then sit back and see what they get. I probably shouldn’t say “sit back.” It’s hard to be in a relaxed state. Recently a client said she felt “physically ill” upon sending her query letter to four agents.

Here’s a list of top rejections from literary agents and my translation as to what they mean:

1. I’m not taking any new clients right now. Your book idea doesn’t send me, nor do you.

2. I just signed with someone who’s writing a book on the same topic. Your idea is popular, and many people want to write about it. Someone else I’m already working with — perhaps more successful than you — has a similar idea, and I’m betting on them.

3. I only contract with people who have television shows or retail stores, and preferably both. Yes, an agent recently said this. It’s a variation on a popular reason for turning down book proposals, namely: “Your platform isn’t big enough.”

4. Sounds like a magazine article, not a book. You have not made a convincing case for an entire book on this subject.

5. I’m probably wrong and you’ll find a good home for it, but this book is not for me. Kind of flattering, but see No. 1.

The authors who succeed are persistent, assuming they have done their homework and wrote a killer book proposal to begin with. They keep finding the next agent to send their work to, and then another after that. They might have a little pity party when they’re turned down, but then they move on.

Have you been through this experience of getting turned down? What did you tell yourself to keep going? Did you get a rejection that is not on this list? I’d love to know.

(Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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  53 Responses to “5 Things Literary Agents Say When They Mean No”

  1. Dianne, I am having an anxiety attack just reading your post – yikes.

  2. Interviewing agents is one of the most demoralizing and time consuming parts of being a professional writer, with much emphasis on time consuming. Then add you get your expectations up and then get the excuse, which is like some roller coaster ride. First there is resourcing and studying the candidates and their client lists, which is not easy since most are not listed unless you get the writers’ guide. then start the communication, then sending book and magazine samples by snail mail, reviewing the agent/writer contract, then the hours talking on the phone necessary to see if you can get along and if the agent connects with your work (you cant sell something you dont believe in), then just filling the agent in on my own requirements and standards. When I went agent shopping 10 years ago when my agent retired after 18 years together, I figured I would have my pick. What a shock. Not only have I heard every excuse on dianne’s list, but many more including “I dont have time to educate you to my standards” (this is AFTER 20 books and a james beard award in my category), one was that they thought I didnt know how to write, that my topics lacked inspiration (no single subject topics please as they do not sell–go figure after books like goat and figs hit the market). The worst was working with an agent who was very forgetful. An editor asked for one of my proposals and the agent fed ex-ed it. after a month the editor called asking where the proposal was. The agent said she sent it, never did follow up that it arrived, and I figure never sent it in the first place since fed ex is easily traceable. I got plain wore out.

    • I hope Liz didn’t read this comment, Elizabeth, because she’s going to get even more stressed! So did you get an agent in the end?

  3. This is a great post Dianne. I try to be super fast with our reviews so that people do not have to experience that terrible waiting period. I also try to give someone feedback so that they can chose (or not) to use it to strengthen their proposal for future agent submissions.

    I do agree that finding the right fit is key. For both the agent and the author. Lastly, at lease at our agency, if you know you want to work with us, i much prefer an exclusive submission. I won’t take months to get back to you so i don’t hold you up, but it does show an indication of your level of commitment.

    I hope this helps shine some more light on this conversation!

    Sally

  4. I’m pretty good friends with my literary agent and there is a flip side. So many people come to them with half baked ideas that I understand their lack of compassion. Sometimes the reality is that you’ve failed to sell them and if you can’t sell them, they can’t sell you!

    • Agreed. Probably 80 percent of what they see makes it easy to say no. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the rest of us! I like your expression “If you can’t sell them, they can’t sell you!” True but many authors don’t realize what has to go into a proposal to sell an agent in the first place.

  5. The irony of this is that the same agents who told me no way back when…now have me on their email blast lists and are trying to solicit business or something. Or the ones who told me…oh, that won’t sell. Well, it did :) I love this list and wish they would just be honest! Would save us all so much time!

    • They were honest! They said some version of no. How funny that now they’re interested in you, Averie. Well, that might work for book No. 2, eh?

  6. Great post, Dianne! I took a wonderful book proposal class with you almost three years ago which really prepared me to be realistic about the current state of the publishing industry and working with agents. Thank you for your wisdom then and your continued wisdom now. All of which has contributed to my decision to self-publish! My first book is ready to go to press. The process of organizing the many moving parts required to setup a boutique publishing company, copy editors, book designers, etc, has been a steep learning curve but creative in its own way. (Boutique indeed! It’s just me! Website up soon.) For the kind of non-fiction I write, without illustrations, it feels like the right choice, but it’s also true that a little hope burns inside me that with enough self-published books and a large enough platform, an agent will appear to help navigate. Yours was the very first class I took when I decided to start writing so I wanted to take this opportunity to check in and say “thank you”.

