My client Tara tells me she’s sent queries to forty-nine agents and nine have asked for partial or full manuscripts. But after reviewing the manuscript their interest ended with the agents rejecting her project. She writes, “I’ve gotten kind rejections, but I haven’t received any offers. I’m at a loss as to what to do next. Please advise!”
Though the rejections hurt, in reality, Tara has about a 20% success rate in terms of her query letter, the goal of which is to tempt an agent to ask for material. That’s not bad. It’s not uncommon for a writer to submit to lots of agents or editors before finding the right match. Stephen King got thirty rejection letters for Carrie, which he threw away (his wife pulled it out and forced him to keep going). Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen, authors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, received 134 rejections. For his classic, Roots, Alex Hayley received a whopping 208! (Check out this encouraging post for more famous stories about agents rejecting authors who became big sellers.)
Since a good number of agents are asking for partial manuscripts, my feeling is Tara’s query letter is doing its job well. So what’s the problem?
You need to balance what you can control (great opening, excellent writing and storytelling, choosing appropriate agents) with what you can’t (market changes, agent enthusiasm, timing). There are many elements that must come together in just the right combination, like a potion for publishing success. If any one of these elements isn’t present, you won’t get an offer and agents rejecting you will start to feel like the norm.
What You Can Control
If agents are requesting sample material but then passing on your project, consider whether your manuscript is truly the best it can be. Agents may be rejecting you because:
- the story doesn’t live up to the promise of the pitch
- the material is good, but not exceptional enough to warrant an offer
- you have a great story concept, but your execution isn’t quite there yet
- your writing skills aren’t as strong as your imagination
- you’re submitting to the wrong agents
Pay attention to the responses you’re getting. Are you receiving rejection letters very shortly after sending the partials? This probably indicates a lack of enthusiasm and/or marketability, both of which an agent can determine pretty quickly reading the first chapter and a synopsis. Lack of enthusiasm is often a result of the above mentioned characteristics. However, lack of marketability is a bit stickier: on the one hand, you can control what you write about and how well your story plays into trends, genre expectations, and potential media hooks; on the other hand, you’ve got to write your story the way you receive it from the Muse, or it will be soulless drivel.
What You Can’t Control
Again, if you’re getting rejections fairly quickly after sending your sample chapters, the culprit is probably lack of enthusiasm and/or marketability. This is mostly the result of issues you can control, but not always. Have you ever fallen head-over-heels in love with a book and recommended it to a friend, only to have your friend return it half read, with a “Meh” response? A great book may still fail to ignite an agent’s enthusiasm because of issues beyond your control. For example, the agent may not:
- be taking on new clients right now
- be confident in her network of editors who acquire in your category
- feel the current market is friendly enough to your type of book
- be in love with your style or subject matter
The last item—a lack of love—is key. The publishing industry can be very subjective. This is why you hear stories of huge bestsellers that got rejected over and over (check out the link above or just Google “famous author rejections”). An agent wants to be totally bonkers about your book before offering to represent it, and provided you’re submitting excellent work to appropriate agents, there’s nothing at all you can do to force that level of enthusiasm.
So What Do I Do About Agents Rejecting Me?
If you’re getting requests for sample chapters but no offers, keep submitting. I recommend a reassessment every 50 rejections. Consider the potential issues cited in this article and be really, really honest with yourself. Is your writing skill up to the challenge of your concept? Is your book’s opening effective and engaging? Are other books like yours getting acquired? Like the prayer goes, have the serenity to accept those things you cannot change and the courage to change those things you can.
As for the wisdom to know the difference, keep learning about the industry and working on your craft. The most common reason an agent or editor will reject after reading a partial is that they love the concept pitched in the query, but find your sample pages underwhelming. Pick up some books on writing at the library or browse the Internet for techniques you can apply to your manuscript.
If you’re unsure of the problem, consider hiring a professional freelance editor to review your manuscript. Many freelancers offer a variety of ways to get your work in front of experienced, savvy eyes, with feedback ranging from “Yeah, this just isn’t good enough” to “Here are some specific ways I think you can improve…” Fees vary, but you can get a ballpark from the Editorial Freelancers Association rate chart. Another way to get professional insight is to attend writers’ conferences, many of which offer one-on-one sessions with visiting agents and editors. A frank conversation may reveal the key—better still if the consultation involves a review of some pages.
Most important of all, don’t give up! As Richard Bach (140 rejections) would say, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.