One of the things that the literary agency I work for does some weekends out of the year is teach seminars on query writing and the first 5 pages of manuscripts (which, basically just means the first page
of the manuscript). The seminars last only a day or two, but aim to help writers improve their queries and start of their books so that they have a better chance of standing out in the ever-growing slush pile. Since I know many members of the literature community here aim to one day be published writers, I thought I would share our sheet of the top reasons for manuscript rejections. Please note: These are in no particular order
Agents have guidelines for specific genres that they like to represent. Just like you and me, they have certain genres they love and certain genres they don't. Sometimes, it's not because of personal preference, but because they don't know the market for some books as well as other agents who are very passionate about them. Therefore, do your research beforehand and save yourself the time sending a wrong genre MS out, and save the time of the agent who already has a big enough pile to go through!
- Not enough to go on in a query
Agents want something that stands out and works as a story. Many times, there are queries for stories that sound good, but there's not much to work or use to pitch the book to publishers. Make your story the best it can be and have there be something compelling about it that will make others want to read it.
- Writing or idea is good, but doesn't stand out
Just like with the last point, you need to make sure your story is compelling. Make it be something that the agent is excited about and wants be just as passionate as you are. With how many manuscripts are in the slush pile (and in e-queries), you need to make sure you've got a story that really will catch their attention and make it all they can think about.
- Not clear which of the 4 Ss carries it (story, setting, someone, style)
Something needs to drive your story. If you're bouncing around and making it hard for the agent to determine what makes the story strong (if anything), chances are it needs some retweaking.
Like I mentioned in the "wrong genre" section, just like you and me, agents have particular preferences for what they like. If something isn't in their personal taste, they probably won't represent it unless it really blows them away. Because of this, again, make sure what you're submitting to an agent is something they state they are looking for.
Yes, we get these often. What does this mean? E-queries that have been forwarded to multiple agents or queries that are clearly "forms" and printed and sent off to a bunch of agents (basically, the "Dear Agent" queries). You want to be professional about your approach to sending your work out and show that you care about the agent-- especially if you want them to care about you.
- Lack of punctuation, grammar, capitalization, etc.
If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to show you are
a serious writer. Don't send in anything that you haven't proofed again and again and again (and had someone else proof).
These are the worst, and trust me, we get a lot of them. If you're sending queries preaching about how great you are, how you'd be doing the agency a favor by representing you, or that you're the best writer to ever walk the earth (we literally got an e-query with the subject line "BETTER THAN JK ROWLING!!!!"), you're not getting represented-- no matter how good of a writer you are. No one wants to work with a diva.
Know about publishing before you start querying! Sometimes, writers have an idea about publishing in their head that isn't true and it makes communication difficult with them. Educate yourself! When you query, it's like applying for a job. You should know the basics before submitting that "resume"!
Small font, fancy text, etc. Don't do it. You want your work to be read (that's the purpose of writing!), so if you make it so it's unreadable, no one will be able to read it, and therefore consider it.
- Sent to wrong name or no name
Like I said in an earlier point about query spamming, make sure it's not just a "Dear Agent" letter. Also, be sure you're putting the right agent's name on the query-- and including the right suffix. You'd be surprised how many times we get "Mr." delivered to our agency when the agent is a "Ms."
- No return response information
Let the agent know how you want to be contacted. E-mail? In a letter in the mail (you need to include a SASE in this case)? Make sure to make it clear and give all your contact information (phone number, e-mail, address) so that you can be contacted.
120,000 words is the maximum that most agents will accept to read for a first time author. Why? Anything more than that is just too long. You can tell a story in less words than you think-- don't make it all fluff, get to the point! Of course, there are cases were books are too short and rushed, too, but usually the main problem is books exceeding the 120,000 mark.
- Seen it a thousand times already
While there's no such thing as originality, you need to be able to put your own twist on things and really own it and make it unique. If you submit a story that has basically the same plot as 100 other already published stories and stories that keep coming in the slush pile each week, you probably aren't getting represented-- unless you really bring something new to the table in it.