    • What a lovely message, Christie. Thanks for your comment and congrats on your upcoming self-published book. Please email me when it’s out so I can put it in my newsletter, okay?

      It’s true that if you are successful with a self-published book, agents could be interested in your next one. You must be gearing up for your promotion plan now.

  7. I took a class with Dianne on how to write a book proposal, which definitely help me land a book deal. I sent out my query letter to 100 agents- no joke. I probably heard back from 20, and most of the responses were the four stated above. The responses trickled in over the course of 6 weeks, but my agent responded immediately. Kudos to him. Look for an agent that is young and ambitious and ready to pound the pavement for you. The right agent wants to read your proposal immediately, and mine did. Not only that, but he signed me up within the week and then assured me that he would sell my book within 2 months and he did!

    • What a success story, Dahlia. I can’t believe you contacted 100 agents. My own list of agents is pretty small. And how wonderful that one agent believed in you, took action and sold the book. It only takes one! You just delivered an important reminder to people who are sending out proposals now and getting rejections.

      Please send me a blurb with the particulars and I will put it in my next newsletter.

  8. I haven’t gone down that path yet. Being from a sales background, all this sounds way to familiar. I do believe that persistence can pay off as long as you’ve prepared a good proposal and have your ducks in a row. Just my thoughts. :)

    • I’d like to believe that too. You know what it’s like to face rejection, having been in sales, and I’m assuming you were successful at your job. Rejection didn’t stop you. That’s a good message for people to hear.

  9. Love your assessment of agents’ comments, Dianne, and they are all spot on. I wish I had a dollar for every rejection I got’97I’d be able to quit my job and live on that alone! With my first cookbook, 99% of the agents I queried told me flat out that they liked my book, the recipes sounded delicious, and that I was a good writer but that I had no “exposure” or “platform,” so they had to reject me. Well, isn’t that a kick in the head?

    Even when you get an agent, it isn’t all smooth sailing from there. I actually landed 2 agents for my first book. The first I fired because she did not communicate with me at all and I wondered why she took me on in the first place. The other was really nice and was initially enthusiastic about it, but when I saw that she was being completely inefficient and useless, I fired her, too.

    With my current cookbook-in-progress, I’ve gotten a mixture of #1, #2, and #5, but I get the feeling that it’s really the whole platform thing all over again. It’s a tough battle and you really have to have a thick skin to continue the fight. If you don’t develop that, you will go down early. If you’re a good writer and you have a good product, you deserve to stay in the ring and keep fighting, but you have to prepare yourself for the slings and arrows. (Okay, I just mixed a whole bunch of metaphors here, but you get what I saying. uc0u61514 )

    • Definitely, I get what you’re saying. The platform thing is increasingly important.

      I love what you say about going down early if you can’t face rejection. For anyone who is in the midst of querying agents, this is a message for you! Keep going.

      I also love that you fired your two agents. Other people might be so thrilled at landing agents that they would just keep them on no matter what.

  10. Back in 1995, a friend and I had a book proposal rejected by many because the topic was unrealistic, not believable, wouldn’t have broad appeal … the topic? online romance. We ended up self publishing, but shortly before we got there, we had to rename the book and all the chapter headings because another book came out not only with our working title, but with identical chapter headings. I guess we weren’t too careful while we were working on it. Of course, within a couple of years, everyone was publishing books about online romance!

    • You were ahead of your time! You needed an agent who figured that out and I guess no one did. Most agents, I suspect, want to be in the market early on a new subject, but not the first.

  11. A recent American Society of Journalists and Authors conference at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism featured a panel of agents. Having faced many of the issues voiced in your column and by the other commenters, I asked the agents got new clients. Most of the time, it was through recommendations or referrals of current clients. Whether you term this the “who you know” factor or the “LinkedIn” factor, the truth remains: blind queries to agents tend to be a fruitless waste of time. Better to spend the time beefing up your network of writing talent.

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right, Howard. A referral gets you in the door.

      But you can have the best referral in the world and if your book query or proposal doesn’t slay the agent, you won’t get anywhere. I have referred my clients to agents and have had this response many times. They will take the proposal seriously, be grateful for it, and they will get back to people quickly, but they don’t necessarily want to represent the book.

