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This article puts a new twist on literary agent rejection letters. If you’re like most authors (including my coaching clients who work with me to find a literary agent), you probably already know it can be difficult to get an agent. Really difficult. So, I wrote this article to help you do two things: 1) Understand (with a positive spin) how difficult it really is to get an agent (because that understanding will increase your chances of getting representation), and 2) Tell you what you should (and should not do) when it comes to literary agent rejections.

I was inspired to write this article after checking in with a bunch of my coaching clients this week. Authors in the process of querying agents who are hoping to secure representation before the holidays. Authors who’ve been getting literary agent rejection letters. Some of those authors have been sending out submissions for a long time. Maybe you’re one of them. Either way, you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that authors use a wide variety of descriptors to describe how they feel during that phase of the publishing process: determined, hopeful, impatient, surprised, disappointed, discouraged, disillusioned, disgusted, depressed, incensed, frustrated, irritated, scared, stressed, annoyed, angry, suicidal, and/or homicidal.

No joke, I’ve seen all the above (and then some).

And, in my book, it’s understandable.

As one of my coaching clients recently told me (after he finally signed a contract with an agent after sending out hundreds—yes, hundreds—of queries, and getting hundreds of literary agent rejection letters), “Anyone who says they don’t mind getting rejections from literary agents is a liar. It’s no fun hearing from hundreds of book agents essentially telling you that your work is garbage.”

I get it…

Now, here’s what you can,
and should, do about it.

Literary Agent Rejection Letters – The #1 Thing Every Author Needs to Know

If you’re getting literary agents requesting your work and then getting lots of literary agent rejection letters, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should revise your manuscript.

Of course, there are occasions when you should revise your writing based on the feedback and constructive (or destructive) criticism agents have provided. But, consider the following before you do: Nine times out of ten, when literary agents give my coaching clients feedback, I tell them not to do anything about it—unless they’ve already submitted their work to most of the good to great agents; or, if one or more of the agents is offering representation or possible representation contingent on the suggested changes. If that happens, you should obviously fire up your keyboard and start making changes.

Otherwise…

I tell my clients to (temporarily) disregard the feedback in literary agent rejection letters, because, if I’m working with the author in a long-term program to help them get literary agents reading their work, I know their writing is at a high enough level that they should give the manuscript a chance before making radical revisions and/or hiring an editor.

Why?

First, as you’ll soon see, agents often give extremely brief, cryptic, and confusing advice that’s difficult and/or impossible to interpret and intelligently incorporate. Second, agents often have diametrically opposed reactions to manuscripts and often give conflicting advice regarding what authors should do to make their work better. Third, authors often make changes to their work, in an attempt to make it better, but those changes often don’t make a manuscript better; many times, they make it worse. So, I don’t want authors doing anything that isn’t absolutely necessary and/or likely to improve the author’s position.

I could share dozens of case studies about authors of all book genres, to prove the above, but I have a life (and I’m guessing, so do you), so I’m simply sharing below, the most recent two (one fiction and one nonfiction). Names and other minor details have been changed for confidentiality.

* * *

Case Study #1 – Literary Agent Rejection Letters

I really felt for this (nonfiction) author because she’s sensitive and had particularly high hopes regarding what might happen with agents. When she filled out her author questionnaire, prior to her Introductory Coaching Call with me, she said, “I have had decreasing returns from my own efforts with agencies. Feedback includes people seeing me as ‘not famous enough’, as rehashing past formats, as ‘not new’ – and in the case of the book I want to talk to you about – ‘not an expert in the area’. I’m hoping for practical suggestions on how to make the initial short pitch attractive, and feedback on what I’m not doing so well.”

After this author’s introductory coaching call, I thought/felt I could help her get agents interested in her work, so I told her that… and I asked her if she wanted to see what that would entail. She said yes and subsequently signed up for one of my long-term coaching programs. We then did things to improve her manuscript, platform, and pitch materials. But, when the author started sending out queries, she got very few requests for more material. Instead, she got lots of literary agent rejection letters. I encouraged her to keep going, of course, and, eventually, the requests started coming in; but, as is almost always the case when agents request more material, they then send rejection letters.

Here are three of them, followed by an acceptance letter…

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #1

Dear [Name of Author],

I am going to respectfully pass on this. It’s a well thought out idea. But books like this usually get published based on the author’s platform. There’s a lot of advice, and I worry you don’t have a reputation in your niche/industry.

Best of luck,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #2

Dear [Name of Author],

I agree with you that the topic of your book is a never-ending subject of conversation, and indeed the competitive books you refer to are an indication of that. But what worries me is that this book seems to be a mélange without a core thesis as is found in the others you refer to. The appetite for books these days among editors (and possibly readers, though that is less critical alas) is for books that have a very focused approach that can be understood in a soundbite. What you’re describing seems to lack that and that makes selling in way more difficult. Add to that, the strong predilection among publishers to buy books by individuals who have a following – or as it is called a platform – and you’ll understand how a book is not merely judged by its contents, veracity and contribution, but by how publishers judge it in terms of sales potential. I wish I could say that your background, impressive though it may be, is what they are looking for – but afraid I think it would be seen as a bit outside the area for the book you’re proposing. So, I’m afraid I’m going to decline.

Maybe I’m missing something here; perhaps another agent will feel I’ve made a big mistake.

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #3

Thank you for your patience while I read and considered your proposal (and four chapters) of your book. Although I admire the clever basis for this project, I found myself longing in the project for solid, new information and a point of view that was less contrived.