- Poor writing in query that doesn't inspire confidence in the manuscript
Professionalism. Use it all the time. If you want someone to take your manuscript seriously, make sure your query is top notch. Proof it, make sure there are no typos or grammar errors. Remember, one error in a query is multiplied by 400 pages in an agent's eyes (as we always say). Let your strong writing shine in your query and your work will be more anticipated.
As a nonfiction writer, it's important to have some background in what you're writing about to know that you're marketable. A lot of times, books like these are written by professors, columnists in magazines or newspapers who focus on particular areas, etc. Make yourself known and someone who gives buyers a reason to purchase your book! (For fiction writers, credentials and online presence like blogs, Twitter, etc. are important. Build your name up and make yourself known.)
- Not clear who audience is
Every writer should know who their intended audience is when writing. Make sure that it's clear in your work so that agents are aware, as well.
- Sent as an e-mail attachment
Usually, agents want the MS copied and pasted into the body of the e-mail. Why? Some writing programs don't operate on agents' computers (usually things other than Word) and files sometimes don't open properly. Having it in the body of the e-mail saves for file opening problems, build up of files on the computer, and a waste of time clicking through files.
- Too me-moir or not universal enough (Memoir)
Don't make it all "me", "me", "me". Your story should be something universal that other people can connect to. Memoirs should have the reader learn something at the end. You're not telling the story of what
happened, you're telling the story
of what happened.
Most agents, like publishers, want to represent works that they will have the first-time publishing rights to. Self-published books have already been out there for the world to see, so those rights are gone. (This also goes for work posted online-- deviantART included). Then comes the question that a lot of young writers ask on the matter: "But 'x' book was self-published and got a book deal from a big publisher..." In order for this to happen, there needs to be a lot of buzz about that book. Its sales need to be competing with traditionally published works. We get self-published titles often that come through the agency, but if sales aren't high enough, we can't represent it. 100 books aren't enough; 500 aren't; 1,000 aren't; heck, sometimes even 5,000 books aren't. Most agents quote that sales should be in the 10,000s to be represented or signed on to a bigger publisher after being self-published. (This, of course, isn't always the case, but it's the one that typically is gone by).
This pretty much explains itself. If the market is saturated in something, agents and publishers sometimes get tired of seeing it.
- Didn't send what was asked for
It happens. If an agent asks for the first 10 pages of a book and a query letter, that better be what you send them. Not 13 pages, not 20 pages, not 11 pages-- 10. Make sure you do exactly what the agent asks when submitting. Follow their guidelines!
- Author is a tough sell (prison, lives overseas, agoraphobic, etc.)
Sadly, this can factor in what makes a book deal or not, too. If circumstances are tough for getting the author out there, it's going to hurt book sales overall. Overseas is probably the big one here (though, there are a lot of international authors that are repped here in the US, so don't let that frighten you!) and agoraphobia (fear of being in open/public places). If you're a writer, you're going to read in front of people, be interviewed, etc. It's important to build communication skills!
- Too close to a project already represented or sold
This happens a lot. Authors sometimes see projects that recently sell that were represented by an agent and query to them. While that's okay to do, it's something to watch out for if the project is too
similar. Some agents don't want to represent two projects that are so alike that their one doesn't feel so unique any more. Pay close attention to what agents are selling and representing currently before querying.
Sometimes it does happen and agents only take on a certain number of books for a particular genre at a time. Why? Most of the editors at publishing companies they pitch to for a genre are the same, and sending too may projects to them can be an "annoyance". Therefore, a lot of agents try to stick to a set amount of books per genre per reading period/year (unless they represent just one genre). However, it's hard to tell just when they are full-- sometimes they'll put on their sites they aren't seeking "x" genre currently to keep authors updated, though. Always check agents' sites!