  12. On a happy note, sometimes an agent might be less than thrilled with your proposal, but they’re impressed with you and that leads to something. I’d written three proposals, to no avail (I got an agent for the first, but soon afterwards she quit the business and no one else would take it on a proposal that’d already been to the handful of most-likely publishers, and I couldn’t find an agent for the second or third)–but an agent who saw my third proposal thought of me when a project came across her desk that needed a writer. I got the gig and, with it, an agent ever after. We’ve since done 3 books together, but that doesn’t mean she always is able to sell every proposal. Them’s just the breaks.

  13. Dianne, I’d love to see you do a post on the whole notion of a “platform.” I know that the publishing industry has decided that this platform is more important than anything, anything at all, but more and more I think it may be a bit of a red herring. You might have a large “platform,” but if your book doesn’t solve a problem or fill a true need or truly inspire … basically if it doesn’t have a reason, it will most likely pop in the beginning because your loyal readers will buy it, and then fade into oblivion. More and more, I find myself thinking that the old saw is spot on: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Sorry to go off on a bit of a tangent. I have the best agent a girl could hope for and she found me, which is not the usual way and is, I realize, ridiculously lucky. I’d like to think that I’d have had the stomach to court an agent, but I fear not.

    Nicole

    • Substances that facilitate recovery buy diflucan cheap online from.

      Well, I did write that one post about a platform that I linked to, http://diannej.com/blog/2010/03/why-authors-need-a-platform-more-than-ever/, but it’s three years old now. Maybe things have changed. There’s no way to know, really.

      Recently I helped someone write a proposal that had interest from 8 publishers and was sold at auction by an agent. How much of it was due to the author’s 125,000 Facebook followers and her promise to buy 4,000 copies of the book? It probably accounted for at least half of the interest. There was nothing remarkably new about her book idea.

      You ARE lucky that your agent found you and you don’t have to go through this exercise.

  14. Do you ever have the agent refusing your book but strongly recommending trying as many other agents as possible? I have a few times. Made me wonder. Although I’ll be going for a publisher instead now.

    • Oh yes, that is part of No. 5, “you’ll probably find a good home for it.” It’s good but not good enough.

      Re publishers, the larger ones won’t look at a proposal directly from you, and even the smaller ones work with agents. Make sure you research who takes unsolicited work.

  15. Pehaps a better article for would b’e9 authors seeking agents would b’e9 a compendium of all the letters sent by famous agents pitilessly turning down unknown authors who then wrote a best seller. And by the way even JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rescued from Bloomsberrys Slush pile of Unsolicited MSS….

  16. This is very valuable information, and I’ve heard it before from others. Sadly, what you said here is very true. I think we should step back and look at the big picture here. It’s not just what the agent has to say to you, it’s not just about rejection or a bad proposal. The big picture here is that the publishing landscape is changing fast and it is getting harder and harder for everyone – be it writer, agent or publisher to stay competitive and in the game. We just have to up our game, that’s all there is to it. But I admit, rejection is tough to swallow. Thanks for this helpful piece, Dianne!

  17. I think it’s interesting that creative work is often viewed as different from actual work. Think about getting a job in this economic climate’97you send out a million resumes touting your qualifications and rarely hear back, or you get oblique responses that lead nowhere. Publishing is not so different, and yet we take it so much more personally (and often go out entirely unprepared).

    Having worked inside a literary agency I can tell you it’s not 80% of submissions that are easy to dismiss–it’s more like 98%. The vast majority are just not good enough, have some fatal flaw in approach or conception, or are simply sent to the wrong people (romance novels to agents that do nonfiction only). The latter was particularly sad and frustrating: a waste of everyone’s time and unnecessary rejection on the part of the author.

    The good news: it’s really not that hard to stand out and look impressive. Do your homework, learn about the business, write a good proposal, develop a platform. There are books that can help, classes even. Becoming an author is more than just being a writer’97it’s a new career, and there is a whole set of skills to develop (as there is for any new career).

    Agents have a role to play–they sift through and winnow down millions of ideas and send the strongest onward, to publishers who sift and winnow further. The market is crowded and projects need to be competitive for a publisher to put considerable time and money into developing them. It’s a risk, and they need to feel confident that their investment will sell–due either to the quality of the project, the author’s connections, or an unmet need (and hopefully some combination of all three). It’s not personal, it’s a business.

    Our job–if we want to write books–is to answer those questions, to show them what they need in order to feel confident about backing the project, make ourselves as appealing as possible (I say this having successfully sold two proposals of my own, and ghostwritten many others).