There is clearly a clever idea, and a wealth of knowledge in your experience and other writings but for me, this project does not yet deliver the promised “smarts” but reviews known information and tries to put it into a new context.

In addition, the book’s core message could be any number of thoughts and they are all INTERESTING but the focus is lost because there are so many ideas. Editors today go for simple. Like you I’d like to work on the next book which is a “big idea’ in the Malcolm Gladwell journalist tradition and in a way your content could be focused along the lines that Gladwell uses to help readers see the core idea in disparate ideas, all very inviting. I wonder if the text could be reconfigured in this way.

Thank you for the privilege of reading your work.

Best regards,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Interest Letter (that led to an agent contract)

Ironically, this letter is from an agent more famous than the other three…

Hi [Name of Author],

I enjoyed reading your proposal. Please feel free to give me a call when you get this so we can discuss literary representation. I am reachable at [number intentionally left out for confidentiality].

All the best,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Case Study #2 – Literary Agent Rejection Letters

When this (fiction) author filled out his questionnaire for an Introductory Coaching Call with me, he said, “I feel beaten down by all the rejections I’ve been receiving. I sometimes think all these agents must be right. Maybe my books really are horrible. Then I get depressed that I’ve wasted so much time, energy, and money on my writing. I’d love to have my book published with one of the major publishing houses. (Penguin, Houghton Mifflin, Harper Collins, Random House, etc.) All the time and energy I’ve spent on writing would finally be validated. If I don’t, then I’ll probably continue going the small press route. My wife has a good job, but I’d love to have some extra spending money to do the things we haven’t been able to do. We need a new car, we have student loans to pay off, and two kids who come with their own sets of expenses.”

Like the first author I told you about, I worked with this writer to improve his manuscript and pitch materials. But, when the author started sending out queries, he got very few requests for more material. I encouraged him to keep going, of course, and, eventually, the author started getting requests; but, just like the first case study, the literary agent requests were followed by (you guessed it) literary agent rejection letters.

Here are four of them, followed by an acceptance letter…

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #1

Dear [Name of Author],

Many thanks for sending this excerpt from your novel, which I’ve now had a chance to read. I’m sorry to say that I did not respond as enthusiastically to the pages as I had hoped I would.

I wish you success in finding a home for the book,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #2

Dear [Name of Author],

Thanks so much for checking in (and for your patience)! My compliments on your strong writing, but I’m not connecting with this at a deep enough level to move forward. I wish you the best of luck with this, and will look forward to kicking myself when it’s a huge success!

Best,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #3

Dear [Name of Author],

I’m afraid it’s a pass. I was hoping this would be like another novel I admire, but found that the two first-person narratives sounded exactly the same and the male character just didn’t strike me as one who could sustain a reader’s interest over the course of an entire novel…alas!

Best,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Rejection Letter #4

Dear [Name of Author],

Thank you so much for the look at your novel. I admired the clever twist ending and the depth of the main characters’ backstories, but I didn’t feel strongly enough about the manuscript to offer representation. Because the two main characters were never working against or towards a specific goal, I thought the stakes for both characters were too low. I’m nevertheless grateful that you tried me, and I am confident that you will find success in your search for representation.

All best,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Literary Agent Interest Letter (that led to an agent contract)

This agent is just as good, and, in some cases, better, than the other agents who rejected the author

Dear [Name of Author],

I loved your novel! Absolutely loved it! Well, slightly shocked at the lengths one of the two main characters would go to, but it kept the pages turning!

I’d like to have a phone conversation with you this week if that works for you.

All best,

[Famous Agent]

* * *

Conclusion – Literary Agent Rejection Letters

I’ll spare you the details, but, as you can imagine, the authors above had a hard time dealing with their literary agent rejection letters–especially since many of the rejection letters contained concrete criticism communicated with conviction by the agents. So, understandably, the authors started doubting their ability, and, I’m sure (although they were too polite to say so), they started doubting my ability.

That’s normal, and that’s okay…

Because they trusted me (and themselves) enough to keep going.

I hope you will, too.

The happy tears of joy you’ll shed, if and when you get an agent, will quickly wash away your unhappy memories of rejection. At least that’s how one of the authors above described his experience when he found out he finally had an offer for representation from a top literary agent.

Lastly, be encouraged (not discouraged) by the success stories you see in my newsletter and on my websites about the authors who’ve gotten interest from literary agents and/or offers for representation (sometimes quickly). It doesn’t always happen that way. In fact, it doesn’t usually happen fast. So, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t put yourself down. And don’t give up. Getting a literary agent is typically a long, tiresome grind… one that will test your resolve and cause you to question much of what you know and believe.

Again, that’s normal, and that’s okay…

As long as you keep going.

So, please do,

– Mark

Related Posts – Literary Agent Rejections

Three related articles you might also find helpful:

How to Overcome, Interpret, and Avoid Literary Agent Rejections

Literary Agent Feedback – Evaluating Book Agent Feedback

5 “Stupid” Things That Literary Agents Say and Do

Question or Comment About Literary Agent Rejection Letters – or Anything Else?

Click here to see The 50 Questions Authors Ask Most (along with answers to the questions) and/or post your question or comment. Click here to see our Guide to Literary Agents. And, click here to see some of our best tips to help you Find a Literary Agent and/or Get a Literary Agent.

Author Coaching/Consulting

Want help to avoid or overcome literary agent rejection letters? Click here to learn how you can get 1-on-1 feedback to improve your pitch material and/or writing during an Introductory Coaching Call.

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