9 Reasons Queries Get Rejected by Literary Agents


Literary agent rejecting a manuscript from a middle grade author

The hard truth about the publishing industry is that no matter how talented you are or how good your manuscript is, you need to be ready for rejection. It’s going to happen (a lot), and you won’t always know why.

There are several reasons that queries get rejected by literary agents. Sometimes it’s as simple as an agent having a bad day and the last they she wants to do is ready another query (no matter how good it is).

The following is a list of the nine most common reasons literary agents reject queries. Some you can control, others you can’t.

1) Failure to Follow Directions

Literary agents tell you exactly what they’re looking for you. You can find their requirements at the agency website, as well as places like our collection of middle grade literary agents, Manuscript Wish List (Official), and Publishers Marketplace. If you can’t follow those simple instructions for a query submission, there’s a good chance you’ll be a difficult client.

2) Poorly Written Query Letter

You query letter is the first thing an agent will ready. If you can’t capture their attention in that first page—or worse, if you have typos or if you go longer than a page, they aren’t going to read your manuscript.

3) They Weren’t Inspired

You might be able to construct an elegant sentence, but if you don’t capture an agent’s attention right away—and if they aren’t excited to read your first five pages and ultimately the rest of your manuscript, you don’t stand a chance. You can solve this one with energy and some salesmanship.

4) Your Manuscript Was Good (but Not Good Enough)

Okay, you’re a good writer but in this particular agent’s estimation you just weren’t good enough. He likens it to the people who never end up making the cut on those singing competition shows. They weren’t good enough to get a record contract but they weren’t bad enough to be a disaster that the television audience will laugh at so they never made it on screen.

5) The Genre Isn’t a Fit

You want to write the next epic fantasy novel for kids and the agent is looking for an illustrated comedy about a superhero. It doesn’t mean what you wrote wasn’t amazing, it’s just not a fit for that agent.

Of course, you’ll know the genres each agent is looking for after you do your research so hopefully this one won’t be a problem.

6) The Target Audience Isn’t a Fit

The manuscript you’re submitting was written for the middle grade market, but this agent is only looking for YA authors. Your target audience isn’t a match. Just like the genre issue, you can solve this one with a little research.

7) They Represent An Author Who Writes Books that Compete With Yours

I consider Brandon Mull a friend and he’s such a nice guy that if I wrote a middle grade fantasy book about a preserve where fairies live and I asked him to introduce me to his agent, he’d do it.

Now, I don’t know his agent at all, but I can tell you this right now. He’d reject the pitch right away because it’s basically Fablehaven and his agent knows that he can’t sell the same book twice.

8) They Don’t Think They Can Sell It No Matter How Good It Is

You wrote a manuscript about a mermaid pirate who solves crime in old west. It’s about as original as a pitch could be, it hilarious, has a heart wrenching love triangle, there are explosions, giant robots, and twists and turns that keep the agent on the edge of her seat.

There’s just one problem, bookstores won’t know where to shelve it, which means publishers won’t be able to sell it. In this case, quality doesn’t matter because nobody knows what to do with it.

9) They’re Overloaded

Sometimes it’s as simple as an agent has too much going on at the moment and you get rejected regardless of how much promise your query showed. If that’s the case, you don’t want an overwhelmed agent anyway—especially not at the beginning of your career when you need more personal attention.

Brace Yourself for Rejection (Even if You Did Everything Right)

A frustrating reality of the publishing industry is that it’s filled with rejection every step of the way. That means if you want to be an author, you’re going to need to develop thick skin and perseverance, even when you don’t feel like pushing forward.

The reality is that most of you won’t end up with an agent, much less a publishing deal. I know that’s hard to read but it’s the reality. Here’s the thing, though.

Many of you will—and if you quit now (or even if you wait until the rejection letter from the agents start to pile up) you’ll never get published.

You need to find a way to drown out the voice of doubt in your head—you know, the one that tells you how terrible your manuscript is, and that every literary agent whose read your query and sample pages thinks that you’re a joke.

You have to put yourself out there and know that you only need one agent and one editor at one publishing company to say, “yes!”

What Happens if Every Agent Rejects You?

To quote Little Orphan Annie, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” If you want to be a professional author, you can’t let rejection stop you. I mean, okay. Worst case scenario is that you query 300 agents and you get 300 rejections.

If you quit after that, then it wasn’t meant to be. But if you take what you learned, write a new manuscript, and then go back and query those agents again, you just might break through. The only people in life that truly fail are the people who quit.

Related Questions

What is a form rejection? A form rejection is a generic communication that literary agents use to pass on a manuscript. Most rejections are generic because due to the quantity of submissions they receive, literary agents do not have the time give individual feedback on work they reject.

How many literary agents should you query? There is no set number of literary agents that a writer should query. Some believe that you should query no more than ten at a time. Others believe you should query as many as possible. However, it is inappropriate to query more than one literary agent at any agency.

Jon Lewis

Jon S. Lewis is the bestselling author of nine novels, including GREY GRIFFINS (Scholastic), CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Little Brown), CHAOS (Thomas Nelson), and a few comics for DC. He is also an award-winning digital marketing executive.

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