5 Reasons Agents Take A Pass (And How to Get Publishers Anyway)

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers

Agents guard the gateway to the “Big 5” New York publishers. Known as “trade book publishers,” all five have the ability to get books reviewed by the few remaining newspapers that do book reviews, such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. They have marketing departments to coordinate an author’s book launch. First, they’ll send ARCs (Advance Review Copies) to Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Foreword Reviews, as well as to newspapers that could conceivably provide valuable blurbs attesting to the book’s worth. These big publishers’ marketing departments will attempt to create pre-launch buzz by sending review copies to Booklist.com (where libraries search for books they should acquire), Edelweiss.com and LibraryThing.com. For books the publishers truly “get behind”–and that’s not all books, by any means–the marketing departments put on the full court press. Sixty or seventy stories about the author and her book will appear simultaneously in newspapers, magazines, and on such influential show’s as NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad received that kind of push, and so did Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. To create the illusion that readers are clamoring for the new book, Big 5 publishers will send books to “Amazon Vine” reviewers, which means that the book may already have reviews online prior to its launch date.  And, of course, for authors who already have a following, the publishers will line up bookstore readings.

Ironically, all of the Big 5 are U.S. subsidiaries of foreign conglomerates. None of these Big 5 publishers accept “unagented” manuscripts. So where does that leave us?

Winning the Book Lottery

Authors hope agents will agree to act as go-betweens, and will get us the big book and movie deals that make writing a book sound like the next best thing to winning the lottery. With our hopes pinned on this one-in-a-million chance, we craft our query letters and perfect our elevator pitches. Surely, after all this work, an agent will bite.

However, the instant we send our work to agents, our anxiety ratchets up. Then, kaboom! We collect enough rejection letters to wallpaper our offices. The manuscripts go back in the drawer or sit on a shelf. We dust around the reams of paper. Chances are good we’ll lose faith in the stories we wanted to tell. Maybe even in our ability to write. Why not just self-publish, then?

Many authors don’t want to “stoop” to self-publishing. Others are so crushed they can’t bear to subject themselves to the humiliating ordeal of continuing to query agents.

But, I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t take agents’ rejections personally. Agents often base their decisions on market forces.

Market Forces Play A Role In Why Agents Say No

Competition from the burgeoning number of people wanting to write books is one factor making it harder to find an agent. How can any agent pick worthy books from among the flood of emailed submissions? Agents are inundated.

It’s quite possible agents are turning you down because of factors beyond your control. You can’t make your book fall into a trendier category. (Fantasy and romance are hot right now. If you’ve written a Western, you’re automatically going to have a tough sell.) Nor can you make yourself younger or prettier, and, hence, more marketable.

However, there are publishers you can approach directly without the need for an agent. At the end of this post, you’ll find a link to my Publishers’ List 2017.  Before you send these publishers your work, however, take an objective look at why agents might have taken a pass.

publishers for authors without an agent

Is your manuscript gathering dust? Maybe it’s time to try a different path. Work with a developmental editor to polish your manuscript, try independent publishers, or self-publish.

Reason #1: A Writer Hasn’t Learned the Craft

Beginning writers expect that learning how to write will be a whole lot easier than it actually is. Mastering the fundamentals of writing takes two to three years of intensive study. Becoming proficient takes even longer.

Malcolm Gladwell asserted that a person who practiced a specific task for 10,000 hours could achieve proficiency. Let’s suppose that a writer spends 6 hours a day writing. At the end of a year, the writer will have put in 1,084 hours. At that rate, it will take a new writer ten years to become proficient.

I’d say that’s a pretty accurate estimate. There’s a lot to learn. But if you’re satisfied your book is the best you can make it, then maybe the problem isn’t with your writing. It’s with the way publishing operates today.

Reason #2: Competition

These days, writers hoping to find agents face tremendous competition. They face competition from hardworking, entrepreneurial writers who’ve gone the self-publishing route. Many of these folks can write four to six genre novels a year, and they sell books by the thousands. Agents may offer high-volume authors representation. (If you’re an author who sells 1-200 books, agents won’t be interested. As I said before, agents are inundated. Don’t think that an agent is somehow going to find your self-published book.)