    The unfortunate part of the system is that agents are not able to give individual feedback to each author they turn down (and sometimes it really is just a matter of them not being moved by the project–we all have personal preferences).

    Most agents are overwhelmed by substandard submissions and just can’t take the time. They only make money when they sell something, so they can’t afford to spend time on projects that are not even close (though sometimes they do). Think of it this way: would you expect the hiring manager at a job to take the time to teach an unqualified applicant all the skills they need for the position and don’t yet have? How often does that happen?

    That said, most agents I know will give feedback and advice to projects that are *almost* there. They want to find the next great thing as much as we want to be it.

    But getting *almost* there–that’s is the work of the writer. That’s our job.

    The other good news: you don’t have to do it alone. Classes, books, writing groups, freelance editors (such as Dianne), and family members who are sticklers for good punctuation can all help. But if you want to publish a book and not cover the cost of production yourself, this is the work that needs to be done.

    But as I said, 98% of submissions are very far off the mark. That’s great news to the rest of us. :-)

    (I should also say that not all agents are right, and never all the time. Every agent I know has stories of book they turned down that went big–but if they weren’t in love with the project, if they didn’t see the potential, then they weren’t the right agent for the job. You want the agent who sees the potential in your project, gets what you’re about, and wants to sing it from the rooftops.)

    I tell anyone who asks me for advice’97friends and writing colleagues, editing clients, etc’97 to think of it as a business. It’s much less painful that way. The creative and personal part of the work happens privately, but once you start thinking about publication, it’s all business.

    If this is what you truly want to do, then it’s worth it. And it does get easier. I remember when I was applying to grad school and complained to one of my writing mentors about all the hoops I had to jump through. She turned to me and said something I’ll never forget:
    “This is how they make sure you want it enough.”

    • Hello Tara! How marvelous to have this long comment from you. Thanks for taking the time and for your wisdom.

      What you’ve said here is a good reality check for people who want to write books. So many of us are easily discouraged. We take rejection personally and we stop, even when we have a very good product. The ones who succeed keep going. That is why there are crappy books — I’m convinced. Those authors really believed in themselves and convinced agents and editors.

      They also understood that writing a proposal is not just about describing the book. That’s where the strategy comes in. I love that part.

      Writing an excellent book proposal is an art form. It can’t be rushed. When I work with people, it often takes 6 months or longer to complete one. It’s interesting to see who is going to keep going all the way to a published book and who is going to give up. I do my best to keep people on the path, but I don’t always succeed after they’ve faced rejection from agents.

      And yes, agents are not always right. Recently I got an email from an agent who had heard that a book proposal I worked on with a client was accepted by another agent (the first agent had turned it down), and that second agent held an auction for 8 publishers who wanted the book! The email was basically an admission that maybe the first agent shouldn’t have turned it down. True, but I didn’t gloat. Maybe it wasn’t her kind of book. As you say, it’s just business, and that first agent will have lots more opportunities.

      I like posts like this because I can just tell people how it is: It’s hard! And then people like you chime in. Glorious.

  18. Wow. I love the brutal honesty of this list. I got turned down by one agent with “you’re not funny,” which laid me right out because for me, there is no worse rejection than that. Especially since I had supposedly been writing “funny” for quite a few years. I truly almost gave up right then then there, but I got over it by consulting with a very dear friend, a writerly/editor friend who pish-toshed the “not funny,” and introduced me to a new agent. That agent took my proposal to her company and came back to say that it resonated so strongly with another agent there that the other agent begged to have the project.

    That other agent became my amazing agent who told me she never laughed so hard at a proposal in her life. That agent also told me that for her and for my book, her job didn’t stop with the sale of the book. She was with me every step of the way — still is — as a cheerleader, first reader, everything. We worked hard at refining my proposal even further and then sold it and now I have a book.

    People tell me it’s funny.

    • Thanks Stephanie. This week we’re both being honest, I suppose. (Readers, please see this post from Stephanie about writing for free: http://www.avidly.org/2013/02/28/why-i-write-for-free/)

      When I was a magazine editor, people would write queries about the funny story they intended to write, but most of the time, their writing wasn’t funny, at least to me.

      It’s all about finding someone for whom your idea resonates, and it sounds like you found the perfect agent. Lucky you! Agents are basically salespeople. They need to believe in your book and be your cheerleader — that’s how they make a sale.

      • Oh, thank you so much for linking to my piece, Dianne.