This was mentioned above in "delusion", but it's being repeated here. Don't be an uninformed author. Do your homework. Learn about how publishing works. Some of the things we point out that are the biggest turn offs are:
- Expects the world
- Wants the agent to be the publicist
- Makes demands on their advance
- Has no clue of the realities of publishing
Novels have drafts. Many, many drafts. If you've just completed your first draft and submit it to an agent, they're going to know. Write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Make sure your novel is as clean and perfect as it can be before submitting. Agents know when you've worked to polish your manuscript and when it's hot off the printer for the first time.
- The agent can't think of 5 editors right away to whom they would send the manuscript to
Agents know editors, which means they know editors' tastes. If they think right away of an editor who would love to read your story, that's great! If they can't think of one, then it's probably not something they want to invest time in, since it will be a struggle researching editors they don't know (trust me! That takes lots of time on the computer digging around Publisher's Marketplace to see recent book deals).
If an agent rejects you once, don't re-send your manuscript to them. Chances are, they'll remember. There are many agents out there, so if you get rejected by one, don't be discouraged. Just send to another-- but never the same agent (unless they ask for it once things are changed. It does happen, but very rarely).
- Query that doesn't focus much on the story
We see these often, and no, they don't get represented. When you query your novel
, we want to hear about your novel
, not your life, not your accomplishments and awards, your book
. There's always room to mention these things in your brief author bio at the end, but the majority of your query should be talking about your book.
Agents are very busy people. While they try to follow their 6-12 week response time as often as possible (some even have it up to a year for response time if they know they're so busy), things happen. I'm being honest when I say that literally around 300 e-queries come in a day, and a huge stack of snail mail queries (you know those US postal service tubs? One of those full). During the summer, things are faster, but come autumn, there's so much going on in publishing that agents can fall behind. E-mailing them constantly and asking about your query, sending letters, and yes, calling them every day to ask, is not
going to get your MS to the top of the pile. Chances are, it's just going to be tossed in rejection.
Agents want to know what the reader is going to get for their time and money reading the book. They want to see it first hand. Prove you have something to share with the world-- something that readers are going to love and connect with and not feel like they wasted their time and money. Make is something they'd be happy to waste time and money on again and again.
Partial & Full Rejection Reasons:
- Not hooked by the first page (Partial)
The first page is what's going to make or break your book. If you can't get a reader completely invested in your story by the time the first page is done, it may not be worth representing. Why? The first page is what someone in the store reads first to get an idea of a book before they buy it. It's the opening to a book that someone is going to invest their time in for, say, another 400 pages. Start out with a bang!
- The writing doesn't come "alive". Too much telling (Partial)
Drop the reader into the plot. Keep them there. Don't tell them things that they can easily find out through action. Readers want to see the characters and story alive on the page, not told to them. A lot of times, this is the reason partials are rejected. They fall apart fast because things just aren't as alive as they were in the beginning. Remember: show, don't tell!
As a writer, I'm sure you hear this all the time anyway: avoid cliches! Well, it's true. Avoid them-- especially plot-based cliches. They stand out like sore thumbs in writing and are a major turn-off, especially when once surrounded by beautiful, unique writing.
- At page 120, we're just turning pages (Full)
Oh, the dreaded middle sag! If you've got one of those tedious middle sections, be sure to make it more lively. No one wants to read an exciting beginning and boring middle section that makes up most of the book just to get to an interesting end. Your whole book needs to keep the reader wanting more, unable to put it down. When it's to the point the agent's turning the pages just to get through the partial and hope something's better (when he/she would have just closed the book and stopped reading if it wasn't something to consider), it needs work.
And those are basically the most common reasons that MSs get rejected by agents! Do you see anything here that you notice in your own writing/query or have questioned? If so, it may be useful to rethink some areas and tighten them up to get them one step closer to the "yes" pile for a partial or full request. To all writers currently querying or thinking about it, best of luck! It's a long process, but stay educated and keep trying, and you'll find out that the more you know and the more professional you are, the much more pleasant the experience.