Writers trying to find agents also face competition from folks who’ve studied writing in school. Universities are turning out more and more students who’ve majored in Creative Writing. The number of Creative Writing majors has grown exponentially, just as the number of colleges and universities offering BA and MFA degrees has grown.


The table above and the graph below reveal a trend. From 1975 to 2014 many more schools began offering degrees in Creative Writing. The graduates of those schools–particularly those graduates walking across the stage with their Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) degrees–have all produced a story collection, poetry manuscript, or novel. Faculty advisors and advanced writing workshops have helped students improve their manuscripts. The most promising students may even be lucky enough to have an advisor send a letter of recommendation to an agent.

bar chart of creative writing programs

Reason #3: Fewer Publishers

When agents evaluate your marketability or that of your manuscript, they’re making a judgment call. That judgment call involves whether they can sell your book to one of the Big 5 publishers. If you go the agent/New York publishing route, you’re more likely now than ever to face an uphill battle.

The Big 5 operate on very slim profit margins. Every year these New York publishers cut loose many fine, mid-list authors. Why? Because those authors don’t sell enough books.

Here are the startling statistics, according to Steven Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers:

According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013 according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources.

Reason #4: The Market is Saturated

Supply and demand come into play. As you can see from the above, the supply of reading material is huge, and it continues to grow. More and more people want to write books. That would all be well and good if the number of readers also underwent exponential growth. Unfortunately, according to the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of adults say they have not read a book in the past year.

The share of Americans who have read a book in the last year is largely unchanged since 2012; more Americans read print books than either read e-books or listen to audio books.

If agents reject your book, the reason may very well have to do with the fact that publishers pay close attention to the bottom line. Most books published today don’t make back their advances.

Reason #5: Your Age

If you’re a writer “of a certain age,” the agent may also wonder how many books you’re capable of producing and whether you’re “up” for a stressful book tour and the attendant publicity circus. Are you presentable, meaning would you be a good guest for a TV show?

If you’re not famous and don’t have a presence on social media, that’s a strike against you. It’s not fair, but many agents and publishers do not want to “take on” older writers. If you’re an older writer, the writing can’t just be “good enough.” The writing itself must be exceptional.

An additional strike against the older writer is that most of us lack a “platform.” The Big 5 publishers hope to find writers who can develop a following of potential readers who will buy their subsequent books. Advance book sales–sales prior to the book’s release date–are where a publisher can tell whether a book will succeed in the marketplace.

Not All Publishers Require You to Have an Agent

Perhaps agent rejection will be just a little easier to bear if we realize that today’s new writers face a tough, uphill battle. We’re competing against each other. And, we’re vying for a slice of a shrinking pie. To succeed, we must hone our craft and then navigate through a crowd of equally enthusiastic authors.

The good news is that you can still get your book published. Either you can go the self-publishing route, or you can approach an independent publisher. In a previous post about “Independent Publishers: the Good, the Bad, and the Sleazy,” I talked about bypassing agents and going directly to the publisher instead. But, please, be realistic. None of these small and independent presses can duplicate the efforts of the Big 5.

I have updated my list of small and university presses, novel contests, and independent publishers into my Publishers’ List 2017. It’s ready for you to download. This Word document provides 470 pages of information about publishers and what kinds of books they’re hoping to publish. None of these publishers requires an agent. I even included a link to Knopf, one of the big, New York publishers. They’re the only one of the Big 5 that still has a backdoor way to submit a manuscript directly.

As you’ll see, I’ve formatted this document for 8.5 x 5.5-inch paper. That means you’ll have to buy a small binder and paper of that size for your printer. But that also means you can print out just the publishers that interest you, and that you can assemble your own personal list of places to submit.

Good luck. I’m hoping that on this list you’ll find a publisher who’ll respond positively to the book you’ve written. For more on learning how to establish a platform and a presence on social media, read this post.


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