        And you are right, of course, humor and funniness is completely subjective. (I know for a fact that not everyone who has read my book finds it funny — thank you, Amazon reviews for keeping me humble!) But to your point, finding the right agent-author fit is what will be the most helpful for a writer for steps beyond just selling the book. Additionally, an exceptional agent will be 100% honest with you but find a way not to overly hurt an author’s very raw feelings. Sometimes feelings get hurt and that’s part of the game, too. Authors need a thick skin to keep putting themselves out there. On the other hand, too thick a skin will render the author impervious to feeling actual Things and that’s not good either.

        But when an agent believes in a project, they can be very good at the delicate dance of honesty and support so as not to totally kill their author’s drive or passion.

        I am very lucky to have found my agent, and I am also glad I kept refining and pushing my book idea even in the face of naysayers. Having faith in oneself and work is crucial.

  19. And I love that you have this salon of sorts, where people can share their thoughts and experiences (and hopes and fears). Thanks for putting up with my lengthy ones!

    The book proposals I’ve written for myself each took 18 months’97and I know my way around a book proposal! I wasn’t working on them full-time, sometimes they were marinating (and sometimes I was actively avoiding them), but yes, a year and a half. At least.

    And you know, the call from the agent you got–even that is a complex situation. That first agent likely could not have done the same thing the second did. Maybe she has a different network of editors she knows well, maybe she didn’t see the right angle to take in her her pitch letter. Maybe she doesn’t have the right background with that subject matter (as you said: not her kind of book), or she wasn’t skillful or experienced enough to drum up the same enthusiasm. The same book in two different agents’ hands can have very different outcomes.

    It’s all so nuanced and there are (frustratingly) few situations where it is black and white. But clearly, that writer ended up with the agent that was right. :-)

    But yes, at the end of the day it’s all about going forward and being persistent. That’s something I have to remind myself all the time.

    Thanks for letting me chime in!

  20. This is another great post. I have been dragging my feet on finishing my proposals but a well-published friend called me up a few weeks ago and told me to just write down my two ideas in an email – a paragraph each – and send them to her editor (editor, not agent). I did. He was very nice. Told me one idea was too literary more than cookbook (so not his domain) and the other, well, your number 2 above. But he said he would be happy to meet me and chat in San Francisco (which according to my friend means he was impressed with my email). So who knows. But if anything his response has me working on that proposal…finally.

    • Very good! It’s nice to have connections, eh? And it’s a good sign that he wants to meet you. He’s obviously interested.

  21. I can relate to feeling physically ill when I sent my book off to an editor for a first look, and it took me days to open the manuscript when she sent her edits back. I submitted my first book to 24 or 25 agents/publishers and have a stack of “thanks but no thanks” letters. It’s nice when they actually write a personal note giving you some kind of feedback. It’s one reason why for my second book I went the self-published route. Let the market, not the gatekeeper, decide!

    • That IS nice, Stephanie. It could be helpful if you saw a general theme. I can see why you went the self-published route. I hope your book is doing well.

  22. Informative piece. However, as you and I well know, sometimes even a great proposal, a strong platform, and persistence are sadly still not enough. It’s only fair to acknowledge that getting a book published is not hard work alone, but a touch of serendipity.

    • Indeed, you just don’t know. At a minimum, it’s great timing for this trendy topic. The book market is not saturated, and none of the few books have dazzling illustrations, I’d be willing to bet.

  23. We used to read agent and editor rejection letters at the writers’ critique group I belong to, and you can learn (sort of) to see the humor in the awkward, nutty business of people saying no. The funniest/weirdest: “This manuscript was entertaining, inspiring, thought-provoking, well-written, focused, and funny but I’m sorry to say it does not meet our needs at this time.”

  24. Thanks Diane for your thought provoking and “inspirational” insights at the IACP class this evening! Very different from where I live. In New Zealand there are no cookbook agents, you call the publisher ‘s main line, ask for the editor and they answer the phone! Arrange appointment and there you are pitching directly to the publisher! The US is a big learning curve, so it is brill to have your post as a reference guide!

    • Oh gosh. What a dream, Natasha.

      I bet some people do call up in the US, but I don’t think it’s particularly effective if they’re still in the thinking stage and don’t have anything to send.

      Great to meet you at the conference, and thanks so much for the compliment.

  25. “I didn’t love it enough”.
    How stupid is that?! Especially when you’re browsing books and see the kind of tripe some agent must have managed to “love enough” it makes you wonder which planet and which drugs they’re on.
    Boring.

    • Yes, it does make you wonder sometimes! Choosing a book is not an exact science. But if agents don’t love it enough, they’re not going to sell it with enthusiasm. That’s a valid issue.

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